Academic Book Review – George Bancroft

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George Bancroft. By Russel B. Nye. New York: Washington Square Press, Inc. 1964. Bibliography. Pp. x, 212. $.60.

If biographies written in the twenty-first century tend toward tomes, Russel Nye’s 1964 work on George Bancroft, the most acclaimed American historian of the nineteenth century, demonstrates how to impress with a modicum of words. Though Bancroft’s life spanned almost a century, Nye skillfully paints a portrait of the man against the sweeping landscape of the United States’ passage from fledgling country at the turn of 18th century to battle-scarred nation ninety years later, all in fewer than two hundred pages.

Nye’s book is part of the Washington Square Press “Great American Thinkers Series,” targeting an audience of general readers as well as serious secondary and college students who want readable history. George Bancroft as subject is in good company among other well known Americans included in the series, like Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John C. Calhoun. Series editors provided a general outline for Nye to follow, which included a short biography of the subject, a critical evaluation of his central ideas, and his influence upon American thought as a whole.

Nye approaches the task in a somewhat unconventional manner. He begins and ends with reasonably standard material. A chronology of key events in Bancroft’s life is placed in the front matter of the book, beginning with his birth in 1800 and ending with his death in 1891. End materials include a list of Bancroft’s extensive published works and a complete bibliography and index. It is in the book’s narrative that Nye shows structural creativity. He reveals Bancroft by coming at the subject from six different directions: life history, views on education, artistic and cultural perspectives, formation as a politician, views on humanity and the divine, and Bancroft’s contribution to historiography.

The first chapter, titled “The Pattern of a Life,” provides a highly readable narrative overview of Bancroft’s ninety-one years. Nye begins with the family and culture into which Bancroft was born, and then explores his passage through school years, including entry into Harvard at the age of 13. His formative years studying abroad are covered next, and insight is provided into the effects that European intellectuals and artists had on the now young man. Nye brings Bancroft home to the United States, doctorate in hand, and traces his quest for direction in life that leads him away from ministry and into politics and writing. His life as politician and as an emerging and then accomplished historian are described, as well as the events that bring a close to Bancroft’s life.

Nye devotes the entire second chapter, “Experiment at Round Hill,” to Bancroft’s daring project as schoolmaster of a preparatory school for boys in New England. Partnering with a colleague from Harvard, Bancroft incorporates in the endeavor the progressive concepts in education he observed while in Europe. But Bancroft has a love-hate relationship with teaching, and gradually realizes that his destiny lies elsewhere. As the chapter closes, he has sold his interest in the school to his partner and moved on, having left his mark on the history of American education as the creator of the first high school and a modeler of educational reform.

In the third chapter, “The Anatomy of Culture,” Nye explores the Romantic Movement’s impact on Bancroft and his contemporaries, and makes good use of the subject’s actual writing. Excerpts of Bancroft’s early attempts at poetry are presented by way of showing that, while his own poetic work was amateurish, he was able to channel his love for art into the role of literary critic, becoming quite adept at it. Nye does a masterful job of showing, through excerpts of Bancroft’s reviews and critiques, not only his appreciation of the artistic, but his gift for seeing broad themes like democracy in art. He also shows how Bancroft was able to bring his interest in artistic judgment and creation to his growing preoccupation with history. Instead of losing touch, “he absorbed his interest in art into the larger context of his theory of culture and his concept of history. To him, as to his contemporaries, the boundaries of intellectual specialization were fluid” (63). This fusion of the literary with history defined Bancroft’s historical writing. Nye’s ability to correlate the cultural milieu of early 19th century with Bancroft’s growth as philosopher, theologian, artistic critic, and historian is particularly well done.

Chapter 4, “The Fabric of American Political Life,” guides the reader through Bancroft’s life as a politician, and his metamorphosis into a Jacksonian democrat and political thinker. Again, Nye identifies themes from Bancroft’s writings and personal correspondence, including the idea that political figures are heroes to the populations they serve. Nye closes the chapter with a moving description of Bancroft’s role as eulogizer of Lincoln, a man who Bancroft grew to consider as a hero of some stature through the course of the Civil War. He also traces Bancroft’s evolving views on slavery.

In Chapter 5, “Nature: Human and Divine,” Nye explores how Bancroft came to his religious beliefs and his philosophical stand on the nature of humanity and the divine. This is an important topic because Bancroft’s theological thinking informed much of his historical writing and speaking. Nye shows Bancroft as a man of his times, influenced by the enthusiasm of a country running toward a bright future, and yet a man who contributed much to that nation because of his study abroad and exposure to many of the world’s foremost thinkers. Nye does a good job of showing how Bancroft reconciled his belief in man’s free will as long as it was exercised within the larger will of the divine.

In his final chapter, “The Shape and Meaning of History,” Nye looks as Bancroft the historian and the influence of his historiography. He provides an excellent overview of the state of historical study at the turn of and into the early 19thcentury, contrasting rationalistic historical theory against Romantic history a la Rankian Zeitgeist. His review of the expectations of historical writers in Bancroft’s generation is excellent. But most important in this chapter are the selections from Bancroft’s own essays, illustrating how he conceived of his own calling. His personal philosophy, which he put to paper not long after returning from studies in Europe, placed the office of the historian second only to the poet in its noble call to find God within history.

