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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Edwin Wilson Morse (1855–1924)

By Washington Irving (1783–1859)

TO Washington Irving belongs the title of the Founder of American Literature. Born while the British troops were still in possession of his native city, New York, and overtaken by death a year before Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States, he represents a span of life from Revolutionary days to a period well remembered by men now of middle age. Before his day American literature was theological and political,—the outgrowth of the great questions of Church and State which the settlement of the colonies and the rupture with the mother country gave rise to. The only considerable venture in belles-lettres had been made by Charles Brockden Brown, whose romances published in the turn of the century were highly praised in their day, but are now unread.

Irving loved literature for its own sake, and not as a means to the attainment of some social, moral, or political end; and this trait differentiates him sharply from his predecessors. When he began to write, the field of letters was unoccupied. His first book had been published eight years when Bryant’s ‘Thanatopsis’ appeared in the North American Review; and it was three years later before Cooper’s first novel, ‘Precaution,’ was published. His position in American literature is thus unique, and will always remain so.

The qualities which were most characteristic of his work were sentiment and humor; and these acquired a high literary value through the graceful, varied, and finished form in which they were cast. The source of the keen literary sense that revealed itself in him in early life, and that was highly developed even before he attained his majority, is not easily traced. It was however a powerful impulse, and persisted in shaping his character and in controlling his destiny, despite his half-hearted efforts to acquire a taste for the law, and later for commercial pursuits. To its influence moreover is attributable his aloofness from the political and other public life of his time, which seems somewhat singular in a man of his imaginative, emotional temperament, when one remembers the stormy period in which his youth and early manhood were passed. When he was beguiled against his inclination to take some part in local politics, he spent the first day, true to his real nature, in hunting for “whim, character, and absurdity” in the crowd in which he found himself. From this early time onward, whatever was eccentric or strongly individual in human nature had a remarkable fascination for his alert, observing mind. Apparently however the politics of the day did not yield the material that he sought, nor were the associations of political life agreeable to one of his fastidious tastes. For after a brief experience he writes: “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.” This sentiment had its spring in no lack of loyalty to his country, but rather in his physical repugnance to the unwashed political “workers” of his day and to familiar intercourse with them.

Irving’s detachment from the public affairs of his time was further illustrated in a somewhat amusing manner during his first visit to Europe. When he reached France, Napoleon’s conquest of Italy and his assumption of the title of Emperor were on every tongue. Contemporary greatness, however, which subsequent events were to bring to a much more striking perspective than was within the scope of his vision at this time, had no attraction for the young American traveler. His sole anxiety was to see, not Napoleon, but the tomb of Laura at Avignon; and great was his disappointment to find that the monument had been destroyed in the Revolution. “Never,” he breaks out, “did the Revolution and 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 purely literary view of the greatest event of modern times is significant of Irving’s attitude of mind towards the political and social forces which were changing the boundaries of kingdoms and revolutionizing society. He had reached his majority; but the literary associations of the Old World were of infinitely more moment to him than the overthrow of kings and the warrings of nations.

A partial, but only a partial, explanation of this literary sense which young Irving possessed can be found in his ancestry. It did not, one may be sure, come from the side of his father, who was a worthy Scotchman of good family, a native of one of the Orkney Islands. William Irving had passed his life on or near the sea, and was a petty officer on an armed packet when he met in Falmouth the girl who was to become his wife and the author’s mother. Mrs. Irving was a woman of much beauty and of a lovely disposition, and she exerted a great influence upon the character of the son. The desire to wander far afield which pursued Irving through a large part of his life may also be traced, it seems to me, to the parent stock, which must have been saturated with the adventurous spirit of a seafaring life. This impulse made itself felt when Irving was very young; for in the account which the author of the ‘Sketch Book’ gives of himself, he admits that he “began his travels when a mere child, and made many tours of discovery into foreign parts and unknown regions of his native city, to the frequent alarm of his parents and the emolument of the town crier.” As Irving was born on April 3d, 1783, his parents having been residents of New York for about twenty years, we may believe that these youthful escapades took place when the boy was perhaps six or eight years old; say a year or two after Washington began his first term as President. The lad possessed from an early age, in addition to this roving tendency, a romantic, emotional, imaginative temperament, which invested with a special interest for him every spot in or near his native town that had become celebrated through fable or by a tragedy in real life.

