The most unusual and welcome selection in the Library of America series thus far is this imposing edition of Francis Parkman's history of the struggle to colonize and control the North American continent. It begins as a tale of exploration, and ends, more than two centuries later, with the military confrontation that virtually destroyed France's power in North America and left England in a position of temporary triumph that soon would lead to conflict with her American colonies. It is, therefore, a story crucially relevant to our understanding of our early history. It is also as absorbing and dramatic a tale as any I have read in recent years.
This epic work, originally produced in seven volumes, has been unavailable except in scattered separate volumes since 1926. The new edition contains Parkman's final additions and corrections, made just before his passing in 1893. All of his extensive explanatory notes are here, as are his useful indexes (combined in this edition into a single index). The volumes are beautifully printed and bound, but I must also credit the production skills that put this vast work within the price range of average books.
For Francis Parkman's is a name that should be better known. He was a Bostonian, Harvard-educated, a superbly trained scholar and meticulous researcher. He was also a tireless traveler, committed to exploring firsthand most of the territories he wrote about. The enormous labors that produced this magnum opus were carried on despite physical disorders that threatened to incapacitate him for long periods throughout his life.
Most of these works are distinguished by Parkman's vigorous and resourceful prose, alive with ingenious figurative language and resonant description. His method is basically novelistic: He renders specific dramatic scenes, invents appropriate dialogue, and describes his characters' presumed thoughts and feelings. The result is a panorama that never dwarfs personalities - a demonstration of historical process that is, at the same time, deeply attentive to the human concerns that shaped it.
''Pioneers of France in the New World'' (1865) describes the forced resettlement of French Huguenots in Florida and the explorations into the Canadian wilderness by 16th-century adventurers. It focuses on Samuel de Champlain's forays along the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes and his later efforts to establish a ''new France'' in eastern Canada. Parkman's view of such ''civilizing'' expeditions is characteristically sardonic: ''To plant religious freedom on this . . . soil was not the mission of France.'' But his objective admiration for the explorers' courage and persistence strikes the book's dominant note.
''The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century'' (1867) is concerned with the efforts of French Catholic priests to convert the various Indian tribes. It offers vivid - some will say excessively vivid - descriptions of their persecution and martyrdom. Parkman's anti-Catholic bias is considerably mitigated here by his sympathetic characterization of the heroic Father Isaac Jogues - and is muffled by his repetitive jeremiads against the ''mad ambition'' and ''insensate fury'' of such Indians as the warlike Iroquois. And yet his detailed descriptions of tribal cultures are full and fair-minded.
In ''La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West'' (1869), Parkman reaches a high point: the extended portrayal of the ''patient voyager,'' determined to colonize the Mississippi Valley region, shows what this writer could do with a figure who truly excited his admiration.
Its sequel, ''The Old Regime in Canada'' (1874), is a comparatively disappointing chronicle of the struggles among the various foreign occupiers of Canada, set mainly in Quebec and enlivened only briefly by Parkman's grudgingly admiring portrait of that master clerical ''politician,'' Bishop Laval.
There's real recovery of power in ''Count Frontenac and New France Under Louis XIV'' (1877), in which the French grip on Acadia is contested by both England and the New England colonies and France's plan to rule over territories to the south begins to unravel. A fast-paced dramatic narrative is given even greater unity by the character of the military governor Parkman calls ''the most remarkable man who ever represented the crown of France in the New World.''
This volume is followed chronologically by ''A Half-Century of Conflict'' ( 1892), the last book, written when Parkman was gravely ill. It is a diffuse recounting of conflicts throughout the continent: the siege of Louisbourg, the campaign for Detroit, ''the search for the Pacific.'' It is a crowded, ambitious book that strains the reader's patience more than any of its fellow volumes.
Perseverance is richly rewarded, however, with the concluding volume ''Montcalm and Wolfe'' (1884), which Parkman wrote out of turn because he considered it the capstone of his work and wanted nothing to interfere with its completion. This is an historical classic, a meticulous explanation of the forces that brought France and England to that final battle. It is told through parallel descriptions of political decisionmaking and strategic military planning in both countries, and parallel accounts of the careers of commanders Louis de Montcalm and James Wolfe. Parkman arranges and compresses this complex material into a colorful, doom-laden narrative worthy of Tolstoy or Stendhal. I doubt if any extended work ever written has been graced by a more glorious conclusion.
Much more might be said about Parkman's arsenal of literary and rhetorical skills, or indeed about the emotional power slowly, steadily generated by his work. Every library in the country should realize that if it ignores the next four or five here-today-forgotten-tomorrow novels, it can easily afford ''France and England in North America.''