The World of Washington Irving

by VAN WYCK BROOKS

FOREWORD. — In The Flowering of New England, Van Wyck Brooks conceived and animated a new form of literary history. Perceptive and illuminating, his studies of American writers are a skillful blending of the individual essence with the temper of the times. In this new book, of which we shall publish one third, Mr. Brooks turns to New York and Philadelphia to appraise those authors and artists who were at their zenith in the early nineteenth century.
The opening chapters which appeared in the June Atlantic introduced us to that traveling bookseller and shrewd, gossipy biographer, Parson Weems; the fantastic (and pathetic) émigrés from the French Revolution; Theodosia, the captivating, illstarred daughter of Aaron Burr; William Bartram, the naturalist who saw Florida in its untouched beauty; and the Gothic novelist Charles Brockden Brown, so much admired by Keats and Shelley. Meantime in New York City, population 60,000, the theaters were coming to life.

11

IN THE early years of the nineteenth century, there was no busier man in New York than the one-eyed theater-manager William Dunlap, who was a portrait painter also, a playwright and a novelist, a diarist, a charming talker and the best of gossips. Born in Perth Amboy, down the bay, where he still lived in the summer, he was the son of an Irishman who had fought under Wolfe at Quebec and had prospered as a dealer in glass and china. In his boyhood an old Perth Amboy hermit had given him some books, a Homer, a Virgil, and a Milton, and Dunlap had developed a voracious interest in things of the mind, including philosophy, painting, the theater, and music. He had studied art in London and he played a flute to amuse himself, and he liked to sing songs in a tavern, when the company was good, or recite the poems of Ossian amid rounds of applause.

A democrat and a freethinker, a partisan of Jefferson, Dunlap was an ardent naturalist and a lover of flowers, and he worked in his garden all summer, attending to the fruit trees and keeping careful notes on the plants and the birds. Up at four or five in the morning, gathering mushrooms with his children, he studied geography with his daughter and read Hume with his son John. Indeed, he read everything, Condorcet and Plato as well as Linnaeus, and he was a friend of William Bartram — was there anyone whom Dunlap did not know? As for the theater, he wrote plays and directed plays, and he had once appeared on the boards himself. He ruled in 1800 the stage of New York.

This good-natured Dunlap, the most versatile of men, a rough-and-ready worker in three or four arts, had acquired his knowledge of the theater in London, where he had studied painting with Benjamin West. The fame of West’s great success had spread all over the new republic, so that young Americans flocked to study with him, and Dunlap’s father had sent him abroad at eighteen, convinced that he was cut out for a painter. Dunlap’s talent was not impressive, though he afterwards made a living by it when some of his Other projects ended in smoke; and he was an indifferent student, but he spent his time in London well in ways that became apparent later. He went the rounds of the picture galleries and he saw all the current plays. He met and talked with Sheridan and made friends with actors, with whom he always felt especially at home, while, amid much conviviality, for which he never lost his taste, he studied the English stage behind the scenes.

He was not long at home again before he was writing plays of his own, at one of which President Washington was observed to laugh; and he learned enough German to translate the plays of Kotzebue, and rapidly rose to the forefront of the theater of New York. He was known in after days as the “Father of the American Drama,” but he was also called the “American Vasari,” and for the Arts of Design that gave him this title he had also prepared during his years in London. Among West’s pupils were Copley, Stuart, the Peales, John Trumbull, Washington Allston, Morse, Leslie, and Sully, whom Dunlap knew intimately then or later.

When Dunlap wrote this book he drew from a fund of recollections such as no other writer could have possessed, and he might have said that he had witnessed the birth of American art in the busy London studio of Benjamin West. This kind and even saintly old Quaker, still the favorite of George the Third, who talked with him sometimes half a day at a time, had never lost his deep affection for the land he had left behind, and liked to surround himself with American pupils. When they were out of funds he kept them for months in his house as guests, and all the young American painters felt that to study with West was an indispensable part of the life of an artist.

West’s own career was legendary. He was a child of the frontier who had risen to greatness out of the humblest conditions, in a Quaker circle that frowned on “images,” though his mother had given him indigo, and he had made a brush from the fur of a cat. He had mixed charcoal and chalk with the juice of berries, and some Indians had shown him how to use the clay with which they painted their faces red and yellow. He had made a picture of some cows in a Pennsylvania landscape and also a “Death of Socrates,” suggested by reading Charles Rollin, while he had found friends in Philadelphia, Thomas Godfrey and Francis Hopkinson, the poet who later designed the American flag. He never forgot the great tree, still standing in his youth, in the shade of which Penn and the Indians made their treaty, the scene of his most famous picture; but he had moved on to New York, where he worked at portraits for a while, and then set out for Italy on a ship to Leghorn.

Arriving in Rome, West found an English patron who presented him to Cardinal Albani; and this American studying art, who was a Quaker besides, and a very goodlooking young man, was a nine days’ wonder. He became the fashion, and his naïveties were received with delight: it spread through Rome that he exclaimed, “How like a Mohawk warrior!” when he saw the Apollo Belvedere. The Grand Duke of Parma was equally delighted when this Quaker wore his hat in the royal presence; and, in short, West was a great success, — he was called the “American Raphael,” — and the young Angelica Kauffmann straightway fell in love with him. It was he who gave Angelica her first lessons, while he was himself a pupil of Raphael Mengs.

But West was in love with another girl, whom he had left in Philadelphia and who joined him presently in London. Benjamin Franklin and Francis Hopkinson helped her to elope when her disapproving parents looked her up, and she escaped by a rope ladder and these two friends of the youthful West carried her off to meet the ship at Chester. West, who had mastered the grand style, rose rapidly in England with his huge historical pictures of Greece and Rome, which he meant to be improving, for he agreed with Winckelmann that a picture ought to be a school of virtue. He became the confidant of the British king and queen, who consulted him about her robes and jewels, and he had a studio in the palace, where the king read Livy aloud to him and suggested subjects from it for his pictures. When Reynolds died, West became the president of the Royal Academy and a sort of mild dictator of British art. He was already on the way to this position when Dunlap knew him in London.

