The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.XV. Later Historians
§ 15. Henry Harrisse
The best outgrowth of this movement was Henry Harrisse (1823–1910). He was born in Paris, removed to the United States when still a boy, graduated from the University of South Carolina, taught in the University of North Carolina, and at length became a lawyer with a small practice in New York City. Here he came into contact with Samuel L. M. Barlow, who proved his fast friend and mentor. Thus inspired he decided to write a history of the rise, decline, and fall of the Spanish empire in America. His first step was to under take to make a bibliography of the Columbian period, using Barlow’s library as a basis and examining further the other collections in the city. The results he embodied in his Notes on Columbus (1866), in which not only titles were given but much additional information in regard to editions and contents. Favourable criticisms came from collectors and he decided to make a bibliography of Americana for the years 1492 to 1551. Thus was prepared his Bibliotheca Americana Vetustissima, which appeared in 1866. The few interested in the subject were loud in their praise, but the general public were so indifferent that the publisher threw a large part of the edition on the market at a sacrifice. Harrisse was so indignant that he set out for France, unwilling to reside in a country in which his researches were so slightly esteemed.
In Paris he received a warm welcome. Ernest Desjardins brought him to the notice of the Sociètè de Gèographie in flattering terms, declaring him the author of “the first work of solid erudition which American science has produced.” He assumed a prominent place at once among French savants. Continuing his profession of lawyer he was retained to give advice to the American government in regard to legal matters connected with the construction of the Panama Canal. The remuneration was so satisfactory that he was able, by good management, to lay the foundation of a fortune amounting at his death to a million francs. Freed from financial anxieties he could give himself to a career of scholarly labour.
Thirty volumes and a large number of pamphlets remain to attest the persistence of his efforts. He entered the hitherto uncharted region of the discoverers, explored it with the greatest attention to details, debated every disputed point with great ability, and revealed to the world not only its metes and bounds but its most salient interior features. Not all of his conclusions have been accepted by his successors, but no man has opposed him without acknowledging that Harrisse made possible the investigations of his critics. Of his Discovery of North America (1892), a comprehensive view of the whole field of his labour made when he had advanced far in his own development, Professor Edward Gaylord Bourne said that it was “the greatest contribution to the history of American geography since Humboldt’s Examen.”
Harrisse gave a large portion of his thought to three great figures in the period of discovery, Columbus, Cabot, and Vespuccius, planning an exhaustive book on each. On the first he produced his Jean et Sebastien Cabot (1882), besides several smaller pieces; and on the second he wrote his Christophe Colombe (2 vols., 1884–85). On the third he collected a great mass of material, discussing some of the points in monographs, but death intervened before a final and exhaustive work was actually written. Like a true explorer he was ever seeking new knowledge, correcting in one voyage errors made in another. He did not hesitate to alter his views when newly discovered facts demanded it. He was strong in defending his opinions and did notescape controversies with those who opposed them. But he was a true scholar and no love of ease or honour tempted him away from the joyful toil of his studies. Although he spent the best part of his life in Paris, he considered himself an American to the end. He bequeathed his annotated set of his own writings together with the most valuable of his manuscripts and maps to the Library of Congress.
Harrisse’s achievements tend to dwarf the work of two New York historians who took a high stand in the circle out of which he got his first impulses to historical scholarship. James Carson Brevoort (1818–87) was a business man who gave his leisure to history. His Verrazano, the Navigator (1874) was an important book on that phase of our early history. Henry Cruse Murphy (1810–82), a lawyer and Democratic leader of high character, found himself stranded when the Civil War swept his party into a hopeless minority. Unwilling to twist himself into a Republican he retired from politics and devoted himself to history and the care of the large library he had collected. One of his books, The Voyage of Verrazano (1875), taking the opposite side from Brevoort’s, was received as the best on its side of the controversy.