Early career: The History of Ferdinand and Isabella
In 1821, Prescott abandoned the idea of a legal career because of the continued deterioration of his eyesight, and resolved to devote himself to literature. Although he initially studied a wide range of subjects, including Italian, French, English and Spanish literature, American history, classics and political philosophy, Prescott came to focus on Italian poetry. Among the works he studied during this period were such classics as Dante’s Divine Comedy and Boccacio’s Decameron. His first published works were two essays in the North American Review—both discussing Italian poetry. The first of these, published in 1824, was titled Italian Narrative Poetry, and became somewhat controversial after it was heavily criticized in an Italian review by Lorenzo Da Ponte, the librettist of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Prescott wrote a succinct reply to Da Ponte’s fifty-page argument in the North American Review of July 1825. Da Ponte published the criticisms as an appendix to his translation of Dodley’s Economy of Human life, which resulted in Prescott noticing them rather late.
Prescott first became interested in the history of Spain after his friend, the Harvard professor George Ticknor, sent him copies of his lectures on the subject. Prescott’s studies initially remained broad, but he started preparing material on Ferdinand and Isabella in January 1826. His acquaintance Pascual de Gayangos y Arce helped him construct a sizable personal library of historical books and manuscripts concerning the subject. Alexander Hill Everett, an American diplomat in Spain, also provided him with material which was unavailable to Prescott in Boston. However, progress was stalled almost immediately, due to a sudden deterioration in Prescott’s eyesight. Unable to find a reader fluent in Spanish, Prescott was forced to work through Spanish texts with an assistant who did not understand the language. When Alexander Everett heard of this situation, he provided Prescott with the services of George Lunt, who had adequate knowledge of Spanish for the task. However, this could only be a temporary arrangement, and he was replaced by a man named Hamilton Parker, who held the position for a year. Eventually George Ticknor, who was by then in charge of the department of modern literature at Harvard University, found James L. English, who worked with Prescott until 1831. Among the books studied by Prescott in this period, Ticknor lists Juan Antonio Llorente’s Historia crítica de la Inquisición de España, Historia de los Reyes Católicos don Fernando y doña Isabel by Andrés Bernáldez (es), Voltaire’s Charles XII and William Roscoe’s Life of Lorenzo de Medici, which were to be the sources on which the History of Ferdinand and Isabella was to be based. In spring 1828, Prescott visited Washington, where he and Ticknor dined with John Quincy Adams at the White House, and saw Congress in session.
Due in part to his own condition, Prescott was interested in aiding the blind and partially sighted. The Perkins School for the Blind, then known as the New England Asylum, had been founded in Boston, Massachusetts by Samuel Gridley Howe, Thomas Handasyd Perkins and John Dix Fisher and 28 others in 1829. Prescott involved himself from the very start of the project, becoming a trustee in 1830. He published an article in support of education for the blind in the North American Review of July 1830, and helped to raise $50,000 for the organization in May 1833.
An open book, showing an image of Ferdinand and Isabella enthroned
Title pages of the History of Ferdinand and Isabella, 1838 edition
His work was disturbed in February 1829 by the unexpected death of his eldest daughter Catherine, who was only four years old. This led him to reconsider his position on religion—previously an agnostic, his interest in Christianity was renewed, and having read the Bible, the works of the theologian William Paley as well as more skeptical works such as Hume’s Of Miracles, he came to acknowledge the “moral truth” of the gospels, while remaining opposed to the doctrines of orthodox Christianity. Despite this personal tragedy, and his own continued ill health, Prescott had gathered sufficient material to begin drafting the History in October 1829. At around this time, Prescott read the works of Gabriel Bonnot de Mably, including his historiographical piece De l’étude de l’histoire. He henceforth aimed to write history to de Mably’s romantic ideal, and on more than one occasion expressed his indebtedness to him. Prescott also encountered Elogia de la Réina Doña Isabel, by his Spanish contemporary Diego Clemencín, which helped shape his views concerning the monarchs’ political roles. Due to further problems with his eyesight, it took him sixteen months to write the first three hundred pages of the History. It was largely finished by 1834, but Prescott dedicated two years to abridging and redrafting it. He was also briefly engaged in writing a biography of Charles Brockden Brown for Jared Sparks’ Library of American Biography. Prescott was not familiar with American literature, and he based the work on other contemporary biographies of Brown. As a result, the biography has had little academic impact. In 1835, he took residence in the rural town of Nahant, Massachusetts, due to concerns about his health. He was here accustomed to riding his horses for the purpose of exercise, and he persevered even in sub-zero temperatures. Prescott finished the concluding chapter of the work in July 1836, and despite the amount of time and effort which he had spent on the work, was at first unsure about publishing it. However, his father argued that refusing to do so would amount to cowardice, and this swayed him. Prescott had previously considered publishing the work in London first, and therefore a printed draft copy of the work was sent to a Colonel Aspinwall for consideration. However, both Longman and Murray, which were at the time the leading British publishers, refused the work, and Prescott decided to postpone.
The History of Ferdinand and Isabella was published on Christmas Day, 1837 by the American Stationery Company, Boston, with a print run of 500 copies. It was dedicated to his father. To the surprise of Prescott and the publisher, the book sold very well—the original print run was insufficient to adequately supply Boston’s bookshops, let alone the whole nation’s. It was first published in London by Richard Bentley in early 1838. The work received excellent critical reviews, both in America and in Britain, where Henry Vassall-Fox and Robert Southey expressed their admiration of the work. It was also noticed in France, despite the fact that a French translation was not available at the time. Prescott was adamant that his work should not be altered by anyone other than himself, and when he heard that his publishers were considering an abridgement of the History of Ferdinand and Isabella in June 1839, he produced an abridgement of the work himself, which resulted in the original project’s cancellation. He was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society in May 1839 -Wikipedia