12

FOR fifteen years or so, as a playwright, translator, and manager, Dunlap was deeply involved in the theater in New York. There, in 1787, the New England lawyer Royall Tyler had produced his American comedy with great success. The first play of its kind in the country, The Contrast was lively, witty, and real, — one could read it generations later, as one read Sheridan and Goldsmith, — and it brought together a group of characters, in a New York setting, who became stock figures of the American stage and fiction. Among these were the stalwart patriot, the American Anglomaniac, and the New York girl who is dazzled by the traveled fop, figures that were to reappear, in various transformations, in the novels of Cooper, Howells, and Henry James.

Here the stage Yankee made his first appearance, the “true-born American son of liberty, chock full of fight.” This play, which delighted the New Yorkers, was very successful in other towns; and Dunlap, who had returned from England, familiar with the London stage, at once began writing comedies in a similar vein.

These plays, beginning with The Father, were of no great moment. They were popular adaptations of borrowed ideas, turned out in haste and in rapid succession; but in the meantime, as manager of the Park Theatre, Dunlap worked to develop a serious drama. He greatly improved the scenery, and, while favoring American plays, he made the New York stage cosmopolitan also, introducing French plays and especially certain German plays at a time when the German language was all but unknown. Dunlap translated and produced Schiller’s The Robbers and Don Carlos and more than a dozen plays of Kotzebue. For several years, in fact, this German playwright was as much the rage in New York as he was abroad.

One of Dunlap’s younger friends was a writer who was attracting attention with a series of newspaper articles signed “Jonathan Oldstyle.” These papers appeared in 1802 in the New York Morning Chronicle when the author, Washington Irving, was not yet twenty, and there was so little American writing of a literary kind that they were at once reprinted in other journals. A few were mild comments on life in New York, as pale as the moon in the morning, but others discussed theatrical matters in a way that interested Dunlap, who was doing his best to mature and develop the stage. Irving satirized the conditions that Dunlap was fighting against, the bombast and buffoonery, the foolish music, the rudeness of the audiences in the New York theater, and Dunlap saw in Irving a valuable ally; while the young man made friends in other quarters. Brockden Brown called upon him and asked him to contribute to his new monthly magazine, and he also met Joseph Dennie. Aaron Burr cut out the papers and sent them off to Theodosia, saying they were “very good for so young a man.”

Irving, already a hanger-on at stage doors, knew all the actors in New York, for he had a passion for the stage and had even written a play himself. He had known Dunlap’s theater from his earliest childhood — it stood just round the corner from his father’s house. He had contrived, as a little boy, to go there again and again, with his older friend James K. Paulding, hastening home to prayers at the end of the play. Then, climbing out of his bedroom window and scrambling over the roof, he had gone back in time for the after-piece.

Irving, the son of a Scottish merchant who had settled in New York some time before the Revolution, was one of a large and flourishing family that lived in William Street, with a garden full of apricot and plum trees. He had been named after Washington when the British evacuated the city and the general’s work was ended, as his mother said; and he had grown up in a Federalist household that was also strictly Calvinist, though more and more unexacting as the years advanced. He was a law student and a very attractive young man, good-looking, sweet-tempered, affectionate, humorous, and gay, a favorite of his older brothers, who had prospered in various ways and liked to make things easy and pleasant for him. Peter, a doctor, was editor of the Morning Chronicle, in which the “Jonathan Oldstyle” papers appeared, and William, the oldest brother, was a thriving merchant whose wife was the sister of Paulding, Irving’s friend. The family trade was hardware, wine, and sugar.

All the brothers had literary interests, and William, a rhymester and bon viveur, was an essayist of no small talent, urbane and amusing. They were all men of the world, in the New York fashion, as all were Episcopalians, sooner or later, and their Federalism too was mellow and vague. William was a democrat, and, while Washington was a Hamiltonian, it was not so much from conviction as from atmosphere and habit. He was singularly untroubled by thoughts of his own in speculative, religious, and political matters, although he had antiquarian tastes and a liking for old customs and was therefore, in a sense, a natural Tory. While two of his brothers had gone to Columbia, he had left school at sixteen, with a good reading knowledge of Cicero and Livy; but he had already developed the leanings that marked his writing later and some of his peculiar later interests. His favorite author was Oliver Goldsmith, whose softly flowing rhythms passed into his mind, and he loved books of voyages and travels, tales of Columbus and Cortes and especially almost everything that spoke of Europe.

While Irving was moody and had occasional fits of depression, he was high-spirited, impressionable, and naturally happy. As a young New Yorker, he shrewdly observed the ways of the town, for he was in temperament urban and always remained so. But he liked to wander and dream on the banks of the Hudson, and, visiting at Tarrytown, where his friend Paulding’s family lived, he explored the old Dutch farms and pastoral valleys. In the Sleepy Hollow church, the minister still preached in Dutch, and Dutch had been the language of the Paulding household, and the general feeling was anti-British, as in few circles in New York, for the old rivalry of the races had been maintained there.

Paulding’s father, a sea captain, had been ruined by the Tories, and Paulding never outgrew his dislike of the English, while Irving loved the English tradition and was merely amused by the Dutch, although he was charmed and fascinated by the old Dutch legends. He liked to hear of Paulding’s grandfather reading his big Dutch Bible, with its silver corners and silver clasps. Together the friends went squirrel hunting along the Saw Mill River, — called in those days the Neperan, — and up the Pocantico, which wound through Sleepy Hollow, shrouded in groves and dotted with prosperous farms. The rough rambling roads were lined with elms and walnuts and gardens full of hollyhocks and roses, and the cozy loweaved cottages teemed with broad-built urchins, as numerous as the sleek porkers and the snowy geese. The hum of the spinning wheel resounded from the vinechoked windows, while the walls were overgrown with elder and moss, and old hats were nailed on the trees for the housekeeping wrens.

For Irving this was a haunted region, and he heard all sorts of stories there that he was to retell in later years — the story of Hulda the witch, for instance, and the woman of the cliffs, who was seen on the top of the rocks when a storm was rising. People heard strange cries at night round the great tree where André was taken, and there was the wooden bridge where the headless horseman passed along the hollow with rushing speed. He was the ghost of a Hessian trooper, hurrying back to the churchyard, and he frightened people who encountered him at midnight. He sprang into the treetops with a clap of thunder and vanished in a flash of fire.

