Washington Irving

WE have, at last, a full story of the life of Mr. Irving. It is from the hand of a near relative, who has brought to the task an almost filial reverence, with a modest reserve of language, and a delicacy of treatment, which, while they disarm criticism, would of themselves suffice to attest the kinship of the writer with the distinguished subject of his biography. It is a quiet and tranquil picture that he has given us, of a serene and tranquil life. As we have turned it over delightedly, chapter after chapter, and volume upon volume, we have wished at times that the coy biographer had been endowed with a spice of garrulity or of egotism ; for, say w'hat we will, these qualities contribute largely to the interest with which we follow the story of a life about whose incidents and development the public bas greed of knowledge.

If Boswell had invariably governed his biographic record by the instincts of a gentleman, we should have possessed far less wealth of gossip by which to j&udge of the manhood and the lamiliar surroundings of the great lexicographer. And we can readily imagine that a conscientious man, in setting about the task of writing the life of a favorite author, would ask himself,, over and over, how much should be yielded to the eager curiosity of the public, and how much a refined courtesy of feeling should keep in reserve. There are men, indeed, whose history, by whomsoever recorded, would suggest no such questioning,—men who have elbowed their way through life, bent upon some single aim, with a rrand and coarse disregard of all the heart-burnings they may have caused, and all the idols they may have brushed down. Washington Irving was by no means such a man ; he was kind-hearted to the last degree; and yet, remembering as we do that sly look of humor which lurked always in the corner of his eye, we cannot believe but that in his freer moments he has pricked through many a bag of bombast, and made dashing onslaught upon noisy literary pretension. Of all this, however, we find nothing in the volumes before us,—nothing in his own books. Always, in his contact with the world, he is genial; the face of every friend is beautiful to him; every acquaintance is at the least comely ; in rollicking Tom Moore he sees (what all of us cannot see) a big heart,— iu Espartero a bold, frank, honest soldier,—in every fair young girl a charmer, — and in almost every woman a fair young girl.

In all these respects the biography of Mr. Pierre Irving is in fitting accord with what we had known and believed of his eminent kinsman. And we are delighted at being confirmed in the belief. We yield all measure of respect for the grace, the purity, the dignity, which Washington Irving has added to our literature; and yet we honor still more that true American heart which beams through all his writings, and throughout this record of his life. The rare kindliness of the man so hallows and sublimes his memory that we half forget his artistic power, his purity of touch, his keenness of observation, his delightful and abounding humor.

There are no storms in this life of his: it is, as we have said, a quiet picture of a career that is full of honor indeed, full of triumphs, but full of serenity. Here is no Don Quixote searching for enemies with whom to do battle, — no John Knox thwacking terribly upon all heretical pates, and sweating with his obstinacy, as much as with the vigor of his blows; but the kindly gentleman, giving tone and beauty to the common sentiment of us all, piquing our wonder by his adroitness, kindling our smiles by his arch sallies, winning our admiration by his thousand graces, and our respect by his honesty and truth.

In 1797, Washington Irving, a roguish lad of fifteen, living in William Street, in New York, and not a little rebellious against the severe orthodoxy of his father, — who was a deacon of the Presbyterian Church, — sometimes slipped out from his chamber, after evening prayers, for an hour or two at the theatre; he attended school, where lie stole the reading of such books as “ Robinson Crusoe,” and “ Sin bad the Sailor” ; and he wrote compositions for such of his fellows as would makegood his tasks in mathematics. This was a study which he never loved, and to the last lie abjured all stringency of method. The writer of this paper remembers on one occasion asking him what system he pursued in massing his notes for the “ Life of Washington.” “ Don’t ask me for system,” said he ; “ I never had any. If you want to know what a man can do by arrangement, talk with B-; bis whole mind is pigeon-holed.”

At sixteen we find him in a lawyer’s office; he does not, like some of his brothers, enjoy the advantages (if there be any) of a collegiate education. But be loves law as little as he loves mathematics. Feeble health gives occasion for frequent absences and journeyings; and it is plain to see that lie loves a voyage up the Hudson, and adventurous travel through the wilds of Northern New York, better than he loves Judge Livingston, or the books of his law-patron, Mr. Hoffman. He has a scribbling mood upon him at this early day, too, and contributes to the NewYork “ Morning Chronicle” certain letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, which are remarked for their pleasant humor. At the age of twenty-one (1804) continued illhealth suggests a sea-voyage. He leaves law and his jolly companions, — Brevoort, Kemble, Paulding, and the rest, — and sails for Bordeaux. He wanders through Southern Europe delightedly,— meets Washington Allston at Rome, and is half tempted to turn painter, — sees Humboldt, De Staël, Cooke, Siddons; and while all England is jubilant over Nelson’s victory, and all England mourning over Nelson’s death, he sails, in 1806, for home.