The New York through which the lad, brimful of gay spirits and of boundless curiosity, wandered, was a town devoted exclusively to commerce, of fewer than twenty-five thousand inhabitants. It was confined within narrow limits. An excursion from the Irving home in William Street, about half-way between Fulton and John Streets, to what is now Chambers Street, must have brought the venturesome youth into the fields and among country houses. The educational facilities of the town were meager, and young Irving had little taste for study. Rather than go to school, he preferred to loiter around the wharves and dream of the far distant lands whence the ships with their odorous cargoes had come; while in the evening he would steal away to the theatre in company with a companion of about his own age, James K. Paulding, with whom some years later he was to make his first literary venture. He liked to read books of voyages and romances, like ‘Robinson Crusoe’ and ‘Sindbad,’ much better than the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress,’ which his father, then a deacon in the Presbyterian church, gave him for his Sunday perusal. Two of his brothers—he was the youngest of a family of eight boys—had been sent to Columbia College, but Washington was not a student. Textbooks were repugnant to him; and lacking the faculty of application and concentration, he never made much headway with routine studies, although he acquired a little knowledge of Latin in addition to the ordinary branches of learning. He was “a saunterer and a dreamer,” did not like to study, and had no ambition to go to college.

As the years were slipping by, and as it was plainly necessary for him to prepare himself for some work in life, young Irving entered a law office. But the dry routine of reading law proved to be very distasteful to him, and he soon drifted into general literature, in the reading of which he atoned in large part for the deficiencies of his early schooling. His indolence was partly due to temperament, and partly no doubt to physical causes. For his health was not robust. A weakness of the lungs showed itself, and gave him a good excuse to get away from books and into the open air, and to indulge his liking for travel and exploration. He had already wandered, gun in hand, along the shores of the Hudson and through the woods of Westchester County, becoming well acquainted with the natural beauties of the Sleepy Hollow country, which he was later to people with legendary figures. He had also made a voyage up the Hudson, and had journeyed through the valley of the Mohawk. The pulmonary trouble which made it necessary for him to take a more extended outing made itself felt while he was dawdling over his law-books in the office of Josiah Ogden Hoffman; and in the next two years—this was between 1802 and 1804—he made several adventurous journeys to the north, going so far on one occasion as Montreal.

It was during this period of Irving’s life, when he was approaching his majority, that another important aspect of his character—the social, which was to influence his entire career and to leave its color indelibly stamped upon his writings—made itself apparent. From an early age the social instinct was strong in him. As he grew older he developed “a boundless capacity for good-fellowship,” as one of his contemporaries testifies. This liking for his fellow-man had for its foundation a warm-hearted, sympathetic, generous nature, a rich vein of humor, perfect ease of manner and great readiness as a talker, and an optimistic philosophy of life. These amiable traits made him many friends in the towns which he visited outside of New York in this period of his life, and throw a flood of light upon the warm friendships which he made in England and elsewhere in later years. It is easy to believe that these qualities of mind and heart were due in large part to the influence of his mother, the gentleness and sweetness of whose nature must have had a deep effect upon the impressionable son. And to the same tender influence is probably due the devotion, almost idolatrous, which Irving showed both in his writings and in his social relations throughout his life to womankind. By temperament extremely susceptible to the attractions of the sex, he was always their ardent admirer and chivalric defender. The untimely death of the girl whom we may well believe to have been the embodiment of his loftiest ideals, the second daughter of the Mr. Hoffman under whom he had read law, imparted a tinge of melancholy to his emotional temperament, and remained with him as a sad memory throughout his life. This overwhelming disappointment, and the necessity which arose some years later that he should assume the responsibility of supporting his brothers, made marriage an impossibility for him.

