SPRING came at length, and brought with it the swallows, the bluebirds and the Iroquois," begins Francis Parkman, and quite swiftly we are by the side of a Frenchman near Montreal in 1691 fighting for life and limb against naked painted men who want to part our hair with hatchets. The Indians are beyond doubt the world's finest forest fighters ("They approach like foxes, attack like lions, and disappear like birds"), so good that the Frenchman's priest considers them the "actual myrmidons of Satan."
This is extraordinarily vivid writing for a historian, and the reason why Parkman's work here takes its place among the Library of America's masterpieces of our national literature. It is the first historical writing to appear in that select company, though this should come as no surprise. France and England in North America is the greatest history ever written by an American, even counting Henry Adams. A thousand years from now, if there are still Americans, Parkman will be their Homer.
Parkman's romantic account of the epic struggle between England and France for the control of a new world runs seven books. First published over three decades, from 1865 to 1892, they were meant to be read as a whole, and they are gathered together for this edition into two volumes. Volume I contains Pioneers of France in the New World, The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century, La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West, and The Old Regime in Canada; Volume II includes Count Frontenac and New France Under Louix XIV, A Half- Century of Conflict and Montcalm and Wolfe. The individual books have long been available in secondhand or reprinted sets, often expensive, hard to come by and printed in very small type. We now have them in a handy form, in attractive type, on paper that won't eventually yellow and crumble. They are expensive, but never mind that. These are volumes to read and reread.
They are not so much a continuous chronicle of dramatic events as a cavalcade of heroic missionaries, intrepid explorers, and chivalrous soldiers, whose progress down countless rivers and across innumerable lakes is interrupted by savage border raids and merciless scalping parties. Indeed, birch canoes, thousands of them, are prominent actors in these volumes, one Jesuit praying in the vast solitude of unending forest, "If God grants me the grace of a return to France, I shall try to carry one with me."
Certain episodes stand out with particular force: the war of extinction waged by the Iroquois against the Hurons, Hennepin's journey to the the upper Mississippi, the murder of La Salle by his men in Texas, Braddock's defeat in the wilderness, the untrained men of Massachusetts boisterously sailing off and unexpectedly capturing the French king's impregnable fort at Louisburg, the daring guerrilla war waged by Rogers' Rangers.
Throughout, the writing is astonishingly fresh and precise. Here, for example, is Parkman describing a 17th-century seigneur of New France:
"He was at home among his tenants, at home among the Indians, and never more at home than when, a gun in his hand and crucifix on his breast, he took the war-path with a crew of painted savages and Frenchmen almost as wild, and pounced like a lynx from the forest on some lonely farm or outlying hamlet of New England. How New England hated him, let her records tell. The reddest blood streaks on her old annals mark the track of the Canadian."
Or here is Montcalm with his French regulars, Canadian auxiliaries, and Indian allies advancing on the English-held Fort William Henry:
"The red warriors embarked, and joined the French flotilla; and now, as evening drew near, was seen one of those wild pageantries of war which Lake George has often witnessed. A restless multitude of birch canoes, filled with painted savages glided by shores and islands, like troops of swimming waterfowl. Two hundred and fity bateaux came next, moved by sail and oar, some bearing the Canadian militia, and some the battalions of Old France in trim and gay attire. . . . Under the flush of sunset, they held their course along the romantic lake, to play their part in the historic drama that lends a stern enchantment to its fascinating scenery."
The writing is never precious or grandiose, and at times approaches poetry, as when the peerless La Salle, in 1682, after perhaps the most arduous journey ever taken in North America, discovers the mouth of the Mississippi:
"And now they neared their journey's end. On the sixth of April, the river divided itself into three broad channels. La Salle followed that of the west, and D'Autray that of the east; while Tonty took the middle passage. As he drifted down the turbid current, between the low and marshy shores, the brackish water changed to brine, and the breeze grew fresh with the salt breath of the sea. Then the broad bosom of the great Gulf opened on his sight, tossing its restless billows, limitless, voiceless, lonely as when born of chaos, without a sail, without a sign of life."
That phrase "lonely as when born of chaos" is perfection. But not only superb narrative powers mark this masterpiece. Parkman was an elegant researcher who himself and through agents ransacked the archives of new and old worlds for documentation. The celebrated literary style consists of a mosaic of facts so gradually built up as to be almost invisible but which in the end overwhelms. There can be very few modern historians of Canada or America who have done more than sample some of these primary sources. ("The sources of information concerning the early Jesuits of New France are very copious. During a period of forty years, the Superior of the Mission sent, every summer, long and detailed reports, embodying or accompanied by the reports of his subordinates, to the Provincial of the Order at Paris, where they were annually published, in duodecimo volumes, forming the remarkable series known as the Jesuit Relations.")
Of course one can fault Parkman's white Protestant biases and conclusions if not the research. The events in Europe that affect Parkman's New France and New England are never explored in any depth. The Indians, so extensively and unsentimentally portrayed, so exotic with their sachems, sagamores, calumets, and wampum belts, seem in the end to be devoid of human hopes and fears, though a more accurate title for the series would be "The French, English, and Iroquois in North America." For a major, unconscious theme of this work is how the fierce Iroquois--the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas--were progressively corrupted, robbed and destroyed by grasping Europeans.
No modern historian, especially an academic historian, could possibly write about Native Americans the way Parkman did. The point of view is that of a 19th-century Boston Brahmin, to whom certain things are undeniable Good Things. The biggest Good Thing of all is the independence of the United States of America, curiously made possible by the smashing triumph of the English over the French at Quebec in 1759, because that event removed for all time the only threat to the 13 colonies for which Britain's aid was required. Wolfe's and Montcalm's famous final battle is the set-piece climax of this history, and for Wolfe's death at the moment of victory the historian pulls out all the stops:
As the English boats snake up the St. Lawrence prior to the famous nighttime climb up the bluffs to the Plains of Abraham, "Wolfe, with a low voice, repeated Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard to the officers around him . . .
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
" 'Gentlemen,' he said, 'I would rather have written those lines than take Quebec.' "
Parkman then adds, "None were there to tell him that the hero is greater than the poet." To put this down as mere melodrama in a historical charade is to miss the point completely. Parkman, no Anglophile, believed Wolfe was a hero because his victory led straight to Bunker Hill and Yorktown. This patriot thought the achievements-- actual and potential--of his country were equal to and greater than those of Europe. This faith informs his history throughout, which is why it will forever remain an American classic.