IT is twenty years since the death of Washington Irving removed that personal presence which is always a powerful and sometimes the sole stimulus to the sale of an author’s books, and which strongly affects the contemporary judgment of their merits. It is almost a century since his birth, which was nearly coeval with that of the republic. For fifty years Irving charmed and instructed the American people, and was the author who held on the whole the first place in their affections. As he was the first to lift American literature into the popular respect of Europe, so for a long time he was the chief representative of the American name in the world of letters. During this period, probably no citizen of the republic, except the Father of his Country, had so wide a reputation as his namesake, Washington Irving.
It is time to inquire what basis this great reputation had in enduring qualities, and whether it was largely a social product, and ephemeral. To enter fully into such an inquiry cannot be the purpose of this essay. Within the necessary limits prescribed for it, I cannot critically examine his various works, nor even outline the manner of their production, nor sketch in any detail the triumphs of his literary career. I shall attempt only a study of one period,— the formative period of his life as a man of letters, — and pass from that to some observations upon his rank and the character of his literary work.
Washington Irving was born in the city of New York, April 3, 1785, and was the eighth son in a family of eleven children. His father, William Irving, was a sailor from Sluifinska, one of the Orkney Islands, who traced his descent from William de Irwyn, the armorbearer and secretary of Robert Bruce. In 1761 he married Sarah Sanders, a beautiful girl, whose acquaintance he made at the seaport of Falmouth, England, and two years later settled in New York as a trader. He was a successful merchant until the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. In this contest he was a staunch whig, and his wife was distinguished for her merciful ministrations to the patriot prisoners confined in the city. Our author was born in William Street, and spent his boyhood there in an old-time house about half-way between Fulton and John, that was not pulled down till 1849, within ten years of his death.
New York at the time of his birth was a rural city, clustered about the Battery, of about twenty-three thousand inhabitants. It did not extend northward quite to the site of the present City Hall Park, and beyond that, then and for several years afterwards, were only country residences, orchards, and corn-fields. The city was half burned down during the war, and had emerged from it in a dilapidated condition. There was still a marked separation between the Dutch and the English residents, though the Irvings seem to have been on terms of intimacy with the best of both nationalities. The habits of living were primitive ; the manners were agreeably free ; conviviality at the table was the fashion, and strong expletives had not gone out of use in conversation. Society was the reverse of intellectual: the aristocracy were the merchants and traders ; what literary culture found expression was formed on English models, dignified and plentifully garnished with Latin and Greek allusions; the commercial spirit ruled, and the relaxations and amusements partook of its hurry and excitement. In their gay, hospitable, and mercurial character, the inhabitants were true progenitors of the present metropolis. A newspaper had been established in 1792, and a theatre had existed since 1750. Although the town had a rural aspect, with its quaint dormer-window houses, its straggling lanes and roads, and the water-pumps in the middle of the streets, it had the character of a city, and already much of the metropolitan air.
These were the surroundings in which the boy’s literary talent was to develop. His father was a deacon in the Presbyterian church, —a sedate, God-fearing man, with the strict severity of the Scotch Covenanter, serious in his intercourse with his family, without sympathy in the amusements of his children. He was not without tenderness in his nature, but the exhibition of it was repressed on principle, —a man of high character and probity, greatly esteemed by bis associates. He endeavored to bring up his children in sound religious principles, and to leave no room in their lives for triviality. One of the two weekly half-holidays was required for the catechism, and the only relaxation from the three church services on Sunday was the reading of the Pilgrim’s Progress. This cold and severe discipline at home would have been intolerable but for the more lovingly demonstrative and impulsive character of the mother, whose gentle nature and fine intellect won the tender veneration of her children. Of the father they stood in awe ; his conscientious piety failed to waken any religious sensibility in them, and they revolted from a teaching which seemed to regard everything that was pleasant as wicked. The mother, brought up an Episcopalian, conformed to the religious forms and worship of her husband, but she was never in sympathy with his rigid views. The children were repelled from tlie creed of their father, and subsequently all of them except one became attached to the Episcopal church. 'Washington, in order to make sure of his escape, and feel safe while he was still constrained to attend his father’s church, went stealthily to Trinity church at an early age, and received the rite of confirmation. The boy was full of vivacity, drollery, and innocent mischief. He had a love of music, which became later in life a passion, and great fondness for the theatre. This latter stolen delight he first tasted in company with a boy who was somewhat his senior, but destined to be his literary comrade, James K. Paulding, whose sister was the wife of Irving’s brother William. Whenever he could afford this indulgence, he stole away early to the theatre in John Street, and remained until it was time to return to family prayers at nine, after which he would retire to his room, slip through his window and down the roof to a back alley, and return to enjoy the afterpiece.
