The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.XV. Later Historians
§ 24. John Fiske
There was a time when John Fiske seemed likely to pass into our literary history as the man who best combined the virtures of the new and old schools. Time has defeated the hope by discovering that he lacked accuracy. Nature gave him two excellent gifts, the art of writing and the art of lecturing as few others could write or lecture. Each was performed with great facility and in the use of each he surpassed most of his contemporaries. In early life he became an evolutionist and was much disliked by the orthodox until he finally appeared in the rôle of reconciler of evolution and religion. As the leading defender of the philosophy of Darwin and Spencer in the United States he gained a wide influence and wrote constantly. By 1885 the battle of evolution had been won in high places and Fiske seems to have had no desire to pursue it in the lower circles. At the same time he was gradually drifting away from Spencer, through attempting to bring religion into the scope of his philosophy. After 1885 he wrote nothing philosophical.
In the same year he published American Political Ideals, a short sketch of our political history, and it opened a new field of activity. In 1879 he had given six lectures on “America’s Place in History” in the Old South Church, Boston. With a fine sense of the picturesque, he selected such subjects as the old sea kings, the Spanish and French explorers, and the causes of the Revolution. It was his first handling of historical events and the result was a revelation to himself. His own words were: “This thing takes the people, you see: they understand and feel it all, as they can’t when I lecture on abstract things.” Other lectures followed and met with such great success that he fully committed himself to history.
One of these courses was on the period following the Revolution and was published as The Critical Period of American History (1888); another saw the light as The Beginnings of New England (1889); while still another after being presented many times on the platform was published as The American Revolution (2 vols., 1891). Before these volumes appeared he had made plans for a series to cover the whole period of American history, and he proposed to make these re-baked lectures fit into the scheme. It was necessary to go back to the beginnings and he accordingly set to work on The Discovery of America (2 vols., 1892). This was followed by Old Virginia and her Neighbors (2 vols., 1897) and The Dutch and Quaker Colonies (2 vols., 1899). Another instalment, New France and New England, carrying the story down to the Revolution, was not published until 1902, the year after Fiske died. A group of lectures was published in 1900 in a fascinating volume called The Mississippi Valley in the Civil War. He wrote two text-books which had remarkable success: Civil Government in the United States (1890) and A History of the United States for Schools (1892). A biography of his friend Edward L. Youmans (1892), a volume called A Century of Science and Other Essays (1899), and two posthumous works, Essays, Historical and Literary (1902) and How the United States Became a Nation (1904), completed his historical works.
It has been said that Fiske applied the principles of evolution to history, and he asserted that such was his purpose. But a brief examination of his books is enough to show that he was the historian of episodes and human action. It is the dramatic rather than the philosophical that occupies his attention. In preparing to write he read many books and out of his capacious memory he wrote with feverish haste. Too ready dependence on memory, an unwillingness to look deeply into minute sources, and an extreme tendency to the picturesque undermined his sense of accuracy. None of the other men in the group under treatment equalled him in mere power of narration.