The Life and Letters of Washington Irving
By his Nephew, G. P. Putnam.. Vols. I and II. New York :
IF to be loved and admired by all, to have troops of personal friends, to enjoy a literary reputation wide in extent and high in degree, to be as little stung by envy and detraction as the lot of humanity will permit, to secure material prosperity with only occasional interruptions and intermissions, make up the elements of a happy life, then that of Washington Irving must be pronounced one of the most fortunate in the annals of literature. It is but repeating a trite remark to say that happiness depends more upon organization than upon circumstances, more upon what we are than upon what we have. Saint-Simon said of the Duke of Burgundy, father of Louis XV., that he was born terrible : it certainly may be said of Washington Irving that he was born happy. Some men are born unhappy : that is, they are born with elements of character, peculiarities of temperament, which generate discontent under all conditions of life. Their joints are not lubricated by oil, but fretted by sand. The contemporaries of Shakspeare, who for the most part had little comprehension of his unrivalled genius, expressed their sense of his personal qualities by the epithet gentle, which was generally applied to him,— a word which meant rather more then than it does now, comprising sweetness, courtesy, and kindliness. No one word could better designate the leading characteristics of Irving’s nature and temperament. No man was ever more worthy to bear “ the grand old name of gentleman,” alike in the essentials of manliness, tenderness, and purity, and in the external accomplishment of manners so winning and cordial that they charmed alike men, women, and children. He had the delicacy of organization which is essential to literary genius, but it stopped short of sickliness or irritability. He was sensitive to beauty in all its forms, but was never made unhappy or annoyed by the shadows in the picture of life. He had a happy power of escaping from everything that was distasteful, uncomfortable, and unlovely, and dwelling in regions of sunshine and bloom. His temperament was not impassioned; and this, though it may have impaired somewhat the force of his genius, contributed much to his enjoyment of life. Considering that he was an American born, and that his youth and early manhood were passed in a period of bitter and virulent political strife, it is remarkable how free his writings are from the elements of conflict and opposition. He never put any vinegar into his ink. He seems to have been absolutely without the capacity of hating any living thing. He was a literary artist; and the productions of his pen address themselves to the universal and unpartisan sympathies of mankind as much as paintings or statues. His “ Rip Van Winkle ” and “ Legend of Sleepy Hollow ” are pictures, in which we find combined the handling of Teniers, the refinement of Stothard, and the coloring of Gainsborough.
Fortunate in so many other things, Irving may also be pronounced fortunate in his biographer, whom he himself designated for the trust. His nephew has performed his labor of love in a manner which will satisfy all but those who read a book mainly for the purpose of finding fault with it. In his brief and tasteful preface he says : “ In the delicate office of sifting, selecting, and arranging these different materials, extending through a period of nearly sixty years, it has been my aim to make the author, in every stage of his career, as far as possible, his own biographer, conscious that I shall in this way best fulfil the duty devolved upon me, and give to the world the truest picture of his life and character.” To this purpose Mr. Pierre M. Irving has adhered with uniform consistency. He makes his uncle his own biographer. To borrow a happy illustration which we found in a newspaper a few days since, his own portion of the book is like the crystal of a watch, through which we see the hands upon the face as through transparent air. And luckily he found ample materials in his uncle’s papers and records. Washington Irving was not bred to any profession, and had a fixed aversion, not characteristic of his countrymen, for regular businessoccupation ; his literary industry was fitful, and not continuous : but he seems to have been fond of the occupation of writing, and spent upon his diaries and in his correspondence a great many hours, which he could hardly have done, if he had been a lawyer, a doctor, or even a merchant, in active employment. His warm family-affections, too, his strong love for his brothers and sisters, from most of whom he was for many years separated, were a constant incitement to the writing of letters, those invisible wires that keep up the communication between parted hearts. For all these peculiarities of nature, for all these accidents of fortune, we have reason to be grateful, since from these his biographer has found ample materials for constructing the fabric of his life from the foundation.
Many of Irving’s letters, especially in the second volume, are long and elaborate productions, which read like chapters from a book of travels, or like essays, and yet do not on that account lose the peculiar charm which we demand in such productions. They are perfectly natural in tone and feeling, though evidently written with some care. They are not in the least artificial, and yet not careless or hasty. They have all that easy and graceful flow, that transparent narrative, that unconscious charm, which we find in his published writings; and we not unfrequently discern gleams and touches of that exquisite humor which was the best gift bestowed upon his mind. Brief as our notice is, we cannot refrain from quoting in illustration of our remark a few sentences from a letter to Thomas Moore, written in 1824 : —
“ I went a few evenings since to see Kenney’s new piece, ‘The Alcaid.’ It went off lamely, and the Alcaid is rather a bore, and comes near to he generally thought so. Poor Kenney came to toy room next evening, and I could not have believed that one night could have ruined a man so completely, I swear to you I thought at first it was a flimsy suit of clothes had left some bedside and walked into my room without waiting for the owner to get up, or that it was one of those frames on which clothiers stretch coats at their shop-doors, until I perceived a thin face sticking edgeways out of the collar of the coat like the axe in a bundle of fasces. He Was so thin, and pale, and nervous, and exhausted, — he made a dozen difficulties in getting over a spot in the carpet, and never would have accomplished it, if he had not lifted himself over by the points of his shirt-collar.”
The illustration we have Italicized is rather wit than humor; but be it as it may, it is capital ; and the whole paragraph has that quaint and grotesque exaggeration which reminds us of the village-tailor in “ The Sketch-Book,” “who played on the clarionet, and seemed to have blown his face to a point,” or of Mud Sam, who “knew all the fish in the river by their Christian names.”
We think no one can read these volumes without having a higher impression of Washington Irving as a man. There was no inconsistency between the author and the man. The tenderness, the purity of feeling, the sensibility, which gave his works an entrance into so many hearts, had their source in his mind and character. It is a very truthful record that we have before us. The delineation is that of a man certainly not without touches of human infirmity, but as certainly largely endowed with virtues as well as with gifts and graces. It is very evident that it is a truthful biography, and that the hand of faithful affection has found nothing to suppress or conceal. When we have laid down the book, we feel that we know the man. And we can understand why it was that he was so loved. Enemies, it seems, he had, or at least ill-wishers; since we learn — and it is one of the indications of his soft and sensitive nature—that he was seriously annoyed by a persecutor who persistently inclosed and forwarded to him every scrap of unfavorable criticism he could find in the newspapers : but the feeling that inspired this piece of ill-nature must have been envy, and not hatred,—the bitterness which is awakened in some unhappy tempers by the success which they cannot themselves attain. No man less deserved to be hated than Irving, fur no man was less willing himself to give heart-room to hatred.
We need hardly add that these volumes — of which the larger part is by Irving himself—are very entertaining, and that we read them from beginning to end with unflagging interest. Sketches of society and manners, personal anecdotes, descriptions of scenery, buildings, and works of art, give animation and variety to the narrative. The whole is suffused with a golden glow of cheerfulness, the effluence of a nature very happy, yet never needing the sting of riot or craving the flush of excess, and finding its happiness in those pure fountains that refresh, but not intoxicate.
The close of the second volume brings us down to the year 1832, and his cordial reception by his friends and countrymen after an absence of seventeen years ; so that more good things are in store for us.