This tragedy, however, had not overshadowed his life when in 1804 Irving made his first journey to Europe, in search of the health which he had not been able to find in northern New York and in Canada. He had just passed his twenty-first birthday; and despite his poor health, he was all eagerness to see the famous places which his reading had made familiar to his lively imagination. The reality exceeded his anticipations. His health was restored by the voyage, and he gave himself up to sight-seeing and to making friends. He loitered here and there: in Italy, where he met Allston, who nearly persuaded him to become a painter; in Paris, where he frequented the theatres; and in London, where he saw John Kemble and Mrs. Siddons. He studied little but observed much, gathering materials perhaps subconsciously from the associations historic and legendary connected with this old and infinitely rich civilization, to be worked later into delightful stories and sketches. He was forming his taste too on the best models, and was thus laying a broad foundation for his literary career, although he had as yet written nothing.

After two enjoyable years abroad, Irving returned in 1806 to New York, and soon began to feel his way into the world of letters through the pages of Salmagundi, a periodical which he wrote in conjunction with the friend of his youth, James K. Paulding. These papers on society and its “whim-whams,” or fads as we should say, have only a slight interest to-day as a reflection of the manners of the time; but to Irving’s contemporaries the vivacity and spirit with which they were written, and the thread of humor which ran through them, were sources of much entertainment and amusement. With the Knickerbocker ‘History of New York,’ however,—which was published in 1809, the year in which Madison succeeded Jefferson to the Presidency,—Irving acquired widespread celebrity. This book was the first real piece of literature which America had produced, and it served to introduce its author into a still wider and more influential circle of friends in the literary and art world when he made his second visit to England in 1815. His constitutional indolence, his distrust of his capacity, and the distractions of society, interfered to prevent him, after his first success, from accepting literature as his vocation. Finally he entered into the business which his brothers had been carrying on with indifferent results, although his distaste for commercial affairs was unconcealed. At last the necessity arose that he should go to England, in order if possible to place the affairs of the firm—the Irvings were importers of hardware—on a sounder basis. The fortunate—no other word in view of the event seems so appropriate—failure of the firm, a few years after his arrival in England, compelled him to cast about in search of some means of repairing the broken fortunes of the family; and he naturally turned again to letters.

This decision was the turning-point in Irving’s career. He forthwith began the preparation of the several numbers of the ‘Sketch Book’; the popularity of which, when they were published in 1819 and 1820, decided him to make literature his life work. The financial returns from these ventures were more than he had dreamed of, and with the offers which poured in upon him from English publishers, gave him a feeling of independence and security for the future. From this time on he produced books with rapidity. ‘Bracebridge Hall’ and the ‘Tales of a Traveller’ appeared in 1822 and in 1824, respectively. A residence of several years in Spain resulted in the production of the ‘Life of Columbus’ (1828), the ‘Conquest of Granada’ (1829), and the ‘Alhambra’ tales and sketches. On his return to the United States in 1832, after an absence of seventeen years, he was welcomed at a public dinner at which his praises were sung in every key. He had won from England respect for American literature, and no honors were too great for his fellow-countrymen to bestow upon him.

In the ten years between 1832 and 1842 Irving bought and developed the property on the east bank of the Hudson, north of Tarrytown and overlooking the Tappan Zee, to which he gave the name of Sunnyside. He traveled some in the far West, and published ‘A Tour on the Prairies’ (1835), ‘Astoria’ (1836), and the ‘Adventures of Captain Bonneville’ (1837). For the four years from 1842 to 1846 he was United States Minister to Spain; a post for which he was especially well fitted, and to which he was appointed as a sort of national recognition of his services to the cause of letters. While he was in Madrid he was planning and arranging the material for the early volumes of his ‘Life of Washington’; the first volume of which did not appear, however, until 1855. His ‘Life of Goldsmith’ was published in 1849, ‘Mahomet and his Successors’ in the winter of the same year, ‘Wolfert’s Roost’ in 1854, and the fifth and final volume of his ‘Washington’ only a short time before his death at Sunnyside on November 28th, 1859.

Irving’s literary activity thus extended over exactly half a century. The books which he published in that period fall naturally into four groups, each of which reflects his explorations, observations, and meditations in some special field. The first of these groups is made up of the experimental Salmagundi papers, the Knickerbocker ‘History,’ the ‘Sketch Book,’ ‘Bracebridge Hall,’ and ‘Tales of a Traveller’; all of which were published while the author was between twenty-six and forty-one years of age. They were the fruit of his interest, first in the Dutch history and legends that gave a quaint charm to Old New York, and to the customs and manners of the early settlers in the valley of the Hudson; and second in the romantic and picturesque aspects of foreign life which had stirred his fancy and imagination during his two sojourns abroad. Although they were not published in book form until many years later, the sketches and tales gathered under the title of ‘Wolfert’s Roost’ belong to the same time and to the same group. The second group consists of the volumes which were the outgrowth of Irving’s residence in Spain, and of his admiration for the daring and adventurous life of the early Spanish voyagers, and for the splendid story, so brilliant with Oriental pageantry and with barbaric color, of the Moorish invasion and occupancy of Spain. The third group includes the three books in which Irving pictured with a vivid realism, with an accurate knowledge, and with a narrative style that gave to two at least of these volumes the fascination of romance, the perils and hardships which the explorers, fur-traders, hunters, and trappers of the Northwest endured in the early years of the present century. Finally, the last group embraces the historical and biographical works of the author’s last years.

Of all these books, the one that is the boldest in conception and that shows the most virility is the first one that Irving published,—the Knickerbocker ‘History of New York.’ Born of an audacity that is the privilege of youth, this ‘History’ was the product of a mind untrammeled by literary traditions, and bent only upon giving the freest play to its fanciful idea of the grotesquely humorous possibilities of the Dutch character and temperament when confronted with problems of State. In freshness, vigor, and buoyancy the narrative is without a parallel in our literature. It is literally saturated with the spirit of broad comedy, the effect of which is immeasurably heightened by the air of historical gravity with which the narrative is presented. The character studies are full of individuality, and are drawn with a mock seriousness and with a minuteness that give them all the qualities of actual historical portraits; while the incidents are pictured with a vividness that invests them with an atmosphere of reality, from the influence of which the sympathetic reader escapes with difficulty. I know of no piece of broad, sustained humor in English or in American literature which is the equal of the narrative of the capture of Fort Casimir,—an episode in the description of which the Homeric manner is adopted with grandiloquent effect. A phrase may be found here and there in the book which is out of harmony with the taste of our day; but ninety years make considerable difference in such matters, and all must admit that these seventeenth-century touches are not unnatural in a youth whose early reading had carried him in many directions in search of the novel and eccentric in life and letters. Taken as a whole the book is a masterpiece, revealing a limitless fund of humor, a shrewd knowledge of human nature, and a deep love of mankind, and governed throughout by a fine sense of the literary possibilities and limitations of historical burlesque.

In any book which might be made up of Irving’s legends of the Hudson, and of his stories on other American themes, the precedence would be given without protest from any quarter, I think, to the tender, pathetic, sweetly humorous story of ‘Rip Van Winkle.’ The change of style that one perceives in these stories and in the tales of Spanish, French, and English life, as compared with that in the Knickerbocker ‘History,’ is marked. If there is a loss of youthful vigor and enthusiasm, there is a decided gain in grace of form, in simplicity, in delicacy and tenderness of feeling, and in refinement of humor. These are the qualities which give a permanent value to writing and make it literature. They suffuse ‘Rip Van Winkle’ and the ‘Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ with an undying charm, and lift these legends to a higher plane than that occupied by the Knickerbocker ‘History.’ In them Irving gave the fullest and freest play to his artistic nature. The tales from over seas in this first group of his books reflect the “charms of storied and poetical association” which his active fancy pictured when he escaped from the “commonplace realities of the present,” and lost himself among the “shadowy grandeurs of the past.” He brought too an appreciative mind to the contemplation of the quiet beauty of English country life. It was always, however, the human element in the scene that was of interest to him; and this, I think, is one of the principal reasons why so much of his work has retained its vitality through three-quarters of a century.

