To relate, by way of leading up to this little book, all the previous achievements of its author would—without disrespect to the greater or the less—have somewhat the appearance of putting a very big cart in front of a pony. But no idea could be more mistaken than that which induces people to believe a small book the easiest to write. Easy reading is hard writing; and a thoroughly good small book stands for so much more than the mere process of putting it on paper, that its value is not at all to be judged by its bulk. The offhand word of a man full of knowledge is worth a great deal more than the carefully prepared utterance of a person who having spoken once has nothing more to say. In our introduction to this work, therefore, we propose to reverse the common process of tracing the author's development upwards, and instead, after stating the mere events of Mr. Fiske's life, to begin with "The War of Independence" and to follow his work backwards, attempting very briefly to show how each undertaking was built naturally upon something before it, and that the original basis of the structure was uncommonly broad and strong.
John Fiske was born in Hartford, Conn., 30th March, 1842, and spent most of his life, before entering Harvard as a sophomore in 1860, with his grandmother's family in Middletown, Conn. Two years after taking his degree at Harvard, in 1863, he was graduated from the Harvard Law School, but he cared so much more for writing than for the law that his attempt to practice it in Boston was soon abandoned. In 1861 he made his first important contribution to a magazine, and ever since has done much work of the same sort. He has served Harvard College, as University lecturer on philosophy, 1869-71, in 1870 as instructor in history, and from 1872 to 1879 as assistant librarian. Since resigning from that office he has been for two terms of six years each a member of the board of overseers. In 1881 he began lecturing annually at Washington University, St. Louis, on American history, and in 1884 was made a professor of the institution. Since 1871 he has devoted much time to lecturing at large. He has been heard in most of the principal cities of America, and abroad, in London and Edinburgh. All this time his home has been in Cambridge, Mass.
So much for the simple outward circumstances of Mr. Fiske's life. Turning to his studies and writings, one finds them reaching out into almost every direction of human thought; and this book, from which our backward course is to be taken, is but a page from the great body of his work. It is especially as a student of philosophy, science, and history that Mr. Fiske is known to the world; and at the present it is particularly as an historian of America that his name is spoken. In no other way more satisfactorily than in tracing the growth of his own nation has he found it possible to study the laws of progress of the human race, and from the first, through all the time of his most active philosophical and scientific work, this study of human progress has been the true interest of his life....