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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Some Traits of a Historian

By George Ticknor (1791–1871)

[From Life of William Hickling Prescott. 1863.]

THERE is another side of his character, which should not be left out of view, and yet one which I cannot approach except with misgiving; I mean that which involves the moral and religious elements of his nature. Of these, so far as a belief in Christianity is concerned, and a conscientious and repeated examination of its authority as a revelation, I have already spoken. His life, too, devoted to hard labor,—often physically painful,—with the prevalent idea not only of cultivating his own faculties, and promoting his own improvement, but of fulfilling his duties towards his fellow-men, was necessarily one of constant careful discipline, but behind all this, and deeper than all this, lay, as its foundation, his watchfulness over his moral and religious character, its weaknesses and its temptations.

With these he dealt, to a remarkable degree, in the same way, and on the same system, which he applied to his physical health and his intellectual culture. He made a record of everything that was amiss, and examined and considered and studied that record constantly and conscientiously. It was written on separate slips of paper,—done always with his own hand,—seen only by his own eye. These slips he preserved in a large envelope, and kept them in the most reserved and private manner. From time to time, when his sight permitted,—and generally on Sunday, after returning from the morning service,—he took them out and looked them over, one by one. If any habitual fault were, as he thought, eradicated, he destroyed the record of it; if a new one had appeared, he entered it on its separate slip, and placed it with the rest for future warning and reproof. This habit, known only to the innermost circle of those who lived around his heart, was persevered in to the last. After his death the envelope was found, marked, as it was known that it would be, “To be burnt.” And it was burnt. No record, therefore, remains on earth of this remarkable self-discipline. But it remains in the memory of his beautiful and pure life, and in the books that shall be opened at the great day, when the thoughts of all hearts shall be made manifest.

Probably to those who knew my friend only as men commonly know one another in society, and even to the many who knew him familiarly, these accounts of his private habits and careful self-discipline may be unexpected, and may seem strange. But they are true. The foundations of his character were laid as deep as I have described them,—the vigilance over his own conduct was as strict. But he always desired to have as little of this seen as possible. He detested all pretence and cant. He made no presumptuous claims to the virtues which everybody, who knew him at all, knew he possessed. He did not, for instance, like to say that he acted in any individual case from “a sense of duty.” He avoided that particular phrase, as he more than once told me he did, and as I know his father had done before him, because it is so often used to hide mean or unworthy motives. I am pretty sure that I never heard him use it; and on one occasion, when a person for whom he had much regard was urging him to do something which, after all, could only end in social pleasures for both of them, and added as an ultimate argument, “But can’t you make a duty of it?”—he repeated the words to me afterwards with the heartiest disgust. But, during his riper years, nobody, I think, ever saw anything in him which contradicted the idea that he was governed by high motives. It was only that he was instinctively unwilling to parade them,—that he was remarkably free from anything like pretension.

He carried this very far. To take a strong example, few persons suspected him of literary industry till all the world knew what he had done. Not half a dozen, I think, out of his own family, were aware, during the whole period in which he was employed on his “Ferdinand and Isabella,” that he was occupied with any considerable literary undertaking, and hardly anybody knew what it was. Most of his friends thought that he led rather an idle, unprofitable life, but attributed it to his infirmity, and pardoned or overlooked it as a misfortune, rather than as anything discreditable. On one occasion a near connection, whom he was in the habit of meeting in the most familiar and pleasant manner at least once a week, affectionately urged him to undertake some serious occupation as a thing essential to his happiness, and even to his respectable position in society. And yet, at that moment, he had been eight years laboring on his first great work; and, though thus pressed and tempted, he did not confess how he was employed.

He was sensitive from his very nature as well as from the infirmities that beset him; and this sensitiveness of temperament made it more than commonly disagreeable to him to have his exact habits interfered with or intruded upon. But he did not willingly permit his annoyance to be seen, and few ever suspected that he felt it. When he was riding or taking his long walks, he was, as we have seen, in the habit of going over and over again in his memory whatever he might last have composed, and thus correcting and finishing his work in a way peculiarly agreeable to himself. Of course, under such circumstances, any interruption to the current of his thoughts was unwelcome. And yet who of the hundreds that stopped him in his daily walks, or joined him on horseback, eager for his kindly greeting or animated conversation, was ever received with any other than a pleasant welcome? During one winter, I know that the same friend overtook him so often in his morning ride, that he gave up his favorite road to avoid a kindness which he was not willing to seem to decline. His father and he understood one another completely on this point. They often mounted at the same time, but always turned their horses in different directions.

Nor was there in his intercourse at home or abroad—with strangers or with his familiar friends—any noticeable trace of the strict government to which he subjected his time and his character. In his study everything went on by rule. His table and his papers were always in the nicest order. His chair stood always in the same spot, and—what was important—in the same relations to the light. The furniture of the room was always arranged in the same manner. The hours, and often even the minutes, were counted and appropriated. But when he came out from his work and joined his family, the change was complete,—the relaxation absolute. Especially in the latter part of his life, and in the cheerful parlor of the old homestead at Pepperell, surrounded by his children and their young friends, his gay spirits were counted upon by all as an unfailing resource. The evening games could not be begun, the entertaining book could not be opened, until he had come from his work, and taken his accustomed place in the circle which his presence always made bright.