- William H. Prescott’s Imperial Aesthetic
The US-Mexican War’s legendary history was written before the first soldier set foot in Vera Cruz. Three centuries earlier, Spanish agents landed on the Mexican coast, cut a bloody path inland, and destroyed a civilization. When the US Army later invaded the same coast, the soldiers were, in one officer’s words, “preparing to march against the same city which [Cortés] had conquered and from nearly the same place as he had marched on his great expedition.”1 This past was manifest in the soldier’s experience of conquest. Notably, William H. Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843) was a recent bestseller that had inspired at least one volunteer’s “long cherished desire to visit Mexico, the scene of Cortés’s conquests,” since “life as a soldier had always been linked with peculiar associations, and war had been clothed in a kind of romance.”2 The US Navy provided copies to the ships that ferried the army to Vera Cruz and, later, encamped soldiers read the book to learn Spanish and for its strategic and poetic value.3 During the occupation, one officer even wrote Prescott to commend his accuracy, calling the war “the second conquest.”4 Prescott’s history gave these invaders a language for describing the war as a romance. More than a specific narrative genre or expansionist ideology, romance [End Page 597] was a perceptual and emotive aesthetics that made tangible events feel as if they manifested a larger providential arc, promising a glorious national destiny.5 By reading about a desired future’s emergence from the barbaric past and describing their present as providence’s newest revelation, these soldiers transmitted Prescott’s imperial aesthetic, embracing the feeling it provided them of having authority over the hemisphere’s past, present, and future.
Scholars have not fully accounted for the structures or effects of antebellum historical writing. Contemporary literary scholarship has explored this genre’s narrative and ideological dimensions, but, despite reviving aesthetics as a concern, it has not updated our account of this period’s literature since David Levin’s important but now dated 1950s work. In most recent scholarship, if Prescott, George Bancroft, and other romantic-era historians surface at all, they appear as “historians against history” who codified ethnocentric progressive narratives and ornamented their nationalist propaganda with effusions about beauty and heroism.6 They monumentalized history; engaged in (sometimes selective) filiopietism; taught readers lessons in patriotism, courage, and prudence; and reduced complexities to a linear progressive teleology. Typically, scholars use these historians as a backdrop to explore more literary or resistant cultural productions—fictional romances or abolitionist historiography. When scholars do analyze romantic history, aesthetics is rarely the focus—either as historically specific descriptive norms or as textual appeals to readers’ sensations and emotions. For instance, the historiographer Eileen Ka-May Cheng has shown how the romantic era’s epistemological preconceptions allowed for appeals to patriotic feeling while maintaining claims to historical impartiality and even objectivity, but she pays scant attention to how aesthetics produced those feelings.7 Other scholars like John Ernest, Eric Wertheimer, and Robert Aguirre have described these historians’ formal [End Page 598] encoding of ideological structures, employing aesthetic categories and metaphors concerning vision, painting, and artistry. But these scholars raise primarily narrative questions, or, in Aguirre’s case, highlight the influence of popular genres. They do not fully elaborate these historians’ romantic aesthetic theories for representing what Prescott would call the character that informed other times and places, nor do they explore these texts’ powerfully overdetermined affects.8
This essay attempts a more fully aesthetic analysis of Prescott’s bestselling history, contextualizing it within both his readings of transatlantic historical aesthetics and contemporaneous affects concerning race, temporality, and imperialism. Focusing on Ernest’s work on Prescott, I begin by exploring the potentials and limitations of previous scholarly approaches to nineteenth-century history. Then I explicate the aesthetic theory Prescott himself developed in his early published essays and reviews, following with a close examination of The Conquest’s descriptions of Aztec culture and the text’s battle scenes, where the author most fully implements his...