The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XV. Later Historians

§ 16. Justin Winsor

These men represent the early manifestations of “the great subject.” Two others, Justin Winsor (1831–97) and Edward Gaylord Bourne (1860–1908), stand at the point of its fruition. Alike in scholarship and deep interest in the earliest phase of our history, they were widely apart in their use of language to express their ideas. Winsor wrote a tedious page, filled with details; Bourne wrote in a simple and well digested style which did not lack in clearness and charm of expression.

Winsor was of a prosperous Boston mercantile family and began life with every opportunity that a Boston boy could desire. He withdrew from Harvard because he disliked the routine of the college classes but read widely in the best literature. Determined to become a literary man he gave himself to poetry and the drama until he realized that he was not likely to succeed in creative literature. During this period of his life he wrote much for the Boston periodicals and projected a definitive life of David Garrick which was never completed. In 1868 he became librarian of the Boston Public Library and served with such success that he was called to the same position at Harvard in 1877, where he remained the rest of his life.

It was about this time that he assumed editorial direction of a co-operative history of Boston, for which the leading men of the city had been selected to write special chapters. The work was published in four volumes as The Memorial History of Boston (1880–82). Winsor’s part was so well done that he was asked by the publishers to undertake a similar work on American history. Thus was written and published his Narrative and Critical History of America (8 vols., 1886–89), probably the most stimulating book in American history that has been produced in this country. The editor’s part was the best and consisted chiefly in an abundance of bibliographical and cartological notes. Before the appearance of the book the student had been left to stumble as he could toward his bibliography. Now he had in one work such a wealth of this information that he could always have a point of departure for his studies and need not hesitate in the early stages of any investigation. The book, however, was richer in its suggestions on colonial and Revolutionary history than on the later period; and this was because the editor’s interest was strongest in our early history.

Winsor came under the influence of “the great subject,” and probably his most intense study was given to the achievement of the explorers. He was a high authority on early American cartography. His interest in the period of discovery led him to write his Christopher Columbus and How he Received and Imparted the Spirit of Discovery (1891). It was a minute and conscientious discussion of the career of the discoverer and of the progress of geographical knowledge in the Columbian period. He carried on the history of discoveries and explorations in three other books: From Cartier to Frontenac (1894), The Mississippi Basin (1895), and The Westward Movement (1897). These books proved disappointing to persons who sought readable narratives. They were filled with details and poorly constructed; but the maps and cartological information in them were very valuable.

In fact, in Winsor’s philosophy the historian’s function was to burrow into the past for the facts that had been overlooked by other writers, and when the facts were found he took little pains how he arranged them before the eyes of the reader.

  • I may confess [he said], that I have made history a thing of shreds and patches. I have only to say that the life of the world is a thing of shreds and patches, and it is only when we consider the well rounded life of the individual that we find permeating the record a reasonable constancy of purpose. This is the province of biography, and we must not confound biography with history.
  • Of “shreds-and-patches” history Justin Winsor was a master. He was loved of the student and nearly unknown to the reader.