Young Irving’s school education was desultory, pursued under several more or less incompetent masters, and was over at the age of sixteen. The teaching does not seem to have had much discipline or solidity; he studied Latin a few months, but made no other incursion into the classics. The handsome, tender-hearted, truthful, susceptible boy was no doubt a dawdler in routine studies, but he assimilated what suited him. He found his food in such pieces of English literature as were floating about, in Robinson Crusoe and Sinbad. At ten he was inspired by a translation of Orlando Furioso. He devoured books of voyages and travel; he could turn a neat verse, and his scribbling propensities were exercised in the composition of childish plays. The fact was that the boy was a dreamer and saunterer; he himself says that he used to wander about the pier heads in fine weather, watch the ships departing on long voyages, and dream of going to the ends of the earth. His brothers Peter and John had been sent to Columbia College, and it is probable that Washington would have had the same advantage if he had not shown a disinclination to methodical study. At the age of sixteen he entered a law office, but he was a heedless student, and never acquired either a taste for the profession or much knowledge of law. While he sat in the law office he read literature, and made considerable progress in his self-culture ; but he liked rambling and society quite as well as books. In 1798 we find him passing a summer holiday in Westchester County, and exploring with his gun the Sleepy Hollow region, which he was afterwards to make an enchanted realm ; and in 1800 he made his first voyage up the Hudson, the beauties of which he was the first to celebrate, on a visit to a married sister who lived in the Mohawk Valley. In 1802 he became a law clerk in the office of Josiah Ogden Hoffman, and began that enduring intimacy with the refined and charming Hoffman family which was so deeply to influence all his life. His health had always been delicate, and his friends were now alarmed by symptoms of pulmonary weakness. This physical disability no doubt had much to do with his disinclination to severe study. For the next two or three years much time was consumed in excursions up the Hudson and the Mohawk, and in adventurous journeys as far as the wilds of Ogdensburg and to Montreal, to the great improvement of his physical condition, and in the enjoyment of the gay society of Albany, Schenectady, Ballston, and Saratoga Springs. These explorations and visits gave him material for future use, and exercised his pen in agreeable correspondence ; but his tendency at this time, and for several years afterwards, was to the idle life of a man of society. Whether the literary impulse which was boru in him would have ever insisted upon any but an occasional and fitful expression, except for the necessities of his subsequent condition, is doubtful.
Irving’s first literary publication was a series of letters, signed Jonathan Oldstyle, contributed in 1802 to the Morning Chronicle, a newspaper recently established by his brother Peter. The attention that these audacious satires of the theatre, the actors, and their audience attracted is evidence of the literary poverty of the period. The letters are open imitations of the Spectator and the Tatler, and although sharp upon local follies are of no consequence at present except as foreshadowing the sensibility and quiet humor of the future author, and his chivalrous devotion to woman. What is worthy of note is that a boy of nineteen should turn aside from his caustic satire to protest against the cruel and unmanly habit of jesting at ancient maidens. It was enough for him that they were women, and possessed the strongest claim upon our admiration, tenderness, and protection.
Irving’s health continued so much impaired when he came of age, in 1804, that his brothers determined to send him to Europe ; and he took passage in May in a sailing vessel for Bordeaux, his consumptive appearance impressing the captain with the foreboding that he would not live to cross the Atlantic. His absence was prolonged till January, 1806. He traveled through France, then in a very suspicious and disturbed condition, passed into Italy, visited Sicily, sojourned in Paris, and reached London by way of Belgium. His journey, although interesting in itself and made at a period of feverish political excitement and transition, was not immediately fruitful in a literary way, and need not detain us. It was the irresolute pilgrimage of a man who had not yet received his vocation. Everywhere he was received in the best society, and the charm of his manner and his ingenuous nature made him everywhere a favorite. He carried that indefinable passport which society recognizes, and which needs no visé. He saw the people who were famous, the women whose recognition is a social reputation ; he made many valuable friends, —not the least valuable of whom were Americans sojourning abroad (some of whom, like Washington Allston and Newton, were to have a career) ; he dabbled in art, and was seriously tempted by Allston to remain in Rome and become a painter; he frequented the theatre ; he indulged his passion for the opera; he learned how to dine and to appreciate the delights of a brilliant salon ; he was picking up languages ; he was observing nature and men, and especially women. His excuse for writing little from Paris, whose gayety and brightness fascinated him, was, “ I am a young man, and in Paris.” That he profited by his loitering experience is plain enough afterwards, but thus far there was little to prophesy that Irving would be anything more in life than a charming flâneur.
