1850. AEt. 36. Plan of A history.—Letters.
The reputation of Mr. Prescott was now coextensive with the realm of scholarship. The histories of the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella and of the conquest of Mexico had met with a reception which might well tempt the ambition of a young writer to emulate it, but which was not likely to be awarded to any second candidate who should enter the field in rivalry with the great and universally popular historian. But this was the field on which Mr. Motley was to venture.
After he had chosen the subject of the history he contemplated, he found that Mr. Prescott was occupied with a kindred one, so that there might be too near a coincidence between them. I must borrow from Mr. Ticknor’s beautiful life of Prescott the words which introduce a letter of Motley’s to Mr. William Amory, who has kindly allowed me also to make use of it.
“The moment, therefore, that he [Mr. Motley] was aware of this condition of things, and the consequent possibility that there might be an untoward interference in their plans, he took the same frank and honorable course with Mr. Prescott that Mr. Prescott had taken in relation to Mr. Irving, when he found that they had both been contemplating a ‘History of the Conquest of Mexico.’ The result was the same. Mr. Prescott, instead of treating the matter as an interference, earnestly encouraged Mr. Motley to go on, and placed at his disposition such of the books in his library as could be most useful to him. How amply and promptly he did it, Mr. Motley’s own account will best show. It is in a letter dated at Rome, 26th February, 1859, the day he heard of Mr. Prescott’s death, and was addressed to his intimate friend, Mr. William Amory, of Boston, Mr. Prescott’s much-loved brother-in-law.”
“It seems to me but as yesterday,” Mr. Motley writes, “though it must be now twelve years ago, that I was talking with our ever-lamented friend Stackpole about my intention of writing a history upon a subject to which I have since that time been devoting myself. I had then made already some general studies in reference to it, without being in the least aware that Prescott had the intention of writing the ‘History of Philip the Second.’ Stackpole had heard the fact, and that large preparations had already been made for the work, although ‘Peru’ had not yet been published. I felt naturally much disappointed. I was conscious of the immense disadvantage to myself of making my appearance, probably at the same time, before the public, with a work not at all similar in plan to ’Philip the Second,’ but which must of necessity traverse a portion of the same ground.
“My first thought was inevitably, as it were, only of myself. It seemed to me that I had nothing to do but to abandon at once a cherished dream, and probably to renounce authorship.