There was another legend about the wizard chieftain who laid the Sachem of Sing-Sing and his warriors to sleep among the recesses of the valley, where they remained asleep to the present day, with their bows and war clubs beside them. Sometimes a plowman, shouting to his oxen on a quiet day, was surprised to hear faint sounds from the hillsides in reply, the voices of the spellbound warriors half starting from their rocky couches, grasping their weapons but sinking to slumber again. The gravestones by the mossy old church were overhung with elms, and the English in the small log schoolhouse was taught with a thickness of the tongue, instead of what might have been expected, a twang of the nose. Little old-fashioned stone mansions still stood here and there, made up of gable-ends and angles and corners, and Irving felt that he was living in the midst of history and romance.

On journeys up the Hudson, taking his gun and his flute, — which Alexander Anderson had taught him to play, — Irving grew familiar not only with the river but also with the wilderness above and beyond it. He knew Saratoga and Ballston Spa, little resorts in the forest, where the old traders’ stores were converted into ballrooms, and with a group of friends he went to Montreal, where his crony Henry Brevoort was engaged in the fur trade.

13

BEFORE Irving was twenty-three, he had also spent two years in Europe. His brothers were troubled about his health, for he seemed to be consumptive, and they thought a leisurely tour would be excellent for this. They were further troubled because he liked good company more than his opportunities for self-improvement. He had small interest in sight-seeing, but he studied Italian and French, while he followed a careful plan in keeping a journal, for he was determined to learn to write, with accuracy and ease, and to put down only what he saw. He began to make character sketches of odd types along the way, — he always excelled especially in descriptive writing, — and he had, meanwhile, many adventures.

He was captured by Mediterranean pirates, who were impressed and let him go when they found that he had a letter to the governor of Malta; and between larks in Sicily and balls in Paris, he traveled through Italian mountains that were infested with robbers. He was introduced into great houses at Naples, Florence, and Rome, where he met Madame de Staël, Canova, and Humboldt, and he visited the tomb of Laura and the fountain of Vaucluse in the spirit of the true romantic pilgrim. In Paris he saw much of the New York artist John Vanderlyn, who made a charming portrait of him, and he was intimate in Rome with Washington Allston. Irving was always drawn to painters, his closest friends in England later, and he had a real talent for drawing, as his sketches showed. His writing was pictorial and sympathetic to men of the brush, and his pen name “Geoffrey Crayon” was chosen with reason.

Back in New York, with health restored, a young man of fashion, Irving resumed his interest in theatrical matters. He had seen Mrs. Siddons and Talma in London and Paris, while he studied the Elizabethan drama, and soon, already well-known as an author, when the new Park Theatre was opened, he was asked to write a poem for its dedication. When John Howard Payne’s first play was produced in 1806, he and Payne struck up a lifelong friendship. Payne, who was eight years the younger, had appeared in New York the year before and was editing the Thespian Mirror, a journal of the theater, although he was not yet fifteen, a romantic-looking boy over whom Irving watched with fatherly interest. This prodigy, whose infancy had been spent at East Hampton, Long Island, had been taken to Boston at five by his father, a teacher; and infant that he still was, he had worked on a magazine for children that was edited by Samuel Woodworth, who was learning his trade as a printer. This was the Woodworth who later wrote “The Old Oaken Bucket,” a song that was almost as famous as Payne’s “Home, Sweet Home.”

The half-Jewish Payne was in love with the stage, an ambition that horrified his father, who made off with his Shakespeare, Congreve, and Beaumont and Fletcher and hid them among the cobwebs of the family attic. Payne ran away to New York, where Woodworth presently followed him, and began to write dramatic criticism, and he was already regarded as a person of importance. He was everybody’s prodigy, a universal pet, and his friends felt sure that he would be spoiled and ruined. They thought he needed discipline and shipped him off to Union College, which was ruled with a very stiff rod by Eliphalet Nott. Brockden Brown went with him on a Hudson sloop, and they stopped four times on the voyage and took long walks among the hills, delighting in each other’s conversation.

Payne kept a journal and wrote verses that Brown soon after published and that caused a sensation in Albany when the friends arrived there; for Payne charmed everyone — possibly even Dr. Nott, who was determined to check his “frantic sallies.” But Payne was irreclaimable, as the doctor found, and within a few years he was touring the country in triumph, appearing in every theater from Boston to Charleston. He made his debut in Providence, reciting Collins’s “Ode to the Passions,” the test of perfect elocution, and he brought down the house in Boston, where he outshone the David Poes, who were quite unable to get engagements as long as Payne remained in the town.

This was in 1809, the winter in which Mrs. Poe became the mother of Edgar Allan, the poet. A charming little English actress who had married a well-born Maryland boy, Mrs. Poe was a favorite in Boston as in Charleston, especially perhaps as a dancer and singer, though she also played serious parts. Her “romps and sentimental characters” were generally applauded. But Payne, as Romeo, to whom she played Juliet, won all the laurels in Boston in 1809, and, hearing that she was in great distress, he gave a benefit for her.

Irving, whom nothing escaped in the theater, was to see much of Payne later, when they even worked together in Paris and London; and he showed Payne how to excite curiosity without wearing his welcome out, caressed and surrounded as he was with applause and friends. Meanwhile, Irving rejoiced in the growth of New York, where magazines, books, and plays were multiplying and everyone was reading Scott, Thomas Moore. and Thomas Campbell, whose brother was living in the town. Moore, who had visited the country in 1804, had written a number of impudent verses about it; but he was popular nevertheless, while all the Americans were grateful to Campbell, the author of Gertrude of Wyoming.

As for Irving’s work as a lawyer, he did not take this seriously — he was said to have had but one client, whom he left in the lurch; but his brothers were glad to keep him going and even made him a nominal partner, so that he might have the leisure to follow his tastes. He made long visits at Hell Gate and in country-houses up the Hudson and joined in convivial suppers in the New York taverns, Dyde’s in Park Row and a porter-house in John Street, where the floors were sprinkled with sand from Coney Island. There clever young men could almost feel that they were in Fleet Street or Covent Garden, for most of their thoughts as writers had a color of London.

