Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Free Classic E-books

Literary and Social Essays by George William Curtis

Part 3 out of 3

Adobe PDF icon
Download this document as a .pdf
File size: 0.4 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

of Aesculapius. His poem, like the address of Emerson in the next
year, showed how completely the modern spirit of refined and exquisite
literary cultivation and of free and undaunted thought had superseded
the uncouth literary form and stern and rigid Calvinism of the Mathers
and early Boston.

The melody and grace of Goldsmith's line, but with a fresh local
spirit, have not been more perfectly reproduced, nor with a more
distinct revelation of a new spirit, than in this poem. It is
retrospective and contemplative, but it is also full of the buoyancy
of youth, of the consciousness of poetic skill, and of blithe
anticipation. Its tender reminiscence and occasional fond elegiac
strain are but clouds of the morning. Its literary form is exquisite,
and its general impression is that of bright, elastic, confident
power. It was by no means, however, a first work, nor was the poet
unknown in his own home. But the "Metrical Essay" introduced him to a
larger public, while the fugitive pieces already known were the
assurance that the more important poem was not a happy chance, but the
development of a quality already proved. Seven years before, in 1829,
the year he graduated at Harvard, Holmes began to contribute to _The
Collegian_, a college magazine. Two years later, in 1831, appeared the
_New England Magazine_, in which the young writer, as he might himself
say, took the road with his double team of verse and prose, holding
the ribbons with unsurpassed lightness and grace and skill, now for
two generations guiding those fleet and well-groomed coursers, which
still show their heels to panting rivals, the prancing team behind
which we have all driven and are still driving with constant and
undiminished delight.

Mr. F. B. Sanborn, whose tribute to Holmes on his eightieth birthday
shows how thorough was his research for that labor of love, tells us
that his first contribution to the _New England Magazine_ was
published in the third or September number of the first year, 1831. It
was a copy of verses of an unpromising title--"To an Insect". But that
particular insect, seemingly the creature of a day, proved to be
immortal, for it was the katydid, whose voice is perennial:

"Thou sayest an undisputed thing
In such a solemn way."

In the contributions of the young graduate the high spirits of a
frolicsome fancy effervesce and sparkle. But their quality of a new
literary tone and spirit is very evident. The ease and fun of these
bright prolusions, without impudence or coarseness, the poetic touch
and refinement, were as unmistakable as the brisk pungency of the
gibe. The stately and scholarly Boston of Channing, Dana, Everett, and
Ticknor might indeed have looked askance at the literary claims of
such lines as these "Thoughts in Dejection" of a poet wondering if the
path to Parnassus lay over Charlestown or Chelsea bridge:

"What is a poet's fame?
Sad hints about his reason,
And sadder praise from gazetteers,
To be returned in season.

"For him the future holds
No civic wreath above him;
Nor slated roof nor varnished chair,
Nor wife nor child to love him.

"Maid of the village inn,
Who workest woe on satin,
The grass in black, the graves in green,
The epitaph in Latin,

"Trust not to them who say
In stanzas they adore thee;
Oh, rather sleep in church-yard clay,
With maudlin cherubs o'er thee!"

The lines to the katydid, with "L'Inconnue"--

"Is thy name Mary, maiden fair?"--

published in the magazine at about the same time, disclose Holmes's
natural melody and his fine instinct for literary form. But his
lyrical fervor finds its most jubilant expression at this time in "Old
Ironsides", written at the turning-point in the poet's life, when he
had renounced the study of the law, and was deciding upon medicine as
his profession. The proposal to destroy the frigate Constitution,
fondly and familiarly known as "Old Ironsides", kindled a patriotic
frenzy in the sensitive Boston boy, which burst forth into the noble

"Ay, tear her tattered ensign down!"

There had been no American poetry with a truer lilt of song than these
early verses, and there has been none since. Two years later, in 1833,
Holmes went to complete his medical studies in Paris, and the lines to
a grisette--

"Ah, Clemence, when I saw thee last
Trip down the Rue de Seine!"--

published upon his return in his first volume of verse, are a charming
illustration of his lyrical genius. His limpid line never flowed more
clearly than in this poem. It has the pensive tone of all his best
poems of the kind, but it is the half-happy sadness of youth.

All these early verses have an assured literary form. The scope and
strain were new, but their most significant quality was not melody nor
pensive grace, but humor. This was ingrained and genuine. Sometimes it
was rollicking, as in "The Height of the Ridiculous" and "The September
Gale". Sometimes it was drolly meditative, as in "Evening, by a Tailor".
Sometimes it was a tearful smile of the deepest feeling, as in the most
charming and perfect of these poems, "The Last Leaf", in which delicate
and searching pathos is exquisitely fused with tender gayety. The
haunting music and meaning of the lines,

"The mossy marbles rest
On the lips that he has pressed
In their bloom,
And the names he loved to hear
Have been carved for many a year
On the tomb",

lingered always in the memory of Lincoln, whose simple sincerity and
native melancholy would instinctively have rejected any false note. It
is in such melody as that of the "Last Leaf" that we feel how truly
the grim old Puritan strength has become sweetness.

To this poetic grace and humor and music, which at that time were
unrivalled, although the early notes of a tuneful choir of awakening
songsters were already heard, the young Holmes added the brisk and
crisp and sparkling charm of his prose. From the beginning his
coursers were paired, and with equal pace they have constantly held
the road. In the _New England Magazine_ for November in the same year,
1831, a short paper was published called the "Autocrat of the
Breakfast Table". The tone of placid dogmatism and infallible finality
with which the bulls of the domestic pope are delivered is
delightfully familiar. This earliest one has perhaps more of the
cardinal's preliminary scarlet than of the mature papal white, but in
its first note the voice of the Autocrat is unmistakable:

"Somebody was rigmarolling the other day about the artificial
distinctions of society.
'Madam,' said I, 'society is the same in all large places. I divide
it thus:
1. People of cultivation who live in large houses.
2. People of cultivation who live in small houses.
3. People without cultivation who live in large houses.
4. People without cultivation who live in small houses.
5. Scrubs.'
An individual at the upper end of the table turned pale and left the
room as I finished with the monosyllable."

"'Tis sixty years since", but that drop is of the same characteristic
transparency and sparkle as in the latest Tea-Cup.

The time in which the _New England Magazine_ was published, and these
firstlings of Holmes's muse appeared, was one of prophetic literary
stir in New England. There were other signs than those in letters of
the breaking-up of the long Puritan winter. A more striking and
extreme reaction from the New England tradition could not well be
imagined than that which was offered by Nathaniel Parker Willis, of
whom Holmes himself says "that he was at the time something between a
remembrance of Count D'Orsay and an anticipation of Oscar Wilde".
Willis was a kindly saunterer, the first Boston dandy, who began his
literary career with grotesque propriety as a sentimentalizer of Bible
stories, a performance which Lowell gayly called inspiration and
water. In what now seems a languid, Byronic way, he figured as a
Yankee Pelham or Vivian Grey. Yet in his prose and verse there was a
tacit protest against the old order, and that it was felt is shown by
the bitterness of ridicule and taunt and insult with which, both
publicly and privately, this most amiable youth was attacked, who, at
that time, had never said an ill-natured word of anybody, and who was
always most generous in his treatment of his fellow authors.

The epoch of Willis and the _New England Magazine_ is very notable in
the history of American literature. The traditions of that literature
were grave and even sombre. Irving, indeed, in his Knickerbocker and
Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane, and in the general gayety of his
literary touch, had emancipated it from strict allegiance to the
solemnity of its precedents, and had lighted it with a smile. He
supplied a quality of grace and cheerfulness which it had lacked, and
without unduly magnifying his charming genius, it had a natural,
fresh, and smiling spirit, which, amid the funereal, theologic gloom,
suggests the sweetness and brightness of morning. In its effect it is
a breath of Chaucer. When Knickerbocker was published, Joel Barlow's
"Hasty-Pudding" was the chief achievement of American literary humor.
Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner were not yet "the wits of
Hartford". Those who bore that name held it by brevet. Indeed, the
humor of our early literature is pathetic. In no State was the
ecclesiastical dominance more absolute than in Connecticut, and
nothing shows more truly how absolute and grim it was than the fact
that the performances of the "wits" in that State were regarded
--gravely, it must have been--as humor.

For a long time there was no vital response in New England to the
chord touched by Irving. Yet Boston was then unquestionably the chief
seat of American letters. Dennie had established his _Portfolio_ in
Philadelphia in 1801, but in 1805 the _Monthly Anthology_, which was
subsequently reproduced in the _North American Review_, appeared in
Boston, and was the organ or illustration of the most important
literary and intellectual life of the country at that time. The
opening of the century saw the revolt against the supremacy of the old
Puritan Church of New England--a revolt within its own pale. This
clerical protest against the austere dogmas of Calvinism in its
ancient seat was coincident with the overthrow in the national
government of Federalism and the political triumph of Jefferson and
his party. Simultaneously also with the religious and political
disturbance was felt the new intellectual and literary impulse of
which the _Anthology_ was the organ. But the religious and literary
movements were not in sympathy with the political revolution, although
they were all indications of emancipation from the dominance of old
traditions, the mental restlessness of a people coming gradually to
national consciousness.

Mr. Henry Adams, in remarking upon this situation in his history of
Madison's administration, points out that leaders of the religious
protest which is known as the Unitarian Secession in New England were
also leaders in the intellectual and literary awakening of the time,
but had no sympathy with Jefferson or admiration of France. Bryant's
father was a Federalist; the club that conducted the _Anthology_ and
the _North American Review_ was composed of Federalists; and the youth
whose "Thanatopsis" is the chief distinction of the beginning of that
_Review_, and the morning star of American poetry, was, as a boy of
thirteen, the author of the "Embargo", a performance in which the
valiant Jack gave the giant Jefferson no quarter. The religious
secession took its definite form in Dr. Channing's sermon at the
ordination of Jared Sparks in Baltimore in 1819, which powerfully
arraigned the dominant theology of the time. This was the year in
which Irving's _Sketch Book_ was published. Bryant's first volume
followed a year or two later, and our distinctive literary epoch

Ten years afterwards, when Bryant had left New England, Dr. Channing
was its most dignified and characteristic name in literature. But he
was distinctively a preacher, and his serene and sweet genius never
unbent into a frolicsome mood. As early as 1820 a volume of Robert
Burns's poems fell into Whittier's hands like a spark into tinder, and
the flame that has so long illuminated and cheered began to blaze. It
was, however, a softened ray, not yet the tongue of lyric fire which
it afterwards became. But none of the poets smiled as they sang. The
Muse of New England was staid and stately--or was she, after all, not
a true daughter of Jove, but a tenth Muse, an Anne Bradstreet? The
rollicking laugh of Knickerbocker was a solitary sound in the American
air until the blithe carol of Holmes returned a kindred echo.