Arrived in New York a sound man, he goes through a process of cramming for admission to the bar, and is presently instated — attorney - at - law. But at the very time of his examination he is concocting with James Paulding the project of “ Salmagundi,” which presently enlivens and perplexes people with the vagaries of Launcelot Langstaff. A little after, he plans and commences the Knickerbocker History.

But meantime an interesting episode of his life is developing, which by its unfortunate issue is to give a certain color to all after-expression of his sentiment. While in the family of Mr. Hoffman, as law-student, he has conceived a strong attachment for his daughter; in certain memoranda, marked “private,” which come under the eyes of the biographer only after Mr. Irving’s death, he says, — “I idolized her. I felt at times rebuked by her superior delicacy and purity, and as if I was a coarse, unworthy being in comparison.....I saw her fade rapidly away, beautiful, and more beautiful, and more angelical to the very last. .... I was by her when she died. I was the last one she looked upon.” The memorandum from which this extract is taken had been originally written, it appeared, for the eye of an intimate lady-friend abroad, to whom we shall have occasion to refer.

In 1809, at the age of twenty-six, is published his “ History of New York.” There were a few punctilious Dutch families who were offended at its sallies; but cultivated people generally welcomed its fun its spirit, its quiet satire, with heartiness and applause.

Shortly after he entered into a commercial partnership with his brothers, Peter and Ebenezer, of whom one was established in England, the other in New York. In the War of 1812 we find him acting as military aid to Governor Tompkins; and in 1815 he embarks again for Europe. He passes many years in England, in the course of which time the commercial firm of which he is a member goes into bankruptcy. Upon this, he is of course thrown adrift. But through the influence of his friends at borne lie is offered the position of Chief Clerk of the Navy Department, with a salary of twenty-four hundred dollars a year. This, however, after some misgivings, he declines. He does not like the idea of being cramped by official routine of duty. He will try what he can do with his pen. And for months after making this decision (we have heard it with unction from his own lips) he can do nothing. His friend Allston is going back to America ; Leslie is making a reputation ; and he, a bankrupt, and having wantonly thrown up the chance for a lucrative position at home, is suddenly bereft of all capacity for literary work ; he makes trial; but it is in vain. The “ Sketch-Book ” is floating in his thought; but he cannot commit its graces to paper.

The months roll on; something must be done; the secretaryship at home is abandoned ; he must try again ; he does try ; he sends off “ Sketch-Book No. I.” to America. We know what came of it: success, delight. Number upon number followed. There was an early republication, under the author’s auspices, in London. He was fêted: it was so odd that an American should write with such control of language, with such a play of fancy, with guch pathetic grace. There was a kind of social furor to meet and to see the man who, notwithstanding his Transatlantic birth, had conquered all the witchery of British speech, who knew its possible delicacies of expression, and who graced it with a humor that reminded of Goldsmith.

No American author had ever dreamed of such ovation before : an ovation not due to any incisive thought, not due to any novelty of his subject-matter, — but due to the fact that a man born overseas had suddenly appeared among British writers, who could lay hold upon their own resources of sentiment, and inwrap it in language which charmed them by its grace and provoked them by its purity.

Mr. Murray entered upon the publication of the “Sketch-Book” in 1820, Mr. Irving being at that time thirtyseven years of age. Of his pleasant intimacy with Sir Walter Scott, of his junketings in Paris, of his meeting with Tom Moore, of his unfortunate enlistment in a steamboat-enterprise upon the Seine, there is full and most lively account in the “Life and Letters” before us. “ Bracebridge Hall,” despatched from Paris in 1822, is received with the same favor which had attended the publication of the “ Sketch-Book and the pecuniary returns are so liberal that he can lie upon his oars for a while, and (what pleases him more) can effectually aid his brother Peter, who was a party to the unfortunate steamboatscheme.