Irving was born for the pleasures of a town, but on Saturdays and Sundays, with William and Paulding and Gouverneur Kemble, he drove to “Cockloft Hall” on the outskirts of Newark. They traveled on the stagecoach and bad merry times in the big old mansion, — an American version of Irving’s “Bracebridge Hall,” — with a summerhouse facing a fish pond and groves of chestnuts, elms, and oaks and punch bowls almost as large as the mahogany tables. They played leapfrog on the lawn and talked over their plans for writing; and they made this old house famous in their Salmagundi, in which Paulding and William and Washington Irving appeared as a club of eccentrics, Anthony Evergreen, Langstaff, and William Wizard.

Irving’s History of New York grew out of Salmagundi, little as he thought of this in after days. He had been surprised to find how few of his fellow citizens were aware that the town had been called New Amsterdam. They had never heard of its early Dutch governors, nor did they care a straw for their own Dutch forebears. New York had a history extending back into the regions of doubt and fable; yet this was regarded with indifference and even with scorn, and he wished to provide the town with local tales and pleasantries that might season its civic festivities as rallying points of home feeling. How few American scenes and places possessed the familiar associations that lived like spells about the Old World cities, binding to their homes the hearts of the natives. So it was that he conceived the history of Dietrich Knickerbocker, the doting antiquarian of old New York, the short brisk-looking gentleman, dressed in a rusty black coat, with olive velvet breeches and a small cocked hat. This good old worthy’s few’ gray hairs were clubbed and plaited behind, and he wore square silver shoe-buckles, and lie carried a pair of saddle-bags under his arm. He had the air of a country schoolmaster, and his history was the whole business of a dedicated life.

Dr. Samuel Latham Mitchill, with whom Dunlap had taken a walking trip in England in 1786. had written and published A Picture of New York, a guidebook full of pedantic lore and innocent pomposity that revealed an excessive pride of place and race. There were other American historians, among them Cotton Mather, with much of the vainglorious pedantry that Irving burlesqued when he made the story of New York the final fruit of history and began with the creation of the world. He recalled the proud days of the burgher aristocracy, the Van Dycks, the Van Wycks, the Ten Eycks, the Schermerhorns, and the Schuyler’s who had loomed out in all their grandeur in the train of Peter Stuyvesant, “brimful of wrath and cabbage,” to repel the invaders.

This masterpiece of learned spoofing offended some of the old New Yorkers, who felt that the names of their ancestors were taken in vain, and, in fact, for generations there were New Yorkers of Dutch descent who refused to make their peace with Washington Irving.1 But who could quarrel seriously with such a ripe expression of a mind that was so well-furnished and so good-natured? It was in this book that Irving’s talent declared itself, the first high literary talent the country had known.

14

IN 1815, Irving, at loose ends in New York, six years after publishing Knickerbocker, drifted over to England with no particular plans in mind beyond a vague interest in the family business. One brother was in Liverpool, where he carried on a branch office, of which Washington soon found himself in charge, and one of the sisters lived at Birmingham, the wife of a prosperous merchant, whose house was a refuge for Irving when the business failed. Irving, uncertain of his future, — he was thirty-two years old, — had been living, as he felt, to little purpose, and he thought that perhaps a glimpse of Europe would stir him out of his drone’s existence and send him back to America to live with a will.

He was to live for seventeen years in Europe, but he had no notion of this when he left New York. He only knew that a change was necessary for him, for all his hopes had gone awry. His betrothed, Matilda Hoffman, was dead, he had edited a magazine that failed and left him high and dry, and he had idled away his time in Philadelphia, Washington, and Richmond, where he reported the trial of Aaron Burr. He saw this as a drama, involving numbers of powerful persons, for he was a lover of pageantry and liked excitement; and he was generally popular in political circles, for he had no strong political convictions of his own. He knew Mrs. Madison, Gallatin, Randolph, whom he saw in London in later years; and he had been a colonel in the War of 1812 and an intimate friend of Decatur, with whom he lived. But, although he was already the best-known of American writers, — the “arbiter of literary fashions,” as Payne called him, “in New York,” — his little career was apparently coming to nothing.

As he landed at Liverpool, the first news that Irving heard was that Napoleon had fallen. The battle of Waterloo was won, but he did not know at the moment how fortunate this was to prove for his own career. It meant that an epoch was just beginning, a moment of safety, peace, and ease, in which writings like his own were acclaimed and cherished, when the multitude that read Scott was prepared for Washington Irving also, with his pictures of the old ways of merry England. For millions in England these years that preceded the Reform Bill were black with wretchedness and poverty as few had been, but it meant much to countless others that the country was rescued from its perils and could rejoice in its old ways. Irving, however, was obliged first to learn them.

He was not, however, a stranger in England, with which his ancestral ties were deep, although a number of years were to pass before he felt at home there. He was mewed in the Liverpool office until the family business failed and put him on his mettle as a writer, and he passed through a long period of nervous depression. His friends at first were mostly Americans, and three of these were artists: Allston, who was in England still, Charles R. Leslie, and Gilbert Stuart’s nephew, Stuart Newton. For Irving spent much of his time in London, where the four friends dined together at the York Chop House in Wardour Street. Allston and Leslie illustrated a new edition of Knickerbocker, and Leslie soon drew pictures for Irving’s Sketch Book. Leslie said that Irving widened his range of observation, and Irving, who was soon to adopt the pen name “Geoffrey Crayon,” thought of his work as closely related to Leslie’s.

But this Philadelphia artist, who was much like Irving himself in temperament, — modest, equable, cheerful, affectionate, sincere, — was, for all his talent, which was graceful and refined, more interesting as a writer than as a painter. His charming Life of Constable had drawn attention to the painter, whose influence in France was profound, and Leslie was perhaps a sounder writer on art than Ruskin — at any rate, his turn came round again. He and Constable were close friends at the time when he first knew Irving, and he and Irving went on a tour together.

They set out on a stagecoach for Oxford, in which Irving found one of his characters: this was the “stout gentleman” about whom he began to write and continued to write till they reached Birmingham. Whenever the coach stopped, he drew out his pencil and added a page, perched on a stile or a stone, laughing as he wrote and reading the story aloud to Leslie, who was busily sketching beside him. His journal was quite Turneresque. He noted — especially in Scotland, for there the journal overflowed — all manner of aerial effects, clouds thick with rain, the sun gleaming among the mountains, a knoll that appeared through the mist, a brook like a shower of diamonds as it fell through the trees.