Willis was the sign of the breaking spell. But his light touch could
not avail. The Puritan spell could be broken only by Puritan force,
and it is the lineal descendants of Puritanism, often the sons of
clergymen--Emerson and Holmes and Longfellow and Hawthorne and
Whittier--who emancipated our literature from its Puritan subjection.
In 1829 Willis, as editor of _Peter Parley's Token_ and the _American
Monthly Magazine_, was aided by Longfellow and Hawthorne and Motley
and Hildreth and Mrs. Child and Mrs. Sigourney, and the elder Bishop
Doane, Park Benjamin and George B. Cheever, Albert Pike and Rufus
Dawes, as contributors. Willis himself was a copious writer, and in
the _American Monthly_ first appeared the titles of "Inkling of
Adventure" and "Pencillings by the Way", which he afterwards
reproduced for some of his best literary work. The _Monthly_ failed,
and in 1831, the year that the _New England Magazine_ began, it was
merged in the New York _Mirror_, of which Willis became associate
editor, leaving his native city forever, and never forgiving its
injustice towards him. In the heyday of his happy social career in
England he wrote to his mother, "The mines of Golconda would not tempt
me to return and live in Boston."

This was the literary situation when Holmes was preluding in the
magazine. The acknowledged poets in Boston were Dana, Sprague, and
Pierpont. Are these names familiar to the readers of this essay? How
much of their poetry can those readers repeat? No one knows more
surely than he who writes of a living author how hard it is to
forecast fame, and how dangerous is prophecy. When Edward Everett
saluted Percival's early volume as the harbinger of literary triumphs,
and Emerson greeted Walt Whitman at "the opening of a great career",
they generalized a strong personal impression. They identified their
own preference with the public taste. On the other hand, Hawthorne
says truly of himself that he was long the most obscure man of letters
in America. Yet he had already published the _Twice-told Tales_ and
the _Mosses from an Old Manse_, the two series of stories in which the
character and quality of his genius are fully disclosed. But although
Longfellow hailed the publication of the first collection as the
rising of a new star, the tone of his comment is not that of the
discoverer of a planet shining for all, but of an individual poetic
pleasure. The prescience of fame is very infrequent. The village gazes
in wonder at the return of the famous man who was born on the farm
under the hill, and whose latent greatness nobody suspected; while the
youth who printed verses in the corner of the county paper, and drew
the fascinated glances of palpitating maidens in the meetinghouse, and
seemed to the farmers to have associated himself at once with
Shakespeare and Tupper and the great literary or "littery folks",
never emerges from the poet's department in the paper in which
unconsciously and forever he has been cornered. It would be a grim
Puritan jest if that department had been named from the corner of the
famous dead in Westminster Abbey.

If the Boston of sixty years ago had ventured to prophesy for itself
literary renown, it is easy to see upon what reputations of the time
it would have rested its claims. But if the most familiar names of
that time are familiar no longer, if Kettell and poems from the
_United States Gazette_ seem to be cemeteries of departed reputations,
the fate of the singers need not be deplored as if Fame had forgotten
them. Fame never knew them. Fame does not retain the name of every
minstrel who passes singing. But to say that Fame does not know them
is not dispraise. They sang for the hearers of their day, as the
players played. Is it nothing to please those who listen, because
those who are out of hearing do not stop and applaud? If we recall the
names most eminent in our literature, whether they were destined for a
longer or shorter date, we shall see that they are undeniably
illustrations of the survival of the fittest. Turning over the noble
volumes of Stedman and Miss Hutchinson, in which, as on a vast plain,
the whole line of American literature is drawn up for inspection and
review, and marches past like the ghostly midnight columns of
Napoleon's grand army, we cannot quarrel with the verdict of time, nor
feel that injustice has been done to Thamis or to Cawdor. There are
singers of a day, but not less singers because they are of a day. The
insect that flashes in the sunbeam does not survive like the elephant.
The splendor of the most gorgeous butterfly does not endure with the
faint hue of the hills that gives Athens its Pindaric name. And there
are singers who do not sing. What says Holmes, with eager sympathy and
pity, in one of his most familiar and most beautiful lyrics?--

"We count the broken lyres that rest
Where the sweet waiting singers slumber,
But o'er their silent sister's breast
The wild flowers who will stoop to number?
A few can touch the magic string,
And noisy fame is proud to win them;
Alas, for those that never sing,
And die with all their music in them!"

But as he says also that the capacities of listeners at lectures
differ widely, some holding a gallon, others a quart, and others only
a pint or a gill, so of the singers who are not voiceless, their
voices differ in volume. Some are organs that fill the air with
glorious and continuous music; some are trumpets blowing a ringing
peal, then sinking into silence; some are harps of melancholy but
faint vibration; still others are flutes and pipes, whose sweet or
shrill note has a dying fall. Some are heard as the wind or sea is
heard; some like the rustle of leaves; some like the chirp of birds.
Some are heard long and far away; others across the field; others
hardly across the street. Fame is perhaps but the term of a longer or
shorter fight with oblivion; but it is the warrior who "drinks delight
of battle with his peers", and holds his own in the fray, who finally
commands the eye and the heart. There were poets pleasantly singing to
our grandfathers whose songs we do not hear, but the unheeded voice of
the youngest songster of that time is a voice we heed to-day. Holmes
wrote but two "Autocrat" papers in the _New England Magazine_--one in
November, 1831, and the other in February, 1832. The year after the
publication of the second paper he went to Paris, where for three
years he studied medicine, not as a poet, but as a physician, and he
returned in 1836 an admirably trained and highly accomplished
professional man. But the Phi Beta Kappa poem of that year, like the
tender lyric to Clemence upon leaving Paris, shows not only that the
poet was not dead, but that he did not even sleep. The "Metrical
Essay" was the serious announcement that the poet was not lost in the
man of science, an announcement which was followed by the publication
in the same year (1836) of his first volume of poems. This was three
years before the publication of Longfellow's first volume of verses,
_The Voices of the Night_.

Holmes's devotion to the two Muses of science and letters was uniform
and untiring, as it was also to the two literary forms of verse and
prose. But although a man of letters, like the other eminent men of
letters in New England, he had no trace of the Bohemian. Willis was
the only noted literary figure that ever mistook Boston for a seaport
in Bohemia, and he early discovered his error. The fraternity which
has given to Boston its literary primacy has been always distinguished
not only for propriety of life and respectability in its true sense of
worthiness and respect, but for the possession of the virtues of
fidelity, industry, and good sense, which have carried so far both the
influence and the renown of New England. Nowhere has the Bohemian
tradition been more happily and completely shattered than in the
circle to which Holmes returned from his European studies to take his
place. American citizenship in its most attractive aspect has been
signally illustrated in that circle, and it is not without reason that
the government has so often selected from it our chief American
representatives in other countries.

Dr. Holmes, as he was now called, and has continued to be called,
practised his profession in Boston; but whether because of some
lurking popular doubt of a poet's probable skill as a physician, or
from some lack of taste on his part for the details of professional
practice, like his kinsman, Wendell Phillips, and innumerable other
young beginners, he sometimes awaited a professional call longer than
was agreeable. But he wrote medical papers, and was summoned to
lecture to the medical school at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire,
and later at Pittsfield in Massachusetts, while his unfailing charm as
an occasional poet gave him a distinctive name. Holmes's felicity in
occasional poems is extraordinary. The "Metrical Essay" was the first
and chief of the long series of such verses, among which the songs of
'29, the poems addressed year after year to his college classmates of
that year, have a delightful and endless grace, tenderness, wit, and
point. Pegasus draws well in harness the triumphant chariot of '29, in
which the lucky classmates of the poet move to a unique and happy

As a reader, Holmes was the permanent challenge of Mrs. Browning's
sighing regret that poets never read their own verses to their worth.
Park Benjamin, who heard the Phi Beta Kappa poem, said of its
delivery: "A brilliant, airy, and _spirituelle_ manner varied with
striking flexibility to the changing sentiment of the poem, now deeply
impassioned, now gayly joyous and nonchalant, and anon springing up
into almost an actual flight of rhapsody, rendered the delivery of
this poem a rich, nearly a dramatic entertainment." This was no less
true in later years when he read some of his poems in New York at
Bishop Potter's, then rector of Grace Church, or of the reading of the
poem at the doctors' dinner given to him by the physicians of New York
a little later.

Holmes's readings were like improvisations. The poems were expressed
and interpreted by the whole personality of the poet. The most subtle
touch of thought, the melody of fond regret, the brilliant passage of
description, the culmination of latent fun exploding in a keen and
resistless jest, all these were vivified in the sensitive play of
manner and modulation of tone of the reader, so that a poem by Holmes
at the Harvard Commencement dinner was one of the anticipated delights
which never failed. This temperament implied an oratorical power which
naturally drew the poet into the lecture lyceum when it was in its
prime, in the decade between 1850 and 1860. During that time the
popular lecture was a distinct and effective public force, and not the
least of its services was its part in instructing and training the
public conscience for the great contest of the Civil War.

The year 1831, in which Holmes's literary activity began, was also the
year on whose first day the first number of Garrison's _Liberator_
appeared, and the final period of the slavery controversy opened. But
neither this storm of agitation nor the transcendental mist that a few
years later overhung intellectual New England greatly affected the

In the first number of the "Autocrat" there is a passage upon puns,
which, crackling with fun, shows his sensitive scepticism. The
"Autocrat" says: "In a case lately decided before Miller, J., Doe
presented Roe a subscription paper, and urged the claims of suffering
humanity. Roe replied by asking when charity was like a top. It was in
evidence that Doe preserved a dignified silence. Roe then said, 'When
it begins to hum.' There are temperaments of a refined suspiciousness
to which, when the plea of reform is urged, the claims of suffering
humanity at once begin to hum. The very word reform irritates a
peculiar kind of sensibility, as a red flag stirs the fury of a bull.
A noted party leader said, with inexpressible scorn, 'When Dr. Johnson
defined the word patriotism as the last refuge of a scoundrel, he had
not learned the infinite possibilities of the word refa-a-r-m.'"

The acridity of this jest is wholly unknown to the "Autocrat", who has
moved always with reform, if not always with reformers, and whose
protest against bigotry is as searching as it is sparkling. Not only
has his ear been quick to detect the hum of Mr. Honeythunder's loud
appeal, but his eye to catch the often ludicrous aspect of honest
whimsey. During all the early years of his literary career he flew his
flashing darts at all the "isms", and he fell under the doubt and
censure of those earnest children of the time whom the gay and clever
sceptics derided as apostles of the newness. When Holmes appeared upon
the lecture platform it was to discourse of literature or science, or
to treat some text of social manners or morals with a crisp Poor
Richard sense and mother wit, and a brilliancy of illustration,
epigram, and humor that fascinated the most obdurate "come-outer".
Holmes's lectures on the English poets at the Lowell Institute were
among the most noted of that distinguished platform, and everywhere
the poet was one of the most popular of "attractions". There were not
wanting those who maintained that his use of the platform was the
correct one, and that the orators who, often by happy but incisive
indirection, fought the good fight of the hour abused their

It was while Holmes was still a professor, but still also touching the
lyre and writing scientific essays and charming the great audiences of
the lecture lyceum, that in the first number of the _Atlantic
Monthly_, in November, 1857, the "Autocrat of the Breakfast Table"
remarked, "I was just going to say, when I was interrupted," and
resumed the colloquies of the _New England Magazine_. He had been
interrupted twenty-two years before. But as he began again it was
plain that it was the same voice, yet fuller, stronger, richer, and
that we were listening to one of the wisest of wits and sharpest of
observers. Emerson warns us that superlatives are to be avoided. But
it will not be denied that the "Autocrat" belongs in the highest rank
of modern magazine or periodical literature, of which the essays of
"Elia" are the type. The form of the "Autocrat"--a semi-dramatic,
conversational, descriptive monologue--is not peculiar to Holmes's
work, but the treatment of it is absolutely original. The manner is as
individual and unmistakable as that of Elia himself. It would be
everywhere recognized as the Autocrat's. During the intermission of
the papers the more noted Macaulay flowers of literature, as the
Autocrat calls them, had bloomed; Carlyle's _Sartor Resartus_ and
reviews, Christopher North's _Noctes_ (now fallen into ancient night),
Thackeray's _Roundabout Papers_, Lowell's _Hosea Biglow_--a whole
library of magazine and periodical literature of the first importance
had appeared. But the Autocrat began again, after a quarter of a
century, musical with so rich a chorus, and his voice was clear,
penetrating, masterful, and distinctively his own.

