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

XV. Later Historians

§ 23. “A History of Life in the United States”

Social history was his field. What his Hoosier stories did for the Indiana backwoods, he wished his histories to do in simple narrative for the life of all the people. To his brother he described his plan in the following words:

  • I am going to write a series of volumes which together shall constitute a History of Life in the United States—not a history of the United States, bear in mind, but a history of the life there, the life of the people, the sources of their ideas and habits, the course of their development from beginnings. These beginnings will be carefully studied in the first volume. Beyond that my plans for the ordering of the material are not fully formed. It will be a work designed to answer the questions “How?” and “Whence?” and “Why?” All this will require a great deal of research, but I stand ready to give ten years of my life to the task, if necessary.
  • Ten years allow brief space to write such a history for a man of less desultory habits of work than Eggleston had. At the end of twenty-two years he had finished only two of the proposed volumes, The Beginners of a Nation (1897) and The Transit of Civilization (1901). They carried the story of colonial life to the year 1640. Had the work proceeded on the same scale to the end of the nineteenth century it would have gone to forty volumes. Eggleston had undertaken it without realizing its greatness. The plan, however, was worthily made; and the two volumes completed deserve more esteem than they will get as fragments of a too ambitious dream by a man already old when he dreamed. They are characterized by accuracy, breadth of view, and great charm of narration. Eggleston combined research and good literary style as truly as Parkman, but he worked less persistently and gauged the situation less wisely.