It is not surprising—to take up the second group of Irving’s books—that a man of his poetic temperament found Spain “a country where the most miserable inn is as full of adventure as an enchanted castle.” It was the historical associations, however, which especially appealed to him, and to the inspiration of which we are indebted for some of his most brilliant pages. The glories of old Spain in the days of the Moslem invader and in the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, when the adventurous spirit of the Spanish sailors was at its height, and when great enterprises inflamed men’s minds with the lust for conquest and power and riches,—these were the themes that kindled his sympathetic imagination. To these influences was due the ‘Life of Columbus,’—which may seem somewhat antiquated in form to a generation accustomed to the modern style of biography, but which is nevertheless a very solid piece of historical writing, calm, clear, judicious, and trustworthy,—together with the collection of legends and historical narratives growing out of the Moorish conquest. In the ‘Conquest of Granada’ and in the ‘Alhambra’ tales, Irving’s style, affected no doubt by the variety and richness of the color of the scenes which he is depicting, is a little lacking at times in the fine reticence which distinguishes his best work; but the fact remains that his picture of this chapter of Spanish history was of such a character as to discourage any successor from attempting to deal with the same topic.

Two of the three books descriptive of the wild life of the Northwest, ‘Astoria’ and the ‘Adventures of Captain Bonneville,’ were based upon documents placed at Irving’s disposal by John Jacob Astor, supplemented by oral narratives, and by the author’s recollections of his own experiences during the journey which he made on the prairies after his second return from Europe. In addition to the deep interest attaching to the tragic story of the suffering and dangers encountered by the overland party which Mr. Astor dispatched to establish a fur-trading post at the mouth of the Columbia River, the ‘Astoria’ is filled with graphic character sketches of the hardy adventurers who gathered in those days at the frontier settlements,—men of varied nationalities and of eccentric and picturesque individualities, all of whom are as actual in Irving’s pages as if they had been studied from the life. It may be nothing more than a fancy, but I like to think that this incursion into the trackless regions of the Northwest, in company with the primitive types of the explorer, the hunter, and the trapper, reflects a natural reaction of Irving’s mind after so long a sojourn in the highly cultivated society of Europe, and a yearning on his part to find rest and refreshment by getting as close as possible in his work to Mother Nature.

Of the three biographies which were the last product of his pen, the ‘Life of Goldsmith’ is noteworthy as having more of the charm of his earlier manner than the others have. He was in peculiar sympathy with the subject of this volume, and told the story of his life with an insight which no later biographer has brought to the task. The ‘Mahomet and his Successors’ is an honest, straightforward, conscientious piece of work, but did not add anything to the author’s reputation. He expended an enormous amount of time and labor on the ‘Life of Washington,’ but the work was too large and too exacting for a man of his age to undertake. There are passages in it that for incisiveness of characterization and for finish of form are the equal of anything that he produced in the days when his intellectual vigor was unimpaired; but the reader cannot escape the feeling that the author’s grasp of the materials relating to the subject was feeble, and that his heart was not in his work. It dragged terribly, he tells us, in the writing; and it drags too in the reading. Nor does it seem likely that even if the task had been undertaken twenty years earlier, the theme would have been altogether a congenial one. Washington, in the perspective from which Irving viewed him,—and one must remember that the lad was six years old when Washington took the oath of office as President, and may have witnessed that ceremony almost from his father’s doorstep,—was a very real man who had solved a very real problem. There was no atmosphere surrounding him that corresponded to the romantic glamour which transfigured the personality of Columbus, or to the literary associations which were linked with Goldsmith’s name; and Irving required some such stimulus to the imagination in order to enable him to do his best work.

Irving, finally, was the first American man of letters whose writings contained the vital spark. No one would venture to say that he possessed a creative imagination of the highest order, such as Hawthorne for example was gifted with. The tragedy of life, the more strenuous problems that arise to torment mankind, had no attraction for him. But he had nevertheless imagination of a rare sort, and the creative faculty was his also. Were this not so, his books would have been forgotten long ago. Neither his play of fancy, nor his delicious sense of humor, nor the singular felicity of his style, could have saved his writings from oblivion if he had not possessed, in addition to these qualities, a profound knowledge of the romance and comedy of life, and the power, which is vouchsafed to few, to surround his characters and his scenes with some of the mellow glow of his own sweet and gentle spirit.