After this comes a merry whirl through Europe. The Rhine, Heidelberg, Munich, Vienna, we visit again in his sparkling letters, dated forty odd years ago. His reputation, and the good offices of French and English friends, open an easy path for him; everywhere he finds hospitality and acquaintances, and everywhere, by that frank, genial manner of his, he transmutes even chance acquaintances into confidential friends. The winter of 1822-3 is passed in the delightful city of Dresden. He meets with a warm welcome at the little Saxon court; he has the entrée of a pleasant English household, where he becomes fairly domesticated. Mrs. Foster, its accomplished mistress, is a lady of fortune, who has two “ lovely daughters.” Mr. Irving, in concert with two or three gentlemenfriends, organizes certain home - theatricals, in which the Misses Foster engage with ready zeal and a charming grace. There are Italian readings, and countryexcursions, to all of which Mr. Irving is a delighted party. He hardly knows how to tear himself away from scenes so enchanting. To Miss Foster he writes, on the occasion of a little foray into Bohemia, — “ I am almost wishing myself back already. I ought to be off like your bird, but I feel I shall not be able to keep clear of the cage,” Mrs. Foster, with a womanly curiosity, is eager to know how a man so susceptible as Mr. Irving, and so domestically inclined, should have reached the mature age of forty as a bachelor. Mr. Irving amiably gratifies her curiosity by detailing to her the story of his early and unfortunate attachment, in the shape of the memorandum to which we have already alluded. He closes this confidential disclosure by saying, — “You wonder why I am not married. I have shown you

why I was not long since.....My time

has now gone by; and I have growing claims upon my thoughts, and upon my means, slender and precarious as they are. I feel as if I had already a family to think and provide for.”

We have dwelt upon this little episode, not because it has any essential importance in itself, but because it has been the subject of a most unseemly interpolation in the British reprint of the biography. Mr. Bentley, “ Publisher in Ordinary to Her Majesty,” was, it appears, the purchaser, at a small sum, of the advance - sheets of the book ; but, in order to secure English copyright, he conceived the idea of introducing extraneous matter of British origin. In prosecution of this design, he found as col-laborateurs the two Misses Foster above alluded to, who are now wives of clergymen of the Church of England. Mrs. Fuller, the elder of the sisters, and the special favorite of the author, gives upon the whole a modest and pleasant account of their association with Mr. Irving, and closes with a few lines which, she says, he wrote in her scrap-book in 1832. “ He declared it was impossible for him to be less in a writing-mood.” And thereupon follow the well-known lines entitled “ Echo and Silence.” They certainly do not prove very much for the writing-mood of Mr. Irving,—whatever they may prove for Sir Egerton Brydges. The contribution of the younger sister, Mrs. Flora Dawson, is in a somewhat exaggerated and melodramatic vein, in the course of which she takes occasion to expend a great deal of pity upon “ poor Irving,” who is made to appear in the character of a rejected suitor for the hand of her sister. It is true that the testimony of Mr. Irving’s biographer, and of his private papers, is largely against this absurdly romantic construction ; but, although it had been perfectly authentic, it is almost incredible that a lady of delicacy should make such blazon of the affair, for the sake of securing a copyright to “ Her Majesty’s Publisher in Ordinary.” We are sorry that Mrs. Dawson has not made a better début in literature. As for Mr. Bentley, we can characterize his conduct in the matter only by the word — disgraceful. In the whole history of griping literary piracies (of which Americans must bear their share) we can recall no one which shows so bad a taste, and so bad a faith, as this of Mr. Bentley, the “ Publisher in Ordinary to Her Majesty.”

In the year 1824 we find Mr. Irving at work in Paris chambers upon the “Tales of a Traveller ” ; then follow three or four joyous and workful years in Spain, between Madrid, Seville, and the Alhambra. We have all tasted the fruit of that pleasant sojourn ; “ Columbus” is on every library - shelf; and we remember a certain dog’s-eared copy of the “ Conquest of Granada ” which once upon a time set all the boys, of a certain school agog with a martial furor. How we shook our javelins at some bewildered cow blundering into the play-ground ! What piratical forays we made upon tlie neighbors’ orchards, after the manner of the brave old Mulcy Aben Hassan ! And as for the Alhambra, the tinkle of the water in the marble basins of its court is lingering on our ears even yet.

In Spain, as elsewhere, Mr. Irving makes a circle of friends about him whom it is hard to leave ; but it must be. Accusing comrades at home say he has deserted his country ; he turns his face Westward at last, and, full of honors, sails for New York once more, in the year 1832, at the ripe age of forty-nine. There never was a warmer welcome given to a returning citizen. A feast is made for him, at which all the magnates of the city of Manhattan assist; and the author’s sensibility is so touched that he can make only stammering acknowledgments, — at which the cheers and the plaudits are heartier than ever.