This was in the Trossachs, for Irving had hastened to Scotland, where he spent four days with Scott at Abbotsford. Scott had not acknowledged that he was writing the Waverley novels, although he was at work on Rob Roy; and he seemed to have nothing to do but amuse this American visitor, with whom he walked and talked from breakfast till bedtime. With his dogs and his children, he rambled with Irving over the hills, reciting border ballads in a growling voice, limping along with his big stick, happy to find that this pleasant young man had known the Scottish lore from his earliest childhood. Scott pointed out the Ettrick Vale, Gala Water, the Braes of Yarrow, of which Irving had heard from his nurse, and they passed the Eildon Stone where once stood the Eildon tree under which Thomas the Rhymer had uttered his spells. They visited Dryburgh Abbey and crossed knolls and streams that were famous in old national tales and songs; and in the evening the household assembled, the dogs stretched out before the fire, and Scott read aloud from some old romance or told border stories, while Mrs. Scott and the girls sewed and listened.

Abbotsford was also full of all the new German romantic writers, whom Irving had himself begun to study. He was learning German, hoping to master the folklore of Europe, and was even planning stories in the manner of Wieland; and he found in some of these German writers, whom Scott knew well, the kernel of his own Rip Van Winkle. He wrote shortly afterward this tale of the Catskill ne’er-do-well, the henpecked friend of all the village boys, who wandered off with his dog and his fowling piece and fell in with the gnomes at their ninepins in a hollow of the mountain.

About the same time he wrote The Legend of Sleepy Hallow, remembering the haunted region he had known in his boyhood, the valley by the Hudson where the old Dutch farms had breathed for him an atmosphere of dreams and fancies. He longed to give his own country a color of romance and tradition, and the great-hearted Scott, who freely prophesied his fame, confirmed his ambitions and interests. He offered him later the editorship of a magazine in Edinburgh, which Irving, jealous of his freedom, refused to accept. Irving told Scott about Matilda Hoffman’s friend, the beautiful Jewish girl, Rebecca Gratz, the Philadelphia merchant’s daughter who appeared in a big picture hat in one of Thomas Sully’s most charming portraits. Scott later described her in Ivanhoe, in the character of Rebecca.

15

IT WAS Irving’s musical, rhythmical style, his quiet, humor and dreamy charm, that accounted for the triumph of the Sketch Book on both sides of the ocean; for, while it was published first in America, English readers were also drawn by the modesty, sweetness, and candor of this American author. They were happy to see their world reflected in a mind so accomplished and winning, and they were as much surprised by the style as if a Chinese— as Irving said — had expressed himself in pure English. This style, so elegant and so simple, was to mark all of Irving’s work, the sign of his cheerful good nature and transparent good taste; and meanwhile, at home, the book absorbed the whole attention of the small reading public that was at once informed and alert. The reviewers carefully studied and compared the sketches, discussing the scenes and the characters, and greeting the work as an honor to American letters. That an American author should have produced this model of prose 2 was a matter of national self-congratulation, and his countrymen were prepared to share his feeling about England, while they rejoiced in his American sentiments and legends.

At once The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and the story of Rip Van Winkle became the possession of every American mind, with Ichabod Crane, Brom Bones, and Katrina Van Tassel; and readers admitted the justice too of the papers on the Indians, who had been wronged, as everyone knew, by the whites. They liked the essay on William Roscoe, the Liverpool Maecenas, the self-made banker and scholar who had kindled his town, who had found the tide of Liverpool wealth flowing merely in channels of trade and diverted from it living rills to refresh the garden of literature. There were traces of Roscoe everywhere in all that was liberal in the town and that spoke of magnanimity and culture; and how like an American Roscoe was in his rise and opportunity, and what a model he became for many a later American merchant. All, or largely, thanks to this essay of Irving’s. Then Irving was loved and admired by Scott, the “Great Unknown" of the Waverley novels, wdiose poems had long been known and adored by all and who had even been rumored in London to have written the Sketch Book himself, while Byron presently announced that he knew it by heart.

In Germany, too, where Irving presently passed a year, he found himself universally admired and read, and the Queen of Saxony urged him to commemorate Dresden in some such fashion as that of Bracebridge Hall. The English colony in Dresden arranged some tableaus, in which he shared, from the Sketch Book and Knickerbocker also. There Irving, thrown with kings and ambassadors, learned some of the diplomatic ropes of which he made use in later years; and, while he did no writing there, he read the tales of Tieck, Richter, and Arndt and filled his mind with curious information.

With a keen eye for the picturesque, he drove about in his open carriage, through Württemberg and Bavaria and down the Rhine, delighting in the woods and the vineyards and the moldering castles, and he scrambled about among the ruins and observed the costumes of the peasants and the antique buildings in Frankfort and Darmstadt. Then there were Salzburg and the castle on the Danube, built round the very peak of a craggy rock, with the darkest dungeon that one could imagine: he had never seen a finer castle for a heroine to be confined in, or anything like such a castle for a ghost to haunt.

There were the mountains, too, so full of fable and elfin story, tales of wild huntsmen, wood demons, and forest sprites, and the inns suggested fearful adventures, with their wainscoted walls and rambling stairs: he collected wonderful stories to tell the children. For he got into the confidence of every old woman who had her own budget of tales about giants and dragons, or about dwarfs, gnomes, and enchanted bullets, and he always had in the back of his mind the nieces and nephews in Birmingham and the little sons and daughters of his friends. An incorrigible bachelor, he was everybody’s uncle, as well as a tale-telling traveler of the good old school, and before he committed his stories to print he liked to recount them to willing ears and judge their effect in eyes that grew larger and larger.

There was never another such New Yorker for picking up stories on every hand, robber tales and tales of ghosts, mysterious footsteps and hidden panels. His stories grew like jungle plants, for every shoot produced another, and every one of the characters who appeared in these stories had some new story of his own. It might have been an Italian student whom he had met on a boat, or perhaps an Irish dragoon by the fire at an inn, or a bandit beside whom he sat on a crag in the savage Apennines — they broke into stories as readily as a bird into song. Irving accumulated stories as naturally as he told them. The painter William Etty in Paris and consuls and diplomats fresh from Italy told him of hairbreadth escapes from banditti in lonely defiles of the mountains; and Irving immersed all these tales in his own peculiar atmosphere, well knowing that the story alone would not suffice. For tales like his were pouring from all the European presses — they were the fashion of the moment and everybody wrote them. The story for him was merely a frame on which to stretch his own proper materials, his play of humor, sentiment, language, and thought.

