I do a fair amount of historical reading, and have read a bit of Francis Parkman's work. For those unfamiliar with Parkman, he is generally considered America's pre-eminent historian. He is most famed for his documentary about traveling westward in mid-19th century by covered wagon, a volume titled The Oregon Trail. It was a huge success, and launched him on a long career, most of which he subsequently devoted to an exhaustive multi-volume history of the conflicts between the English and French over settlement of America prior to the American revolution.
In addition to being a formidable scholar, Parkman was also blessed with formidable writing ability. His books remain readable today, with clear, vigorous prose and an unerring sense of flow and structure. Last night, in reading his volume A Half-Century of Conflict, I came across a descriptive paragraph that demonstrates his writing ability in a thoroughly beautiful way, and thought I'd share. It has to do with frontier Maine, which was a backwater of primitive existence in pre-revolutionary time, and was the site of much initial conflict that would lead to what Americans refer to as the French and Indian War:
For untold ages Maine had been one unbroken forest, and it was so still. Only along the rocky seaboard or on the lower waters of one or two great rivers a few rough settlements had gnawed slight indentations into this wilderness of woods; and a little farther inland some dismal clearing around a blockhouse or stockade let in the sunlight to a soil that had lain in shadow time out of mind. This waste of savage vegetation survives, in some part, to this day, with the same prodigality of vital force, the same struggle for existence and mutual havoc that mark all organized beings, from men to mushrooms. Young seedlings in millions spring every summer from the black mould, rich with the decay of those that had preceded them, crowding, choking, and killing one another, perishing by their very abundance,—all but a scattered few, stronger than the rest, or more fortunate in position, which survive by blighting those about them. They in turn, as they grow, interlock their boughs, and repeat in a season or two the same process of mutual suffocation. The forest is full of lean saplings dead or dying with vainly stretching towards the light. Not one infant tree in a thousand lives to maturity; yet these survivors form an innumerable host, pressed together in struggling confusion, squeezed out of symmetry and robbed of normal development, as men are said to be in the level sameness of democratic society. Seen from above, their mingled tops spread in a sea of verdure basking in light; seen from below, all is shadow, through which spots of timid sunshine steal down among legions of lank, mossy trunks, toadstools and rank ferns, protruding roots, matted bushes, and rotting carcasses of fallen trees. A generation ago one might find here and there the rugged trunk of some great pine lifting its verdant spire above the undistinguished myriads of the forest. The woods of Maine had their aristocracy; but the axe of the woodman has laid them low, and these lords of the wilderness are seen no more.
Stuff like this makes me wonder why I even pretend I can write.
Parkman's work is virtually all in public domain and much is available on-line, and this text I pulled up from Gutenberg.