The cadet branch of English literature--the familiar colloquial
periodical essay, a comment upon men and manners and life--is a
delightful branch of the family, and traces itself back to Dick Steele
and Addison. Hazlitt, who belonged to it, said that he preferred the
_Tatler_ to the _Spectator_; and Thackeray, who consorted with it
proudly, although he was of the elder branch, restored Sir Richard,
whose habits had cost him a great deal of his reputation, to general
favor. The familiar essay is susceptible, as the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries show, of great variety and charm of treatment.
What would the Christian Hero, writing to his Prue that he would be
with her in a pint of wine's time, have said to "Blakesmoor" and
"Oxford in the Vacation"? Yet Lamb and Steele are both consummate
masters of the essay, and Holmes, in the "Autocrat", has given it a
new charm. The little realm of the Autocrat, his lieges of the table,
the persons of the drama, are at once as definitely outlined as Sir
Roger's club. Unconsciously and resistlessly we are drawn within the
circle; we are admitted _ad eundem_, and become the targets of the
wit, the irony, the shrewd and sharp epigram, the airy whim, the
sparkling fancy, the curious and recondite thought, the happy
allusion, the felicitous analogy, of the sovereign master of the

The index of the _Autocrat_ is in itself a unique work. It reveals the
whimsical discursiveness of the book; the restless hovering of that
brilliant talk over every topic, fancy, feeling, fact; a humming-bird
sipping the one honeyed drop from every flower; or a huma, to use its
own droll and capital symbol of the lyceum lecturer, the bird that
never lights. There are few books that leave more distinctly the
impression of a mind teeming with riches of many kinds. It is, in the
Yankee phrase, thoroughly wideawake. There is no languor, and it
permits none in the reader, who must move along the page warily, lest
in the gay profusion of the grove, unwittingly defrauding himself of
delight, he miss some flower half hidden, some gem chance-dropped,
some darting bird. Howells's _Letters_ was called a chamber-window
book, a book supplying in solitude the charm of the best society. We
could all name a few such in our own literature. Would any of them, or
many, take precedence of the _Autocrat of the Breakfast Table?_

It is in this book that the value of the scientific training to the
man of letters is illustrated, not only in furnishing noble and strong
analogies, but in precision of observation and accuracy of statement.
In Holmes's style, the definiteness of form and the clearness of
expression are graces and virtues which are due to his exact
scientific study, as well as to the daylight quality of his mind.

The delicate apprehension of the finer and tenderer feelings which is
disclosed in the little passages of narrative in the record of the
Autocrat and of his legitimate brothers, the Professor and the Poet,
at the Breakfast Table, gives a grace and a sweetness to the work
which naturally flow into the music of the poems with which the diary
of a conversation often ends. These traits in the Autocrat suggested
that he would yet tell a distinct story, which indeed came while the
trilogy of the Breakfast Table was yet proceeding. _Elsie_ _Venner_
and the _Guardian Angel_, the two novels of Holmes's, are full of the
same briskness and acuteness of observation, the same effusiveness of
humor and characteristic Americanism, as the _Autocrat_. Certain
aspects of New England life and character are treated in these stories
with incomparable vivacity and insight. Holmes's picture is of a later
New England than Hawthorne's, but it is its lineal descendant. It is
another facet of the Puritan diamond which flashes with different
light in the genius of Hawthorne, Emerson, Lowell, Whittier,
Longfellow, Holmes, and Judd in _Margaret_. For, with all his lyrical
instinct and rollicking humor, Holmes is essentially a New-Englander,
and one of the most faithful and shrewd interpreters of New England.

The colloquial habit of the Autocrat is not lost in the stories, and
it is so marked generally in Holmes's writings as to be called
distinctive. It is a fascinating gift, when it is so restrained by
taste and instinctive refinement as not to become what is known as
bumptiousness. Thackeray, even in his novels, is apt to drop into this
vein, to talk about the persons of his drama with his reader, instead
of leaving them to play out their part alone. This trait offends some
of Thackeray's audience, to whom it seems like the manager's hand
thrust into the box to help out the play of the puppets. They resent
not "the damnable faces" of the actors, but the damnable sermonizing
of the author, and exhort him to permit the play to begin. Thackeray
frankly acknowledged his tendency to preach, as he called it. But it
was part of the man. Without the private personal touch of the
essayist in his stories they would not be his. This colloquial habit
is very winning when governed by a natural delicacy and an exquisite
literary instinct. It is the quality of all the authors who are
distinctly beloved as persons by their readers, and it is to this
class that Holmes especially belongs.

It is not a quality which is easily analyzed, but it blends a power of
sympathetic observation and appreciation both of the thing observed
and the reader to whom the observation is addressed. The Autocrat, as
he converses, brightens with his own clear thought, with the happy
quip, the airy fancy. He is sure of your delight, not only in the
thought, but in its deft expression. He in turn is delighted with your
delight. He warms to the responsive mind and heart, and feels the
mutual joy. The personal relation is established, and the Autocrat's
audience become his friends, to whom he describes with infinite glee
the effect of his remarks upon his lieges at table. No other author
takes the reader into his personal confidence more closely than
Holmes, and none reveals his personal temperament more clearly. This
confidential relation becomes even more simple and intimate as time
chastens the eagerness of youth and matures the keen brilliancy of the
blossom into the softer bloom of the fruit. The colloquies of the
Autocrat under the characteristic title of "Over the Tea-Cups" are
full of the same shrewd sense and wise comment and tender thought. The
kindly mentor takes the reader by the button or lays his hand upon his
shoulder, not with the rude familiarity of the bully or the boor, but
with the courtesy of Montaigne, the friendliness of John Aubrey, or
the wise cheer of Selden. The reader glows with the pleasure of an
individual greeting, and a wide diocese of those whom the Autocrat
never saw plume themselves proudly upon his personal acquaintance.

In this discursive talk about one of the American authors who have
vindicated the position of American letters in the literature of the
language we have not mentioned all his works. It is the quality rather
than the quantity with which we are concerned, the upright, honorable,
pure quality of the poet, the wit, the scholar, for whom the most
devoted reader is called to make no plea, no apology. The versatility
of his power is obvious, but scarcely less so the uniformity of his

It is a power which was early mature. For many a year he has dwelt
upon a high table-land where the air is equable and inspiring, yet, as
we have hinted, ever softer and sweeter. The lyric of today glows with
the same ardor as the fervent apostrophe to "Old Ironsides" or the
tripping salutation to the remembered and regretted Clemence; it is
only less eager. The young Autocrat who remarked that the word "scrub"
dismissed from table a fellow-boarder who turned pale, now with the
same smiling acuteness remarks the imprudent politeness which tries to
assure him that it is no matter if he is a little older. Did anybody
say so? The easy agility with which he cleared "the seven-barred gate"
has carried him over the eight bars, and we are all in hot pursuit.
For just sixty years since his first gay and tender note was heard,
Holmes has been fulfilling the promise of his matin song. He has
become a patriarch of our literature, and all his countrymen are his


Forty years ago, upon a pleasant afternoon, you might have seen tripping
with an elastic step along Broadway, in New York, a figure which even
then would have been called quaint. It was a man of about sixty-six or
sixty-seven years old, of a rather solid frame, wearing a Talma, as a
short cloak of the time was called, that hung from the shoulders, and
low shoes, neatly tied, which were observable at a time when boots were
generally worn. The head was slightly declined to one side, the face was
smoothly shaven, and the eyes twinkled with kindly humor and shrewdness.
There was a chirping, cheery, old-school air in the whole appearance,
an undeniable Dutch aspect, which, in the streets of New Amsterdam,
irresistibly recalled Diedrich Knickerbocker. The observer might easily
have supposed that he saw some later descendant of the renowned Wouter
Van Twiller refined into a nineteenth-century gentleman. The occasional
start of interest as the figure was recognized by some one in the passing
throng, the respectful bow, and the sudden turn to scan him more closely,
indicated that he was not unknown. Indeed, he was the American of his
time universally known. This modest and kindly man was the creator of
Diedrich Knickerbocker and Rip Van Winkle. He was the father of our
literature, and at that time its patriarch. He was Washington Irving.

At the same time you might have seen another man, of slight figure and
rustic aspect, with an air of seriousness, if not severity, moving
with the crowd, but with something remote and reserved in his air, as
if in the city he bore with him another atmosphere, and were still
secluded among solitary hills. In the bright and busy street of the
city which was always cosmopolitan, and in which there lingers a
tradition, constantly renewed, of good-natured banter of the losel
Yankee, this figure passed like the grave genius of New England. By a
little play of fancy the first figure might have seemed the smiling
spirit of genial cheerfulness and humor, of kindly sympathy even with
the foibles and weaknesses of poor human nature; and the other the
mentor of its earnest endeavor and serious duty. For he was the first
of our poets, whose "Thanatopsis" was the hymn of his meditations
among the primeval forests of his native hills, and who, in his last
years, sat at the door of his early home and looked across the valley
of the Westfield to the little town of Plainfield upon the wooded
heights beyond, whose chief distinction is that there he wrote the
"Waterfowl"; for this graver figure was the poet Bryant.

If in the same walk you had passed those two figures, you would have
seen not only the first of our famous prose writers and the first of
our acknowledged poets, but also the representatives of the two
fundamental and distinctive qualities of our American literature, as
of all literature--its grave, reflective, earnest character, and its
sportive, genial, and humorous genius.

At the time of which I speak another figure also was familiar in
Broadway, but less generally recognized as it passed than either of
the others, although, perhaps, even more widely known to fame than
they. This was Cooper, who gave us so many of the heroes of our
childhood's delight, but who at this time was himself the hero of
innumerable lawsuits, undertaken to chastise the press for what he
believed to be unjust and libelous comments upon himself. Now that
the uproar of that litigation is silent, and its occasion forgotten,
it seems comical that a man for whom fame had already rendered a
favorable judgment should be busily seeking the opinion of local
courts upon transitory newspaper opinions of him-self and his
writings. It is as if Dickens, when the whole English-reading
world--judges on the bench and bishops in their studies, cobblers
in their stalls and grooms in the stables--were all laughing over
Pickwick, should have sued the _Eatanswill Gazette_ for calling him
a clown. Thackeray pronounces Cooper's Long Tom Coffin one of the
prizemen of fiction. That is a final judgment by the chief-justice.
But who knows what was the verdict in Cooper's lawsuits to vindicate
himself, and who cares? When Cooper died there was a great
commemorative meeting in New York. Daniel Webster presided, and
praised the storyteller; Bryant read a discourse upon him, while
Irving sat by his side. One of the triumvirate of our early literature
was gone, and two remained to foresee their own future in the honors
paid to him. Indeed, it was to see them, quite as much as to hear of
their dead comrade, that the multitude assembled that evening; and the
one who was seen with the most interest was Irving, the one in whom
the city of New York naturally feels a peculiar right and pride, as
the most renowned of her children.