This perspective, Nye informs, pervaded the first three volumes of Bancroft’s most famous work, The History of the United States of America from the Discovery of the Continent, in which it was clear “that he was convinced that the United States was the creation of Divine Providence” (158). The second theme was that of man’s right to pursue freedom. Nye takes the reader through the completion and then revision of the seven volumes which took place over the course of most of Bancroft’s remaining life. He touches upon the influences of the American Civil War on his writing, and particularly on the volumes having to do with the Revolutionary War. Nye gives insight into Bancroft’s work style and ethic, as reflected in a two-volume work on the American Constitution. He interjects some deserved criticism of Bancroft who, he suggests over simplified the events surrounding the Constitution’s creation, ignoring “the whole tangled skein of economic and political rivalries, conflicting interests, and clashing personalities” (170).

Nye leaves the reader with a sense for Bancroft’s brilliance across a broad range of diverse interests. He paints him as a man who enjoyed the privileges of an education well beyond the norm of his day, and earned by an innate drive and love for scholarship. Nye’s Bancroft was comfortable with life choices that went against the norm, an indication of independent thought. But he was also a man of his times, influenced by the great thinkers of his era and yet contributing one of the most important voices of the nineteenth century. He brought to his generation a better sense of the American story, and to a large degree, popularized history with the first complete treatment of the United States through its inception as a nation. He was guided by a strong belief in divine providence and its hand upon America. But at his core, he was, as depicted by Nye, a scholarly man of letters – a distinction I suspect would have pleased Mr. Bancroft. His legacy is a remarkable body of work sadly forgotten by most citizens of the 21st century because of changing standards in historiography.

Nye does a masterful job of identifying Bancroft’s core beliefs and the influences that formed the man and his career. He also shows a considerable grasp of the nuances of both history and historiography that were in play in the 19thcentury – worth noting because Nye’s training is in literature rather than history. Like all series authors, Nye brings to the work a Ph.D. An English professor at Michigan State University, he might seem like an odd choice to profile a historian, but he proves himself equal to the task, perhaps because biography straddles both history and literature. His obvious mastery of the large collection of papers Bancroft left behind for his biographers is impressive.

Russel Nye was awarded the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for Biography for this work. Is there a better recommendation?

Rene Tyree
American Military University

Photo credit: Einstein at 42 from Wikipedia Commons. Public Domain

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If you wrote history in the 19th century….

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Russel Nye (1913-1993) provides a glimpse of what was expected of you if you wrote history in the early 19th century in his Pulitzer Prize winning biography of George Bancroft (1800-1891). I thought it worth sharing in that some of my readers are themselves authors of history. Those writing in the 19th century of the events leading up to and surrounding the American Civil War would have been aware of and influenced by these expectations.Thomas Carlyle

  • Historians were expected to deal with the history of living men. 

Protocols, state papers, and controversies were not the stuff of history. Here Nye draws on the work of Thomas Carlyle (1795-1891)(right) who felt that history was not simply to be “philosophy teaching by experience” but the history of men “with passions in their stomachs, and the idioms, features and vitalities of men.” (146)

  • History was to be dramatic.

“The historian gave the past form and structure, finding dramatic tension, climax, and resolution in chosen episodes and experience. He used quotations and set speeches as a playwright might – allowing ‘the parties,’ as William Hickling Prescott (1796-1859) (image right) saidPrescott, ‘not only to act but speak for themselves.’” (147) There had to be opposing forces battling against one another to achieve an effect of conflict. On one side might be the forces of liberty and on the other authoritarianism, popular government against absolutism, civilization versus barbarism, etc.

  • Proper historical writing had to have a theme.

A theme bound events together and gave them focus and meaning. This was a quest for the “pervading principle” which was guiding history and flowing beneath the stream of events.

  • The historian was to write in the way of an artistic painter.

His work has to be composed and arranged in and artistic, vivid and aesthetically pleasing way like that of a painting. “Historians habitually used such terms as ‘portrait,’ ‘canvas,’ and ‘sketch’; gave careful attention to composition and arrangement of details; and quite deliberately set up ‘scenes’ and ‘tableaux.’” (147)  [Image below of painting by Clarence Boyd from University of Kentucky Art Museum: Attacking Indians (or Pilgrims Being Attacked by Indians While at Church), ca. 1880]

Attacking Indians (or Pilgrims Being Attacked by Indians While at Church), ca. 1880

  • The historian must create in his work a precise sense of place, time and immediacy.

This task was about reconstructing the values and principles and the intellectual and moral atmosphere  of the times of which a writer wrote. Bancroft called it ‘the spirit of the age, the impalpable but necessary essence’ of a society.” (148)

Historical writing began to change in the latter part of the 19th century but the points above make for some interesting background for discussion that continues today around academic versus popular history and what appeals to the general reader.

George Bancroft, by Russel B. Nye, (New York: Washington Street Press, Inc., 1960), pp 146-148)
Drawing of Thomas Carlyle fro Wikipedia Commons. Another excellent biography of Thomas Carlyle is available here.
Thomas Carlyle- Project Gutenberg eText 13103
From The Project Gutenberg eBook, Great Britain and Her Queen, by Anne E. Keeling
http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/13103

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