Off and on, Irving lived in Paris, where he fell in with John Howard Payne again, the actor who, years before, had played in Boston with Mrs. Poe. Payne revived in Irving an ambition he had never lost since, as a boy, he had haunted the theater in New York. He had been a playgoer in London, Munich, Vienna, and Dresden, he had studied the Elizabethan drama, he had always known actors, while he and Payne planned together to write plays and divide the profits — two of the plays they wrote were mostly his own. These were Charles II and Richelieu, which had some slight success in England, although Irving’s talent as a playwright was small enough, and he was annoyed by the “traps and trickery” of the theater which the playwright born regards as a part of the game. He left to another adapter the one play, Rip Van Winkle, in which he might have had a real success.

Meanwhile, depressed and out of health, weary of wandering, middle-aged, he was losing all heart for his vocation. He turned over schemes of possible hack-work, a plan to edit the British classics, a life of Napoleon, a life of Byron, but he was at loose ends again — he had small interest in any of them — he was waiting for a fresh breeze to fill his sails. Then, while he was studying Spanish and reading the plays of Calderón, a plan that concerned the life of Columbus suddenly rose in his mind. He never dreamed when he went to Spain in 1826 what a world of new adventures lay before him.

16

WHILE Irving was exploring England, another New Yorker, six years younger, who had served for a while in the navy after going to Yale, had married and settled in Westchester county, where he lived as a country gentleman without so much as a thought of writing a book. In 1819, James Fenimore Cooper was thirty years old, and he was looking forward to a farmer’s life, planting trees at Angevine, the house he had built at Scarsdale, grading his lawns, building fences, grouping the shrubs, and draining the swamps.

Cooper had inherited from the founder of Cooperstown, his father, a sufficiently ample fortune and twenty-three farms, and his wife was one of the De Lanceys, the old New York Huguenot family, who had connections in New Rochelle, near-by. He had spent some years at sea, his youth had been adventurous, he had acted, like Irving, as a colonel on the governor’s staff, and he was thoroughly enjoying a leisurely existence, visiting his neighbors, riding, and reading to his wife. He knew Shakespeare well enough to find in him appropriate mottoes for hundreds of the chapters that he wrote later, but, while he kept up with the Waverley novels and liked Jane Austen and Mrs. Opie, he preferred books on history and military matters. He had the air of a sailor or a man of affairs — he was frank, robust, active, blunt, and fearless. With his windblown look and bright gray eyes, he was an out-of-doors man, sometimes boisterous, often brusque, and always sure of his opinions. His feelings were occasionally violent and he had a way of expressing them with the vehemence of a naval officer in a battle in a storm.

Cooper loved the conservative ways, the grave manners and stately style, the simple good taste and decorum of the older gentry, and he had a passion for the land that was shared by his father’s friends Chancellor Kent and the former Chief Justice John Jay, who was living at Bedford. A devout Episcopalian, Jay, who was partly of Huguenot blood, lived in respectable comfort in his half-stone farmhouse, studying the science of the soil from Columella down and developing new varieties of melons. To Cooper he was a sort of uncle, for the sagacious old man was an ancient friend of the De Lanceys as well as of the Coopers. He smoked a long church-warden pipe, and Cooper delightedly listened while Jay related stories of the Revolution, for he had been chairman of a committee that was appointed by Congress to gather news about the British plans. He had employed a secret agent whom he described to Cooper and who appeared soon afterward, under the name of Harvey Birch, in a novel that Cooper wrote and called The Spy.

For Cooper suddenly took up novel-writing, and his book was a prodigious success at once. It had been preceded by a novel called Precaution, which Cooper had read aloud to the household of the Jays. He had written it on a sort of wager that he could produce a better book than some of the fashionable novels he was reading to his wife, and he and Mrs. Cooper and their daughter Susan had driven over in a gig to the Bedford farmhouse.

Precaution purported to be written by an Englishman. It was a story of county society in England, and Cooper even went out of his way to compliment King George the Third and air the views of duchesses, countesses, and earls. The novel reflected not only his reading but also the Anglophile atmosphere in which he had lived as a boy and continued to live, for the De Lanceys were notable Tories and the old-established Westchester families admired and resembled similar families in England. He had scarcely begun to think for himself, and, regarding the book as a trifle, he mirrored this Anglophile atmosphere in perfect good faith, although for the rest of his life he so bitterly resented these “craven and dependent feelings" towards England and the English.

These feelings, however, oddly enough, were compatible with patriotism, even of the stoutest kind, such as old John Jay’s, and the retired Chief Justice approved of the story. It was then that Cooper wrote The Spy, influenced no doubt by Scott, to retrieve the heroic past and the beauty of his country. For Cooper, a patriot first, last, and all the time, was ardently and eagerly interested in the history of the country and especially of his own beloved state of New York.

The “old French war" was a vivid fact to Cooper, although he was too late himself to see very much of the Indians. As a boy he had met a few Oneidas, camping in the woods, where they made baskets and brooms to sell in the village, but they were dirty and degraded, as he recalled them. Later, on Long Island, he had visited a chief, a descendant of the ancient sachems, in his primitive wigwam, but he too had the sullen air that betrayed the disposition without the boldness of the savage. One had to travel beyond the Mississippi to see the fine traits of the Indians in their natural state, although deputations of the Western tribes occasionally visited the Eastern cities, Washington, Boston, and New York.

He had spent three years in the navy and had previously served in the merchant marine, the usual way of acquiring naval training. His father had sent him off to sea soon after he was expelled from Yale, — supposedly for roping a donkey in the chair of his tutor, — and he had sailed at fifteen on the Sterling of Wiscasset for the most adventurous year of all his life. It left more traces than any other in his novels later, memories of the Spanish coast, Gibraltar, and the Mediterranean as well as Falmouth, London, and the Isle of Wight. The ship was Stopped by a pirate felucca off the coast of Portugal, and English searching-parties impressed some of the seamen, incidents that might well have explained Cooper’s lifelong dislike of the English, whose arrogant ways at sea he could never forgive. The captain relished his high spirits and taught him the arts of knotting and splicing, and Cooper saved from drowning a shipmate who fell overboard, with whom he roamed through the London streets and saw the Monument and St. Paul’s.