If I say that he made personally the same impression that his works
make, you can easily see the man. As you read the story of his life
you feel its constant gayety and cheerfulness. It was the life of a
literary man and a man of society--a life without events, or only the
events of all our lives, except that it lacks the great event of
marriage. In place of it there is a tender and pathetic romance.
Irving lived to be seventy-six years old. At twenty-six he was engaged
to a beautiful girl, who died. He never married; but after his death,
in a little box of which he always kept the key, was found the
miniature of a lovely girl, and with it a braid of fair hair, and a
slip of paper on which was written the name Matilda Hoffman, with some
pages upon which the writing was long since faded. That fair face
Irving kept all his life in a more secret and sacred shrine. It looks
out, now and then, with unchanged loveliness from some pensive
passage, which he seems to write with wistful melancholy of
remembrance. That fond and immortal presence constantly renewed the
gentle humanity, the tenderness of feeling, the sweet healthfulness
and generous sympathy which never failed in his life and writings.

He was born in the city of New York in 1783, the year in which the
Revolution ended in the acknowledgment of American independence. The
British army marched out of the city, and the American army, with
Washington at the head, marched in. "The patriot's work is ended just
as my boy is born," said the patriotic mother, "and the boy shall be
named Washington". Six years later, when Washington returned to New
York to be inaugurated President, he was one day going into a shop
when the boy's Scotch nurse democratically stopped the new republican
chief magistrate and said to him, "Please your honor, here's a bairn
was named for you". The great man turned and looked kindly on his
little namesake, laid his hand upon his head, and blessed his future

The name of no other American has been so curiously confused with
Washington's as that of Irving. Many a young fellow puzzles over the
connection which the name seems vaguely to imply, and in other lands
the identity of the men is confounded. When Irving first went to Europe,
a very young man, well-educated, courteous, with great geniality of
manner and charm of conversation, he was received by Prince Torlonia,
the banker, in Rome, with unusual and flattering civility. His
travelling companion, who had been treated by the prince with entire
indifference, was perplexed at the warmth of Irving's welcome.
Irving laughingly said that it only proved the prince's remarkable
discrimination. But the young travellers laughed still more when the
prince unconsciously revealed the secret of his attentions by taking
his guest aside, and asking him how nearly he was related to General

Many years afterwards, when he had become famous, an English lady and
her daughter paused in an Italian gallery before a bust of Washington.
"And who was Washington, mamma?" asked the daughter. "Why, my dear, I
am surprised at your ignorance," answered the mother, "he was the
author of the _Sketch Book_." Long ago in Berlin I was talking with
some American friends one evening at a cafe, and observed a German
intently listening to our conversation as if trying his ability to
understand the language. Presently he said to me, politely, "You are
English, no?" But when I replied "No, we are Americans"--"Americans!"
he exclaimed enthusiastically, grasping my hand and shaking it warmly,
"Americans, ach! we all know your great General Washington Irving."

Irving's father was a Presbyterian deacon, in whose heart the sterner
traditions of the Covenanters lingered. He tried hard to teach his son
to contemn amusement, and to impale his youth upon the five points of
Calvinism, rather than to play ball. But it was John Knox trying to
curb the tricksy Ariel. Perhaps from some bright maternal ancestor the
boy had derived his sweet gayety of nature which nothing could
repress. His airy spirits bubbled like a sunny fountain in that
some-what arid household. He read at ten a translation of the _Orlando
Furioso_, and his father's yard, doubtless trim and well kept as
beseemed a deacon's yard, became at once a field of chivalry. Candles
were forbidden him in his chamber, but when he made the acquaintance
of _Robinson Crusoe_ and _Sindbad the Sailor_, he secreted lights to
illuminate his innocent revels with those immortal playmates.

The amusements which were permitted were of too depressing a character
to be tolerated by the healthy boy, who, like the duck taking to the
water from under the wing of the astonished hen, sometimes escaped
from the serious house at night by dropping from a window, and with
a delight that must have torn his father's heart with anguish had
he known it, tasted the forbidden fruit of the theatre. It was a
Presbyterian boy who tasted it then; but in the same city many years
afterwards it was a Quaker boy whom I knew who was also enamoured of
the play. "John," said his grieved father, "is this dreadful thing
true that I hear of thee? Has thee ever been to see the play-actress
Frances Kemble?" "Yes, father," answered the heroic John. "I hope thee
has not been more than once, John," said the afflicted father. "Yes,
father," replied John, resolved to make a clean breast of his sins,
"more than thirty times." It is useless to try to prevent blue-birds
from flying in the spring. The blithe creatures made to soar and sing
will not be restrained. The same kind Providence that made Calvin made
Shakespeare. The sun is higher than the clouds, and smiles are as
heaven-born as tears. In Emerson's poem the squirrel says to the

"You're not so small as I,
And not half so spry;
* * * * *
"If I cannot carry forests on my back
Neither can you crack a nut."

It was in vain to try to thwart the young Irving's genius. Yet the boy
who a little later was to light with rosy cheer the air which, as
Wendell Phillips said, was still black with sermons; who was to give
to our literature its first distinctly humorous strain, and innocently
to amuse the world, was somehow or other, as he said, "taught to feel
that everything pleasant was wicked".

If that were so, what a sinner Washington Irving was! If to make life
easier by making it pleasanter, if to outwit trouble by gay banter, if
with satire that smiles but never stings to correct foibles and to
quicken good impulses; if to deepen and strengthen human sympathy, is
not to be a human benefactor, what makes one? When Dr. Johnson said of
Garrick that his death eclipsed the gayety of nations, he did not mean
merely that the player would no longer make men laugh, but that he
could no longer make them better. "If, however," said Irving--and
Willis selected the words for the motto of his second volume of verse
published in 1827--"I can by a lucky chance, in these days of evil,
rub out one wrinkle from the brow of care, or beguile the heavy heart
of one moment of sadness; if I can, now and then, penetrate the
gathering film of misanthropy, prompt a benevolent view of human
nature, and make my reader more in good-humor with his fellow-beings
and himself, surely, surely I shall not then have written entirely in

That cannot be said to have been the spirit of any American author
before Irving. Our colonial literature was mainly political and
theological. You have only to return to the early New England days in
the stories of Hawthorne, the magician who restores with a shuddering
spell that old, sombre life, to understand the character of its
reading. The books that were not treatises upon special topics all
seemed to say with one of the grim bards of Calvinism:

"My thoughts on awful subjects roll,
Damnation and the dead."

Literature, in its proper sense, there was none. There was no
imaginative creation, no play of fancy and humor, no subtle charm of
the ideal life, no grace and delight of expression, which are
essential to literature. The perpetual twilight and chill of the New
England Puritan world were an arctic winter in which no flower of
poesy bloomed and no bird sang. One of the French players who came to
this country with Rachel says, in his journal, with a startled air, as
if he had remarked in Americans a universal touch of lunacy, that he
was invited to take a pleasure-drive to Greenwood Cemetery. Evidently
he was not familiar with Froissart's epigram nor with the annals of
the Puritan fathers, or he would have known that their favorite
pleasure-ground was the graveyard. Judge Sewell's Journal, the best
picture of daily New England life in the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries, is a portrait framed in black and hung with thick crape. It
is a register of funerals--a book which seems to require a suit of
sables for its proper reading.

The early Christians dwelt so often and so long in the catacombs that
when they emerged, accustomed to associate life with the tomb, they
doubtless regarded the whole world as a cemetery. The American Puritans
inherited the disposition from their early confessors, and so powerful
was the tendency that it laid its sombre spirit upon the earliest
enduring poem in our literature, and the fresh and smiling nature of
the new world was first depicted by our literary art as a tomb:

"The hills,
Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun; the vales
Stretching in pensive quietness between;
The venerable woods; rivers that move
In majesty; and the complaining brooks
That make the meadows green; and, poured round all,
Old ocean's gray and melancholy waste,
Are but the solemn decorations all
Of the great tomb of man."

"Thanatopsis" is the swan-song of Puritanism. Indeed, when New England
Puritanism could sing, as for the first time it did in the verse of
Bryant, the great change was accomplished. Out of strength had come
forth sweetness. I am not decrying the Puritans. They were the stern
builders of the modern world, the unconscious heralds of wider
liberty, and a kindlier future for mankind. But

"God works in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform,"

and never more mysteriously than when he chose as the pioneers of
religious liberty in the New World those who hung Quakers, and as the
founders of civil equality those who permitted only members of their
own Church to vote.

Irving was not a studious boy. He did not go to college. He read some
law at sixteen, but he read much more literature, and sauntered in the
country about New York with his gun and fishing-rod. He sailed up the
Hudson, and explored for the first time the realm that was presently
to be his forever by the right of eminent domain of the imagination.
New York was a snug little city in those days. At the beginning of the
century it was all below the present City Hall, and the young fellow,
who was born a cosmopolitan, greatly enjoyed the charms of the modest
society in which the Dutch and the English circles were still somewhat
separated, and in which such literary cultivation as there was was
necessarily foreign. But while he enjoyed he observed, and his
literary instinct began to stir.

Under the name of "Jonathan Oldstyle", the young Irving printed in his
brother's newspaper essays in the style of the _Spectator_, discussing
topics of the town, and the modest theatre in John Street and its
chance actors, as if it had been Drury Lane with Garrick and Mrs.
Siddons. The little town kindly smiled upon the lively efforts of
the Presbyterian deacon's son; and its welcome of his small essays,
the provincial echo of the famous Queen Anne's men in London, is a
touching revelation of our scant and spare native literary talent.
The essays are forgotten now, but they were enough to bring Charles
Brockden Brown to find the young author, and to tempt him, but in
vain, to write for _The Literary Magazine and American Register_,
which the novelist was just beginning in Philadelphia, a pioneer of
American literary magazines, which Brown sustained for five years.

The youthful Addison of New Amsterdam was a delicate lad, and when he
came of age he sailed for France and the Mediterranean, and passed two
years in travelling. Napoleon Bonaparte was emperor, and at war with
England, and the young American, despite his passport, was everywhere
believed to be an Englishman. Travelling was hard work in those days
of war, but the cheery youth proved the truth of the proverb that a
light heart and a whole pair of breeches go round the world. At
Messina, in Sicily, he saw Nelson's fleet pass through the strait,
looking for the French ships; and before the year ended the famous
battle of Trafalgar had been fought, and at Greenwich in England
Irving saw the body of the great sailor lying in state, wrapped in his
flag of victory. At Rome he made the acquaintance of Washington
Allston, and almost resolved to be a painter. In Paris he saw Madame
de Stael, who overwhelmed him with eager questions about his remote
and unknown country, and in London he was enchanted by Mrs. Siddons.
Some years afterwards, when the _Sketch Book_ had made him famous, he
was presented to Mrs. Siddons, and the great actress said to him, in
her deepest voice and with her stateliest manner, "You've made me
weep." The modest young author was utterly abashed, and could say
nothing. After the publication of his _Bracebridge_ Hall he was once
more presented to her, and again with gloomy grandeur she said to him,
"You've made me weep again." This time Irving received the solemn
salute with more composure, and doubtless retorted with a compliment
magnificent enough even for the sovereign Queen of Tragedy, who, as
her niece Mrs. Fanny Kemble said of her, never laid aside her great
manner, and at the dinner-table brandished her fork and stabbed the

Irving returned from this tour with established health--a refined,
agreeable, exceedingly handsome and charming gentleman; with a
confirmed taste for society, and a delightful store of interesting
recollection and anecdote. With a group of cultivated and lively
friends of his own age he dined and supped and enjoyed the town, and a
little anecdote which he was fond of telling shows that the good old
times were not unlike the good new times: One morning, after a gay
dinner, Irving met one of his fellow-revellers, who told him that on
the way borne, after draining the parting bumper, he bad fallen
through a grating in the sidewalk, which had been carelessly left
open, into the vault beneath. It was impossible to climb out, and at
first the solitude was rather dismal, he said; but several of the
other guests fell in, in the course of the evening, and, on the whole,
they had quite a pleasant time of it.

In the midst of this frolicking life, and growing out of it, Irving's
real literary career began. With his brother William, and his friend
James K. Paulding, who afterwards wrote the _Dutchman's Fireside_,
and was one of the recognized American authors of fifty years ago, he
issued every fortnight a periodical, which ran for twenty numbers, and
stopped in the midst of its success. It was modelled upon the
_Spectator_ and Goldsmith's _Citizen of the World_, describing and
criticising the manners and morals of the town with extravagant humor
and pungency, and a rollicking independence which must have been both
startling and stimulating.

Perhaps, also, the town was secretly pleased to discover that it was
sufficiently important to be worthy of such bright raillery and
humorous reproof. _Salmagundi_ was only a lively _jeu d'esprit_, and
Irving was never proud of it. "I know," said Paulding, writing to him
in later life, "you consider old Sal as a sort of saucy, flippant
trollope, belonging to nobody, and not worth fathering." But,
nevertheless, Irving's genius was trying its wings in it, and pluming
itself for flight. _Salmagundi_ undoubtedly, to a later taste, is
rather crude and cumbrous fun, but it is interesting as the immediate
forerunner of our earliest work of sustained humor, and of the wit of
Holmes and Lowell at a later date. When it was discontinued, at the
beginning of 1808, Irving and his brother began the _History of New
York_, which was originally designed to be a parody of a particular
book. But the work was interrupted by the business difficulties of the
brother, and at last Irving resumed it alone, recast it entirely, and
as he finished it the engagement with Matilda Hoffman ended with her
death, and the long arid secret romance of his life began.

Knickerbocker's _History_ was published just before Christmas, 1809,
and made a merry Christmas for our grandfathers and grandmothers
eighty years ago. The fun began before the book was published. In
October the curiosity of the town of eighty thousand inhabitants was
awakened by a series of skilful paragraphs in the _Evening Post_. The
art of advertising was never more ingeniously illustrated. Mr.
Fulkerson himself would have paid homage to the artist. One day the
quid-nuncs found this paragraph in the paper, It was headed,


"Left his lodgings, some time since, and has not since been heard
of, a small elderly gentleman, dressed in an old black coat and
cocked hat, by the name of Knickerbocker. As there are some reasons
for believing that he is not entirely in his right mind, and, as
great anxiety is entertained about him, any information concerning
him left either at the Columbian Hotel, Mulberry Street, or at the
office of this paper, will be thankfully received.

"P. S.--Printers of newspapers would be aiding the cause of humanity
by giving an insertion to the above.

"_October 25th._"

This was followed within a fortnight by another ingenious lure:

"_To the Editor of the Evening Post:_

"Sir,--Having read in your paper of the 26th October last a paragraph
respecting an old gentleman by the name of Knickerbocker, who was
missing from his lodgings, if it would be any relief to his friends,
or furnish them with any clue to discover where he is, you may inform
them that a person answering the description was seen by the passengers
of the Albany stage early in the morning, about four or five weeks ago,
resting himself by the side of the road, a little above Kingsbridge.
He had in his hands a small bundle, tied in a red bandana handkerchief.
He appeared to be travelling northward, and was very much fatigued and

"_November 6._ A Traveller."

Ten days after came a letter signed by Seth Handaside, landlord of the
Independent Handaside:

"Columbian Hotel, Mulberry Street.

"Sir,--You have been kind enough to publish in your paper a paragraph
about Mr. Diedrich Knickerbocker, who was missing so strangely from his
lodgings some time since. Nothing satisfactory has been heard from the
old gentleman since, but a very curious written Book has been found in
his room in his own handwriting. Now, I wish you to notice him, if he
is still alive, that if he does not return and pay off his bill for
board and lodging, I shall have to dispose of his Book to satisfy me
for the same."

This is very simple jesting, but at that time it was very effective in
a town that enjoyed the high spirits of _Salmagundi_. Moreover, the book
which was announced in this lively strain was as unprecedented as the
announcement. It was a very serious time and country, and the work of
the small elderly gentleman who carried a little bundle tied in a red
bandana handkerchief appeared in the midst of the sober and dry effusions
of our Puritan literature, and of an eager and energetic life still
engrossed with the subjection of a continent and the establishment of
a new nation. It was the work of a young man of twenty-six, who lived
fifty years afterwards with constantly increasing fame, making many and
admirable contributions to literature. But nothing that followed surpassed
the joyous brilliancy and gay felicity of his first book, which was at
once acknowledged as the wittiest book that America had produced.

Knickerbocker's _History_ is a prolonged and elaborate and audacious
burlesque of the early annals of New Amsterdam. The undaunted Goth of
the legend who plucked the Roman senator by the beard was not a more
ruthless iconoclast than this son of New Amsterdam, who drew its grave
ancestors from venerable obscurity by flooding them with the cheerful
light of blameless fun. To pass the vague and venerable traditions of
the austere and heroic founders of the city through the alembic of a
youth's hilarious creative humor, and to turn them out in forms
resistlessly grotesque, but with their identity unimpaired, was a
stroke as daring as it was successful. But the skill and power with
which this is done can be best appreciated by those who are most
familiar with the history which the gleeful genius burlesques.

Irving follows the actual story closely, and the characters that
he develops faithfully, although with rollicking caricature, are
historical. Indeed, the fidelity is so absolute that the fiction is
welded with the fact. The days of the Dutch ascendency in New York
are inextricably associated with this ludicrous narrative. It is
impossible not to think of the forefathers of New Amsterdam as
Knickerbocker describes them. The Wouter Van Twiller, the Wilhemus
Kieft, the Peter Stuyvesant, who are familiarly and popularly known,
are not themselves, but the figures drawn by Diedrich Knickerbocker.
In comical despair, the historian Grahame, whose _Colonial History_
is still among the best, says of Knickerbocker: "If Sancho Panza had
been a real governor, misrepresented by the wit of Cervantes, his
future historian would have found it no easy matter to bespeak a
grave attention to the annals of his administration."

The gayety of this blithe genius bursting in upon our staid literature
is irresistible. Irving's temperament, his travels, his humor, gave
him a cosmopolitan point of view; and his little native city, with its
local sense of importance, and its droll aristocratic traditions
springing from Dutch burgomasters and traders, impressed his merry
genius like a complacent Cranford or Tarascon taking itself with a
provincial seriousness, which, to his sympathetic fancy, was an
exhaustless fountain of fun. Part of the fun to us, and perhaps to
Irving, was the indignation with which it was received by the
descendants of the Dutch families in the city and State. The excited
drawing-rooms denounced it as scandalous satire and ridicule. Even
Irving's friend, Gulian Verplanck, nine years afterwards, deepening
the comedy of his remark by his evident unconsciousness of the
drollery of his gravity, grieved that the author's exuberance of
genuine humor should be wasted on a coarse caricature. Irving, who was
then in Europe, saw Verplanck's strictures just as he had written _Rip
Van Winkle_, and he wrote to a friend at home that he could not help
laughing at Verplanck's outburst of filial feeling for his ancestors,
adding, in the true Knickerbocker vein, "Remember me heartily to him,
and tell him that I mean to grow wiser and better and older every day,
and to lay the castigation he has given seriously to heart."

The success of Knickerbocker's _History_ was immediate, and it was the
first American work of literature which arrested attention in Europe.

Sir Walter Scott, who was then the most famous of English poets, and
was about to publish the first of the Waverley Novels, was delighted
with a humor which he thought recalled Swift's, and a sentiment that
seemed to him as tender as Sterne's. He wrote a generous acknowledgment
to the American friend who had sent him the book, and in later years
he welcomed Diedrich Knickerbocker at Abbotsford, and the American has
given a charming and vivid picture of Scott's home and its master.

But the success of his book did not at once determine Irving's choice
of a career. He was still a gilded youth who enjoyed the gay idleness
of society, and who found in writing only another and pleasant
recreation. He had been bred in the conservative tradition which
looked upon livelihood by literature as the deliberate choice of Grub
Street, and the wretchedness of Goldsmith as the necessary and natural
fate of authors; but it is droll that, although he recoiled from the
uncertainty of support by literary labor, he was willing to try the
very doubtful chances of office-holding as a means of securing
leisure for literary pursuits. He offered himself as a candidate for
appointment as the clerk of a court in the city. By tradition and
sympathy he was a Federalist, but he had taken no active part in
politics, and his chance was slight. He went to Albany, however, and
in a lively letter he paints a familiar picture of the crowd of
office-hunters who, he says, "like a cloud of locusts, have descended
upon the city to devour every plant and herb and every green thing."
He was sick with a cold, and stifled in rooms heated by stoves, and
was utterly disgusted, as he says, "by the servility and duplicity and
rascality I have witnessed among the swarms of scrub politicians who
crawl about the great metropolis of our State like so many vermin
about the head of the body politic."

Again the good old times were apparently very much like the good new
times. Thirty-nine years after Irving's discomfiture in trying to get
a public office, Hawthorne was turned out of one that he held, and
wrote to a friend: "It seems to me that an inoffensive man of letters,
having obtained a pitiful little office on no other plea than his
pitiful little literature, ought not to be left at the mercy of these
thick-skulled and no-hearted ruffians." The language is strong, but
the epithets are singularly well-chosen. The distinctive qualities of
the ringleaders, whether of high or low degree, in the degradation of
public trusts into private and party spoils, have never been more
accurately or effectively described than by the words "thick-skulled"
and "no-hearted".

The story of the sturdy beggar who asked General Jackson to give him
the mission to France, and finally came down to a request for an old
coat, well illustrates a system which regards public office not as a
public trust, but as private alms. The service of the State, whether
military or civil, is an object of high and generous ambition, because
it involves the leadership of men. But if Irving and Hawthorne thought
that what is called office-seeking is disgusting, it was not because
the public service is not noble and dignified, but because we choose
to allow it to be so often dependent, not upon fitness and character,
but upon the personal or political favor of the "thick-skulled" and

But the problem of a career was soon solved. In the year 1810 Irving
formed a business connection with two of his brothers, and the next
five years were passed in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington,
forming various literary plans, looking out for his business
interests, sparkling in society; and when war with England began,
serving upon the governor's military staff as Colonel Washington
Irving. In the spring of 1815 he sailed to roam again through Europe,
but the illness of his brother compelled him to remain in England in
charge of the business. "London," as a shrewd and celebrated American
recently said, "was then as it is now, the social centre of the
world." Irving saw famous men and women, and his charming sweetness
and humor opened all doors and hearts. But the business fell into
distress, then into disaster, and in the beginning of 1818 the house
failed. He was now thrown wholly upon his literary resources, which
did _not_ fail, and in the spring of 1819, when he was thirty-six
years old, the first number of the _Sketch Book_ was issued in New

The merry, exuberant, satirical Diedrich Knickerbocker was transformed
into the genial, urbane, and tender-hearted Geoffrey Crayon. Our
fathers and grandfathers knew him well. They had been bred upon
Addison and Goldsmith, the essayists and the poets of the eighteenth
century, and in Geoffrey Crayon they recognized and welcomed another
member of that delightful literary society. He was all the more
welcome that he was an American--one of themselves. The bland and
courteous Geoffrey, indeed, had few rivals among his countrymen.
In our little American world of letters at that time he came and
conquered. Bryant's "Thanatopsis", had been published only two years
before; Halleck's and Drake's lively but strictly local "Croakers"
were still appearing, and Edward Everett had just hailed Percival's
first volume as authorizing great expectations.

But prophecy is always dangerous. The year before, Sydney Smith had
said, in the _Edinburgh Review_, "Literature the Americans have
none--no native literature we mean. It is all imported. They had a
Franklin, indeed, and may afford to live half a century on his
fame. There is, or was, a Mr. Dwight, who wrote some poems, and his
baptismal name was Timothy. There is also a small account of Virginia
by Jefferson, and an epic poem by Mr. Joel Barlow, and some pieces of
pleasantry by Mr. Irving. But why should Americans write books, when
a six weeks' passage brings them, in their own tongue, _our_ sense,
science, and genius, on bales and hogsheads? Prairies, steamboats,
grist-mills are their natural objects for centuries to come. Then,
when they have got to the Pacific Ocean, epic poems, plays, pleasures
of memory, and all the elegant gratifications of an ancient people who
have tamed the wild earth, and sat down to amuse themselves. This is
the natural march of human affairs." As the sarcastic Yorkshire canon,
sitting on the Edinburgh Olympus, wiped his pen, the _Sketch Book_
was published. The good canon was right as to our small literary
product, but even an _Edinburgh Review_ could not wisely play the

This Mr. Everett also discovered, for his "great expectations" of
Percival were not fulfilled. A desponding student of our poetry
recently sighs that Percival is a forgotten poet, and then, seizing a
promiscuous assortment of names, exclaims that Charles Sprague,
William Wirt, Washington Irving, and Jack Downing may be referred to
as forgotten authors. But this is the luxury of woe. Why should not
Percival be a forgotten poet? That is to say, what is there in the
verse of Percival that should command interest and attention to-day?
He was a remarkably accomplished man and a most excellent gentleman,
and his name is very familiar in the reading-books of the time when
grandfathers of to-day were going to school. But he was a noted poet
not because he took rank with his contemporaries--with Byron and Scott
and Keats and Shelley and Coleridge and Wordsworth--but because there
were very few Americans who wrote verses, and our fathers patriotically
stood by them.

Yet because the note of a singer of another day is not heard by us, it
does not follow that he did not touch the heart of his time. Grenville
Mellen is a forgotten poet also, and Rufus Dawes and John Neal and
James G. Eastburn. If the gentle reader will turn to the pages of
Kettell, or any early American anthology, he will seem to himself to
be walking among tombs. Upon each page might be suitably inscribed,
"Sacred to the memory" of almost every one of the singers. But can we
say with honest reproach, "forgotten poets"? The loiterer in the wood
hears the song of the wood-thrush, but is the hermit-bird wronged, or
is his song less sweet, because it is not echoed round the world? Is
Fame to be held responsible for not retaining the name of every
minstrel who loiters by and touches his harp lightly, and sings a
sweet song as he passes on? Is it a hard fate to give pleasure to
those who listen because those out of hearing do not applaud?

Many an author may have a tone and a touch which please the ear and
taste of his own day, and which, as characteristic of a time, may be
only curious to a later taste, like the costumes and dances of our
great-grandmothers. But young America, sauntering at the club and at
Newport, would not willingly wear the boots of Beau Nash, nor even the
cloak of Beau Brummel. The law which provides that nothing shall be
lost is equally observable in the realm of literary fame. Is anything
of literature lost that deserves longer remembrance? or, more properly,
can it be lost? A fair answer to the question can be found in the reply
to another, whether delving in Kettell, or in any other anthology,
reveals treasures dropped by Fame as precious as those she carries.

There are two ways in which authors survive: one by the constant
reading of his works, the other by his name. Is Milton a forgotten
author? But how much is he read, compared with the contemporary
singers? Is Plato forgotten? Yet how many know him except by name?
Irving thus far holds both. Time, like a thrifty husbandman, winnows
its wheat, blowing away much chaff, but the golden grain remains. This
is true not only of the whole multitude of authors, but of the works
of each author. How many of them really survive in the anthology only?
_Astoria_ and _Captain Bonneville_ and _Mahomet_ and other books of
Irving will disappear; but _Knickerbocker_ and _Rip Van Winkle_ still
buffet the relentless wave of oblivion, and their buoyancy is

As for Sprague--a mild, genial, charming gentleman, who carried his
simple freshness of nature and of manner to the end, and about whose
venerable head in State Street always shone the faint halo of early
poetic renown--his literary talent was essentially for a day, not for
all time. But what then? On Christmas Eve we hear the passing music in
the street that supplies for us the song of the waits. Distant and
melodious, it pensively recalls the days and the faces and the voices
that are no more. But the singers are not the same waits that we heard
long ago; still less are they those that the youth of a century ago
heard with the same musing melancholy. But the substance of the song,
and the emotion which it awakens, and the tender pathos of association
--these are all the same. Sprague was a wait of yesterday, of last year,
of fifty years ago. Others sing in the street the song that he sang,
and, singing, they pass on, and the sweet strain grows fainter, softer,
and fainter and fainter, and the echoes answer, "Dying, dying, dying,"
and it is gone.

See how tenderly Mr. Stedman speaks of the troubadours who are singing
for us now, whose names are familiar, who trill and twitter in the
magazines, and in tasteful and delicate volumes, which seem to tempt
the stream of time to suffer such light and graceful barks to slip
along unnoted to future ages. But the kindly critic's tone forecasts
the fate of the sparkling ventures.

Moore tells us of the Indian maids upon the banks of the Ganges who
light a tiny taper, and, on a frail little chip, set it afloat upon
the river. It twinkles and dwindles, and flashes and expires. Mr.
Stedman watches the minor poets trimming their tapers and carefully
launching their chips upon the brimming river. "Pleasant journey," he
cries cheerily from the shore, as if he were speaking to hearty
Captain Cook going up the side of his great ship, and shaking out his
mighty canvas to circumnavigate the globe. "Pleasant journey," cries
the cheery critic; but there is a wistful something in his tone that
betrays a consciousness of the swift extinction of the pretty perfumed
flickering flame.

So scant, indeed, was the blossom of our literature when the _Sketch
Book_ was published, that even twenty years later, when Emerson
described the college Commencement Day as the only tribute of a
country too busy to give to letters any more, Geoffrey Crayon, with
the exception of Cooper, had really no American competitors. Long
afterwards I met Mr. Irving one morning at the office of Mr. Putnam,
his publisher, and in his cordial way, with a twinkle in his eye, and
in his pleasant husky voice, he said, "You young literary fellows
to-day have a harder time than we old fellows had. You trip over each
other's heels; there are so many of you. We had it all our own way.
But the account is square, for you can make as much by a lecture as we
made by a book." Then, laughing slyly, he added, "A pretty figure I
should make lecturing in this voice." Indeed, his modesty forbade him
to risk that voice in public addresses.

Irving, I think, made but one speech. It was at the dinner given
to him upon his return from Europe in 1832, after his absence of
seventeen years. Like other distinguished Americans who have felt
the fascination of the old home of their ancestors, and who have not
thought that a narrow heart and a barbaric disdain of everything
foreign attested the truest patriotism, he was suspected of some
alienation from his country. His speech was full of emotion, and his
protestation of love for his native land was received with boundless
acclamation. But he could not overcome his aversion to speech-making.
When Dickens came, and the great dinner was given to him in New York,
Irving was predestined to preside. Nobody else could be even
mentioned. He was himself conscious of it, and was filled with
melancholy forebodings. Professor Felton, of Harvard, compared
Irving's haunting terror and dismay at the prospect of this speech to
that of Mr. Pickwick at the prospect of leading that dreadful horse
all day.

Poor Irving went about muttering, "I shall certainly break down. I
know I shall break down." At last the day, the hour, and the very
moment itself arrived, and he rose to propose the health of Dickens.
He began pleasantly and smoothly in two or three sentences, then
hesitated, stammered, smiled, and stopped; tried in vain to begin
again, then gracefully gave it up, announced the toast--"Charles
Dickens, the guest of the nation"--then sank into his chair amid
immense applause, whispering to his neighbor, "There, I told you I
should break down, and I've done it."

When Thackeray came, Irving consented to preside at a dinner if
speeches were absolutely forbidden. The condition was faithfully
observed, but it was the most extraordinary instance of American
self-command on record. Whenever two or three Americans are gathered
together, somebody must make a speech; and no wonder, because somebody
always speaks so well. The custom is now so confirmed that it is
foolish and useless to oppose it.

I remember a few years since that a dinner was given to a famous
American artist long resident abroad, and, as the condition of the
attendance of a distinguished guest whose presence was greatly
desired, the same agreement was made that Irving required at the
Thackeray dinner. It was a company of exceedingly clever and brilliant
men, but the gayety of the feast was extinguished by the general
consciousness that the situation was abnormal. It was a fruit without
flavor, a flower without fragrance, a symphony without melody, a
dinner without speeches. But the dinner of which I speak, when the
condition of Irving's presence was that there should be no speeches,
was the great exception. It was the only dinner of the kind that I
have ever known. But Irving's cheery anecdote and gayety, the songs
and banter of the company, the happy chat and sparkling wit, took the
place of eloquence, and I recall no dinner more delightful.

However scant was our literature when the _Sketch Book_ appeared, it
is a mistake to suppose that Irving owes his success to English
admiration. That was, undoubtedly, very agreeable to him and to his
countrymen. But it is well to correct a misapprehension which is still
cherished. Many years ago an English critic said that Irving was much
more relished and admired in England than in his own country, and
added: "It is only recently critics on the lookout for a literature
have elevated him to his proper and almost more than his proper place.
This docility to English guidance in the case of their best, or almost
their best, prose writer, may perhaps be followed by a similar
docility in the case of their best, or almost their best, poet, Poe,
whom also England had preceded the United States in recognizing." This
comical patron is all the more amusing from his comparative estimate
of Poe.

