The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

III. Early Essayists

§ 4. James Kirke Paulding

James Kirke Paulding (1779–1860), Washington Irving’s chief assistant in this youthful venture, shared with his collaborator a love of English letters, a vivid recollection of the New York of their boyhood, and a keen eye for odd whim-whams and curiosities of character. So closely akin were they in spirit that to identify completely the contributions of either writer would be a hopeless task, but the papers known to have been written wholly or in large measure by Paulding indicate that his part in the undertaking was not inferior to Irving’s. Nor was Paulding less a master of a graceful and vivacious style, formed by his boyish reading of The Citizen of the World. It was he who first sketched the characters of the Cockloft family, and in the case of “Mine Uncle John” he took the likeness of a real uncle as deftly as Irving portrayed the lively Mrs. Cooper in Sophie Sparkle or the fastidious Joseph Dennie in Launcelot Langstaff. Aunt Charity, who “died of a Frenchman,” was apparently a joint production. The two writers might have acquired from Steele and his successors the art of drawing crotchety characters, if not the fondness for detecting them, but the inevitable urban setting of the British essays afforded few models for such studies of nature as the “Autumnal Reflections” of the seventeenth Salmagundi paper. There Paulding—who undoubtedly had a hand in it—discovered a happy talent for combining gentle melancholy with landscape description which remained one of the most attractive elements in his varied writings. Almost the only quotable passages in his pretentious poem, The Back-woodsman, have to do with wild and romantic scenery, and when in 1819 he revived the name, though not the sparkle of Salmagundi, the serious admonitory air of his continuation was sometimes freshened by vignettes of the Hudson valley or the frontier. After the second series of “Old Sal,” Paulding wrote few essays except the unremarkable Odds and Ends contributed in his old age to The Literary World, but in his Letters from the South, in his tales and novels, and even in his prose satires he found opportunities to manifest his delight in American scenes. Unlike Irving, he never travelled, and the beauties of his native land remained in his eyes unrivalled.

While the author of Bracebridge Hall and the Alhambra was cultivating his cosmopolitan fancy in many lands, Paulding grew more and more intensely local. In accepting the cares of a family and of official position—he was eventually Secretary of the Navy under Van Buren—he lessened his opportunities to develop his literary talent, and at the same 1819 increased his desire to exalt the glory of American letters. Unusually sensitive to the faults of his fellow-countrymen, he too often went out of his way to rail at primogeniture, lotteries, French fashions, paper money, and the charities of “those venerable married ladies, and thrice venerable spinsters, who go about our cities like roaring lions, doing good.” When in such works as in Merry Tales of the Three Wise Men of Gotham (1826), and the New Mirror for Travellers (1828), he undertook to quiz political or fashionable failings, his irony was not infrequently more severe than just. The same objection may be applied with double force to the acrimonious squibs which he hurled at British critics who dared sneer at American innovations. Like many of his contemporaries Paulding could not refrain from using his stylus as a dagger whenever patriotically aroused, and he lost no opportunity to flaunt the merits of republican institutions before the ‘crowned heads’ of Europe. He may best be remembered as an author whose faults and virtues combined to make him exclusively and eminently national.