Nor on his return to America, with reëstablished health, did his life at first take on more serious purpose. He was admitted to the bar, but he still halted. Society more than ever attracted him and devoured his time. He willingly accepted the office of “ champion at the tea-parties.” He was one of a knot of young fellows of literary tastes and convivial habits who delighted to be known as “ the nine worthies,” or “ the lads of Kilkenny.” They had jolly suppers at the humble taverns of the city, and wilder revelries at an old country house on the Passaic, which is celebrated in the Salmagundi papers as Cockloft Hall. There was some affectation of roistering in all this, but it was a time of social good fellowship and easy freedom of manners in both sexes. At the dinners there was much sentimental and bacchanalian singing ; it was scarcely good manners not to get a little tipsy, and to be laid under the table by the compulsory bumper was not to the discredit of the guest. These young gentlemen liked to be thought “ sad dogs.” That they were less abandoned than they pretended to be the sequel shows; among Irving’s associates at this period who attained honorable consideration were John and Gouverneur Kemble, Henry Brevoort, Henry Ogden, James K. Paulding, and Washington’s brother Peter. The saving influence for all of them was the refined households they frequented, and the association with women who were high-spirited without prudery, and who united purity and simplicity with wit, vivacity, and charm of manner. There is some delightful correspondence between Irving and Miss Mary Farlie, a belle of the time, who married the tragedian, Thomas A. Cooper, —the “ fascinating Farlie,” as Irving calls her, and the “ Sophie Sparkle ” of the Salmagundi. Irving’s susceptibility to the charms and graces of women —a susceptibility which continued always fresh —was tempered and ennobled by the most chivalrous admiration for the sex as a whole. He placed them on an almost romantic pinnacle, but his actions always conformed to his romantic ideal. In a letter to Miss Farlie, written from Richmond, where he was attending the trial of Aaron Burr, he expresses his exalted opinion of the sex. It was said, in accounting for the open sympathy of the ladies with the prisoner, that Burr had always been a favorite with the sex ; “but I am not inclined,” writes Irving, “ to account for it in so illiberal a manner ; it results from that merciful, that heavenly disposition implanted in the female bosom, which ever inclines in favor of the accused and the unfortunate. You will smile at the high strain in which I have indulged; believe me, it is because I feel it; and I love your sex ten times better than ever.”
Personally, Irving must have awakened a reciprocal admiration. A drawing by Vanderlyn in Paris in 1805, and a portrait by Jarvis in 1809, present him to us in the fresh bloom of manly beautv. The face has an air of distinction and gentle breeding; the refined lines, the poetic chin, the sensitive mouth, the shapely nose, the large, dreamy eyes, the intellectual forehead, and the clustering brown locks are our ideal of the writer of the Sketch Book and the Pilgrim in Spain. A relation, who saw much of our author in his latter years, writes me, “ He had dark gray eyes, a handsome straight nose, which might perhaps be called large, a broad, high, full forehead, and a small mouth. I should call him of medium height, about five feet eight and one half to nine inches, and inclined to be a trifle stout. There was no peculiarity about his voice; but it was pleasant, and had a good intonation. His smile was exceedingly genial, lightening up his whole face, and rendering it very attractive; while if he were about to say anything humorous, it would beam forth from his eyes even before the words were spoken. As a young man his face was exceedingly handsome, and his head was well covered with dark hair; but from my earliest recollection of him, he wore neither whiskers nor mustache, but a dark brown wig, which, although it made him look younger, concealed a beautifully shaped head.” We can understand why he was a favorite in the society of Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia, and Albany, as well as of New York, and why he liked to linger here and there, sipping the social sweets, like a man born only to leisure and seemingly idle observation of life.
It was in the midst of these social successes, and just after his admission to the bar, that Irving gave the first decided evidence of the choice of a career. This was his association with Paulding and his eldest brother William in the publication of Salmagundi, a semimonthly periodical, which ran with tolerable regularity through twenty numbers, and stopped in the full tide of success. with the whimsical indifference to the public which had characterized its every number. Its declared purpose was “simply to instruct the young, reform the old, correct the town, and castigate the age.” In form and manner it was an imitation of the Spectator and the Citizen of the World. Its wit, and to some extent its humor, were original; but so perfectly was it adapted to local conditions that it may be profitably read to-day as a not untrue reflection of the manners and spirit of the time and city. Its amusing audacity and complaisant superiority, the mystery hanging about its writers, its pretense of indifference to praise or profit, its caustic wit, contagious humor, and pungent criticism, piqued, puzzled, and delighted the town. It was from the first an immense success. It had a circulation in other cities, and many imitations of it sprung up. Notwithstanding some affectations and puerilities, it is still readable. Of course, if it were offered now to the complex and sophisticated society of New York, it would fail to attract anything like the attention it received in the days of simplicity; but the same wit, insight, and literary art, informed with the modern spirit and turned upon the follies and “ whim-whams ” of the metropolis, would undoubtedly have a great measure of success. In Irving’s contributions to it may be traced the germs of nearly everything he did afterwards : in it he tried the various stops of his genius; he discovered his own power; his career was determined; thereafter it was only a question of energy or necessity.
