Francis Parkman, Historian as Hero

[ American Studies ]

Francis Parkman, Historian as Hero

The Formative Years

By Wilbur R. Jacobs

A study of a controversial historian.

William Goetzmann, Series Editor



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6 x 9 | 255 pp. | 38 b&w illustrations

ISBN: 978-0-292-72958-2

A historian who lived the kind of history he wrote, Francis Parkman is a major—and controversial—figure in American historiography. His narrative style, while popular with readers wanting a "good story," has raised many questions with professional historians. Was Parkman writing history or historical fiction? Did he color historical figures with his own heroic self-image? Was his objectivity compromised by his "unbending, conservative, Brahmin" values? These are some of the many issues that Wilbur Jacobs treats in this thought-provoking study.

Jacobs carefully considers the "apprenticeship" of Francis Parkman, first spent in facing the rigors of the Oregon Trail and later in struggling to write his histories despite a mysterious, frequently incapacitating illness. He shows how these events allowed Parkman to create a heroic self-image, which impelled his desire for fame as a historian and influenced his treatment of both the "noble" and the "savage" characters of his histories.

In addition to assessing the influence of Parkman's development and personality on his histories, Jacobs comments on Parkman's relationship to basic social and cultural issues of the nineteenth century. These include the slavery question, Native American issues, expansion of the suffrage to new groups, including women, and anti-Catholicism.


Part One. The Hero-Historian Conquers Adversity
1. The Hero-Historian and His Illness
2. The Conquest of the “Enemy”
3. The Hero on the Oregon Trail

Part Two. The Historian as Hero-Researcher
4. Pontiac: The Struggle to Re-create Frontier History
5. Noble-Ignoble Indian Portraits
6. Pontiac’s “Conspiracy”: A Tarnished but Enduring Image

Part Three. The Hero as Storyteller
7. The Hero in the Wilderness
8. Some Literary Devices of the Hero-Historian

Part Four. The Hero-Historian’s Social Perspectives
9. The Hero-Historian and the Aristocratic Male Tradition
10. The Hero on Catholicism and Women
Epilogue: The Legend of the Hero-Historian

Appendix: Parkman’s Commencement Oration, “Romance in America”
Bibliographical Note

Wilbur R. Jacobs (1918–1998) was Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“. . . an important contribution because [Jacobs] deals with hotly debated issues about the role and place of Francis Parkman within the field of American history.”
—Joseph C. Porter, Curator of Western American History and Ethnology, Center for Western Studies, Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha