This etext was produced by David Widger
By Charles Dudley Warner
WASHINGTON IRVING, the first biography published in the American Men of Letters Series, came out in December, 1881. It was an expansion of a biographical and critical sketch prefixed to the first volume of a new edition of Irving’s works which began to appear in 1880. It was entitled the Geoffrey Crayon edition, and was in twenty-seven volumes, which were brought out, in most cases, in successive months. The first volume appeared in April. The essay was subsequently published during the same year in a volume entitled “Studies of Irving,” which contained also Bryant’s oration and George P. Putnam’s personal reminiscences.
“The Work of Washington Irving” was published early in August, 1893. Originally it was delivered as a lecture to the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences on April 3, 1893, the one hundred and tenth anniversary of Irving’s birth.
T. R. L.
It is over twenty years since the death of Washington Irving removed that personal presence which is always a powerful, and sometimes the sole, stimulus to the sale of an author’s books, and which strongly affects the contemporary judgment of their merits. It is nearly a century since his birth, which was almost coeval with that of the Republic, for it took place the year the British troops evacuated the city of New York, and only a few months before General Washington marched in at the head of the Continental army and took possession of the metropolis. For fifty years Irving charmed and instructed the American people, and was the author who held, on the whole, the first place in their affections. As he was the first to lift American literature into the popular respect of Europe, so for a long time he was the chief representative of the American name in the world of letters. During this period probably no citizen of the Republic, except the Father of his Country, had so wide a reputation as his namesake, Washington Irving.
It is time to inquire what basis this great reputation had in enduring qualities, what portion of it was due to local and favoring circumstances, and to make an impartial study of the author’s literary rank and achievement.
The tenure of a literary reputation is the most uncertain and fluctuating of all. The popularity of an author seems to depend quite as much upon fashion or whim as upon a change in taste or in literary form. Not only is contemporary judgment often at fault, but posterity is perpetually revising its opinion. We are accustomed to say that the final rank of an author is settled by the slow consensus of mankind in disregard of the critics; but the rank is after all determined by the few best minds of any given age, and the popular judgment has very little to do with it. Immediate popularity, or currency, is a nearly valueless criterion of merit. The settling of high rank even in the popular mind does not necessarily give currency; the so-called best authors are not those most widely read at any given time. Some who attain the position of classics are subject to variations in popular and even in scholarly favor or neglect. It happens to the princes of literature to encounter periods of varying duration when their names are revered and their books are not read. The growth, not to say the fluctuation, of Shakespeare’s popularity is one of the curiosities of literary history. Worshiped by his contemporaries, apostrophized by Milton only fourteen pears after his death as the “dear son of memory, great heir to fame,”
“So sepulchred in such pomp dost lie, That kings, for such a tomb, would wish to die,”
he was neglected by the succeeding age, the subject of violent extremes of opinion in the eighteenth century, and so lightly esteemed by some that Hume could doubt if he were a poet “capable of furnishing a proper entertainment to a refined and intelligent audience,” and attribute to the rudeness of his “disproportioned and misshapen” genius the “reproach of barbarism” which the English nation had suffered from all its neighbors. Only recently has the study of him by English scholars–I do not refer to the verbal squabbles over the text–been proportioned to his preeminence, and his fame is still slowly asserting itself among foreign peoples.
There are already signs that we are not to accept as the final judgment upon the English contemporaries of Irving the currency their writings have now. In the case of Walter Scott, although there is already visible a reaction against a reaction, he is not, at least in America, read by this generation as he was by the last. This faint reaction is no doubt a sign of a deeper change impending in philosophic and metaphysical speculation. An age is apt to take a lurch in a body one way or another, and those most active in it do not always perceive how largely its direction is determined by what are called mere systems of philosophy. The novelist may not know whether he is steered by Kant, or Hegel, or Schopenhauer. The humanitarian novel, the fictions of passion, of realism, of doubt, the poetry and the essays addressed to the mood of unrest, of questioning, to the scientific spirit and to the shifting attitudes of social change and reform, claim the attention of an age that is completely adrift in regard to the relations of the supernatural and the material, the ideal and the real. It would be natural if in such a time of confusion the calm tones of unexaggerated literary art should be not so much heeded as the more strident voices. Yet when the passing fashion of this day is succeeded by the fashion of another, that which is most acceptable to the thought and feeling of the present may be without an audience; and it may happen that few recent authors will be read as Scott and the writers of the early part of this century will be read. It may, however, be safely predicted that those writers of fiction worthy to be called literary artists will best retain their hold who have faithfully painted the manners of their own time.
Irving has shared the neglect of the writers of his generation. It would be strange, even in America, if this were not so. The development of American literature (using the term in its broadest sense) in the past forty years is greater than could have been expected in a nation which had its ground to clear, its wealth to win, and its new governmental experiment to adjust; if we confine our view to the last twenty years, the national production is vast in amount and encouraging in quality. It suffices to say of it here, in a general way, that the most vigorous activity has been in the departments of history, of applied science, and the discussion of social and economic problems. Although pure literature has made considerable gains, the main achievement has been in other directions. The audience of the literary artist has been less than that of the reporter of affairs and discoveries and the special correspondent. The age is too busy, too harassed, to have time for literature; and enjoyment of writings like those of Irving depends upon leisure of mind. The mass of readers have cared less for form than for novelty and news and the satisfying of a recently awakened curiosity. This was inevitable in an era of journalism, one marked by the marvelous results attained in the fields of religion, science, and art, by the adoption of the comparative method. Perhaps there is no better illustration of the vigor and intellectual activity of the age than a living English writer, who has traversed and illuminated almost every province of modern thought, controversy, and scholarship; but who supposes that Mr. Gladstone has added anything to permanent literature? He has been an immense force in his own time, and his influence the next generation will still feel and acknowledge, while it reads, not the writings of Mr. Gladstone, but, maybe, those of the author of “Henry Esmond” and the biographer of “Rab and His Friends.” De Quincey divides literature into two sorts, the literature of power and the literature of knowledge. The latter is of necessity for to-day only, and must be revised to-morrow. The definition has scarcely De Quincey’s usual verbal felicity, but we can apprehend the distinction he intended to make.
It is to be noted also, and not with regard to Irving only, that the attention of young and old readers has been so occupied and distracted by the flood of new books, written with the single purpose of satisfying the wants of the day, produced and distributed with marvelous cheapness and facility, that the standard works of approved literature remain for the most part unread upon the shelves. Thirty years ago Irving was much read in America by young people, and his clear style helped to form a good taste and correct literary habits. It is not so now. The manufacturers of books, periodicals, and newspapers for the young keep the rising generation fully occupied, with a result to its taste and mental fiber which, to say the least of it, must be regarded with some apprehension. The “plant,” in the way of money and writing industry invested in the production of juvenile literature, is so large and is so permanent an interest, that it requires more discriminating consideration than can be given to it in a passing paragraph.
Besides this, and with respect to Irving in particular, there has been in America a criticism–sometimes called the destructive, sometimes the Donnybrook Fair–that found “earnestness” the only amusing thing in the world, that brought to literary art the test of utility, and disparaged what is called the “Knickerbocker School” (assuming Irving to be the head of it) as wanting in purpose and virility, a merely romantic development of the post-Revolutionary period. And it has been to some extent the fashion to damn with faint admiration the pioneer if not the creator of American literature as the “genial” Irving.
Before I pass to an outline of the career of this representative American author, it is necessary to refer for a moment to certain periods, more or less marked, in our literature. I do not include in it the works of writers either born in England or completely English in training, method, and tradition, showing nothing distinctively American in their writings except the incidental subject. The first authors whom we may regard as characteristic of the new country–leaving out the productions of speculative theology–devoted their genius to politics. It is in the political writings immediately preceding and following the Revolution– such as those of Hamilton, Madison, Jay, Franklin, Jefferson that the new birth of a nation of original force and ideas is declared. It has been said, and I think the statement can be maintained, that for any parallel to those treatises on the nature of government, in respect to originality and vigor, we must go back to classic times. But literature, that is, literature which is an end in itself and not a means to something else, did not exist in America before Irving. Some foreshadowings (the autobiographical fragment of Franklin was not published till 1817) of its coming may be traced, but there can be no question that his writings were the first that bore the national literary stamp, that he first made the nation conscious of its gift and opportunity, and that he first announced to trans-Atlantic readers the entrance of America upon the literary field. For some time he was our only man of letters who had a reputation beyond seas.
Irving was not, however, the first American who made literature a profession and attempted to live on its fruits. This distinction belongs to Charles Brockden Brown, who was born in Philadelphia, January 27, 1771, and, before the appearance in a newspaper of Irving’s juvenile essays in 1802, had published several romances, which were hailed as original and striking productions by his contemporaries, and even attracted attention in England. As late as 1820 a prominent British review gives Mr. Brown the first rank in our literature as an original writer and characteristically American. The reader of to-day who has the curiosity to inquire into the correctness of this opinion will, if he is familiar with the romances of the eighteenth century, find little originality in Brown’s stories, and nothing distinctively American. The figures who are moved in them seem to be transported from the pages of foreign fiction to the New World, not as it was, but as it existed in the minds of European sentimentalists.
Mr. Brown received a fair education in a classical school in his native city, and studied law, which he abandoned on the threshold of practice, as Irving did, and for the same reason. He had the genuine literary impulse, which he obeyed against all the arguments and entreaties of his friends. Unfortunately, with a delicate physical constitution he had a mind of romantic sensibility, and in the comparative inaction imposed by his frail health he indulged in visionary speculation, and in solitary wanderings which developed the habit of sentimental musing. It was natural that such reveries should produce morbid romances. The tone of them is that of the unwholesome fiction of his time, in which the “seducer” is a prominent and recognized character in social life, and female virtue is the frail sport of opportunity. Brown’s own life was fastidiously correct, but it is a curious commentary upon his estimate of the natural power of resistance to vice in his time, that he regarded his feeble health as good fortune, since it protected him from the temptations of youth and virility.
While he was reading law he constantly exercised his pen in the composition of essays, some of which were published under the title of the “Rhapsodist;” but it was not until 1797 that his career as an author began, by the publication of “Alcuin: a Dialogue on the Rights of Women.” This and the romances which followed it show the powerful influence upon him of the school of fiction of William Godwin, and the movement of emancipation of which Mary Wollstonecraft was the leader. The period of social and political ferment during which “Alcuin” was put forth was not unlike that which may be said to have reached its height in extravagance and millennial expectation in 1847-48. In “Alcuin” are anticipated most of the subsequent discussions on the right of women to property and to self-control, and the desirability of revising the marriage relation. The injustice of any more enduring union than that founded upon the inclination of the hour is as ingeniously urged in “Alcuin” as it has been in our own day.
Mr. Brown’s reputation rests upon six romances: “Wieland,” “Ormond,” “Arthur Mervyn,” “Edgar Huntly,” “Clara Howard,” and “Jane Talbot.” The first five were published in the interval between the spring of 1798 and the summer of 1801, in which he completed his thirtieth year. “Jane Talbot” appeared somewhat later. In scenery and character, these romances are entirely unreal. There is in them an affectation of psychological purpose which is not very well sustained, and a somewhat clumsy introduction of supernatural machinery. Yet they have a power of engaging the attention in the rapid succession of startling and uncanny incidents and in adventures in which the horrible is sometimes dangerously near the ludicrous. Brown had not a particle of humor. Of literary art there is little, of invention considerable; and while the style is to a certain extent unformed and immature, it is neither feeble nor obscure, and admirably serves the author’s purpose of creating what the children call a “crawly” impression. There is undeniable power in many of his scenes, notably in the descriptions of the yellow fever in Philadelphia, found in the romance of “Arthur Mervyn.” There is, however, over all of them a false and pallid light; his characters are seen in a spectral atmosphere. If a romance is to be judged, not by literary rules, but by its power of making an impression upon the mind, such power as a ghastly story has, told by the chimney-corner on a tempestuous night, then Mr. Brown’s romances cannot be dismissed without a certain recognition. But they never represented anything distinctively American, and their influence upon American literature is scarcely discernible.
Subsequently Mr. Brown became interested in political subjects, and wrote upon them with vigor and sagacity. He was the editor of two short-lived literary periodicals which were nevertheless useful in their day: “The Monthly Magazine arid American Review,” begun in New York in the spring of 1798, and ending in the autumn of 1800; and “The Literary Magazine and American Register,” which was established in Philadelphia in 1803–It was for this periodical that Mr. Brown, who visited Irving in that year, sought in vain to enlist the service of the latter, who, then a youth of nineteen, had a little reputation as the author of some humorous essays in the “Morning Chronicle” newspaper.
Charles Brockden Brown died, the victim of a lingering consumption, in 1810, at the age of thirty-nine. In pausing for a moment upon his incomplete and promising career, we should not forget to recall the strong impression he made upon his contemporaries as a man of genius, the testimony to the charm of his conversation and the goodness of his heart, nor the pioneer service he rendered to letters before the provincial fetters were at all loosened.
The advent of Cooper, Bryant, and Halleck was some twenty years after the recognition of Irving; but thereafter the stars thicken in our literary sky, and when in 1832 Irving returned from his long sojourn in Europe, he found an immense advance in fiction, poetry, and historical composition. American literature was not only born,–it was able to go alone. We are not likely to overestimate the stimulus to this movement given by Irving’s example, and by his success abroad. His leadership is recognized in the respectful attitude towards him of all his contemporaries in America. And the cordiality with which he gave help whenever it was asked, and his eagerness to acknowledge merit in others, secured him the affection of all the literary class, which is popularly supposed to have a rare appreciation of the defects of fellow craftsmen.
The period from 1830 to 1860 was that of our greatest purely literary achievement, and, indeed, most of the greater names of to-day were familiar before 1850. Conspicuous exceptions are Motley and Parkman and a few belles-lettres writers, whose novels and stories mark a distinct literary transition since the War of the Rebellion. In the period from 1845 to 1860, there was a singular development of sentimentalism; it had been, growing before, it did not altogether disappear at the time named, and it was so conspicuous that this may properly be called the sentimental era in our literature. The causes of it, and its relation to our changing national character, are worthy the study of the historian. In politics, the discussion of constitutional questions, of tariffs and finance, had given way to moral agitations. Every political movement was determined by its relation to slavery. Eccentricities of all sorts were developed. It was the era of “transcendentalism” in New England, of “come-outers” there and elsewhere, of communistic experiments, of reform notions about marriage, about woman’s dress, about diet; through the open door of abolitionism women appeared upon its platform, demanding a various emancipation; the agitation for total abstinence from intoxicating drinks got under full headway, urged on moral rather than on the statistical and scientific grounds of to-day; reformed drunkards went about from town to town depicting to applauding audiences the horrors of delirium tremens,–one of these peripatetics led about with him a goat, perhaps as a scapegoat and sin-offering; tobacco was as odious as rum; and I remember that George Thompson, the eloquent apostle of emancipation, during his tour in this country, when on one occasion he was the cynosure of a protracted anti-slavery meeting at Peterboro, the home of Gerrit Smith, deeply offended some of his co-workers, and lost the admiration of many of his admirers, the maiden devotees of green tea, by his use of snuff. To “lift up the voice” and wear long hair were signs of devotion to a purpose.
In that seething time, the lighter literature took a sentimental tone, and either spread itself in manufactured fine writing, or lapsed into a reminiscent and melting mood. In a pretty affectation, we were asked to meditate upon the old garret, the deserted hearth, the old letters, the old well-sweep, the dead baby, the little shoes; we were put into a mood in which we were defenseless against the lukewarm flood of the Tupperean Philosophy. Even the newspapers caught the bathetic tone. Every “local” editor breathed his woe over the incidents of the police court, the falling leaf, the tragedies of the boardinghouse, in the most lachrymose periods he could command, and let us never lack fine writing, whatever might be the dearth of news. I need not say how suddenly and completely this affectation was laughed out of sight by the coming of the “humorous” writer, whose existence is justified by the excellent service he performed in clearing the tearful atmosphere. His keen and mocking method, which is quite distinct from the humor of Goldsmith and Irving, and differs, in degree at least, from the comic-almanac exaggeration and coarseness which preceded it, puts its foot on every bud of sentiment, holds few things sacred, and refuses to regard anything in life seriously. But it has no mercy for any sham.
I refer to this sentimental era–remembering that its literary manifestation was only a surface disease, and recognizing fully the value of the great moral movement in purifying the national life–because many regard its literary weakness as a legitimate outgrowth of the Knickerbocker School, and hold Irving in a manner responsible for it. But I find nothing in the manly sentiment and true tenderness of Irving to warrant the sentimental gush of his followers, who missed his corrective humor as completely as they failed to catch his literary art. Whatever note of localism there was in the Knickerbocker School, however dilettante and unfruitful it was, it was not the legitimate heir of the broad and eclectic genius of Irving. The nature of that genius we shall see in his life.
Washington Irving was born in the city of New York, April 3, 1783. He was the eighth son of William and Sarah Irving, and the youngest of eleven children, three of whom died in infancy. His parents, though of good origin, began life in humble circumstances. His father was born on the island of Shapinska. His family, one of the most respectable in Scotland, traced its descent from William De Irwyn, the secretary and armorbearer of Robert Bruce; but at the time of the birth of William Irving its fortunes had gradually decayed, and the lad sought his livelihood, according to the habit of the adventurous Orkney Islanders, on the sea.
It was during the French War, and while he was serving as a petty officer in an armed packet plying between Falmouth and New York, that he met Sarah Sanders, a beautiful girl, the only daughter of John and Anna Sanders, who had the distinction of being the granddaughter of an English curate. The youthful pair were married in 1761, and two years after embarked for New York, where they landed July 18, 1763. Upon settling in New York William Irving quit the sea and took to trade, in which he was successful until his business was broken up by the Revolutionary War. In this contest he was a stanch Whig, and suffered for his opinions at the hands of the British occupants of the city, and both he and his wife did much to alleviate the misery of the American prisoners. In this charitable ministry his wife, who possessed a rarely generous and sympathetic nature, was especially zealous, supplying the prisoners with food from her own table, visiting those who were ill, and furnishing them with clothing and other necessaries.
Washington was born in a house on William Street, about half-way between Fulton and John; the following year the family moved across the way into one of the quaint structures of the time, its gable end with attic window towards the street; the fashion of which, and very likely the bricks, came from Holland. In this homestead the lad grew up, and it was not pulled down till 1849, ten years before his death. The patriot army occupied the city. “Washington’s work is ended,” said the mother, “and the child shall be named after him.” When the first President was again in New York, the first seat of the new government, a Scotch maid- servant of the family, catching the popular enthusiasm, one day followed the hero into a shop and presented the lad to him. “Please, your honor,” said Lizzie, all aglow, “here’s a bairn was named after you.” And the grave Virginian placed his hand on the boy’s head and gave him his blessing. The touch could not have been more efficacious, though it might have lingered longer, if he had known he was propitiating his future biographer.
New York at the time of our author’s birth was a rural city of about twenty-three thousand inhabitants, clustered about the Battery. It did not extend northward to the site of the present City Hall Park; and beyond, then and for several years afterwards, were only country residences, orchards, and corn-fields. The city was half burned down during the war, and had emerged from it in a dilapidated condition. There was still a marked separation between the Dutch and the English residents, though the Irvings seem to have been on terms of intimacy with the best of both nationalities. The habits of living were primitive; the manners were agreeably free; conviviality at the table was the fashion, and strong expletives had not gone out of use in conversation. Society was the reverse of intellectual: the aristocracy were the merchants and traders; what literary culture found expression was formed on English models, dignified and plentifully garnished with Latin and Greek allusions; the commercial spirit ruled, and the relaxations and amusements partook of its hurry and excitement. In their gay, hospitable, and mercurial character, the inhabitants were true progenitors of the present metropolis. A newspaper had been established in 1732, and a theater had existed since 1750. Although the town had a rural aspect, with its quaint dormer-window houses, its straggling lanes and roads, and the water-pumps in the middle of the streets, it had the aspirations of a city, and already much of the metropolitan air.
These were the surroundings in which the boy’s literary talent was to develop. His father was a deacon in the Presbyterian church, a sedate, God-fearing man, with the strict severity of the Scotch Covenanter, serious in his intercourse with his family, without sympathy in the amusements of his children; he was not without tenderness in his nature, but the exhibition of it was repressed on principle,–a man of high character and probity, greatly esteemed by his associates. He endeavored to bring up his children in sound religious principles, and to leave no room in their lives for triviality. One of the two weekly half-holidays was required for the catechism, and the only relaxation from the three church services on Sunday was the reading of “Pilgrim’s Progress.” This cold and severe discipline at home would have been intolerable but for the more lovingly demonstrative and impulsive character of the mother, whose gentle nature and fine intellect won the tender veneration of her children. Of the father they stood in awe; his conscientious piety failed to waken any religious sensibility in them, and they revolted from a teaching which seemed to regard everything that was pleasant as wicked. The mother, brought up an Episcopalian, conformed to the religious forms and worship of her husband, but she was never in sympathy with his rigid views. The children were repelled from the creed of their father, and subsequently all of them except one became attached to the Episcopal Church. Washington, in order to make sure of his escape, and feel safe while he was still constrained to attend his father’s church, went stealthily to Trinity Church at an early age, and received the rite of confirmation. The boy was full of vivacity, drollery, and innocent mischief. His sportiveness and disinclination to religious seriousness gave his mother some anxiety, and she would look at him, says his biographer, with a half-mournful admiration, and exclaim, “O Washington! if you were only good! “He had a love of music, which became later in life a passion, and great fondness for the theater. The stolen delight of the theater he first tasted in company with a boy who was somewhat his senior, but destined to be his literary comrade,–James K. Paulding, whose sister was the wife of Irving’s brother William. Whenever he could afford this indulgence, he stole away early to the theater in John Street, remained until it was time to return to the family prayers at nine, after which he would retire to his room, slip through his window and down the roof to a back alley, and return to enjoy the after-piece.
Young Irving’s school education was desultory, pursued under several more or less incompetent masters, and was over at the age of sixteen. The teaching does not seem to have had much discipline or solidity; he studied Latin a few months, but made no other incursion into the classics. The handsome, tender-hearted, truthful, susceptible boy was no doubt a dawdler in routine studies, but he assimilated what suited him. He found his food in such pieces of English literature as were floating about, in “Robinson Crusoe” and “Sindbad;” at ten he was inspired by a translation of “Orlando Furioso;” he devoured books of voyages and travel; he could turn a neat verse, and his scribbling propensities were exercised in the composition of childish plays. The fact seems to be that the boy was a dreamer and saunterer; he himself says that he used to wander about the pier heads in fine weather, watch the ships departing on long voyages, and dream of going to the ends of the earth. His brothers Peter and John had been sent to Columbia College, and it is probable that Washington would have had the same advantage if he had not shown a disinclination to methodical study. At the age of sixteen he entered a law office, but he was a heedless student, and never acquired either a taste for the profession or much knowledge of law. While he sat in the law office, he read literature, and made considerable progress in his self-culture; but he liked rambling and society quite as well as books. In 1798 we find him passing a summer holiday in Westchester County, and exploring with his gun the Sleepy Hollow region which he was afterwards to make an enchanted realm; and in 1800 he made his first voyage up the Hudson, the beauties of which he was the first to celebrate, on a visit to a married sister who lived in the Mohawk Valley. In 1802 he became a law clerk in the office of Josiah Ogden Hoffman, and began that enduring intimacy with the refined and charming Hoffman family which was so deeply to influence all his life. His health had always been delicate, and his friends were now alarmed by symptoms of pulmonary weakness. This physical disability no doubt had much to do with his disinclination to severe study. For the next two or three years much time was consumed in excursions up the Hudson and the Mohawk, and in adventurous journeys as far as the wilds of Ogdensburg and to Montreal, to the great improvement of his physical condition, and in the enjoyment of the gay society of Albany, Schenectady, Ballston, and Saratoga Springs. These explorations and visits gave him material for future use, and exercised his pen in agreeable correspondence; but his tendency at this time, and for several years afterwards, was to the idle life of a man of society. Whether the literary impulse which was born in him would have ever insisted upon any but an occasional and fitful expression, except for the necessities of his subsequent condition, is doubtful.
Irving’s first literary publication was a series of letters, signed Jonathan Oldstyle, contributed in 1802 to the “Morning Chronicle,” a newspaper then recently established by his brother Peter. The attention that these audacious satires of the theater, the actors, and their audience attracted is evidence of the literary poverty of the period. The letters are open imitations of the “Spectator” and the “Tatler,” and, although sharp upon local follies, are of no consequence at present except as foreshadowing the sensibility and quiet humor of the future author, and his chivalrous devotion to woman. What is worthy of note is that a boy of nineteen should turn aside from his caustic satire to protest against the cruel and unmanly habit of jesting at ancient maidens. It was enough for him that they are women, and possess the strongest claim upon our admiration, tenderness, and protection.
MANHOOD–FIRST VISIT TO EUROPE
Irving’s health, always delicate, continued so much impaired when he came of age, in 1804., that his brothers determined to send him to Europe. On the 19th of May he took passage for Bordeaux in a sailing vessel, which reached the mouth of the Garonne on the 25th of June. His consumptive appearance when he went on board caused the captain to say to himself, “There’s a chap who will go overboard before we get across;” but his condition was much improved by the voyage.
He stayed six weeks at Bordeaux to improve himself in the language, and then set out for the Mediterranean. In the diligence he had some merry companions, and the party amused itself on the way. It was their habit to stroll about the towns in which they stopped, and talk with whomever they met. Among his companions was a young French officer and an eccentric, garrulous doctor from America. At Tonneins, on the Garonne, they entered a house where a number of girls were quilting. The girls gave Irving a needle and set him to work. He could not understand their patois, and they could not comprehend his bad French, and they got on very merrily. At last the little doctor told them that the interesting young man was an English prisoner whom the French officer had in custody. Their merriment at once gave place to pity. “Ah! le pauvre garcon!” said one to another; “he is merry, however, in all his trouble.” “And what will they do with him?” asked a young woman. “Oh, nothing of consequence,” replied the doctor; “perhaps shoot him, or cut off his head.” The good souls were much distressed; they brought him wine, loaded his pockets with fruit, and bade him good-by with a hundred benedictions. Over forty years after, Irving made a detour, on his way from Madrid to Paris, to visit Tonneins, drawn thither solely by the recollection of this incident, vaguely hoping perhaps to apologize to the tender-hearted villagers for the imposition. His conscience had always pricked him for it. “It was a shame,” he said, “to leave them with such painful impressions.” The quilting party had dispersed by that time. “I believe I recognized the house,” he says; “and I saw two or three old women who might once have formed part of the merry group of girls; but I doubt whether they recognized, in the stout elderly gentleman, thus rattling in his carriage through their streets, the pale young English prisoner of forty years since.”
Bonaparte was emperor. The whole country was full of suspicion. The police suspected the traveler, notwithstanding his passport, of being an Englishman and a spy, and dogged him at every step. He arrived at Avignon, full of enthusiasm at the thought of seeing the tomb of Laura. “Judge of my surprise,” he writes, “my disappointment, and my indignation, when I was told that the church, tomb, and all were utterly demolished in the time of the Revolution. Never did the Revolution, its authors and its consequences, receive a more hearty and sincere execration than at that moment. Throughout the whole of my journey I had found reason to exclaim against it for depriving me of some valuable curiosity or celebrated monument, but this was the severest disappointment it had yet occasioned.” This view of the Revolution is very characteristic of Irving, and perhaps the first that would occur to a man of letters. The journey was altogether disagreeable, even to a traveler used to the rough jaunts in an American wilderness: the inns were miserable; dirt, noise, and insolence reigned without control. But it never was our author’s habit to stroke the world the wrong way: “When I cannot get a dinner to suit my taste, I endeavor to get a taste to suit my dinner.” And he adds: “There is nothing I dread more than to be taken for one of the Smellfungi of this world. I therefore endeavor to be pleased with everything about me, and with the masters, mistresses, and servants of the inns, particularly when I perceive they have ‘all the dispositions in the world’ to serve me; as Sterne says, ‘It is enough for heaven and ought to be enough for me.'”
The traveler was detained at Marseilles, and five weeks at Nice, on one or another frivolous pretext of the police, and did not reach Genoa till the 20th of October. At Genoa there was a delightful society, and Irving seems to have been more attracted by that than by the historical curiosities. His health was restored, and his spirits recovered elasticity in the genial hospitality; he was surrounded by friends to whom he became so much attached that it was with pain he parted from them. The gayety of city life, the levees of the Doge, and the balls, were not unattractive to the handsome young man; but what made Genoa seem like home to him was his intimacy with a few charming families, among whom he mentions those of Mrs. Bird, Madame Gabriac, and Lady Shaftesbury. From the latter he experienced the most cordial and unreserved friendship; she greatly interested herself in his future, and furnished him with letters from herself and the nobility to persons of the first distinction in Florence, Rome, and Naples.
Late in December Irving sailed for Sicily in a Genoese packet. Off the island of Planoca it was overpowered and captured by a little picaroon, with lateen sails and a couple of guns, and a most villainous crew, in poverty-stricken garments, rusty cutlasses in their hands and stilettos and pistols stuck in their waistbands. The pirates thoroughly ransacked the vessel, opened all the trunks and portmanteaus, but found little that they wanted except brandy and provisions. In releasing the vessel, the ragamuffins seem to have had a touch of humor, for they gave the captain a “receipt” for what they had taken, and an order on the British consul at Messina to pay for the same. This old-time courtesy was hardly appreciated at the moment.
Irving passed a couple of months in Sicily, exploring with some thoroughness the ruins, and making several perilous inland trips, for the country was infested by banditti. One journey from Syracuse through the center of the island revealed more wretchedness than Irving supposed existed in the world. The half-starved peasants lived in wretched cabins and often in caverns, amid filth and vermin. “God knows my mind never suffered so much as on this journey,” he writes, “when I saw such scenes of want and misery continually before me, without the power of effectually relieving them.” His stay in the ports was made agreeable by the officers of American ships cruising in those waters. Every ship was a home, and every officer a friend. He had a boundless capacity for good-fellowship. At Messina he chronicles the brilliant spectacle of Lord Nelson’s fleet passing through the straits in search of the French fleet that had lately got out of Toulon. In less than a year Nelson’s young admirer was one of the thousands that pressed to see the remains of the great admiral as they lay in state at Greenwich, wrapped in the flag that had floated at the masthead of the Victory.
From Sicily he passed over to Naples in a fruit boat which dodged the cruisers, and reached Rome the last of March. Here he remained several weeks, absorbed by the multitudinous attractions. In Italy the worlds of music and painting were for the first time opened to him. Here he made the acquaintance of Washington Allston, and the influence of this friendship came near changing the whole course of his life. To return home to the dry study of the law was not a pleasing prospect; the masterpieces of art, the serenity of the sky, the nameless charm which hangs about an Italian landscape, and Allston’s enthusiasm as an artist, nearly decided him to remain in Rome and adopt the profession of a painter. But after indulging in this dream, it occurred to him that it was not so much a natural aptitude for the art as the lovely scenery and Allston’s companionship that had attracted him to it. He saw something of Roman society; Torlonia the banker was especially assiduous in his attentions. It turned out when Irving came to make his adieus that Torlonia had all along supposed him a relative of General Washington. This mistake is offset by another that occurred later, after Irving had attained some celebrity in England. An English lady passing through an Italian gallery with her daughter stopped before a bust of Washington. The daughter said, “Mother, who was Washington?” “Why, my dear, don’t you know?” was the astonished reply. “He wrote the ‘Sketch-Book.'” It was at the house of Baron von Humboldt, the Prussian minister, that Irving first met Madame de Stael, who was then enjoying the celebrity of “Delphine.” He was impressed with her strength of mind, and somewhat astounded at the amazing flow of her conversation, and the question upon question with which she plied him.
In May the wanderer was in Paris, and remained there four months, studying French and frequenting the theaters with exemplary regularity. Of his life in Paris there are only the meagerest reports, and he records no observations upon political affairs. The town fascinated him more than any other in Europe; he notes that the city is rapidly beautifying under the emperor, that the people seem gay and happy, and ‘Vive la bagatelle!’ is again the burden of their song. His excuse for remissness in correspondence was, “I am a young man and in Paris.”
By way of the Netherlands he reached London in October, and remained in England till January. The attraction in London seems to have been the theater, where he saw John Kemble, Cooke, and Mrs. Siddons. Kemble’s acting seemed to him too studied and over-labored; he had the disadvantage of a voice lacking rich bass tones. Whatever he did was judiciously conceived and perfectly executed; it satisfied the head, but rarely touched the heart. Only in the part of Zanga was the young critic completely overpowered by his acting,–Kemble seemed to have forgotten himself. Cooke, who had less range than Kemble, completely satisfied Irving as Iago. Of Mrs. Siddons, who was then old, he scarcely dares to give his impressions lest he should be thought extravagant. “Her looks,” he says, “her voice; her gestures, delighted me. She penetrated in a moment to my heart. She froze and melted it by turns; a glance of her eye, a start, an exclamation, thrilled through my whole frame. The more I see her, the more I admire her. I hardly breathe while she is on the stage. She works up my feelings till I am like a mere child.” Some years later, after the publication of the “Sketch-Book,” in a London assembly Irving was presented to the tragedy queen, who had left the stage, but had not laid aside its stately manner. She looked at him a moment, and then in a deep-toned voice slowly enunciated, “You’ve made me weep.” The author was so disconcerted that he said not a word, and retreated in confusion. After the publication of “Bracebridge Hall” he met her in company again, and was persuaded to go through the ordeal of another presentation. The stately woman fixed her eyes on him as before, and slowly said, “You ‘ve made me weep again.” This time the bashful author acquitted himself with more honor.
This first sojourn abroad was not immediately fruitful in a literary way, and need not further detain us. It was the irresolute pilgrimage of a man who had not yet received his vocation. Everywhere he was received in the best society, and the charm of his manner and his ingenuous nature made him everywhere a favorite. He carried that indefinable passport which society recognizes and which needs no ‘visee.’ He saw the people who were famous, the women whose recognition is a social reputation; he made many valuable friends; he frequented the theater, he indulged his passion for the opera; he learned how to dine, and to appreciate the delights of a brilliant salon; he was picking up languages; he was observing nature and men, and especially women. That he profited by his loitering experience is plain enough afterward, but thus far there is little to prophesy that Irving would be anything more in life than a charming ‘flaneur.’
SOCIETY AND “SALMAGUNDI”
On Irving’s return to America in February, 1806, with reestablished health, life did not at first take on a more serious purpose. He was admitted to the bar, but he still halted.–[Irving once illustrated his legal acquirements at this time by the relation of the following anecdote to his nephew: Josiah Ogden Hoffman and Martin Wilkins, an effective and witty advocate, had been appointed to examine students for admission. One student acquitted himself very lamely, and at the supper which it was the custom for the candidates to give to the examiners, when they passed upon their several merits, Hoffman paused in coming to this one, and turning to Wilkins said, as if in hesitation, “though all the while intending to admit him, Martin, I think he knows a little law.”–“Make it stronger, Jo,” was the reply; “d—d little.”]–Society more than ever attracted him and devoured his time. He willingly accepted the office of “champion at the tea-parties;” he was one of a knot of young fellows of literary tastes and convivial habits, who delighted to be known as “The Nine Worthies,” or “Lads of Kilkenny.” In his letters of this period I detect a kind of callowness and affectation which is not discernible in his foreign letters and journal.
These social worthies had jolly suppers at the humble taverns of the city, and wilder revelries in an old country house on the Passaic, which is celebrated in the “Salmagundi” papers as Cockloft Hall. We are reminded of the change of manners by a letter of Mr. Paulding, one of his comrades, written twenty years after, who recalls to mind the keeper of a porter house, “who whilom wore a long coat, in the pockets whereof he jingled two bushels of sixpenny pieces, and whose daughter played the piano to the accompaniment of broiled oysters.” There was some affectation of roistering in all this; but it was a time of social good- fellowship, and easy freedom of manners in both sexes. At the dinners there was much sentimental and bacchanalian singing; it was scarcely good manners not to get a little tipsy; and to be laid under the table by the compulsory bumper was not to the discredit of a guest. Irving used to like to repeat an anecdote of one of his early friends, Henry Ogden, who had been at one of these festive meetings. He told Irving the next day that in going home he had fallen through a grating which had been carelessly left open, into a vault beneath. The solitude, he said, was rather dismal at first, but several other of the guests fell in, in the course of the evening, and they had, on the whole, a pleasant night of it.
These young gentlemen liked to be thought “sad dogs.” That they were less abandoned than they pretended to be the sequel of their lives shows among Irving’s associates at this time who attained honorable consideration were John and Gouverneur Kemble, Henry Brevoort, Henry Ogden, James K. Paulding, and Peter Irving. The saving influence for all of them was the refined households they frequented and the association of women who were high-spirited without prudery, and who united purity and simplicity with wit, vivacity, and charm of manner. There is some pleasant correspondence between Irving and Miss Mary Fairlie, a belle of the time, who married the tragedian, Thomas A. Cooper; the “fascinating Fairlie,” as Irving calls her, and the Sophie Sparkle of the “Salmagundi.” Irving’s susceptibility to the charms and graces of women –a susceptibility which continued always fresh–was tempered and ennobled by the most chivalrous admiration for the sex as a whole. He placed them on an almost romantic pinnacle, and his actions always conformed to his romantic ideal, although in his writings he sometimes adopts the conventional satire which was more common fifty years ago than now. In a letter to Miss Fairlie, written from Richmond, where he was attending the trial of Aaron Burr, he expresses his exalted opinion of the sex. It was said in accounting for the open sympathy of the ladies with the prisoner that Burr had always been a favorite with them; “but I am not inclined,” he writes, “to account for it in so illiberal a manner; it results from that merciful, that heavenly disposition, implanted in the female bosom, which ever inclines in favor of the accused and the unfortunate. You will smile at the high strain in which I have indulged; believe me, it is because I feel it; and I love your sex ten times better than ever.”–[An amusing story in connection with this Richmond visit illustrates the romantic phase of Irving’s character. Cooper, who was playing at the theater, needed small-clothes for one of his parts; Irving lent him a pair,–knee breeches being still worn,–and the actor carried them off to Baltimore. From that city he wrote that he had found in the pocket an emblem of love, a mysterious locket of hair in the shape of a heart. The history of it is curious: when Irving sojourned at Genoa, he was much taken with the beauty of a young Italian lady, the wife of a Frenchman. He had never spoken with her, but one evening before his departure he picked up from the floor her handkerchief which she had dropped, and with more gallantry than honesty carried it off to Sicily. His pocket was picked of the precious relic while he was attending a religious function in Catania, and he wrote to his friend Storm, the consul at Genoa, deploring his loss. The consul communicated the sad misfortune to the lovely Bianca, for that was the lady’s name, who thereupon sent him a lock of her hair, with the request that he would come to see her on his return. He never saw her again, but the lock of hair was inclosed in a locket and worn about his neck, in memory of a radiant vision that had crossed his path and vanished.]
Personally, Irving must have awakened a reciprocal admiration. A drawing by Vanderlyn, made in Paris in 1805, and a portrait by Jarvis in 1809, present him to us in the fresh bloom of manly beauty. The face has an air of distinction and gentle breeding; the refined lines, the poetic chin, the sensitive mouth, the shapely nose, the large dreamy eyes, the intellectual forehead, and the clustering brown locks are our ideal of the author of the “Sketch-Book” and the pilgrim in Spain. His biographer, Mr. Pierre M. Irving, has given no description of his appearance; but a relative, who saw much of our author in his latter years, writes to me: “He had dark gray eyes; a handsome straight nose, which might perhaps be called large; a broad, high, full forehead, and a small mouth. I should call him of medium height, about five feet eight and a half to nine inches, and inclined to be a trifle stout. There was no peculiarity about his voice; but it was pleasant and had a good intonation. His smile was exceedingly genial, lighting up his whole face and rendering it very attractive; while, if he were about to say anything humorous, it would beam forth from his eyes even before the words were spoken. As a young man his face was exceedingly handsome, and his head was well covered with dark hair; but from my earliest recollection of him he wore neither whiskers nor moustache, but a dark brown wig, which, although it made him look younger, concealed a beautifully shaped head.” We can understand why he was a favorite in the society of Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia, and Albany, as well as of New York, and why he liked to linger here and there, sipping the social sweets, like a man born to leisure and seemingly idle observation of life.
It was in the midst of these social successes, and just after his admission to the bar, that Irving gave the first decided evidence of the choice of a career. This was his association with his eldest brother, William, and Paulding in the production of “Salmagundi,” a semimonthly periodical, in small duodecimo sheets, which ran with tolerable regularity through twenty numbers, and stopped in full tide of success, with the whimsical indifference to the public which had characterized its every issue. Its declared purpose was “simply to instruct the young, reform the old, correct the town, and castigate the age.” In manner and purpose it was an imitation of the “Spectator” and the “Citizen of the World,” and it must share the fate of all imitations; but its wit was not borrowed, and its humor was to some extent original; and so perfectly was it adapted to local conditions that it may be profitably read to-day as a not untrue reflection of the manners and spirit of the time and city. Its amusing audacity and complacent superiority, the mystery hanging about its writers, its affectation of indifference to praise or profit, its fearless criticism, lively wit, and irresponsible humor, piqued, puzzled, and delighted the town. From the first it was an immense success; it had a circulation in other cities, and many imitations of it sprung up. Notwithstanding many affectations and puerilities it is still readable to Americans. Of course, if it were offered now to the complex and sophisticated society of New York, it would fail to attract anything like the attention it received in the days of simplicity and literary dearth; but the same wit, insight, and literary art, informed with the modern spirit and turned upon the follies and “whim-whams” of the metropolis, would doubtless have a great measure of success. In Irving’s contributions to it may be traced the germs of nearly everything that he did afterwards; in it he tried the various stops of his genius; he discovered his own power; his career was determined; thereafter it was only a question of energy or necessity.
In the summer of 1808 there were printed at Ballston-Spa–then the resort of fashion and the arena of flirtation–seven numbers of a duodecimo bagatelle in prose and verse, entitled “The Literary Picture Gallery and Admonitory Epistles to the Visitors of Ballston-Spa, by Simeon Senex, Esquire.” This piece of summer nonsense is not referred to by any writer who has concerned himself about Irving’s life, but there is reason to believe that he was a contributor to it, if not the editor.–[For these stray reminders of the old-time gayety of Ballston-Spa, I am indebted to J. Carson Brevoort, Esq., whose father was Irving’s most intimate friend, and who told him that Irving had a hand in them.]
In these yellow pages is a melancholy reflection of the gayety and gallantry of the Sans Souci Hotel seventy years ago. In this “Picture Gallery,” under the thin disguise of initials, are the portraits of well- known belles of New York whose charms of person and graces of mind would make the present reader regret his tardy advent into this world, did not the “Admonitory Epistles,” addressed to the same sex, remind him that the manners of seventy years ago left much to be desired. In respect of the habit of swearing, “Simeon” advises “Myra” that if ladies were to confine themselves to a single round oath, it would be quite sufficient; and he objects, when he is at the public table, to the conduct of his neighbor who carelessly took up “Simeon’s” fork and used it as a toothpick. All this, no doubt, passed for wit in the beginning of the century. Punning, broad satire, exaggerated compliment, verse which has love for its theme and the “sweet bird of Venus” for its object, an affectation of gallantry and of ennui, with anecdotes of distinguished visitors, out of which the screaming fun has quite evaporated, make up the staple of these faded mementos of an ancient watering-place. Yet how much superior is our comedy of to-day? The beauty and the charms of the women of two generations ago exist only in tradition; perhaps we should give to the wit of that time equal admiration if none of it had been preserved.
Irving, notwithstanding the success of “Salmagundi,” did not immediately devote himself to literature, nor seem to regard his achievements in it as anything more than aids to social distinction. He was then, as always, greatly influenced by his surroundings. These were unfavorable to literary pursuits. Politics was the attractive field for preferment and distinction; and it is more than probable that, even after the success of the Knickerbocker history, he would have drifted through life; half lawyer and half placeman, if the associations and stimulus of an old civilization, in his second European residence, had not fired his ambition. Like most young lawyers with little law and less clients, he began to dabble in local politics. The experiment was not much to his taste, and the association and work demanded, at that time, of a ward politician soon disgusted him. “We have toiled through the purgatory of an election,” he writes to the fair Republican, Miss Fairlie, who rejoiced in the defeat he and the Federals had sustained.
“What makes me the more outrageous is, that I got fairly drawn into the vortex, and before the third day was expired, I was as deep in mud and politics as ever a moderate gentleman would wish to be; and I drank beer with the multitude; and I talked hand-bill fashion with the demagogues; and I shook hands with the mob, whom my heart abhorreth. ‘T is true, for the first two days I maintained my coolness and indifference. The first day I merely hunted for whim, character, and absurdity, according to my usual custom; the second day being rainy, I sat in the bar-room at the Seventh Ward, and read a volume of ‘Galatea,’ which I found on a shelf; but before I had got through a hundred pages, I had three or four good Feds sprawling round me on the floor, and another with his eyes half shut, leaning on my shoulder in the most affectionate manner, and spelling a page of the book as if it had been an electioneering hand- bill. But the third day–ah! then came the tug of war. My patriotism then blazed forth, and I determined to save my country!
“Oh, my friend, I have been in such holes and corners; such filthy nooks and filthy corners; sweep offices and oyster cellars! I have sworn brother to a leash of drawers, and can drink with any tinker in his own language during my life,–faugh! I shall not be able to bear the smell of small beer and tobacco for a month to come . . . . Truly this saving one’s country is a nauseous piece of business, and if patriotism is such a dirty virtue,–prythee, no more of it.”
He unsuccessfully solicited some civil appointment at Albany, a very modest solicitation, which was never renewed, and which did not last long, for he was no sooner there than he was “disgusted by the servility and duplicity and rascality witnessed among the swarm of scrub politicians.” There was a promising young artist at that time in Albany, and Irving wishes he were a man of wealth, to give him a helping hand; a few acts of munificence of this kind by rich nabobs, he breaks out, “would be more pleasing in the sight of Heaven, and more to the glory and advantage of their country, than building a dozen shingle church steeples, or buying a thousand venal votes at an election.” This was in the “good old times!”
Although a Federalist, and, as he described himself, “an admirer of General Hamilton, and a partisan with him in politics,” he accepted a retainer from Burr’s friends in 1807, and attended his trial in Richmond, but more in the capacity of an observer of the scene than a lawyer. He did not share the prevalent opinion of Burr’s treason, and regarded him as a man so fallen as to be shorn of the power to injure the country, one for whom he could feel nothing but compassion. That compassion, however, he received only from the ladies of the city, and the traits of female goodness manifested then sunk deep into Irving’s heart. Without pretending, he says, to decide on Burr’s innocence or guilt, “his situation is such as should appeal eloquently to the feelings of every generous bosom. Sorry am I to say the reverse has been the fact: fallen, proscribed, prejudged, the cup of bitterness has been administered to him with an unsparing hand. It has almost been considered as culpable to evince toward him the least sympathy or support; and many a hollow- hearted caitiff have I seen, who basked in the sunshine of his bounty while in power, who now skulked from his side, and even mingled among the most clamorous of his enemies . . . . I bid him farewell with a heavy heart, and he expressed with peculiar warmth and feeling his sense of the interest I had taken in his fate. I never felt in a more melancholy mood than when I rode from his solitary prison.” This is a good illustration of Irving’s tender-heartedness; but considering Burr’s whole character, it is altogether a womanish case of misplaced sympathy with the cool slayer of Alexander Hamilton.
THE KNICKERBOCKER PERIOD
Not long after the discontinuance of “Salmagundi,” Irving, in connection with his brother Peter, projected the work that was to make him famous. At first nothing more was intended than a satire upon the “Picture of New York,” by Dr. Samuel Mitchell, just then published. It was begun as a mere burlesque upon pedantry and erudition, and was well advanced, when Peter was called by his business to Europe, and its completion was fortunately left to Washington. In his mind the idea expanded into a different conception. He condensed the mass of affected learning, which was their joint work, into five introductory chapters,–subsequently he said it would have been improved if it had been reduced to one, and it seems to me it would have been better if that one had been thrown away,– and finished “A History of New York, by Diedrich Knickerbocker,” substantially as we now have it. This was in 1809, when Irving was twenty-six years old.
But before this humorous creation was completed, the author endured the terrible bereavement which was to color all his life. He had formed a deep and tender passion for Matilda Hoffman, the second daughter of Josiah Ogden Hoffman, in whose family he had long been on a footing of the most perfect intimacy, and his ardent love was fully reciprocated. He was restlessly casting about for some assured means of livelihood which would enable him to marry, and perhaps his distrust of a literary career was connected with this desire, when after a short illness Miss Hoffman died, in the eighteenth year of her age. Without being a dazzling beauty, she was lovely in person and mind, with most engaging manners, a refined sensibility, and a delicate and playful humor. The loss was a crushing blow to Irving, from the effects of which he never recovered, although time softened the bitterness of his grief into a tender and sacred memory. He could never bear to hear her name spoken even by his most intimate friends, or any allusion to her. Thirty years after her death, it happened one evening at the house of Mr. Hoffman, her father, that a granddaughter was playing for Mr. Irving, and in taking her music from the drawer, a faded piece of embroidery was brought forth. “Washington,” said Mr. Hoffman, picking it up, “this is a piece of poor Matilda’s workmanship.” The effect was electric. He had been talking in the sprightliest mood before, but he sunk at once into utter silence, and in a few moments got up and left the house.
After his death, in a private repository of which he always kept the key, was found a lovely miniature, a braid of fair hair, and a slip of paper, on which was written in his own hand, “Matilda Hoffman;” and with these treasures were several pages of a memorandum in ink long since faded. He kept through life her Bible and Prayer Book; they were placed nightly under his pillow in the first days of anguish that followed her loss, and ever after they were the inseparable companions of all his wanderings. In this memorandum–which was written many years afterwards–we read the simple story of his love:
“We saw each other every day, and I became excessively attached to her. Her shyness wore off by degrees. The more I saw of her the more I had reason to admire her. Her mind seemed to unfold leaf by leaf, and every time to discover new sweetness. Nobody knew her so well as I, for she was generally timid and silent; but I in a manner studied her excellence. Never did I meet with more intuitive rectitude of mind, more native delicacy, more exquisite propriety in word, thought, and action, than in this young creature. I am not exaggerating; what I say was acknowledged by all who knew her. Her brilliant little sister used to say that people began by admiring her, but ended by loving Matilda. For my part, I idolized her. I felt at times rebuked by her superior delicacy and purity, and as if I was a coarse, unworthy being in comparison.”
At this time Irving was much perplexed about his career. He had “a fatal propensity to belles-lettres;” his repugnance to the law was such that his mind would not take hold of the study; he anticipated nothing from legal pursuits or political employment; he was secretly writing the humorous history, but was altogether in a low-spirited and disheartened state. I quote again from the memorandum:
“In the mean time I saw Matilda every day, and that helped to distract me. In the midst of this struggle and anxiety she was taken ill with a cold. Nothing was thought of it at first; but she grew rapidly worse, and fell into a consumption. I cannot tell you what I suffered. The ills that I have undergone in this life have been dealt out to me drop by drop, and I have tasted all their bitterness. I saw her fade rapidly away; beautiful, and more beautiful, and more angelical to the last. I was often by her bedside; and in her wandering state of mind she would talk to me with a sweet, natural, and affecting eloquence, that was overpowering. I saw more of the beauty of her mind in that delirious state than I had ever known before. Her malady was rapid in its career, and hurried her off in two months. Her dying struggles were painful and protracted. For three days and nights I did not leave the house, and scarcely slept. I was by her when she died; all the family were assembled round her, some praying, others weeping, for she was adored by them all. I was the last one she looked upon. I have told you as briefly as I could what, if I were to tell with all the incidents and feelings that accompanied it, would fill volumes. She was but about seventeen years old when she died.
“I cannot tell you what a horrid state of mind I was in for a long time. I seemed to care for nothing; the world was a blank to me. I abandoned all thoughts of the law. I went into the country, but could not bear solitude, yet could not endure society. There was a dismal horror continually in my mind, that made me fear to be alone. I had often to get up in the night, and seek the bedroom of my brother, as if the having a human being by me would relieve me from the frightful gloom of my own thoughts.
“Months elapsed before my mind would resume any tone; but the despondency I had suffered for a long time in the course of this attachment, and the anguish that attended its catastrophe, seemed to give a turn to my whole character, and throw some clouds into my disposition, which have ever since hung about it. When I became more calm and collected, I applied myself, by way of occupation, to the finishing of my work. I brought it to a close, as well as I could, and published it; but the time and circumstances in which it was produced rendered me always unable to look upon it with satisfaction. Still it took with the public, and gave me celebrity, as an original work was something remarkable and uncommon in America. I was noticed, caressed, and, for a time, elevated by the popularity I had gained. I found myself uncomfortable in my feelings in New York, and traveled about a little. Wherever I went, I was overwhelmed with attentions; I was full of youth and animation, far different from the being I now am, and I was quite flushed with this early taste of public favor. Still, however, the career of gayety and notoriety soon palled on me. I seemed to drift about without aim or object, at the mercy of every breeze; my heart wanted anchorage. I was naturally susceptible, and tried to form other attachments, but my heart would not hold on; it would continually recur to what it had lost; and whenever there was a pause in the hurry of novelty and excitement, I would sink into dismal dejection. For years I could not talk on the subject of this hopeless regret; I could not even mention her name; but her image was continually before me, and I dreamt of her incessantly.”
This memorandum, it subsequently appeared, was a letter, or a transcript of it, addressed to a married lady, Mrs. Foster, in which the story of his early love was related, in reply to her question why he had never married. It was in the year 1823, the year after the publication of “Bracebridge Hall,” while he sojourned in Dresden, that he became intimate with an English family residing there, named Foster, and conceived for the daughter, Miss Emily Foster, a warm friendship and perhaps a deep attachment. The letter itself, which for the first time broke the guarded seclusion of Irving’s heart, is evidence of the tender confidence that existed between him and this family. That this intimacy would have resulted in marriage, or an offer of marriage, if the lady’s affections had not been preoccupied, the Fosters seem to have believed. In an unauthorized addition to the, “Life and Letters,” inserted in the English edition without the knowledge of the American editor, with some such headings as, “History of his First Love brought to us, and returned,” and “Irving’s Second Attachment,” the Fosters tell the interesting story of Irving’s life in Dresden, and give many of his letters, and an account of his intimacy with the family. From this account I quote:
“Soon after this, Mr. Irving, who had again for long felt ‘the tenderest interest warm his bosom, and finally enthrall his whole soul,’ made one vigorous and valiant effort to free himself from a hopeless and consuming attachment. My mother counseled him, I believe, for the best, and he left Dresden on an expedition of several weeks into a country he had long wished to see; though, in the main, it disappointed him; and he started with young Colbourne (son of general Colbourne) as his companion. Some of his letters on this journey are before the public; and in the agitation and eagerness he there described, on receiving and opening letters from us, and the tenderness in his replies,–the longing to be once more in the little Pavilion, to which we had moved in the beginning of the summer,–the letters (though carefully guarded by the delicacy of her who intrusted them to the editor, and alone retained among many more calculated to lay bare his true feelings, even fragmentary as they are), point out the truth.
“Here is the key to the journey to Silesia, the return to Dresden, and, finally, to the journey from Dresden to Rotterdam in our company, first planned so as to part at Cassel, where Mr. Irving had intended to leave us and go down the Rhine, but subsequently could not find in his heart to part. Hence, after a night of pale and speechless melancholy, the gay, animated, happy countenance with which he sprang to our coach-box to take his old seat on it, and accompany us to Rotterdam. There even could he not part, but joined us in the steamboat; and, after bearing us company as far as a boat could follow us, at last tore himself away, to bury himself in Paris, and try to work . . . .
“It was fortunate, perhaps, that this affection was returned by the warmest friendship only, since it was destined that the accomplishment of his wishes was impossible, for many obstacles which lay in his way; and it is with pleasure I can truly say that in time he schooled himself to view, also with friendship only, one who for some time past has been the wife of another.”
Upon the delicacy of this revelation the biographer does not comment, but he says that the idea that Irving thought of marriage at that time is utterly disproved by the following passage from the very manuscript which he submitted to Mrs. Foster:
“You wonder why I am not married. I have shown you why I was not long since. When I had sufficiently recovered from that loss, I became involved in ruin. It was not for a man broken down in the world, to drag down any woman to his paltry circumstances. I was too proud to tolerate the idea of ever mending my circumstances by matrimony. My time has now gone by; and I have growing claims upon my thoughts and upon my means, slender and precarious as they are. I feel as if I already had a family to think and provide for.”
Upon the question of attachment and depression, Mr. Pierre Irving says:
“While the editor does not question Mr. Irving’s great enjoyment of his intercourse with the Fosters, or his deep regret at parting from them, he is too familiar with his occasional fits of depression to have drawn from their recurrence on his return to Paris any such inference as that to which the lady alludes. Indeed, his memorandum book and letters show him to have had, at this time, sources of anxiety of quite a different nature. The allusion to his having to put once more to sea evidently refers to his anxiety on returning to his literary pursuits, after a season of entire idleness.”
It is not for us to question the judgment of the biographer, with his full knowledge of the circumstances and his long intimacy with his uncle; yet it is evident that Irving was seriously impressed at Dresden, and that he was very much unsettled until he drove away the impression by hard work with his pen; and it would be nothing new in human nature and experience if he had for a time yielded to the attractions of loveliness and a most congenial companionship, and had returned again to an exclusive devotion to the image of the early loved and lost.
That Irving intended never to marry is an inference I cannot draw either from his fondness for the society of women, from his interest in the matrimonial projects of his friends and the gossip which has feminine attractions for its food, or from his letters to those who had his confidence. In a letter written from Birmingham, England, March 15, 1816, to his dear friend Henry Brevoort, who was permitted more than perhaps any other person to see his secret heart, he alludes, with gratification, to the report of the engagement of James Paulding, and then says:
“It is what we must all come to at last. I see you are hankering after it, and I confess I have done so for a long time past. We are, however, past that period [Irving was thirty-two] when a man marries suddenly and inconsiderately. We may be longer making a choice, and consulting the convenience and concurrence of easy circumstances, but we shall both come to it sooner or later. I therefore recommend you to marry without delay. You have sufficient means, connected with your knowledge and habits of business, to support a genteel establishment, and I am certain that as soon as you are married you will experience a change in your ideas. All those vagabond, roving propensities will cease. They are the offspring of idleness of mind and a want of something to fix the feelings. You are like a bark without an anchor, that drifts about at the mercy of every vagrant breeze or trifling eddy. Get a wife, and she’ll anchor you. But don’t marry a fool because she his a pretty face, and don’t seek after a great belle. Get such a girl as Mary —-, or get her if you can; though I am afraid she has still an unlucky kindness for poor —–, which will stand in the way of her fortunes. I wish to God they were rich, and married, and happy!”
The business reverses which befell the Irving brothers, and which drove Washington to the toil of the pen, and cast upon him heavy family responsibilities, defeated his plans of domestic happiness in marriage. It was in this same year, 1816, when the fortunes of the firm were daily becoming more dismal, that he wrote to Brevoort, upon the report that the latter was likely to remain a bachelor: “We are all selfish beings. Fortune by her tardy favors and capricious freaks seems to discourage all my matrimonial resolves, and if I am doomed to live an old bachelor, I am anxious to have good company. I cannot bear that all my old companions should launch away into the married state, and leave me alone to tread this desolate and sterile shore.” And, in view of a possible life of scant fortune, he exclaims: “Thank Heaven, I was brought up in simple and inexpensive habits, and I have satisfied myself that, if need be, I can resume them without repining or inconvenience. Though I am willing, therefore, that Fortune should shower her blessings upon me, and think I can enjoy them as well as most men, yet I shall not make myself unhappy if she chooses to be scanty, and shall take the position allotted me with a cheerful and contented mind.”
When Irving passed the winter of 1823 in the charming society of the Fosters at Dresden, the success of the “Sketch-Book” and “Bracebridge Hall” had given him assurance of his ability to live comfortably by the use of his pen.
To resume. The preliminary announcement of the History was a humorous and skillful piece of advertising. Notices appeared in the newspapers of the disappearance from his lodging of “a small, elderly gentleman, dressed in an old black coat and cocked hat, by the name of Knickerbocker.” Paragraphs from week to week, purporting to be the result of inquiry, elicited the facts that such an old gentleman had been seen traveling north in the Albany stage; that his name was Diedrich Knickerbocker; that he went away owing his landlord; and that he left behind a very curious kind of a written book, which would be sold to pay his bills if he did not return. So skillfully was this managed that one of the city officials was on the point of offering a reward for the discovery of the missing Diedrich. This little man in knee breeches and cocked hat was the germ of the whole “Knickerbocker legend,” a fantastic creation, which in a manner took the place of history, and stamped upon the commercial metropolis of the New World the indelible Knickerbocker name and character; and even now in the city it is an undefined patent of nobility to trace descent from “an old Knickerbocker family.”
The volume, which was first printed in Philadelphia, was put forth as a grave history of the manners and government under the Dutch rulers, and so far was the covert humor carried that it was dedicated to the New York Historical Society. Its success was far beyond Irving’s expectation. It met with almost universal acclaim. It is true that some of the old Dutch inhabitants who sat down to its perusal, expecting to read a veritable account of the exploits of their ancestors, were puzzled by the indirection of its commendation; and several excellent old ladies of New York and Albany were in blazing indignation at the ridicule put upon the old Dutch people, and minded to ostracize the irreverent author from all social recognition. As late as 1818, in an address before the Historical Society, Mr. Gulian C. Verplanck, Irving’s friend, showed the deep irritation the book had caused, by severe strictures on it as a “coarse caricature.” But the author’s winning ways soon dissipated the social cloud, and even the Dutch critics were erelong disarmed by the absence of all malice in the gigantic humor of the composition. One of the first foreigners to recognize the power and humor of the book was Walter Scott. “I have never,” he wrote, “read anything so closely resembling the style of Dean Swift as the annals of Diedrich Knickerbocker. I have been employed these few evenings in reading them aloud to Mrs. S. and two ladies who are our guests, and our sides have been absolutely sore with laughing. I think, too, there are passages which indicate that the author possesses power of a different kind, and has some touches which remind me of Sterne.”
The book is indeed an original creation, and one of the few masterpieces of humor. In spontaneity, freshness, breadth of conception, and joyous vigor, it belongs to the springtime of literature. It has entered into the popular mind as no other American book ever has, and it may be said to have created a social realm which, with all its whimsical conceit, has almost historical solidity. The Knickerbocker pantheon is almost as real as that of Olympus. The introductory chapters are of that elephantine facetiousness which pleased our great-grandfathers, but which is exceedingly tedious to modern taste; and the humor of the book occasionally has a breadth that is indelicate to our apprehension, though it perhaps did not shock our great-grandmothers. But, notwithstanding these blemishes, I think the work has more enduring qualities than even the generation which it first delighted gave it credit for. The world, however, it must be owned, has scarcely yet the courage of its humor, and dullness still thinks it necessary to apologize for anything amusing. There is little doubt that Irving himself supposed that his serious work was of more consequence to the world.
It seems strange that after this success Irving should have hesitated to adopt literature as his profession. But for two years, and with leisure, he did nothing. He had again some hope of political employment in a small way; and at length he entered into a mercantile partnership with his brothers, which was to involve little work for him, and a share of the profits that should assure his support, and leave him free to follow his fitful literary inclinations. Yet he seems to have been mainly intent upon society and the amusements of the passing hour, and, without the spur of necessity to his literary capacity, he yielded to the temptations of indolence, and settled into the unpromising position of a “man about town.” Occasionally, the business of his firm and that of other importing merchants being imperiled by some threatened action of Congress, Irving was sent to Washington to look after their interests. The leisurely progress he always made to the capital through the seductive society of Philadelphia and Baltimore did not promise much business dispatch. At the seat of government he was certain to be involved in a whirl of gayety. His letters from Washington are more occupied with the odd characters he met than with the measures of legislation. These visits greatly extended his acquaintance with the leading men of the country; his political leanings did not prevent an intimacy with the President’s family, and Mrs. Madison and he were sworn friends.
It was of the evening of his first arrival in Washington that he writes: “I emerged from dirt and darkness into the blazing splendor of Mrs. Madison’s drawing-room. Here I was most graciously received; found a crowded collection of great and little men, of ugly old women and beautiful young ones, and in ten minutes was hand and glove with half the people in the assemblage. Mrs. Madison is a fine, portly, buxom dame, who has a smile and a pleasant word for everybody. Her sisters, Mrs. Cutts and Mrs. Washington, are like two merry wives of Windsor; but as to Jemmy Madison,–oh, poor Jemmy!–he is but a withered little apple john.”
Odd characters congregated then in Washington as now. One honest fellow, who, by faithful fagging at the heels of Congress, had obtained a profitable post under government, shook Irving heartily by the hand, and professed himself always happy to see anybody that came from New York; “somehow or another, it was natteral to him,” being the place where he was first born. Another fellow-townsman was “endeavoring to obtain a deposit in the Mechanics’ Bank, in case the United States Bank does not obtain a charter. He is as deep as usual; shakes his head and winks through his spectacles at everybody he meets. He swore to me the other day that he had not told anybody what his opinion was, whether the bank ought to have a charter or not. Nobody in Washington knew what his opinion was–not one–nobody; he defied any one to say what it was– anybody–damn the one! No, sir, nobody knows;’ and if he had added nobody cares, I believe honest would have been exactly in the right. Then there’s his brother George: ‘Damn that fellow,–knows eight or nine languages; yes, sir, nine languages,–Arabic, Spanish, Greek, Ital—And there’s his wife, now,–she and Mrs. Madison are always together. Mrs. Madison has taken a great fancy to her little daughter. Only think, sir, that child is only six years old, and talks the Italian like a book, by —; little devil learnt it from an Italian servant,–damned clever fellow; lived with my brother George ten years. George says he would not part with him for all Tripoli,'” etc.
It was always difficult for Irving, in those days, to escape from the genial blandishments of Baltimore and Philadelphia. Writing to Brevoort from Philadelphia, March 16, 1811, he says: “The people of Baltimore are exceedingly social and hospitable to strangers, and I saw that if I once let myself get into the stream, I should not be able to get out under a fortnight at least; so, being resolved to push home as expeditiously as was honorably possible, I resisted the world, the flesh, and the devil at Baltimore; and after three days’ and nights’ stout carousal, and a fourth’s sickness, sorrow, and repentance, I hurried off from that sensual city.”
Jarvis, the artist, was at that time the eccentric and elegant lion of society in Baltimore. “Jack Randolph” had recently sat to him for his portrait. “By the bye [the letter continues] that little ‘hydra and chimera dire,’ Jarvis, is in prodigious circulation at Baltimore. The gentlemen have all voted him a rare wag and most brilliant wit; and the ladies pronounce him one of the queerest, ugliest, most agreeable little creatures in the world. The consequence is there is not a ball, tea- party, concert, supper, or other private regale but that Jarvis is the most conspicuous personage; and as to a dinner, they can no more do without him than they could without Friar John at the roystering revels of the renowned Pantagruel.” Irving gives one of his bon mots which was industriously repeated at all the dinner tables, a profane sally, which seemed to tickle the Baltimoreans exceedingly. Being very much importuned to go to church, he resolutely refused, observing that it was the same thing whether he went or stayed at home. “If I don’t go,” said he, “the minister says I ‘ll be d—d, and I ‘ll be d—d if I do go.”
This same letter contains a pretty picture, and the expression of Irving’s habitual kindly regard for his fellow-men:
“I was out visiting with Ann yesterday, and met that little assemblage of smiles and fascinations, Mary Jackson. She was bounding with youth, health, and innocence, and good humor. She had a pretty straw hat, tied under her chin with a pink ribbon, and looked like some little woodland nymph, just turned out by spring and fine weather. God bless her light heart, and grant it may never know care or sorrow! It’s enough to cure spleen and melancholy only to look at her.
“Your familiar pictures of home made me extremely desirous again to be there . . . . I shall once more return to sober life, satisfied with having secured three months of sunshine in this valley of shadows and darkness. In this space of time I have seen considerable of the world, but I am sadly afraid I have not grown wiser thereby, inasmuch as it has generally been asserted by the sages of every age that wisdom consists in a knowledge of the wickedness of mankind, and the wiser a man grows the more discontented he becomes with those around him. Whereas, woe is me, I return in infinitely better humor with the world than I ever was before, and with a most melancholy good opinion and good will for the great mass of my fellow-creatures!”
Free intercourse with men of all parties, he thought, tends to divest a man’s mind of party bigotry.
“One day [he writes] I am dining with a knot of honest, furious Federalists, who are damning all their opponents as a set of consummate scoundrels, panders of Bonaparte, etc. The next day I dine, perhaps, with some of the very men I have heard thus anathematized, and find them equally honest, warm, and indignant; and if I take their word for it, I had been dining the day before with some of the greatest knaves in the nation, men absolutely paid and suborned by the British government.”
His friends at this time attempted to get him appointed secretary of legation to the French mission, under Joel Barlow, then minister, but he made no effort to secure the place. Perhaps he was deterred by the knowledge that the author of “The Columbiad” suspected him, though unjustly, of some strictures on his great epic. He had in mind a book of travel in his own country, in which he should sketch manners and characters; but nothing came of it. The peril to trade involved in the War of 1812 gave him some forebodings, and aroused him to exertion. He accepted the editorship of a periodical called “Select Reviews,” afterwards changed to the “Analectic Magazine,” for which he wrote sketches, some of which were afterwards put into the “Sketch-Book,” and several reviews and naval biographies. A brief biography of Thomas Campbell was also written about this time, as introductory to an edition of “Gertrude of Wyoming.” But the slight editorial care required by the magazine was irksome to a man who had an unconquerable repugnance to all periodical labor.
In 1813 Francis Jeffrey made a visit to the United States. Henry Brevoort, who was then in London, wrote an anxious letter to Irving to impress him with the necessity of making much of Mr. Jeffrey. “It is essential,” he says,–“that Jeffrey may imbibe a just estimate of the United States and its inhabitants; he goes out strongly biased in our favor, and the influence of his good opinion upon his return to this country will go far to efface the calumnies and the absurdities that have been laid to our charge by ignorant travelers. Persuade him to visit Washington, and by all means to see the Falls of Niagara.” The impression seems to have prevailed that if Englishmen could be made to take a just view of the Falls of Niagara, the misunderstandings between the two countries would be reduced. Peter Irving, who was then in Edinburgh, was impressed with the brilliant talent of the editor of the “Review,” disguised as it was by affectation, but he said he “would not give the Minstrel for a wilderness of Jeffreys.”
The years from 1811 to 1815, when he went abroad for the second time, were passed by Irving in a sort of humble waiting on Providence. His letters to Brevoort during this period are full of the ennui of irresolute youth. He idled away weeks and months in indolent enjoyment in the country; he indulged his passion for the theater when opportunity offered; and he began to be weary of a society which offered little stimulus to his mind. His was the temperament of the artist, and America at that time had little to evoke or to satisfy the artistic feeling. There were few pictures and no galleries; there was no music, except the amateur torture of strings which led the country dance, or the martial inflammation of fife and drum, or the sentimental dawdling here and there over the ancient harpsichord, with the songs of love, and the broad or pathetic staves and choruses of the convivial table; and there was no literary atmosphere.
After three months of indolent enjoyment in the winter and spring of 1811, Irving is complaining to Brevoort in June of the enervation of his social life: “I do want most deplorably to apply my mind to something that will arouse and animate it; for at present it is very indolent and relaxed, and I find it very difficult to shake off the lethargy that enthralls it. This makes me restless and dissatisfied with myself, and I am convinced I shall not feel comfortable and contented until my mind is fully employed. Pleasure is but a transient stimulus, and leaves the mind more enfeebled than before. Give me rugged toils, fierce disputation, wrangling controversy, harassing research,–give me anything that calls forth the energies of the mind; but for Heaven’s sake shield me from those calms, those tranquil slumberings, those enervating triflings, those siren blandishments, that I have for some time indulged in, which lull the mind into complete inaction, which benumb its powers, and cost it such painful and humiliating struggles to regain its activity and independence!”
Irving at this time of life seemed always waiting by the pool for some angel to come and trouble the waters. To his correspondent, who was in the wilds of Michilimackinac, he continues to lament his morbid inability. The business in which his thriving brothers were engaged was the importation and sale of hardware and cutlery, and that spring his services were required at the “store.” “By all the martyrs of Grub Street [he exclaims], I ‘d sooner live in a garret, and starve into the bargain, than follow so sordid, dusty, and soul-killing a way of life, though certain it would make me as rich as old Croesus, or John Jacob Astor himself!” The sparkle of society was no more agreeable to him than the rattle of cutlery. “I have scarcely [he writes] seen anything of the —-s since your departure; business and an amazing want of inclination have kept me from their threshold. Jim, that sly poacher, however, prowls about there, and vitrifies his heart by the furnace of their charms. I accompanied him there on Sunday evening last, and found the Lads and Miss Knox with them. S—- was in great spirits, and played the sparkler with such great success as to silence the whole of us excepting Jim, who was the agreeable rattle of the evening. God defend me from such vivacity as hers, in future,–such smart speeches without meaning, such bubble and squeak nonsense! I ‘d as lieve stand by a frying-pan for an hour and listen to the cooking of apple fritters. After two hours’ dead silence and suffering on my part I made out to drag him off, and did not stop running until I was a mile from the house.” Irving gives his correspondent graphic pictures of the social warfare in which he was engaged, the “host of rascally little tea-parties” in which he was entangled; and some of his portraits of the “divinities,” the “blossoms,” and the beauties of that day would make the subjects of them flutter with surprise in the churchyards where they lie. The writer was sated with the “tedious commonplace of fashionable society,” and languishing to return to his books and his pen.
In March, 18122, in the shadow of the war and the depression of business, Irving was getting out a new edition of the “Knickerbocker,” which Inskeep was to publish, agreeing to pay $1200 at six months for an edition of fifteen hundred. The modern publisher had not then arisen and acquired a proprietary right in the brains of the country, and the author made his bargains like an independent being who owned himself.
Irving’s letters of this period are full of the gossip of the town and the matrimonial fate of his acquaintances. The fascinating Mary Fairlie is at length married to Cooper, the tragedian, with the opposition of her parents, after a dismal courtship and a cloudy prospect of happiness. Goodhue is engaged to Miss Clarkson, the sister to the pretty one. The engagement suddenly took place as they walked from church on Christmas Day, and report says “the action was shorter than any of our naval victories, for the lady struck on the first broadside.” The war colored all social life and conversation. “This war [the letter is to Brevoort, who is in Europe] has completely changed the face of things here. You would scarcely recognize our old peaceful city. Nothing is talked of but armies, navies, battles, etc.” The same phenomenon was witnessed then that was observed in the war for the Union: “Men who had loitered about, the hangers-on and encumbrances of society, have all at once risen to importance, and been the only useful men of the day.” The exploits of our young navy kept up the spirits of the country. There was great rejoicing when the captured frigate Macedonian was brought into New York, and was visited by the curious as she lay wind-bound above Hell Gate. “A superb dinner was given to the naval heroes, at which all the great eaters and drinkers of the city were present. It was the noblest entertainment of the kind I ever witnessed. On New Year’s Eve a grand ball was likewise given, where there was a vast display of great and little people. The Livingstons were there in all their glory. Little Rule Britannia made a gallant appearance at the head of a train of beauties, among whom were the divine H—- , who looked very inviting, and the little Taylor, who looked still more so. Britannia was gorgeously dressed in a queer kind of hat of stiff purple and silver stuff, that had marvelously the appearance of copper, and made us suppose that she had procured the real Mambrino helmet. Her dress was trimmed with what we simply mistook for scalps, and supposed it was in honor of the nation; but we blushed at our ignorance on discovering that it was a gorgeous trimming of marten tips. Would that some eminent furrier had been there to wonder and admire!”
With a little business and a good deal of loitering, waiting upon the whim of his pen, Irving passed the weary months of the war. As late as August, 1814, he is still giving Brevoort, who has returned, and is at Rockaway Beach, the light gossip of the town. It was reported that Brevoort and Dennis had kept a journal of their foreign travel, “which is so exquisitely humorous that Mrs. Cooper, on only looking at the first word, fell into a fit of laughing that lasted half an hour.” Irving is glad that he cannot find Brevoort’s flute, which the latter requested should be sent to him: “I do not think it would be an innocent amusement for you, as no one has a right to entertain himself at the expense of others.” In such dallying and badinage the months went on, affairs every day becoming more serious. Appended to a letter of September 9, 1814, is a list of twenty well-known mercantile houses that had failed within the preceding three weeks. Irving himself, shortly after this, enlisted in the war, and his letters thereafter breathe patriotic indignation at the insulting proposals of the British and their rumored attack on New York, and all his similes, even those having love for their subject, are martial and bellicose. Item: “The gallant Sam has fairly changed front, and, instead of laying siege to Douglas castle, has charged sword in hand, and carried little Cooper’s’ entrenchments.”
As a Federalist and an admirer of England, Irving had deplored the war, but his sympathies were not doubtful after it began, and the burning of the national Capitol by General Ross aroused him to an active participation in the struggle. He was descending the Hudson in a steamboat when the tidings first reached him. It was night, and the passengers had gone into the cabin, when a man came on board with the news, and in the darkness related the particulars: the burning of the President’s house and government offices, and the destruction of the Capitol, with the library and public archives. In the momentary silence that followed, somebody raised his voice, and in a tone of complacent derision “wondered what Jimmy Madison would say now.” “Sir,” cried Mr. Irving, in a burst of indignation that overcame his habitual shyness, “do you seize upon such a disaster only for a sneer? Let me tell you, sir, it is not now a question about Jimmy Madison or Jimmy Armstrong. The pride and honor of the nation are wounded; the country is insulted and disgraced by this barbarous success, and every loyal citizen would feel the ignominy and be earnest to avenge it.” There was an outburst of applause, and the sneerer was silenced. “I could not see the fellow,” said Mr. Irving, in relating the anecdote, “but I let fly at him in the dark.”
The next day he offered his services to Governor Tompkins, and was made the governor’s aid and military secretary, with the right to be addressed as Colonel Washington Irving. He served only four months in this capacity, when Governor Tompkins was called to the session of the legislature at Albany. Irving intended to go to Washington and apply for a commission in the regular army, but he was detained at Philadelphia by the affairs of his magazine, until news came in February, 1815, of the close of the war. In May of that year he embarked for England to visit his brother, intending only a short sojourn. He remained abroad seventeen years.
LIFE IN EUROPE–LITERARY ACTIVITY
When Irving sailed from New York, it was with lively anticipations of witnessing the stirring events to follow the return of Bonaparte from Elba. When he reached Liverpool, the curtain had fallen in Bonaparte’s theater. The first spectacle that met the traveler’s eye was the mail coaches, darting through the streets, decked with laurel and bringing the news of Waterloo. As usual, Irving’s sympathies were with the unfortunate. “I think,” he says, writing of the exile of St. Helena, “the cabinet has acted with littleness toward him. In spite of all his misdeeds he is a noble fellow [pace Madame de Remusat], and I am confident will eclipse, in the eyes of posterity, all the crowned wiseacres that have crushed him by their overwhelming confederacy. If anything could place the Prince Regent in a more ridiculous light, it is Bonaparte suing for his magnanimous protection. Every compliment paid to this bloated sensualist, this inflation of sack and sugar, turns to the keenest sarcasm.”
After staying a week with his brother Peter, who was recovering from an indisposition, Irving went to Birmingham, the residence of his brother- in-law, Henry Van Wart, who had married his youngest sister, Sarah; and from thence to Sydenham, to visit Campbell. The poet was not at home. To Mrs. Campbell Irving expressed his regret that her husband did not attempt something on a grand scale.
“‘It is unfortunate for Campbell,’ said she, ‘that he lives in the same age with Scott and Byron.’ I asked why. ‘Oh,’ said she, ‘they write so much and so rapidly. Mr. Campbell writes slowly, and it takes him some time to get under way; and just as he has fairly begun out comes one of their poems, that sets the world agog, and quite daunts him, so that he throws by his pen in despair.’ I pointed out the essential difference in their kinds of poetry, and the qualities which insured perpetuity to that of her husband. ‘You can’t persuade Campbell of that,’ said she. ‘He is apt to undervalue his own works, and to consider his own little lights put out, whenever they come blazing out with their great torches.’
“I repeated the conversation to Scott some time afterward, and it drew forth a characteristic comment. ‘Pooh!’ said he, good humoredly; ‘how can Campbell mistake the matter so much? Poetry goes by quality, not by bulk. My poems are mere Cairngorms, wrought up, perhaps, with a cunning hand, and may pass well in the market as long as Cairngorms are the fashion; but they are mere Scotch pebbles, after all. Now, Tom Campbell’s are real diamonds, and diamonds of the first water.'”
Returning to Birmingham, Irving made excursions to Kenilworth, Warwick, and Stratford-on-Avon, and a tour through Wales with James Renwick, a young American of great promise, who at the age of nineteen had for a time filled the chair of natural philosophy in Columbia College. He was a son of Mrs. Jane Renwick, a charming woman and a lifelong friend of Irving, the daughter of the Rev. Andrew Jeffrey, of Lochmaben, Scotland, and famous in literature as “The Blue-Eyed Lassie” of Burns. From another song, “When first I saw my Face,” which does not appear in the poet’s collected works, the biographer quotes:
“But, sair, I doubt some happier swain Has gained my Jeanie’s favor;
If sae, may every bliss be hers, Tho’ I can never have her.
“But gang she east, or gang she west, ‘Twixt Nith and Tweed all over,
While men have eyes, or ears, or taste, She’ll always find a lover.”
During Irving’s protracted stay in England he did not by any means lose his interest in his beloved New York and the little society that was always dear to him. He relied upon his friend Brevoort to give him the news of the town, and in return he wrote long letters,–longer and more elaborate and formal than this generation has leisure to write or to read; letters in which the writer laid himself out to be entertaining, and detailed his emotions and state of mind as faithfully as his travels and outward experiences.
No sooner was our war with England over than our navy began to make a reputation for itself in the Mediterranean. In his letter of August, 1815, Irving dwells with pride on Decatur’s triumph over the Algerine pirates. He had just received a letter from “that–worthy little tar, Jack Nicholson,” dated on board the Flambeau, off Algiers. In it Nicholson says that “they fell in with and captured the admiral’s ship, and killed him.” Upon which Irving remarks: “As this is all that Jack’s brevity will allow him to say on the subject, I should be at a loss to know whether they killed the admiral before or after his capture. The well-known humanity of our tars, however, induces me to the former conclusion.” Nicholson, who has the honor of being alluded to in “The Croakers,” was always a great favorite with Irving. His gallantry on shore was equal to his bravery at sea, but unfortunately his diffidence was greater than his gallantry; and while his susceptibility to female charms made him an easy and a frequent victim, he could never muster the courage to declare his passion. Upon one occasion, when he was desperately enamored of a lady whom he wished to marry, he got Irving to write for him a love-letter, containing an offer of his heart and hand. The enthralled but bashful sailor carried the letter in his pocket till it was worn out, without ever being able to summon pluck enough to deliver it.
