William Hickling Prescott, 1796–1859, American historian, b. Salem, Mass. He entered his father's law office, but was compelled by a serious eye injury to abandon law. He received medical attention on a European trip and finally, resolving to devote himself to historical writing, began a thorough preparation for the task. His first important historical work, The History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella (1837), achieved an immediate success. He wrote critical and historical essays while engaged in writing a History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843). The Conquest of Peru (1847), his next major effort, enjoyed a success comparable to his earlier efforts, and though his sight was practically gone he started a monumental work, The History of Philip II (unfinished; Vol. I and II, 1855; Vol. III, 1858). Though Prescott's work is now outdated because of subsequent research, it lives as literature. He is considered to be one of the greatest of American historians. His strength lay not in philosophical insight or deep analysis but in the excellent style and presentation of material that made his facts and his narrative alive, colorful, and vivid. His Biographical and Critical Miscellanies appeared in 1859. His works were edited by W. H. Munro (22 vol., 1904, repr. 1968). His correspondence was edited by Roger Wolcott (1925) and his literary memoranda by C. Harvey Gardiner (1961). A volume of Representative Selections (ed. by William Charvot and Michael Kraus) appeared in 1943.
See William Hickling Prescott: A Memorial (ed. by H. F. Cline et al., 1959); biographies by H. T. Peck (1905, repr. 1969) and C. H. Gardiner (1969).