Francis Parkman, Montcalm and Wolfe: The French and Indian War. New York, NY: Da Capo Press, 1984.

Literary History: Francis Parkman and History as Storytelling

History writing, while often focused on captivating subjects, is not always written in a captivating manner. This fact has plagued history teachers as they struggle to convince students to do their course reading. Many who write history become so involved in the labyrinth of research that the actual process of writing becomes merely a secondary concern. Others prefer the terse, straightforward style favored by current monographs. In either case, historians ignore the presentation of material at their own peril. In the 19th century, however, this was not the case. History as narratives flourished on both sides of the Atlantic, and in America this is best illustrated in the work of Francis Parkman.

Born in 1823 to the world of comfort among the Boston Brahmins, Parkman grew to become dedicated to the idea of adventure in the colonial past. As a student at Harvard in the early 1840s he developed a fascination with the French and Indian War. Remaining strong throughout his life, this fascination inspired Parkman to write a history of that conflict, but once begun he expanded his theme to encompass French presence in North America two centuries prior to their expulsion from the continent. Written in seven volumes under the title France and England in North America, the series climaxed with its final volume Montcalm and Wolfe in 1884, 43 years after Parkman decided to write a history of the conflict. In this work Parkman displays the key characteristics to his writing and those of other narrative historians.

At face value, Montcalm and Wolfe recounts the years immediately before the French and Indian War through that conflict to the final expulsion of the French from Canada. It is a story of two nations struggling for dominance in the wilderness of North America. However, while this remains the central theme of the book several subplots run throughout the work. Parkman illustrates growing tension between English regulars and colonial militia, colonial governors and local assemblies, Indian tribes and the European nations, Catholicism and the Protestant faith, and corruption and virtue. Deeper still, underneath these subplots, Parkman reveals a love of nature and regret at its destruction, fierce mistrust of the Catholic faith, both reverence for and condescension of the Native Americans, and high regard for the adventurous men that roamed the woods as scouts and rangers for both armies.

Montcalm and Wolfe is constructed like a work of fiction. Parkman builds his characters carefully, weaving the pieces of their personalities together in a fashion that leaves little doubt as to how Parkman wants the reader to perceive them. With some characters Parkman notes outright how he feels, as in the case of George Washington, whose first mention Parkman approaches by writing, “they read a name destined to stand one of the noblest in the annals of mankind; for it introduced Major George Washington” (p. 77). The story is divided into halves with the first section detailing the years 1745 through 1757 in which French successes bring the English to their knees. Parkman stresses certain events, such as Braddock’s defeat en route to Fort Duquesne, vividly painting their impact on the historical landscape so that by the second half he can relate the turning tide and rise of the English in such a manner that the reader is drawn through the story. Throughout the story, Parkman portrays the actions (or inactions) of certain men as key points in the struggle. Parkman believes in Great Men, but Montcalm and Wolfe is not merely a tale of individuals. He goes to great length to describe the conditions of the armies, the Indian tribes, and the colonies while at the same time setting them in context to the greater scene of Empire and Europe. But individuals do play the greatest role, and if Parkman shows bias in his preference for the English over the French, he does not allow that bias to prohibit him from acknowledging greatness in many French leaders. For Parkman, the Marquis de Montcalm, commander of the French forces at Quebec is just as noble and worthy a character as his opposite, Major-General Edward Wolfe.

The backdrop against which this story unfolds is the forests and lakes between lower Canada and the northern English colonies. In describing the settings for his scenes, Parkman details them with fantastic, vivid language. His descriptions are effective in great part because he knew the areas first-hand. In preparing for Montcalm and Wolfe Parkman created a list of the scenes that would appear in his story, and visited each one, hiking and camping among the woods or in some cases visiting the towns that had grown up around old forts and battlefields. This reveals the crux of his writing; Parkman wanted to portray the events as they actually were, to give a feel for the immediacy of the situation and provide the reader with a sense of first-hand observation. Parkman’s sources, aside from personally retracing the paths of the scouts, Indians, and generals, were the letters of correspondence between armies and mother countries, personal diaries, individual accounts by those involved, as well as the remains of forts and paths being reclaimed by the forests. In his approach to writing on the Indians Parkman took similar measures, even living among Sioux tribes in the Midwest to capture how tribes may have experienced life 100 years earlier.

This approach of total immersion has fueled much of Parkman’s criticism. Some scholars have argued that Parkman projected himself onto his characters, becoming so involved in portraying them that he implanted what he viewed as his own heroic traits into the characters. Other criticism has targeted Parkman’s chauvinistic fondness for the masculine, rarely portraying women in a favorable light. With this is criticism against Parkman’s treatment of the Indians, even though he revered much of their characteristics, and the point has been made that 19th century Sioux tribes would have lived completely different from 18th century Iroquois or Mohawk groups. Finally, some scholars have argued that Parkman consciously created a public image of himself as sickly and beset by uncountable physical maladies so that he could rise above them in his own heroic struggle.

Despite these criticisms, Parkman was popular in his time and remains highly readable today. His narrative approach makes reading about the French and Indian War not only interesting but also pleasurable. By looking behind the Protestant morality and accepting Parkman’s romantic contextualism as a product of his times, Montcalm and Wolfe can provide a surprising diversion from current monographs.

A note from Monkeylover: This was originally a review written for school many years ago. At one time, it lived happily here before I nuked all of my nodes. I'm slowly replacing things. Node your homework

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