If it were true that Irving's countrymen had not recognized and
honored him from the first, it might be suspected that it was because
they were descendants of the people who showed little contemporaneous
appreciation of Shakespeare. But it is certainly creditable to the
literary England which was busy idolizing Scott and Byron, that it
recognized also the charming genius of Irving, and that Leslie, the
painter, could truly write of him, "Geoffrey Crayon is the most
fashionable fellow of the day."

But while the English appreciation of Irving is very creditable to
England, English conceit must not go so far as to suppose that it was
that appreciation which commended him to his own countrymen. At the
time when Sydney Smith wrote the article from which we have quoted
there was apparently an almost literary sterility in this country, and
the professional critics of the critical journals were, as Professor
Lounsbury says in his admirable _Life of Cooper_, undoubtedly greatly
affected by English opinion. But there was an American reading public
independent of the few literary periodicals, as was shown when
Cooper's _Spy_ was published at the end of 1821, the year in which
Bryant's first volume of poems and Dana's _Idle Man_ appeared. Cooper
had published his _Precaution_ in 1819, a book which Professor
Lounsbury is one of the very few men who are known to have read. He
was an unknown author. But the _Spy_ was instantly successful. Some of
the timid English journals awaited the English opinion, for Murray had
declined, upon Gifford's advice, to publish the book. But a publisher
was found, and England and Europe followed America in their approval.
Cooper always said, and truly, that it was to his countrymen alone
that he owed his first success, and his biographer concedes that the
success of the _Spy_ was determined before the opinion of Europe was

Nearly three years before, in May, 1819, the first number of Irving's
_Sketch Book_ was published. He sent the manuscript to his brother, who
had regretted Irving's refusal of a government place in the Navy
Board, and to whom he wrote, "My talents are merely literary, and all
my habits of thinking, reading, etc., have been in a different
direction from that required for the active politician.... In fact, I
consider myself at present as making a literary experiment, in the
course of which I only care to be kept in bread and cheese. Should it
not succeed--should my writings not acquire critical applause--I am
content to throw up the pen, and that to any commonplace employment.
But if they should succeed, it would repay me for a world of care and
privation to be placed among the established authors of my country,
and to win the affection of my countrymen."

The first number of the _Sketch Book_ was published simultaneously in
New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Its success was
immediate. In September, 1819, Irving wrote: "The manner in which the
work has been received, and the eulogiums that have been passed upon
it in the American papers and periodical works, have quite overwhelmed
me ... I feel almost appalled by such success." The echo of the
acclamation reached England. Murray at first declined to publish it,
as he had at first declined Cooper's _Spy_. But when England
ascertained that the American judgment was correct, and that it was a
popular work, Murray was willing to publish it.

The delightful genius which his country had recognized with joy it
never ceased proudly and tenderly to honor. When, in 1832, he returned
to his native land, as his latest biographer, Mr. Warner, records,
"America greeted her most famous literary man with a spontaneous
outburst of love and admiration." It was in his own country that he
had published his works. It was his own countrymen whose applause
apprised England of the charm of the new author; and it is a humorous
mentor who now teaches us that it was our happy docility to English
guidance which enabled us to recognize and honor him.

Was it docility to the same beneficent guidance which enabled us to
perceive the genius of Carlyle, whose works we first collected, and
taught England to read and admire? Did it enable us, also, to inform
England that in Robert Browning she had another poet? Was it the
same docility which enabled us to reveal to England one of her most
philosophic observers in Herbert Spencer, and to offer to Darwin his
most appreciative correspondents and interpreters in Chauncey Wright,
John Fiske, and Professors Gray and Wyman? There are many offences to
be scored against us, but failure to know our own literary genius is
not one of them.

Indeed, there is not one great literary fame in America that was not
first recognized here. Not to one of them has docility to English
literary opinion conducted us, as is often believed. Bryant and Cooper
and Irving, Bancroft and Prescott and Motley, Emerson and Channing,
Longfellow, Hawthorne, Lowell, Whittier, and Holmes were authors whom
we were content to admire and love without knowing or asking whether
England had heard of them, or what she thought of them. The
"greatness" of Poe England may have preceded us in recognizing. That
is an assertion which we are not disposed to dispute. But Walter Scott
was not more immediately popular and beloved in England than was
Washington Irving in America; and American guidance led England to
Scott quite as much as English guidance drew America to Irving.

The first number of the _Sketch Book_ contained the tale of _Rip Van
Winkle_, one of the most charming and suggestive of legends, whose
hero is an exceedingly pathetic creation. It is, indeed, a mere
sketch, a hint, a suggestion; but the imagination readily completes
it. It is the more remarkable and interesting because, although the
first American literary creation, it is not in the least
characteristic of American life, but, on the contrary, is a quiet and
delicate satire upon it. The kindly vagabond asserts the charm of
loitering idleness in the sweet leisure of woods and fields against
the characteristic American excitement of the overflowing crowd and
crushing competition of the city, its tremendous energy and incessant
devotion to money-getting.

It is not necessary to defend poor Rip, or to justify the morality of
his example. It is the imagination that interprets him; and how
soothing to those who give their lives to the furious accumulation of
the means of living to behold that figure stretched by the brook, or
finding nuts with the children, or sauntering homeward at sunset!
Later figures of our literature allure us--Hester Prynne, wrapped in
her cloak of Nersus, the Scarlet Letter, Hosea Biglow, Evangeline,
Uncle Tom, and Topsy--but the charm of this figure is unfading. The
new writers introduce us to their worlds, and with pleasure we make
the acquaintance of new friends. The new standards of another literary
spirit are raised, a fresh literary impulse surrounds us; but it
is not thunder that we hear in the Kaatskills on a still summer
afternoon it is the distant game of Hendrick Hudson and his men; and
on the shore of our river, rattling and roaring with the frenzied
haste and endless activity of prosperous industry, still Rip Van
Winkle lounges idly by, an unwasted figure of the imagination, the
constant and unconscious satirist of American life.

He seems to me peculiarly congenial with the temperament of Irving.
He, too, was essentially a loiterer. He had the same freshness of
sympathy, the same gentleness of nature, the same taste for leisure
and repose. His genius was reminiscent, and, as with all humorists,
its climate was that of April. The sun and the shower chased each
other. Irving's intellectual habit was emotional rather than
thoughtful. In politics and public affairs he took no part, although
office was often urged upon him, as when the friends of General
Jackson wished him to go as representative to Congress, or President
Van Buren offered him the secretaryship of the navy, or Tammany Hall,
in New York, unanimously and vociferously nominated him for mayor, an
incident in the later annals of the city which transcends the most
humorous touch in _Knickerbocker's History_. He was appointed
secretary of legation in England in 1829, and in 1842, when Daniel
Webster was secretary of state, minister to Spain.

But what we call practical politics was always distasteful to him. The
spirit which I once heard laugh at a young man new in politics because
he treated "the boys" with his own good cigars instead of buying bad
ones at the saloon--the spirit which I once heard assure a man of
public ability and fitness that he could never reach political office
unless he pushed himself, and paid agents to buy votes, because no man
could expect an office to be handed to him on a gold plate--the spirit
which, to my knowledge, displayed a handful of bank-notes in the
anteroom of a legislature, and exclaimed, "That's what makes the
laws!"--this was a spirit which, like other honorable men and
patriotic Americans, Irving despised.

He was a gentleman of manly feeling and of moral refinement, who had
had glimpses of what is called "the inside" of politics; and, as he
believed these qualities would make participation in politics
uncomfortable, he abstained. To those of us who are wiser than he, who
know that simple honesty and public spirit and self-respect and
contempt of sneaking and fawning and bribery and crawling are the
conditions of political preferment, Irving, in not perceiving this,
must naturally seem to be a queer, wrong-headed, and rather
super-celestial American, who had lived too much in the heated
atmosphere of European aristocracies and altogether too little in the
pure and bracing air of American ward politics and caucuses and
conventions. To use an old New York phrase, Irving preferred to stroll
and fish and chat with Rip Van Winkle rather than to "run wid der

The _Sketch Book_ made Irving famous, and with its predecessor,
_Knickerbocker_, and its successor, _Bracebridge Hall_, disclosed the
essential quality of his genius. But all these books performed another
and greater service than that of winning the world to read an American
book: this was the restoration of a kindlier feeling between the two
countries which, by all ties, should be the two most friendly
countries on the globe. The books were written when our old bitterness
of feeling against England had been renewed by the later war. In the
thirty years since the Revolution ended we had patriotically fostered
the quarrel with John Bull. Our domestic politics had turned largely
upon that feeling, and the game of French and English was played
almost as fiercely upon our side of the ocean as upon their own.

The great epoch of our extraordinary material development and
prosperity had not opened, and, even had John Bull been friendlier
than he was, it would have been the very flattery of falsehood had he
complimented our literature, our science, our art. Sydney Smith's
question, "Who reads an American book?" was contemptuous and
exasperating. But here was an American who wrote books which John Bull
was delighted to read, and was compelled to confess that they
depicted-the most characteristic and attractive aspects of his own
life with more delicate grace than that of any living Englishman.

It was Irving who recalled the old English Christmas. It was his
cordial and picturesque description of the great holiday of
Christendom which preceded and stimulated Dickens's _Christmas
Carols_ and Thackeray's _Holiday Tales_. It was the genial spirit
of Christmas, native to his gentle heart and his happy temperament,
which made Irving, as Thackeray called him, a peacemaker between the
mother-country and her proud and sensitive offspring of the West. He
showed John Bull that England is ours as well as his.

"Old fellow," he said, "you cannot help yourself. It is the same blood
that flows in our veins, the same language that we speak, the same
traditions that we cherish. If you love liberty, so do we; if you will
see fair play, so will we. It is natural to you, so it is to us. We
cannot escape our blood. Shakespeare is not your poet more than ours.
If your ancestors danced round the Maypole, so did our ancestors in
your ancestors' shoes. If Old England cherished Christmas and New
England did not, Bradford and Endicott and Cotton were Englishmen, not
Americans. If old English life and customs and traditions are dear to
you, listen to my story, and judge whether they are less dear to us."
Then, with a merry smile, the young stranger holds out his hand to
John Bull, and exclaims, "Behold, here is my arm! I bare it before
your eyes, and here it is--it is the strawberry-mark; come to my
bosom, I am your long-lost brother."

It was an incalculable service which Irving rendered in renewing a
common feeling between England and America. It was involuntary,
because in writing he had no such purpose. He was only following the
bent of his own taste, and his works reflected only his individual
sympathies. But it was this very fact--it was the English instinct in
the American, the appreciation native in the heart of the Western
stranger of the true poetic charm of England--which was the spell of
the magician. Irving had the same imaginative enthusiasm for
traditional and poetic England that Burke had for political England.
Indeed, it is an England which never actually existed except in the
English and American imagination. The coarse, mercenary, material
England which Lecky photographs in his history of the eighteenth
century was the same England in which Burke lived, and which his
glowing imagination exalted into the magnificent image of
constitutional liberty before which he bowed his great head. So with
the old England that Irving drew. He saw with poetic fancy a rural
Arcadia, and reproduced the vision with airy grace and called it
England. No wonder that John Bull was delighted with an artist who
could paint so fascinating a picture, and write under it John Bull's

To change a word in Marvell's noble lines, when Irving was in England

"He nothing common saw or mean
Upon that memorable scene."