While Irving was in Wales the Wiggins family and Madame Bonaparte passed through Birmingham, on their way to Cheltenham. Madame was still determined to assert her rights as a Bonaparte. Irving cannot help expressing sympathy for Wiggins: “The poor man has his hands full, with such a bevy of beautiful women under his charge, and all doubtless bent on pleasure and admiration.” He hears, however, nothing further of her, except the newspapers mention her being at Cheltenham. “There are so many stars and comets thrown out of their orbits, and whirling about the world at present, that a little star like Madame Bonaparte attracts but slight attention, even though she draw after her so sparkling a tail as the Wiggins family.” In another letter he exclaims: “The world is surely topsy-turvy, and its inhabitants shaken out of place: emperors and kings, statesmen and philosophers, Bonaparte, Alexander, Johnson, and the Wigginses, all strolling about the face of the earth.”
The business of the Irving brothers soon absorbed all Washington’s time and attention. Peter was an invalid, and the whole weight of the perplexing affairs of the failing firm fell upon the one who detested business, and counted every hour lost that he gave to it. His letters for two years are burdened with harassments in uncongenial details and unsuccessful struggles. Liverpool, where he was compelled to pass most of his time, had few attractions for him, and his low spirits did not permit him to avail himself of such social advantages as were offered. It seems that our enterprising countrymen flocked abroad, on the conclusion of peace. “This place [writes Irving] swarms with Americans. You never saw a more motley race of beings. Some seem as if just from the woods, and yet stalk about the streets and public places with all the easy nonchalance that they would about their own villages. Nothing can surpass the dauntless independence of all form, ceremony, fashion, or reputation of a downright, unsophisticated American. Since the war, too, particularly, our lads seem to think they are ‘the salt of the earth’ and the legitimate lords of creation. It would delight you to see some of them playing Indian when surrounded by the wonders and improvements of the Old World. It is impossible to match these fellows by anything this side the water. Let an Englishman talk of the battle of Waterloo, and they will immediately bring up New Orleans and Plattsburg.
“A thoroughbred, thoroughly appointed soldier is nothing to a Kentucky rifleman,” etc., etc. In contrast to this sort of American was Charles King, who was then abroad: “Charles is exactly what an American should be abroad: frank, manly, and unaffected in his habits and manners, liberal and independent in his opinions, generous and unprejudiced in his sentiments towards other nations, but most loyally attached to his own.” There was a provincial narrowness at that date and long after in America, which deprecated the open-minded patriotism of King and of Irving as it did the clear-sighted loyalty of Fenimore Cooper.
The most anxious time of Irving’s life was the winter of 1815-16. The business worry increased. He was too jaded with the din of pounds, shillings, and pence to permit his pen to invent facts or to adorn realities. Nevertheless, he occasionally escapes from the treadmill. In December he is in London, and entranced with the acting of Miss O’Neil. He thinks that Brevoort, if he saw her, would infallibly fall in love with this “divine perfection of a woman.” He writes: “She is, to my eyes, the most soul-subduing actress I ever saw; I do not mean from her personal charms, which are great, but from the truth, force, and pathos of her acting. I have never been so completely melted, moved, and overcome at a theatre as by her performances . . . . Kean, the prodigy, is to me insufferable. He is vulgar, full of trick, and a complete mannerist. This is merely my opinion. He is cried up as a second Garrick, as a reformer of the stage, etc. It may be so. He may be right, and all the other actors wrong. This is certain: he is either very good or very bad. I think decidedly the latter; and I find no medium opinions concerning him. I am delighted with Young, who acts with great judgment, discrimination, and feeling. I think him much the best actor at present on the English stage . . . . In certain characters, such as may be classed with Macbeth, I do not think that Cooper has his equal in England. Young is the only actor I have seen who can compare with him.” Later, Irving somewhat modified his opinion of Kean. He wrote to Brevoort: “Kean is a strange compound of merits and defects. His excellence consists in sudden and brilliant touches, in vivid exhibitions of passion and emotion. I do not think him a discriminating actor, or critical either at understanding or delineating character; but he produces effects which no other actor does.”
In the summer of 1816, on his way from Liverpool to visit his sister’s family at Birmingham, Irving tarried for a few days at a country place near Shrewsbury on the border of Wales, and while there encountered a character whose portrait is cleverly painted. It is interesting to compare this first sketch with the elaboration of it in the essay on “The Angler” in the “Sketch-Book.”
“In one of our morning strolls [he writes, July 15] along the banks of the Aleen, a beautiful little pastoral stream that rises among the Welsh mountains and throws itself into the Dee, we encountered a veteran angler of old Isaac Walton’s school. He was an old Greenwich outdoor pensioner, had lost one leg in the battle of Camperdown, had been in America in his youth, and indeed had been quite a rover, but for many years past had settled himself down in his native village, not far distant, where he lived very independently on his pension and some other small annual sums, amounting in all to about L 40. His great hobby, and indeed the business of his life, was to angle. I found he had read Isaac Walton very attentively; he seemed to have imbibed all his simplicity of heart, contentment of mind, and fluency of tongue. We kept company with him almost the whole day, wandering along the beautiful banks of the river, admiring the ease and elegant dexterity with which the old fellow managed his angle, throwing the fly with unerring certainty at a great distance and among overhanging bushes, and waving it gracefully in the air, to keep it from entangling, as he stumped with his staff and wooden leg from one bend of the river to another. He kept up a continual flow of cheerful and entertaining talk, and what I particularly liked him for was, that though we tried every way to entrap him into some abuse of America and its inhabitants, there was no getting him to utter an ill-natured word concerning us. His whole conversation and deportment illustrated old Isaac’s maxims as to the benign influence of angling over the human heart . . . . I ought to mention that he had two companions–one, a ragged, picturesque varlet, that had all the air of a veteran poacher, and I warrant would find any fish- pond in the neighborhood in the darkest night; the other was a disciple of the old philosopher, studying the art under him, and was son and heir apparent to the landlady of the village tavern.”
A contrast to this pleasing picture is afforded by some character sketches at the little watering-place of Buxton, which our kindly observer visited the same year.
“At the hotel where we put up [he writes] we had a most singular and whimsical assemblage of beings. I don’t know whether you were ever at an English watering-place, but if you have not been, you have missed the best opportunity of studying English oddities, both moral and physical. I no longer wonder at the English being such excellent caricaturists, they have such an inexhaustible number and variety of subjects to study from. The only care should be not to follow fact too closely, for I ‘ll swear I have met with characters and figures that would be condemned as extravagant, if faithfully delineated by pen or pencil. At a watering-place like Buxton, where people really resort for health, you see the great tendency of the English to run into excrescences and bloat out into grotesque deformities. As to noses, I say nothing of them, though we had every variety: some snubbed and turned up, with distended nostrils, like a dormer window on the roof of a house; others convex and twisted like a buck-handled knife; and others magnificently eforescent, like a full-blown cauliflower. But as to the persons that were attached to these noses, fancy any distortion, protuberance, and fungous embellishment that can be produced in the human form by high and gross feeding, by the bloating operations of malt liquors, and by the rheumy influence of a damp, foggy, vaporous climate. One old fellow was an exception to this, for instead of acquiring that expansion and sponginess to which old people are prone in this country, from the long course of internal and external soakage they experience, he had grown dry and stiff in the process of years. The skin of his face had so shrunk away that he could not close eyes or mouth–the latter, therefore, stood on a perpetual ghastly grin, and the former on an incessant stare. He had but one serviceable joint in his body, which was at the bottom of the backbone, and that creaked and grated whenever he bent. He could not raise his feet from the ground, but skated along the drawing- room carpet whenever he wished to ring the bell. The only sign of moisture in his whole body was a pellucid drop that I occasionally noticed on the end of along, dry nose. He used generally to shuffle about in company with a little fellow that was fat on one side and lean on the other. That is to say, he was warped on one side as if he had been scorched before the fire; he had a wry neck, which made his head lean on one shoulder; his hair was smugly powdered, and he had a round, smirking, smiling, apple face, with a bloom on it like that of a frostbitten leaf in autumn. We had an old, fat general by the name of Trotter, who had, I suspect, been promoted to his high rank to get him out of the way of more able and active officers, being an instance that a man may occasionally rise in the world through absolute lack of merit. I could not help watching the movements of this redoubtable old Hero, who, I’ll warrant, has been the champion and safeguard of half the garrison towns in England, and fancying to myself how Bonaparte would have delighted in having such toast-and-butter generals to deal with. This old cad is doubtless a sample of those generals that flourished in the old military school, when armies would manoeuvre and watch each other for months; now and then have a desperate skirmish, and, after marching and countermarching about the ‘Low Countries’ through a glorious campaign, retire on the first pinch of cold weather into snug winter quarters in some fat Flemish town, and eat and drink and fiddle through the winter. Boney must have sadly disconcerted the comfortable system of these old warriors by the harrowing, restless, cut-and-slash mode of warfare that he introduced. He has put an end to all the old carte and tierce system in which the cavaliers of the old school fought so decorously, as it were with a small sword in one hand and a chapeau bras in the other. During his career there has been a sad laying on the shelf of old generals who could not keep up with the hurry, the fierceness and dashing of the new system; and among the number I presume has been my worthy house- mate, old Trotter. The old gentleman, in spite of his warlike title, had a most pacific appearance. He was large and fat, with a broad, hazy, muffin face, a sleepy eye, and a full double chin. He had a deep ravine from each corner of his mouth, not occasioned by any irascible contraction of the muscles, but apparently the deep-worn channels of two rivulets of gravy that oozed out from the huge mouthfuls that he masticated. But I forbear to dwell on the odd beings that were congregated together in one hotel. I have been thus prolix about the old general because you desired me in one of your letters to give you ample details whenever I happened to be in company with the ‘great and glorious,’ and old Trotter is more deserving of the epithet than any of the personages I have lately encountered.”
It was at the same resort of fashion and disease that Irving observed a phenomenon upon which Brevoort had commented as beginning to be noticeable in America.
“Your account [he writes of the brevity of the old lady’s nether garments] distresses me . . . . I cannot help observing that this fashion of short skirts must have been invented by the French ladies as a complete trick upon John Bull’s ‘woman-folk.’ It was introduced just at the time the English flocked in such crowds to Paris. The French women, you know, are remarkable for pretty feet and ankles, and can display them in perfect security. The English are remarkable for the contrary. Seeing the proneness of the English women to follow French fashions, they therefore led them into this disastrous one, and sent them home with their petticoats up to their knees, exhibiting such a variety of sturdy little legs as would have afforded Hogarth an ample choice to match one of his assemblages of queer heads. It is really a great source of curiosity and amusement on the promenade of a watering-place to observe the little sturdy English women, trudging about in their stout leather shoes, and to study the various ‘understandings’ betrayed to view by this mischievous fashion.”
The years passed rather wearily in England. Peter continued to be an invalid, and Washington himself, never robust, felt the pressure more and more of the irksome and unprosperous business affairs. Of his own want of health, however, he never complains; he maintains a patient spirit in the ill turns of fortune, and his impatience in the business complications is that of a man hindered from his proper career. The times were depressing.
“In America [he writes to Brevoort] you have financial difficulties, the embarrassments of trade, the distress of merchants, but here you have what is far worse, the distress of the poor–not merely mental sufferings, but the absolute miseries of nature: hunger, nakedness, wretchedness of all kinds that the laboring people in this country are liable to. In the best of times they do but subsist, but in adverse times they starve. How the country is to extricate itself from its present embarrassment, how it is to escape from the poverty that seems to be overwhelming it, and how the government is to quiet the multitudes that are already turbulent and clamorous, and are yet but in the beginning of their real miseries, I cannot conceive.”
The embarrassments of the agricultural and laboring classes and of the government were as serious in 1816 as they have again become in 1881.
During 1817 Irving was mostly in the depths of gloom, a prey to the