After this comes the opening of that idyllic life at Sunnyside, — the building of the gables, the gilding of the weathercocks, the planting of the ivies. “Astoria ” and “Bonneville” and the “Tour on the Prairies” keep his hand active and his brain in play. Near and dear relatives relieve his bachelor home of all loneliness. Nine years or more have passed after his return, when he is surprised — and not a little shocked — by his appointment, at the instance of Mr. Webster, as Minister to Madrid.

He cannot resist the memories of the Alhambra, of Seville, of the Guadalquivir. Many pleasant associations are revived in England, in France, and not a few in the now revolutionary Spain. But it is plain to see that the official visit is not so enjoyable as the old untrammelled life in the Peninsula. No matter how light the duties, routine is a harness that galls him. We can almost hear his cheer of thanksgiving as he breaks away from it, and comes once more to his cherished home of Sunnyside. He is not an old man yet, though he counts well into the sixties. He contrives new additions to his cottage ; he dashes off the charming “ Life of Goldsmith ” at a heat. His older books come pouring from the press, and are met with the cordial welcome of new ones.

His brothers, to whom he had been so fondly knit, are all gone save one : Brevoort is gone ; Kemble is just above him, at his forge, under the lee of the Highlands. The river by quiet Tarrytown is strung up and down with new “ gentlemen’s places.”

He puts himself resolutely" at work upon the “ Life of Washington.” Frequently recurring illness, and a little shakiness in his step, warn him that his time is nearly up. He knows it. There is only one more task to make good. We hear of him at Mount Vernon, at Arlington, at Saratoga. Volume by volume the work comes forward. The public welcome it, —for they love the author, and they love the subject. Three volumes,— four volumes ; and there are rumors that the old gentleman is failing. But whoever finds admission to that delightful home of Sunnyside meets the old smile, the old cheer. Seventy years have shaken the frame, but have not shaken the heartiness of the man. The jest leaps from his eye before his lip can clothe it, as it did twenty years before. There is a friendly pat for his little terrier, and a friendly word for his gardener, as in the old days.

The fifth volume is in progress; but there is a cough that distresses him sorely. He pushes on, however, through his task. The step is growing feebler and the cough more annoying. It is the year 1859, and the seventy-seventh of his age, when, upon a certain November evening, with one little sharp cry of pain, he falls upon his chamber-floor — dead.

There are men whose works we admire, but for whose lives we care nothing. Mr. Irving was not one of them. There is such a manly heartiness in him that we crave close contact: we cannot know him too well. Surely, this sympathy of readers, spontaneous, inevitable, will keep his name always green. There may come greater purists, — though they" must con the language well; writers of more dramatic power we have now, possibly a quainter humor, — but one more tender, that puts us in such immediate sympathy with the author, hardly in our day, or in any day, shall we see again.

It is plain enough that Mr. Irving depended largely on his friendships,—that, unconsciously, his courage for meeting and conquering whatever of difficulty lay in his path was fed very much by the encouraging words of those he loved and respected. His were no brawny shoulders to push their way, no matter what points were galled by contact, — no selfasserting, irresistible press of purpose, which is careless of opinion. Throughout, we see in his kindly nature a longing for sympathy : if from those intellectually strong, so much the better ; if from dear friends, better yet; if from casual acquaintances, still it is good and serviceable to him, and helps him to keep his poise.

He is a man, too, who clearly shuns controversy, who does not like to take blows or to give blows, and whose intellectual life and development find shape and color from this dread of the combative. Not that he is without a quiet power and exercise of satire, — not that follies which strike his attention do not get a thrust from his fine rapier; but they are such follies, for the most part, as everybody condemns. By reason of this quality in him, he avoids strongly controverted points in history ; or, if his course lies over them, he gives a fairly adjusted average of opinion ; he is not in mood for trenchant assertions of this or that belief. This same quality, again, makes him shun political life. He has a horror of its wordy wars, its flood of objurgation. Not that he is without opinions, calmly formed, and firmly held ; but the entertainment of kindred belief he does not make the measure of his friendships. His character counted on the side of all charity, of forbearance, against harsh judgments ; it was largely and Christianly catholic, as well in things political as literary. He never made haste to condemn.