Irving did not, however, immediately devote himself to literature, nor seem to regard his achievements in it as anything more than aids to social distinction. Like many young lawyers with little law and less clients, he dabbled somewhat in local politics; but he could not adapt himself to the unseemly association and nauseous work demanded (at that time) of a ward politician, and was soon disgusted with it. He unsuccessfully solicited some appointment at Albany ; a very modest solicitation, which was never repeated. Although a federalist, and, as he described himself, “an admirer of General Hamilton, and a partisan with him in politics,” he accepted a retainer from Burr’s friends in 1807, and attended his trial in Richmond, more in the capacity of an observer of the scene than as a lawyer. He did not share the prevalent opinion of Burr’s treason, and regarded him as a man so fallen as to be shorn of the power to injure the country, for whom he could feel nothing but compassion.
Not long after the discontinuance of Salmagundi, Irving, in connection with his brother Peter, projected the work which was to make him famous. At first nothing more was intended than a satire upon Dr. Samuel Mitchell’s Picture of New York, just then published. It was begun as a mere burlesque upon pedantry and erudition, and was well advanced, when Peter was called by his business to Europe, and its completion was left to Washington. In his mind the idea expanded into a different conception. He condensed the mass of affected learning into five introductory chapters, —as Irving afterwards said, it would have been improved if it had been reduced to one, —and finished the History of New York, by Diedrick Knickerbocker, substantially as we now have it. This was in 1809, when Irving was twenty-six years old.
But before this humorous creation was completed, the author endured the terrible bereavement which was to color his whole life. He had formed a deep and tender passion for Matilda Hoffman, the second daughter of Josiah Ogden Hoffman, in whose family he had long been on a footing of the most perfect intimacy ; and his ardent love was fully reciprocated. Irving was restlessly casting about for some assured means of livelihood, which would enable him to marry, — perhaps his distrust of a literary career was connected with this desire,— when, almost without warning, Miss Hoffman died, in the eighteenth year of her age. Without being a dazzling beauty, she was lovely in person and mind, with most engaging manners, a refined sensibility, and a delicate and playful humor. The loss was a crushing blow to Irving, from the effects of which he never recovered, although time softened the bitterness of his grief into a tender and sacred memory. He could never bear any allusion to her, even from his most intimate friends. After his death, in a private repository, of which he always kept the key, was found a lovely miniature, a braid of fair hair, and a strip of paper, on which was written, in his own hand, “Matilda Hoffman;” and with these treasures were several pages of a memorandum, in ink long since faded. He kept through life her Bible and her Prayer Book ; they were placed nightly under his pillow in the first days of anguish that followed her loss, and ever after they were the inseparable companions of all his wanderings. This memorandum, it subsequently appeared, was a copy of a letter addressed to Mrs. Foster, a married lady, in which the story of his early love was related as a reason why he had never married. It was in 1823, while he sojourned in Dresden, that he became intimate with an English family residing there, named Foster, and conceived for the daughter, Miss Emily Foster, a deep attachment. That this would have resulted in marriage if the lady’s affection had not been preoccupied the Fosters believed. Irving’s biographer thinks otherwise, and gives reasons for believing that he could not at that time have entertained a project of matrimony. It is not for us to question his judgment, with his full knowledge of the circumstances ; yet it is evident that Irving was very seriously impressed, and very much unsettled until he drove away the impression by hard work with his pen; and it would be nothing new in human nature and experience if he had, for the time, yielded to the attractions of loveliness and a most congenial companionship, and had returned again to an exclusive devotion to the image of the early loved and lost.
The reception of the History of New York is too well known to need description. Its success was far beyond Irving’s expectation. It met almost universal acclaim. It is true that some of the old Dutch inhabitants, who sat down to its perusal expecting to read a veritable account of the exploits of their ancestors, were puzzled by the indirection of its commendation ; several excellent ladies of New York and Albany were minded to ostracize the innocent author from all social recognition ; and as late as 1818 Mr. Gulian C. Verplanck, Irving’s friend, in an address before the Historical Society, showed the deep irritation the book had caused by severe strictures on it as a " coarse caricature.” But the author’s winning ways soon dissipated the social cloud, and even the Dutch critics were disarmed by the absence of all malice in the gigantic humor of the composition. One of the first foreigners to recognize its power and originality was Walter Scott.
The book is indeed an original creation, and one of the very few masterpieces of humor. In spontaneity, freshness, breadth of conception, and joyous vigor it has the character of the production of the spring-time in literature. It has entered into the popular mind as no other American book ever has, and it may be said to have created a social realm which, with all its whimsical conceit, has almost historical solidity. The Knickerbocker Pantheon is at least as real as that of Olympus. The introductory chapters are of that elephantiue facetiousness which pleased our greatgrandfathers, but which is exceedingly tedious to modern taste ; and the humor of the book occasionally has a breadth that is indelicate to our apprehension, although it perhaps did not shock our great-grandmothers. But notwithstanding these blemishes, I think the book has more enduring qualities than even the generation which it first delighted gave it credit for.
It is strange that after this success Irving should still have hesitated to adopt literature as his profession. But for two years, and with leisure, he did nothing. He had even hope of political preferment in a small way ; and he entered into a mercantile partnership with his brothers, which was to involve little work for him and such share of the profits as should assure him support and leave him free to follow his literary bent. Yet he seems to have been mainly intent upon society and the amusement of the passing hour, and, without the spur of necessity to his literary capacity, he yielded to the temptations of indolence, and settled into the unpromising position of a gentleman of leisure.
The peril to trade involved in the war of 1812 gave him forebodings, and aroused him to some effort. He accepted the editorship of a periodical called Select Reviews, afterwards changed to the Analectic Magazine, for which he wrote several sketches, some of which were introduced into the Sketch Book, and several reviews and novel biographies. But the slight editorial care required was irksome to a man who had an unconquerable repugnance to all periodical labor. The business of his firm and of other New York importing merchants sent him often to Washington, to look after their interests. These visits greatly extended his acquaintance with the leading men of the country, and, as usual, brought him into the thick of gayety and fashion. His political leanings did not prevent an intimacy with the president’s family, and Mrs. Madison and he were sworn friends.
Although a federalist and an admirer of England, his sympathies were all with his country in the war of 1812, and he took active service on the military staff of Governor Tompkins. The sudden ending of the war defeated his intention of entering the regular army; and in 1815 he made a visit to his brother Peter, his business partner, in England, intending only a brief sojourn. He remained abroad seventeen years.
A portion of this period was consumed in annoying business cares, in failure, and in the experience of bankruptcy. When this was over he addressed himself resolutely to the profession of letters, and thereafter till the end of his life, although he was from time to time and for long intervals incapacitated by a tormenting ailment, he labored heroically for the support and comfort of those who were dependent on him. During these seventeen years he became famous wherever the English language was read, and in 1832, when he returned to New York, America greeted her most famous literary man with a spontaneous outburst of love and admiration. The enthusiasm manifested for him was equaled by his own for the land and the people he supremely loved. His first care was by extended travel to make himself thoroughly acquainted with that land, and his next to provide at Sunnyside on the Hudson a modest and retired home for himself and his relatives.
Irving was now past middle life, having returned to New York in his fiftieth year; but he was in the full flow of literary productiveness. His development was somewhat tardy compared with that of many of his contemporaries; but he had the “ staying” qualities. The first crop of his mind was of course the most original, and time and experience had toned down his humor; but the spring of his fancy was as free, his vigor was not abated, and his art was more subtle and refined. Some of his best work was yet to be done. It is worthy of passing mention that his admirable sense of literary proportion, which is wanting in many great writers, characterized his work to the very end.
High as his position was as a man of letters, the consideration in which he was held was much broader than that, — it was that of one of the first citizens of the republic. His friends, readers, and admirers were not merely the literary class, but included nearly all the prominent statesmen of the time. Almost any career was open to him if he had lent an ear to their solicitations. But political life was not to his taste, and it would have been fatal to his sensitive spirit. It did not require much self-denial, perhaps, to decline the candidacy for mayor of New York, nor the honor of running for Congress ; but he put aside also the distinction of a seat in Van Buren’s cabinet as secretary of the navy. His acceptance of the mission to Spain, an appointment which plunged him into profound astonishment, was doubtless influenced by the intended honor to his profession, the gratifying manner in which it came to him, his desire to please his friends, and the belief, which was a delusion, that diplomatic life in Madrid would offer no serious interruption to his Life of Washington, in which he had just become engaged. The nomination, the suggestion of Daniel Webster, Tyler’s secretary of state, was cordially approved by the president and cabinet, and confirmed almost by acclamation in the senate. “ Ah,” said Mr. Clay, who was opposing nearly all the president’s appointments, “ this is a nomination everybody will concur in!” “If a person of more merit and higher qualification,” wrote Mr. Webster in his official notification, “ had presented himself, great as is my personal regard for you, I should have yielded it to higher considerations.” No other appointment could have been made so complimentary to Spain, and it remains to this day one of the most honorable to his own country.
His third visit abroad was the occasion of the renewal of hospitable honors wherever he went, and of a recognition from the highest personages of the fitness of his appointment. He remained at Madrid four years, discharging with much tact and diplomatic wisdom the duties of minister in a perplexing time, when the Spanish government was changing its character and its personnel with the rapidity of shifting scenes in a pantomime. “ This consumption of ministers,” wrote Irving to Mr. Webster, “ is appalling. To carry on a negotiation with such transient functionaries is like bargaining at the window of a railroad car : before you can get a reply to a proposition, the other party is out of sight.”
I shall not dwell upon the ten years of literary activity which preceded this appointment. One incident of it, however, cannot be passed in silence : that was the abandonment of his life-long project of writing the history of the conquest of Mexico to Mr. William H. Prescott. It had been a scheme of his boyhood ; he had made collections of materials for it during his first residence in Spain ; and he was actually and absorbedly engaged in the composition of the first chapters, when he was sounded by Mr. Cogswell, of the Astor Library, in behalf of Mr. Prescott. Some conversation showed that Mr. Prescott was contemplating the subject upon which Mr. Irving was engaged, and the latter instantly authorized Mr. Cogswell to say that he abandoned it. Although our author was somewhat far advanced and Mr. Prescott had not yet collected his materials, Irving renounced the glorious theme in such a manner that Prescott never suspected the pain and loss it cost him, nor the full extent of his own obligation. Some years afterwards Irving wrote to his nephew that in giving it up he in a manner gave up his bread, as he had no other subject to supply its place ; " I was,” he wrote, “ dismounted from my cheval de bataille, and have never been completely mounted since.” But he added that he was not sorry for the warm impulse that induced him to abandon the subject, and that Mr. Prescott’s treatment of it had justified his opinion of him. Notwithstanding Prescott’s very brilliant work, we cannot but feel some regret that Irving did not write a Conquest of Mexico. His method, as he outlined it, would have been the natural one. Instead of partially satisfying the reader’s curiosity in a preliminary essay in which the Aztec civilization was exposed, Irving would have begun with the entry of the conquerors, and carried his reader step by step onward, letting him share all the excitement and surprise of discovery which the invaders experienced, and learn of the wonders of the country in the manner most likely to impress both the imagination and the memory; and with his artistic sense of the value of the picturesque he would have brought into strong relief the dramatis personœ of the story.
The service that Irving rendered to American letters no critic disputes, nor is there any question of our national indebtedness to him for investing a crude and new land with the enduring charms of romance and tradition. In this respect our obligation to him is that of Scotland to Scott and Burns; and it is an obligation due only, in all history, to here and there a fortunate creator to whose genius opportunity is kind. The Knickerbocker Legend and the romance with which Irving has invested the Hudson are a priceless legacy ; and this would remain an imperishable possession in popular tradition if the literature creating it were destroyed. His position in American literature, or in that of the English tongue, will be determined only by the slow settling of opinion, which no critic can foretell, and the operation of which no criticism seems able to explain. I venture to believe, however, that the verdict will not be in accord with much of the present prevalent criticism.
Irving was always the literary man ; he had the habits, the idiosyncrasies, of the literary man. I mean that he regarded life not from the philanthropic, the economic, the political, the philosophic, the metaphysic, the scientific, or the theologic, but purely from the literary point of view. He belongs to that small class of which Johnson and Goldsmith are perhaps as good types as any, and to which America has added very few. The literary point of view is taken by few in any generation ; it may seem to the world of very little consequence in the pressure of all the complex interests of life, and it may even seem trivial amid the tremendous energies applied to immediate affairs; but it is the point of view that endures; if its creations do not mold human life, like the Roman law, they remain to charm and civilize, like the poems of Horace. You must not ask more of them than that.