Only an American could have seen England as he described it, and
invested it with an enchantment which the mass of Englishmen had
neither suspected nor perceived. Irving's instinct was that of
Hawthorne afterwards, who called England "Our Old Home". There is a
foolish American habit growing patriotically out of our old
contentions with England, and politically out of our desire to
conciliate the Irish vote in this country, of branding as servile and
un-American the natural susceptibility of people of English descent,
but natives of another land, to the charm of their ancestral country.
But the American is greatly to be pitied who thinks to prove the
purity of his patriotism by flouting the land in which he has a
legitimate right, the land of Alfred and Runnymede, of Chaucer and
Shakespeare and Milton, of Hampden and Cromwell, of Newton and Bunyan,
of Somers and Chatham and Edmund Burke, the cradle of constitutional
liberty and parliamentary government. If the great body of the
literature of our language in which we delight, if the sources of our
law and politics, if the great exploits of contemporary scholarship
and science, are largely beyond our boundaries, yet are legitimately
ours as well as all that we have ourselves achieved, why should we
spurn any of our just and hereditary share in the great English
traditions of civilization and freedom?

Irving returned to America in 1832, and here he afterwards remained,
except during his absence as minister in Spain. In an earlier visit to
that country he had felt the spell of its romantic history, and had
written the _Life of Columbus_, the _Conquest of Granada_, and the
_Chronicles of the Alhambra_. During all his later years he was busy
with his pen, and, while the modest author had risen to the chief
place in American literature, its later constellation was rising into
the heavens.

But his intrinsic modesty never disappeared either from the works or
the character of the benign writer. In the height of his renown there
was no kind of presumption or conceit in his simple and generous
breast. Some time after his return from his long absence in Europe,
and before Putnam became his publisher, Irving found some
disinclination upon the part of publishers to issue new editions of
his books, and he expressed, with entire good humor, the belief that
he had had his day.

It is doubtless true, as _Blackwood_ remarked, with what we may call
_Blackwood_ courtesy, when Mr. Lowell was American minister in
England, that Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Addison, Pope, and so many
more "will not be replaced by Mr. Washington Irving and Mr. Lowell".
But it is equally true that, since Swift, _Blackwood_ cannot find in
English literature political satire more trenchant, humorous,
forcible, and effective than the _Biglow Papers_, and nothing in Swift
more original. It is said that it is ludicrous to compare the mild
humor of Rip Van Winkle with the "robustious fun of Swift". But this
is a curious "derangement of epitaphs". Swift has wit, and satiric
power, and burning invective, and ribaldry, and caustic, scornful
humor; but fun, in any just sense, he has not. He is too fierce to be
funny. The tender and imaginative play of Rip Van Winkle are wholly
beyond the reach of Swift.

Irving and other American writers are not the rivals of their British
associates in the literature of the English language--they are worthy
comrades. Wordsworth and Byron are not Shakespeare and Milton, but
they are nevertheless Wordsworth and Byron, and their place is secure.
So the brows of Irving and Cooper, of Bryant and Longfellow, and of
Lowell, of Emerson and Hawthorne do not crave the laurels of any other
master. The perturbed spirit of _Blackwood_ may rest in the
confident assurance that no generous and intelligent student of our
literature admires Gibbon less because he enjoys Macaulay, or
depreciates Bacon because he delights in Emerson, or denies the sting
of Gulliver because he feels the light touch of Knickerbocker. It is
with good fame as with true love:

"True love in this differs from gold and clay,
That to divide is not to take away."

In the year that Irving published the _Sketch Book_, Cooper published
his first novel, and two years before Bryant's _Thanatopsis_ had been
published. When, forty years afterwards, in the last year of his life,
the last volume of the _Life of Washington_ was issued, Irving and
Bryant and Cooper were no longer the solitary chiefs of our
literature. An illustrious company had received the torch
unextinguished from their hands--Whittier, Hawthorne, Emerson,
Longfellow, Holmes, Lowell, Bancroft, Prescott, Motley, Parkman, Mrs.
Stowe, had all taken their places, yet all gladly and proudly
acknowledged Irving as the patriarch. It is our happy fortune that
these names, of which we are all proud, are not those of men of
letters only, but of typical American citizens. The old traditions of
the literary life, the mad roystering, the dissipation, Grub Street,
the sponging-house, the bailiff, the garret, and the jail, genius that
fawns for place and flatters for hire, the golden talent wrapped in a
napkin, and often a dirty and ragged napkin, have vanished in our
American annals of letters. Pure, upright, faithful, industrious,
honorable, and honored, there is scarcely one American author of
eminence who may not be counted as a good and useful citizen of the
Republic of the Union, and a shining light of the Republic of Letters.

Of Washington Irving, as of so many of this noble company, it is
especially true that the author was the man. The healthy fun and merry
satire of Diedrich Knickerbocker, the sweet humor and quick sympathy
and simple pathos of Geoffrey Crayon, were those of the modest master
of Sunnyside. Every literary man of Irving's time, whether old or
young, had nothing but affectionate praise of his artless urbanity and
exhaustless good-nature. These qualities are delightfully reflected in
Thackeray's stories of him in the _Roundabout Papers_ upon Irving and
Macaulay, "the Goldsmith and the Gibbon of our time".

"He came to one of my lectures in Washington," Thackeray says, "and
the retiring President, Mr. Fillmore, and his successor, Mr. Pierce,
were present. 'Two kings of Brentford smelling at one rose,' said
Irving, with his good-natured smile. In his little bower of a home at
Sunnyside he was always accessible. One English newspaper man came and
introduced himself, and partook of luncheon with the family, and,
while the host fell into a little doze, as was his habit, the wary
Englishman took a swift inventory of everything in the house, and served
up the description to the British public, including the nap of his
entertainer. At another time, Irving said, 'Two persons came to me,
and one held me in conversation while the other miscreant took my
portrait.'" Thackeray tells these little stories with admiring
sympathy. His manly heart always grew tender over his fellow-authors
who had no acrid drop in their humor, and Irving's was as sweet as

It is late for a fresh compliment to be paid to him, but the London
_Spectator_ paid it in 1883, the year of his centenary, by saying,
"Since the time of Pope more than one hundred essayists have attempted
to excel or to equal the _Tatler_ and _Spectator_. One alone, in a few
of his best efforts, may be said to have rivalled them, and he is
Washington Irving." The _Spectator_ adds that one has surpassed them,
"the incomparable Elia".

Irving's temperament, however, was much more congenial with that of
the early essayists than Charles Lamb's, and his pictures of English
country life in _Bracebridge Hall_ have just the delicate, imaginative
touch of the sketches of Sir Roger de Coverley. But in treating
distinctively English topics, however airy and vivid his touch may be,
Irving is manifestly enthralled by his admiration for the literary
masters of the Anne time, and by the spirit of their writing. It is in
the Knickerbocker world that he is characteristically at home. Indeed,
it is his humorous and graphic fancy more than the sober veracity of
history which has given popular and perpetual form to the early life
of New York, and it is Irving who has enriched it with romantic
tradition such as suffuses the story of no other State.

The bay, the river, the city, the Kaatskill Mountains, as Choate said
of Faneuil Hall and Webster, breathe and burn of him. He has charmed
the Hudson with a peculiar spell. The quaint life of its old Dutch
villages, the droll legend of Sleepy Hollow, the pathetic fate of Rip
Van Winkle, the drowsy wisdom of Communipaw, the marvellous
municipality of New Amsterdam, and the Nose of Anthony guarding the
Highlands, with the myriad sly and graphic allusions and descriptions
strewn all through his books, have made the river Irving's river, and
the state Irving's state, and the city Irving's city, so that the
first instinctive question of every lover of Irving from beyond the
state, as he enters Central Park and beholds its memorial statues, is,
"Where is the statue of Irving?"

Unhappily, echo, and not the park guide-book, answers. There is,
indeed, a bust, and, in a general sense, "Si monumentum" may serve for
a reply. From that point of view, indeed, Westminster Abbey, as the
monument of English heroes in letters and arms, in the Church and the
State, would be superfluous. But the abbey is a shrine of pilgrimage
because of the very fact that it is the burial-place of famous
Englishmen. The Central Park, in New York, is already a Walhalla of
famous men, and the statue that would first suggest itself as
peculiarly fitting for the Park is of the New-Yorker who first made
New York distinctively famous in literature--the New-Yorker whose
kindly genius first made American literature respected by the world.

Reversing the question, "Where be the bad people buried?" the
wondering pilgrim in the Park asks, "Where be Irving and Bryant and
Cooper?" They were not Americans only, but, by birth or choice,
New-Yorkers, and the three distinctive figures of our early literature.
It was very touching to see the venerable Bryant, in the soft May
sunshine, when the statue of Halleck was unveiled, standing with bare
head and speaking of his old friend and comrade. But who that listened
could not see, through tender mists of years, the grave and reverend
form of the speaker himself, transformed to marble or bronze, sitting
serene forever beneath the shadowing trees, side by side with the poet
of Faust and the worshipper of Highland Mary?

But Bryant would have been the first to name Washington Irving as the
most renowned distinctively American man of letters whose figure,
reproduced characteristically and with simple quaintness, should
decorate the Park. To a statue of Washington Irving all the gates
should open, as every heart would open, in welcome. That half-humorous
turn of the head and almost the twinkling eye, that brisk and jaunty
air, that springing step, that modest and gentle and benign presence,
all these could be suggested by the artist, and in their happy
combination the pleased loiterer would perceive old Diedrich
Knickerbocker and the summer dreamer of the Hudson legends, the
charming biographer of Columbus and of Goldsmith, the cheerful gossip
of Wolfert's Roost, and the mellow and courteous Geoffrey Crayon, who
first taught incredulous Europe that beyond the sea there were men
also, and that at last all the world must read an American book.

Irving was seventy-six years old when he died, late in 1859. Born in
the year in which the Revolution ended, he died on the eve of the
civil war. His life exactly covered the period during which the
American republic was an experiment. It ended just as the invincible
power of free institutions was to be finally demonstrated. His life
had been one of singular happiness, both of temperament and
circumstance. His nature was too simple and gentle to breed rivalries
or to tolerate animosities. Through the sharpest struggles of our
politics he passed without bitterness of feeling and with universal
respect, and his eyes happily closed before seeing a civil war which,
although the most righteous of all wars, would have broken his heart.
The country was proud of him: the older authors knew in him not a
rival, but a friend, the younger loved him as a father. Such love, I
think, is better than fame. On the day of his burial in the ground
overlooking the Hudson and the valley of Sleepy Hollow, unable to
reach Tarrytown in time for the funeral, I came down the shore of the
river which he loved and immortalized. As the train hastened and wound
along, I saw the Catskills draped in autumnal mist, not concealing,
but irradiating them with lingering and pathetic splendor. Far away
towards the south the river-bank on which his home lay was Sunnyside
still, for the sky was cloudless and soft with serene sunshine. I
could not but remember his last words to me, more than a year before,
when his book was finished and his health was failing: "I am getting
ready to go; I am shutting up my doors and windows", and I could not
but feel that they were all open now, and bright with the light of
eternal morning.

Book of the day:
Facebook Google Reddit StumbleUpon Twitter Pinterest