There is a rashness in criminating this retirement from every-day political conflicts which is, to say the least, very shortsighted. Extreme radicalism spurns the comparative inactivity, and says, “ Lo, a sluggard ! ” Extreme conservatism spurns it, and says, “ Lo, a coward ! ” It is only too true that cowards and sluggards both may take shelter under a shield of indifference ; but it is equally true that any reasonably acute mind, if only charitably disposed, can readily distinguish between an inactivity which springs from craven or sluggish propensity, and that other which belongs to constitutional temperament, and which, while passing calm and dispassionate judgment upon excesses of opinion of either party, contributes insensibly to moderate the violence of both.

But whatever may have been Mr. Irving’s reluctance to ally himself intimately with political affairs, and to assume advocacy of special measures, it is certain that he never failed in open - hearted, outspoken utterance for the cause of virtue, of human liberty, and of his country. There were vulgar assailants, indeed, who alleged at one time that he had thoroughly denationalized himself by his long absences. The charge he always regarded as an affront, and met with scorn. There are those so grossly constituted as to measure a man’s love of his own country by the sneers he flings at the country of others. It was not in Mr. Irving’s nature to sneer at even an enemy ; it was not his way of making conquest. He recognized fully the advantages of a foreign life (at his date) in following up that career of belles-lettres study which he had marked out for himself. The free entrée of European libraries and galleries, and familiar association with a class of cultivated men of leisure, (in countries where such a class exists,) offered opportunity for refining his taste, for enlarging his stock of available material, and for stimulating his mental activity, of which he was not slow to perceive the value, and of which he has given ample account.

There is much that is interesting in the Life before us in regard to Mr. Irving’s habit of work. He was, like most men of extreme sensitiveness, moody; at times his mind seemed all aglow ; he wrote, on such occasions, with extraordinary rapidity, and with that cheery appreciation of his labor which to any author is an immense stimulant. But following upon these happy humors came seasons of wearisome depression ; the stale manuscript of yesterday lost its charm; the fancy refused to be lighted ; he has not the heart to hammer at the business with dull, lifeless blows, and flings down his pen in despair. There are successive months during which this mood hangs upon him like an incubus; then it passes suddenly, like a cloud, and the air (as at Seville) wooes him to his charmingest fancies.

We do not propose a critical estimate of the books of Mr. Irving. We have neither space nor present temper for this. The world has indorsed his great popularity with the heart, as much as with the brain. There are those who have objected that the last subject of his labor— the “ Life of Washington” — was little suited to his imaginative tone of mind, and should have been worked up with a larger and more philosophic grasp of thought. It may well be that at some future time we shall have a more profound estimate of the relations which our great Leader held to his cause and to his time; but, however profound and just such a work may be, we feel quite safe in predicting that it will never supplant the graceful labor of Mr. Irving in the hearts of the American people. Precisely what was wanted Mr. Irving has given : such charming, faithful, truthful picture of the great hero of our Revolution as should carry knowledge of him, of the battles he fought, of his large, selfdenying, unswerving patriotism, of the purity of his life, into every household. No man could have done this work better ; nor do we think any other will ever do it as well.

And there is his “ Sketch-Book,”—in blue and gold, in green and gold, in red and gold ;—in what colors, and in what language, does it not appear ? Yet the themes are of the simplest: a broken heart ; a rural funeral ; a Christmas among the hollies; an hour in the Abbey of Westminster : what is there new, or to care greatly for, in these things ? Yet he touched them, and all the world are touched by them. Your critic says there is no serious insight, no deep probing ; a pretty wind blows over, — that is all.

Yes, that is all; but how many are there who can set such sweet currents of wind aflow ?

Only a bruised daisy, only a wounded hare, only Halloween, — and Burns, with all his fresh, healthy, hearty manhood, and only a peasant’s pen, touches them in such way that his touch is making the nerves of men and women vibrate, whereever our Saxon speech is uttered.

There is many a light thing that we cherish,— with which we will not easily part. That souvenir of some dear, dead one we do not value by its weight in gold ; that sweet story of the Vicar we do not measure by its breadth of logic. And no American, no matter how late born he may be, but, if be wander in the Catskills, shall hear the rumble of the Dutch revellers at their bowling in the gorges of the mountains, —not one but shall read, and reading shall love, the story of Rip Van Winkle.

It was only a quiet old gentleman of six-and-seventy who was buried awhile ago from his home upon the Hudson : yet the village-shops were all closed; the streets, the houses, the station, were hung in black; thousands from the city thirty miles away thronged the high-road leading to the little church where prayers were to be said.

How shall we explain this ? The author is dead, indeed, whose writings were admired by all; but there is something worthier to be said than this: — At the little church lay the body of the man whom all men loved.