Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley and Laurel Boone




The loss which the literature of the English-speaking peoples has suffered in the death of John Fiske is so recent and so severe that the reviewer of this his latest book—dropped unfinished from his hand—finds it difficult to subject the work to an impartial scrutiny. It is more natural to dwell upon the breadth, solidity, and adequacy of the monument which the dead author has raised to secure his fame than to put to test this individual stone of the noble structure. But it is only as a stone in the structure that this work can be rightly estimated. As an integral portion of Mr. Fiske’s survey of American history it is more important and more completely worthy of its author‘s reputation than if it were to be regarded as an isolated whole.

Let me say at once that, so far as my knowledge enables me to speak, this is altogether the best brief presentation of the subject in existence. What Parkman has told us in his series of eloquent, richly colored, and conscientious narratives is here given in one compact volume. Narrow as is the compass within which the strenuous movement begins and ends, so admirably is the story constructed that the action never seems crowded or intricate, and at the same time nothing essential or broadly significant is left out. Discrimination in material, a sound sense of values, accuracy as to facts, precision of statement, a judicious though necessarily sparing use of local color and picturesque incident, all combine to make this volume a singularly satisfying reduction of the picture which Parkman gave us on a scale too huge to grasp at one view.

The style of Mr. Fiske’s narrative is, first of all, lucid. Lucidity of thought, and clearness of expression which clearness of thought makes possible, have always characterized Mr. Fiske’s writings. But in this particular case he has been at particular pains to write clearly, because the matter of his writing has been shaped for the lecture hall, where each sentence must tell its tale directly and completely, and there can be no casting back to recover lost clues. Over and above this one quality of clearness—the most excellent, indeed, and most essential of all qualities in prose writing—Mr. Fiske’s style makes no special claim to distinction. He is not a stylist; and what he says is not remembered for the manner of the saying. His sentences do not bite, or smite, or thrill, or sparkle. They are often a bit soft on the edges. But taken all together they are very competent. Patiently and unobtrusively they build up the picture—and the picture is one we carry away with us.

The only important defect of this admirable book, it seems to me, is one which the author would surely have remedied when he came to combine his lectures into the rounded whole of a book. The philosophy of the struggle between England and France in the New World, as a vital part in the great struggle for world-empire, must have appealed, more strongly than appears in these pages, to the spacious and philosophic mind of their author. Had this idea been more emphasized, the narrative would have gained in dramatic impressiveness.


"New France and New England," The Reader 1:3, January 1903, 286 [back]