Irving had the defects of his peculiar genius, and these have no doubt helped to fix upon him the complimentary disparagement of “genial.” He was not aggressive; in his nature he was wholly unpartisan and full of lenient charity ; and I suspect that his kindly regard of the world, although returned with kindly liking, cost him something of that respect for sturdiness and force which men feel for writers who flout them as fools in the main. Like Scott, he belonged to the idealists, and not to the realists whom our generation affects. Both writers stimulate the longing for something better. Their creed was short: “ Love God and honor the king.” It is a very good one for a literary man, and might do for a Christian. The supernatural was still a reality in the age in which they wrote. Irving’s faith in God and his love of humanity were very simple; I do not suppose he was much disturbed by the deep problems that have set us all afloat. In every age, whatever is astir, literature, theology, all intellectual activity, takes one and the same drift, and approximates in color. The bent of Irving’s spirit was fixed in his youth, and he escaped the desperate realism of this generation, which has no outcome, and is likely to produce little that is noble.
I do not know how to account, on principles of culture which we recognize, for our author’s style. His education was exceedingly defective, nor was his want of discipline supplied by subsequent desultory application. He seems to have been born with a rare sense of literary proportion and form ; into this, as into a mold, were run his apparently lazy and really acute observations of life. That he thoroughly mastered such literature as he fancied, there is abundant evidence; that his style was influenced by the purest English models is also evident. But there remains a large margin for wonder how, with his want of training, he could have elaborated a style which is distinctively his own, and is as copious, felicitous in the choice of words, flowing, spontaneous, flexible, engaging, clear, and as little wearisome when read continuously in quantity as any in the English tongue. This is saying a great deal, though it is not claiming for him the compactness, nor the robust vigor, nor the depth of thought, of many other masters in it. It is much to have deserved the eulogy of Campbell that he had “added clarity to the English tongue.” This elegance and finish of style (which seems to have been as natural to the man as his amiable manner) is sometimes made his reproach, as if it were his sole merit, and as if he had concealed under this charming form a want of substance. In literature form is vital. But his case does not rest upon that. As an illustration, his Life of Washington may be put in evidence. It is impossible for any biography to be less pretentious in style, or less ambitious in proclamation. The only pretension of matter is in the early chapters, in which a more than doubtful genealogy is elaborated, and in which it is thought necessary to Washington’s dignity to give a fictitious importance to his family and his childhood, and to accept the Southern estimate of the hut in which he was born as a “mansion.” In much of this false estimate, Irving was doubtless misled by the fables of Weems. But while he has given us a dignified portrait of Washington, it is as far as possible removed from that of the smileless prig which has begun to weary even the popular fancy. The man he paints is flesh and blood, presented, I believe, with substantial faithfulness to his character; with a recognition of the defects of his education and the deliberation of his mental operations; with at least a hint of that want of breadth of culture and knowledge of the past, the possession of which characterized many of his great associates ; and with no concealment that he had a dower of passions and a temper which only vigorous selfwatchfulness kept under. But he portrays with an admiration not too highly colored the magnificent patience, the courage to bear misconstruction, the unfailing patriotism, the practical sagacity, the level balance of judgment combined with the wisest toleration, the dignity of mind, and the lofty moral nature which made him the great man of his epoch. Irving’s grasp of this character; his lucid marshaling of the scattered, often wearisome and uninteresting details of our dragging, unpicturesque Revolutionary War ; his just judgment of men ; his even, almost judicial moderation of tone ; and his admirable proportion of space to events, render the discussion of style in reference to this work superfluous. Another writer might have made a more brilliant performance, descriptions sparkling with antithises, characters projected into startling attitudes by the use of epithets; a work more exciting and more piquant, that would have started a thousand controversies, and engaged the attention by daring conjectures and attempts to make a dramatic spectacle ; a book interesting and notable, but false in philosophy and untrue in fact.
When the Sketch Book appeared, an English critic said it should have been first published in England, for Irving was an English writer. The idea has been more than once echoed here. The truth is that while Irving was intensely American in feeling he was first of all a man of letters, and in that capacity he was cosmopolitan ; he certainly was not insular. He had a rare accommodation of tone to his theme. Of England, whose traditions kindled his susceptible fancy, he wrote as Englishmen would like to write about it. In Spain he was saturated with the romantic story of the people and the fascination of the clime; and he was so true an interpreter of both as to earn from the Spaniards the title of “ the poet Irving.” I chanced once, in an inn at Frascati, to take up The Tales of a Traveler, which I had not seen for many years. I expected to revive the somewhat faded humor and fancy of the past generation. But I found not only a sprightly humor and vivacity which are modern, but a truth to Italian local color that is very rare in any writer foreign to the soil. As to America, I do not know what can be more characteristically American than the Knickerbocker, the Hudson River tales, the sketches of life and adventure in the far West. But underneath all this diversity there is one constant quality, — the flavor of the author. Open by chance and read almost anywhere in his score of books, — it may be the Tour on the Prairies, the familiar dream of the Alhambra, or the narratives of the brilliant exploits of New World explorers; surrender yourself to the flowing current of his transparent style, and you are conscious of a beguilement which is the crowning excellence of all lighter liters ture, for which we have no word but “ charm.”
