Authors: William Hickling Prescott

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American historian

Author Works


The History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic, 1838 (3 volumes)

History of the Conquest of Mexico, 1843

History of the Conquest of Peru, 1847


When Washington Irving decided to write the history of Christopher Columbus and the Spanish in the New World, he found the field already occupied by William Hickling Prescott, the son of an eminent lawyer and a graduate of Harvard University, class of 1814. After considerable travel in Europe, Prescott had abandoned the idea of following in his father’s footsteps and decided to become a writer specializing in historical narratives.{$I[AN]9810000420}{$I[A]Prescott, William Hickling}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Prescott, William Hickling}{$I[tim]1796;Prescott, William Hickling}

William Hickling Prescott

(Library of Congress)

Despite an accident of his college days that had blinded him in one eye and left him only limited vision in the other, he did assiduous research in preparation for his chosen career. Foreign works were read to him, and he wrote on a frame for the blind, producing in 1838, after ten years of toil, his monumental The History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic. At regular intervals thereafter he issued multiple-volume works that described in colorful and dramatic detail, reminiscent of Sir Walter Scott, the Spanish struggle for the dominance of Latin America. Prescott considered his greatest accomplishment to be History of the Conquest of Mexico, to which he wrote a companion work, History of the Conquest of Peru. To Prescott, history was primarily the vivid account of such heroic figures as Hernán Cortés and Moctezuma (commonly known as Montezuma); in spite of his scholarly mastery of his sources he was not a writer of philosophic depth or scientific thoroughness. In 1858, while at work on the third volume of what should have been his History of Philip II, he suffered an apoplectic stroke, which led to his death on January 28, 1859.

BibliographyCharvat, William, and Michael Kraus, eds. William Hickling Prescott: Representative Selections. New York: American Book Co., 1943. This selection of passages from Prescott’s writing is supplemented by a brief account of his life and discussions of his literary style and the philosophical and political premises of his work.Cline, H. F., C. H. Gardiner, and Charles Gibson. William Hickling Prescott: A Memorial. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1959.Darnell, Donald G. William Hickling Prescott. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1975. Primarily concerned with Prescott as a man of letters, Darnell provides a brief account of his life, a balanced assessment of his achievement as a historian, and lengthy examinations of each of his four major works.Gardiner, C. Harvey. The Literary Memoranda. Edited by William Hickling Prescott. 2 vols. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961. A collection of Prescott’s private papers, which provide essential insight into his methods as a writer and researcher.Gardiner, C. William Hickling Prescott: A Biography. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1969. The definitive biography by the most distinguished Prescott scholar, based on a thorough knowledge of primary sources and not likely to be superseded. A balanced assessment of Prescott’s achievement as a historian and man of letters and a full treatment of his complex personality and private life.Levin, David. History as Romantic Art: Bancroft, Prescott, Motley, and Parkman. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1959. A study of the first generation of American historians, their romanticism, and its effects on their writing, which Levin often considers unfortunate. His assessments of Prescott should be checked against Gardiner’s.Ogden, Rollo. William Hickling Prescott. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1904. Apparently intended to supplement George Ticknor’s biography, it devotes more attention to Prescott as a person and takes greater account of his private papers. The best biography before Gardiner’s.Peck, Harry Thurston. William Hickling Prescott. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1905. A brief biography which makes no use of primary sources but includes a useful discussion of Prescott’s literary style.Ticknor, George. Life of William Hickling Prescott. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1863. Ticknor, himself the author of a major history of Spanish literature, knew Prescott intimately, but his biography provides no insight into his subject’s personality and very little of his social and intellectual background. Includes useful appendices on the history of the Prescott family.Williams, Stanley T. The Spanish Background of American Literature. 2 vols. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1955. Includes a chapter on Prescott and provides insights into the sources of nineteenth century American interest in Spain and Spanish America.
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