The Golden Age of American History

The Golden Age of American History

The Golden Age of American History

The Golden Age of American History

Excerpt

During the middle years of the nineteenth century, Americans viewed with self-conscious pride the new expanse, wealth, and power of their nation. As befitted a prosperous and growing people, they produced their own talented array of men of letters who in novels, poetry, and essays developed American themes. Among the writers were a group of American historians who, writing sweeping narrative in a grand manner, celebrated the heritage of the United States. There were George Bancroft, William Hickling Prescott, Francis Parkman, and Henry Adams, whose great reputations are still remembered, and there were a number of others, some of whom made their names outside the field of history, as did Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Altogether they so ably combined literary skill with scholarship that they justly obtained wide audiences and created a golden age of American historical writing.

Many of these historians, beginning with the first great trio--Prescott, Bancroft, and Parkman--undertook to write epic history on the model of the classic historians of Greece and Rome--Thucydides and Tacitus--and the more recent European historians. Almost all of them from Prescott to Roosevelt were admirers of Edward Gibbon Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and indeed both Prescott and Henry Adams cited Gibbon Autobiography as having given them an early impetus toward historical writing. Like the classical writers and Gibbon, they developed large themes on huge canvases, filled with heroes sometimes twice as large as life, who were engaged less often in the slow building of political, social, and economic institutions than in the flash and excitement of combat. The impresssion was sometimes not unlike that of the huge paintings of Peter Paul Rubens, Louis David, or Benjamin West.

These men produced readable history for large and appreciative audiences. Much of it at the present time is still readable, and worth reading. They were, as Samuel Eliot Morison has said of Prescott, masters of narrative, "which history essentially is, a fact which too many modern historians have forgotten." They regarded historical writing as a branch of letters . . .

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