by Philip McFarland.Atheneum, $22.50. As the first American author of international reputation, Washington Irving met practically everybody worth meeting and charmed most of them. Mr. McFarland approaches Irving through people he knew, such as Aaron Burr, Walter Scott, Mary Shelley, John Jacob Astor, and by sketching their histories and characters creates a lively picture of the early nineteenth century. It is an ingenious way to deal with Irving, whose own activities were anything but lively, but it does produce problems. There is a good deal of chronological awkwardness, and Mr. McFarland’s determination to cover a broad social range has led him to include John Brown, one of the few people that Irving never encountered. Brown becomes an annoying irrelevance in an otherwise well-balanced study of Irving and his times. Illustrations, index, appendixes, bibliography.