Then Cooper was a midshipman on Captain Lawrence’s sloop, the Wasp, and he also served on the Chesapeake with Lawrence, whose birthplace adjoined his in Burlington, New Jersey. He was sent to Lake Ontario with a detachment to supervise the building of a brig of war, and he joined an expedition that was dispatched to Niagara with his friend Lieutenant Melanchthon Woolsey. All his adventures in the service antedated 1812 and the war in which the navy won most of the battles, but they confirmed the pride that he felt in his country; for the brief history of the navy bristled with exploits that delighted the hearts of Americans and Cooper among them. Washington Irving shared the pride that led Cooper in later years to write a standard history of the navy.

17

DURING these years of active service, Cooper amassed a prodigious knowledge of ships and the “sea dialect” and Sailors; for although his first and deepest love was the wild frontier and the life of the woods, he had a feeling for the sea that was lasting and profound. He really invented the sea novel, for The Pilot was the first long story that pictured in detail the movement and handling of vessels, and he wrote at one time or another a dozen sea tales, some of which were certainly among his best. The Sea Lions and The Red Rover were capital stories. Meanwhile, to keep his own hand in, he sailed his whaler at Sag Harbor, — up the Sound to Newport on one occasion, — as a few years later in New York he kept a sloop that was called the Van Tromp anchored near his house by a wharf on the river. He had his own felucca in Italy, and afterwards, when he returned from Europe, he rigged a skiff with a lug-sail on Lake Otsego.

Cooper, besides, had many of the traits of a sailor, a sea dog of the old-fashioned kind for whom everything was black or white and who defended flogging at sea and whipping-posts at home. He had much in common with Captain Truck, the master of the ship Montauk, decided, daring by nature, self-reliant, who was never more bent on following his own opinions than when everybody grumbled and opposed him. Cooper created superb sea characters in the Captain and in Long Tom Coffin, the freshwater sailor Jasper, and Moses Marble.

Their language, as he gave it, was inimitably racy, with its pungent nautical images and homely good sense, and he liked to bring their characters out in those wonderful talks at cross-purposes in which, in several stories, he followed Shakespeare. Such was the talk, in Home as Found, between the two stubborn old mariners, the grave, ceremonious commodore and the dignified captain, who discussed philosophy as they fished and the laws of saltwater and fresh-water sailing, yet never came within hail of each other’s real thoughts. Cooper delighted in these blind and ambiguous conversations that revealed the simplicity and integrity of worthies he admired. He felt that, however coarse a true sailor might be, there was never any vulgarity about him.

In Cooper’s novels, from first to last, the sea was to rival the forest, and one might have said that Cooper’s solution for all the problems of fiction was to take his readers on a voyage. At least, he did so frequently when he found himself in a tight place, just as he usually provided a beautiful girl and placed her in a position to be rescued. He had spent at sea the most susceptible years of his youth, and many of his young heroes followed the sea,—Mark Woolston and Miles Wallingford, for instance, — and he was almost always ready to oblige when his friends called for “more ship.”

He knew the terrors of the sea; yet it gladdened his heart, and the sailors’ toast, “Sweethearts and wives,” resounded in the novels in which he recorded his joy in everything that floated. One of his ships was “as tight as a bottle,” another was “as neat as a mariner’s musket,” and he liked to dwell even on the cabins of the yacht-like packet ships that plied between the hemispheres in increasing numbers. These cabins were lined with satinwood and bird’s-eye maple, and little marble columns separated the rows of glittering panels of polished wood, and Cooper recalled the fine carpets that covered the floors, the sofas, the mirrors, the tables, even the piano.

He loved to describe a ship with her sails loosened and her ensign streaming in the breeze or a chase on a bright day when everyone felt the pleasure of motion as the steady vessel raced with the combing seas.

With his marked feeling for the sublime, he rose moreover now and then to moments of the noblest and most eloquent prose. Such were the descriptions of the icefields in The Sea Lions, — a tale of American sealers in antarctic waters, —the vast mass of floating mountains, generally of a spectral white, through which the mariners moved in an unknown sea. The walls, like ridges of the Alps, bowed and rocked and ground one another, stirred by the restless ocean, with a rushing sound, and sometimes a prodigious plunge as of a planet falling tossed the water over the heaving ramparts. The cliffs, half a league in length, with their arches and pinnacles and towers and columns, suggested the streets of some fantastic city that was floating in the sunlight in the sea, black here and there in certain lights and orange on the summits, throwing out gleams and hues of emerald and gold.3

There were many of these moving passages in the novels of Cooper, especially in the Leather-Stocking tales, although he could never have been called a master craftsman. He was a rough-and-ready writer, hasty, frequently clumsy or pompous, and “remarkably and especially inaccurate,” as Poe observed; and yet, despite his “inattention to the minor morals of the Muse,” his style, as a rule, was direct, energetic, and effective.

On lakes and streams, as well as on the ocean, Cooper rejoiced in ships and boats. The motion of a canoe enchanted him as it passed like a feather over the foam of rapids. He had seen one that was thirty feet long safely descend Oswego Falls in the wilderness which he loved even more than the sea, that other world where men “breathed freely”; for Cooper, after all, was a child of the forest and the frontier, and the earliest of his impressions were his deepest and dearest. Before he established himself at Scarsdale, he had taken his wife to Cooperstown, driving in a gig through the forest on the corduroy roads, and there for three years the family lived in a house that he built near Otsego Hall beside the sylvan lake that glittered in the sun.