The consensus of opinion about Irving in England and America for thirty years was very remarkable. He had a universal popularity rarely enjoyed by any writer. England returned him to America medaled by the king, honored by the university which is chary of its favors, followed by the applause of the whole English people. In English households, in drawing-rooms of the metropolis, in political circles no loss than among the literary coteries, in the best reviews, and in the popular newspapers the opinion of him was pretty much the same. And even in the lapse of time and the change of literary fashion authors so unlike as Byron and Dickens were equally warm in admiration of him. To the English indorsement America added her own enthusiasm, which was as universal. His readers were the million, and all his readers were admirers. Even American statesmen, who feed their minds on food we know not of, read Irving. It is true that the uncritical opinion of New York was never exactly reëchoed in the cool recesses of Boston culture ; but the magnates of the North American Review gave him their meed of cordial praise. The country at large put him on a pinnacle. If you attempt to account for the position he occupied by his character, which won the love of all men, it must be remembered that the quality which won this, whatever its value, pervades his books also.
And yet it must be said that the total impression left upon the mind by the man and his works is not that of the greatest intellectual force. I have no doubt that this was the impression he made upon his ablest contemporaries. And this fact, when I consider the effect the man produced, makes the study of him all the more interesting. As an intellectual personality, he makes no such effect, for instance, as Carlyle, or a dozen other living writers who could be named. The incisive critical faculty was almost entirely wanting in him. He had neither the power nor the disposition to cut his way transversely across popular opinion and prejudice that Ruskin has, nor to draw around him disciples equally well pleased to see him fiercely demolish to-day what they had delighted to see him set up yesterday as eternal. He evoked neither violent partisanship nor violent opposition. He was an extremely sensitive man, and if he had been capable of creating a conflict he would only have been miserable in it. The play of his mind depended upon the sunshine of approval. And all this shows a certain want of intellectual virility.
A recent anonymous writer has said that most of the writing of our day is characterized by an intellectual strain. I have no doubt that this will appear to be the case to the next generation. It is a strain to say something new even at the risk of paradox, or to say something in a new way at the risk of obscurity. From this Irving was entirely free. There is no visible straining to attract attention. His mood is calm and unexaggerated. Even in some of his pathos, which is open to the suspicion of being “literary,” there is no literary exaggeration. He seems always writing from an internal calm, which is the necessary condition of his production. If he wins at all by his style, by his humor, by his portraiture of success or of character, it is by a gentle force, like that of the sun in spring. There are many men now living, or recently dead, intellectual prodigies, who have stimulated thought, upset opinions, created mental eras, to whom Irving stands hardly in as fair a relation as Goldsmith to Johnson. What verdict the next generation will put upon their achievements I do not know ; but it is safe to say that their position and that of Irving as well will depend largely upon the affirmation or the reversal of their views of life and their judgments of character. I think the calm work of Irving will stand when much of the more startling and perhaps more brilliant intellectual achievement of this age has passed away.
And this leads me to speak of Irving’s moral quality, which I cannot bring myself to exclude from a literary estimate, even in the face of the current gospel of art for art’s sake. There is something that made Scott and Irving personally loved by the millions of their readers, who had only the dimmest ideas of their personality. This was some quality perceived in what they wrote. Each one can define it for himself; there it is, and I do not see why it is not as integral a part of the authors — an element in the estimate of their future position — as what we term their intellect, their knowledge, their skill, or their art. However you rate it, you cannot account for Irving’s influence in the world without it. In his tender tribute to Irving, the great-hearted Thackeray, who saw as clearly as anybody the place of mere literary art in the sum total of life, quoted the dying words of Scott to Lockhart, “ Be a good man, my dear.” We know well enough that the great author of The Newcomes and the great author of The Heart of Midlothian recognized the abiding value in literature of integrity, sincerity, purity, charity, faith. These are beneficences ; and Irving’s literature, walk round it and measure it by whatever critical instruments you will, is a beneficent literature. The author loved good women and little children and a pure life ; he had faith in his fellow-men, a kindly sympathy with the lowest, without any subservience to the highest; he retained a belief in the possibility of chivalrous actions, and did not care to envelop them in a cynical suspicion ; he was an author still capable of an enthusiasm. His books are wholesome, full of sweetness and charm, of humor without any sting, of amusement without any stain ; and their more solid qualities are marred by neither pedantry nor pretension.
Charles Dudley Warner.