The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1974, Volume 20, Number 4

Book Reviews

David J. Weber, Book Review Editor

A Venture in History. The Production, Publication, and Sale of the Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft. By Harry Clark. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 177 pages. $8.00.

Reviewed by J. R. K. Kantor, University of California Archivist, The Bancroft Library, author of “Fifty-two Early California Imprints in The Bancroft Library” (1964), editor of Grimshaw’s Narrative (1964), Some Treasures of The Bancroft Library (1973), and of the newsletter, Bancroftiana.

It is just one hundred years since the publication of the first volume of Hubert Howe Bancroft’s Works-volume one of Native Races—and it has taken until now for the complete story of Bancroft’s publishing venture to be told. And well told it is in Harry Clark’s A Venture in History, well told, that is, in its marshaling of facts, although it might have been better told in a style not so readily reminiscent of the doctoral dissertation, from which this book was generated.

H. H. Bancroft will continue to provoke argument concerning the ethics of the workshop approach to the writing of history, and the partisans of Henry L. Oak and Frances Fuller Victor, two of his more outspoken collaborators in the history, will continue to downgrade Bancroft’s own contributions to the monumental achievement. Monumental it was, and remains, for its distillation of so much recent (and in the period 1874 to 1890 much of it was very recent) history from original sources, themselves preserved for the most part in Bancroft’s own library. As Professor Clark notes in his concluding chapter, “the Works is a source itself, and has furnished information for readable popular histories as well as data for theorists, but it lacks the unity expected in a historical work. Paradoxically, it is more valuable to historians today than a finished history might be.”

Not only the routine of production but also the public and critical reaction to the production are given ample examination in this book. Bancroft’s journeys, on which he was often accompanied by his daughter, Kate, and, later, by his second wife, Matilda, undertaken to visit prominent leaders and citizens, not only in the American west but in Mexico as well (where he met President Diaz and undertook an early oral history, destined to be “the book of the day in Mexico”) are covered in detail. The brilliant anti-Bancroft campaign waged by The Wasp, a San Francisco weekly, and most notably by its celebrated writer, Ambrose Bierce, is served up to the reader by Professor Clark in several delicious quotations, including a report of an imaginary confrontation between the visiting British historian James Anthony Froude and Bancroft. Having asked Froude how much he pays his assistants and receiving in reply an exclamation of astonishment, Bancroft counters:

Sir you are looking at a businessman. Do you think I find time to write histories? Why who would attend to the press-room, etc. etc…. Sometimes I look over their manuscript to dot their “i’s” and cross their “t’s,” and if I put my name on the cover, who, I’d like to know, has a better right? I put up the sugar and they run the game.

A Venture in History has been thoroughly researched, the author utilizing original records of Bancroft’s publishing career in The Bancroft Library, as well as invaluable letters of Mrs. Victor, found at Yale and at the Oregon Historical Society, and those of Bancroft to his chief assistant, William Nemos, deposited in the Kungl. Biblioteket in Stockholm, a microfilm copy of which is now in The Bancroft Library. Looming over the action throughout the several decades of production-of compiling source materials, hiring editorial assistants and assigning subject areas, planning subscription drives, printing and publishing-is the figure of Bancroft himself, the Ohio-born prototype of an Alger hero, who rose to relative fortune and relative fame during a long lifetime of some eighty-six years. Granted the fame was tinged by notoriety, particularly when revelations were published concerning the vanity-basis of the Chronicles of the Builders of the Commonwealth and when Bancroft’s name was expunged from the rolls of the Society of California Pioneers, an organization he had served as president in the 1860’s. By the time of his death in 1918 public memory of the personal and business conflicts had faded, and the pioneer was acclaimed in the press for the great library which he had established and which had become part of the University of California. The nature of the library, its uniqueness then and now, is nicely defined by Professor Clark: “The merchant-collector at once arrived at a philosophy destined to make his library significant in its time-comprehensive acquisition. Selection, confining his collection to the ‘best’ authorities or rare, fine editions, would have made his library more admired by the general public of his day but less valuable.”

Aside from a few errors in typography, reflecting careless editorial supervision, I would point out but two errors in fact: Bancroft’s library was sold to the Regents of the University of California in November, 1905, and not in 1906 (page 153), and the name of the prominent astronomer who became the University’s fifth president is Edward (not Edwin) S. Holden (page 156).