Cooper, in his childhood, had heard wolves and panthers wailing and howling on winter nights as they ventured over the ice of the lake, and the footpaths round this Glimmerglass and the Fairy Spring and the Speaking Rocks were all compact of magical memories for him. In the lake stood the Otsego Rock where the tribes had resorted for council in order to make their treaties and bury their hatchets, and there one saw the shoal, marked by rushes, where Floating Tom Hutter in The Deerslayer built his “castle.” Near-by rose the Silent Pine with its trunk branchless for a hundred feet before the foliage appeared in dark-green masses, clinging round the stem like wreaths of smoke. Cooper liked to think of the hunters who had lingered in these woods long years before his family had first appeared there. He could never remember a time when he had not imagined there the former inhabitants of the woods, the Indians and the scouts, who had also listened to the rippling of the water, the sighing of the wind in the oaks and the pines and the creaking of the branches on the trunks.

18

THE region of the Leather-Stocking tales was the southwestward-facing angle that was formed by the junction of the Mohawk River and the Hudson, stretching as far as Lake Ontario, together with Lake George to the north; and Lake Otsego was the center of this region for Cooper, although he knew most of its mountains and valleys by heart. He recalled the times of The Pioneers, when the settlement was new, the sugar-making and the sleighing in winter, the turkey-shoots at Christmas, and his fancy went back to the days of Wyandotte and the bustle of the building of the town. The settlers had drained the lake and planted their corn. They had made their own tools, constructed sleds and bridges, laid out their roads through the forest, and built a sawmill, as in thousands of other hamlets on all the frontiers.

Then Cooper evoked a still earlier day when the dark and interminable forest had scarcely as yet been disturbed by the struggles of men, when the youthful Natty Bumppo first beheld the Glimmerglass and met his friend Chingachgook at the rock. There Natty found the dwelling of the Hutters and the ark with the tamarack spar and the sail that had once been the topsail of an Albany sloop, and the “brilliant and singular beauty” of Judith appeared through the opening of the leaves with a smile for the Deerslayer in his canoe. Cooper was possessed by the image of the tall, gaunt hunter, with his foxskin cap and shirt of forest green, with the knife in his girdle of wampum and his buckskin leggings, and a cycle of stories rose in his mind of which Natty was always the central figure, as the lake-strewn forest was the scene of the Deerslayer’s exploits.

The Deerslayer, the Pathfinder, and Leather-Stocking were one and the same, and sometimes Natty also appeared as Hawkeye, the poet of the wilderness who loved to speak in favor of a friend and who never clung too eagerly and fondly to life. Wholly indifferent to any distinctions save those that were based on personal merit, with a natural faith that knew no subtleties of doctrine, he was the inseparable comrade of the Delaware chief, with whom he had lived so happily among the streams. Since they were boys the two had consorted together, fighting in company on Lake George, the Mohawk and Ontario, when Natty was a scout for the English in their battles with the French, and together they had marched on the flanks of the enemy, hunting for the army, providing it with beavers’ tails, bears’ hams, venison, and trout. The swallows were not more certain to be on the wing than they to be afoot when it was light, and no whine of the panther could cheat them, no whistle of the catbird, nor any other invention of the devilish Mingos. For no one was prompter or wiser with the cunning of the woods.

Now Cooper, in the course of thirty years, was to write thirty-three novels, as well as many books of other kinds. These novels were of all types — simple romances, tales of adventure, historical stories, satires, pictures of manners — and they varied in their degrees of merit as in the range of their characters and settings, which in the end proved to be very wide. Disregarding his tales of Europe, Cooper’s scope was national, and he was successful, on the whole, in his portrayal of local types and the characteristic scenes of many regions. Captain Jack Lawton in The Spy was an admirably drawn Virginian, as the frank, manly Paul Hover was a Kentuckian to the life, while the Bush family from Tennessee savored as strongly of their native world as the odious Deacon Pratt, the Long Island Yankee. One could even feel Louisiana in Inez in The Prairie, as one felt the Delaware valley in the past of Mark Woolston, and as one felt and saw Key West in the story of Jack Tier and Moravian Pennsylvania in the life of Ben Boden.

All this — for whatever the point might be worth — was an indication of the range of Cooper’s all-American imagination, as the character of Natty Bumppo was also all-American and might have been observed as well in the South or the West. For his “forest gifts” and frontier ways suggested equally Daniel Boone and Kennedy’s Horse-Shoe Robinson of South Carolina. Cooper delighted in the chivalrous rivalry of the captains in The Sea Lions, in the high courtesy and fortitude of his Indian braves, in the true freedom of the American borderer, honorable and fearless, in the valor of ingenious men contending with the sea.

A noble nature shone through Cooper’s novels, and, roughly written as most of them were, full of improbabilities, as rudely built as cabins of the pioneers, they lived very largely by virtue of this and the wonderful eye for the forest and the sea that made Cooper, as Balzac said, the master of literary landscape-painters. Like the sea tales, these frontier romances were mostly stories of flight and pursuit, and they struck some deep ancestral chord in the hearts of men of the northern races who remembered, as it were, the primordial struggle of their forebears in the solitude and silence of the woods. Cooper deeply understood the passion for a solitary life that went with a feeling for the vastness and freshness of the forest and that sometimes bred elevated characters, steady as the pines, humble and grand at once, with head erect.

Natty Bumppo was destined to remain the symbol of a moment of civilization, the dawn of the new American soul in a scene in which the European contended with savages, animals, and primitive nature. Masculine, stoical, earnest and simple, ardent, loyal, just, and a veritable American woodsman, in his habit, as he lived, Natty, leaning on his long rifle, was a type whom everyone recalled and a proof that an American could also be a sage and a saint.

(To be continued)

With each twelve months of the Atlantic

THREE GREAT BOOKS OF THE YEAR

  1. At the time, Gulian C. Verplanck, the leading New Yorker of Dutch descent, expressed this general resentment. Later, Walt Whitman described the book as “shallow burlesque, full of clown’s wit.” Still later, Hendrik Willem Van Loon often spoke of Washington Irving with a somewhat disgusted annoyance.
  2. For almost a century the Sketch Book was used as a first reader for students of the English language all over the world. For this purpose it replaced Addison’s Spectator, which had been for a hundred years the model of pure English prose.
  3. The Sea Lions, 1849, was one of the last of Cooper’s tales, as it was also certainly one of the best. The fine descriptions of the icefields were perhaps suggested by the Narrative (1845) of Charles Wilkes, the American naval officer who had discovered the antarctic continent in 1840. Cooper refers to Wilkes’s picture of a “ruined city of alabaster.”