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Outlines of English and American Literature
Washington Irving
by Long, William J.

A very pleasant writer is Irving, a man of romantic and somewhat sentimental disposition, but sound of motive, careful of workmanship, invincibly cheerful of spirit. The genial quality of his work may be due to the fact that from joyous boyhood to serene old age he did very much as he pleased, that he lived in what seemed to him an excellent world and wrote with no other purpose than to make it happy. In summarizing his career an admirer of Irving is reminded of what the Book of Proverbs says of wisdom: "Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace."

The Man and his Times

The historian sees another side of Irving's work. Should it be asked, "What did he do that had not been as well or better done before him?" the first answer is that the importance of any man's work must be measured by the age in which he did it. A schoolboy now knows more about electricity than ever Franklin learned; but that does not detract from our wonder at Franklin's kite. So the work of Irving seems impressive when viewed against the gray literary dawn of a century ago. At that time America had done a mighty work for the world politically, but had added little of value to the world's literature. She read and treasured the best books; but she made no contribution to their number, and her literary impotence galled her sensitive spirit. As if to make up for her failure, the writers of the Knickerbocker, Charleston and other "schools" praised each other's work extravagantly; but no responsive echo came from overseas, where England's terse criticism of our literary effort was expressed in the scornful question, "Who reads an American book?"

Irving answered that question effectively when his Sketch Book, Bracebridge Hall and Tales of a Traveller found a multitude of delighted readers on both sides of the Atlantic. His graceful style was hardly rivaled by any other writer of the period; and England, at a time when Scott and Byron were playing heroic parts, welcomed him heartily to a place on the literary stage. Thus he united the English and the American reader in a common interest and, as it were, charmed away the sneer from one face, the resentment from the other. He has been called "father of our American letters" for two reasons: because he was the first to win a lasting literary reputation at home and abroad, and because of the formative influence which his graceful style and artistic purpose have ever since exerted upon our prose writers.


Two personal characteristics appear constantly in Irving's work: the first, that he was always a dreamer, a romance seeker; the second, that he was inclined to close his eyes to the heroic present and open them wide to the glories, real or imaginary, of the remote past. Though he lived in an American city in a day of mighty changes and discoveries, he was far less interested in the modern New York than in the ancient New Amsterdam; and though he was in Europe at the time of the Napoleonic wars, he apparently saw nothing of them, being then wholly absorbed in the battles of the long-vanished Moors. Only once, in his books of western exploration, did he seriously touch the vigorous life of his own times; and critics regard these books as the least important of all his works.


He was born in New York (1783) when the present colossal city was a provincial town that retained many of its quaint Dutch characteristics. Over all the straggling town, from the sunny Battery with its white-winged ships to the Harlem woods where was good squirrel shooting, Irving rambled at ease on many a day when the neighbors said he ought to have been at his books. He was the youngest of the family; his constitution was not rugged, and his gentle mother was indulgent. She would smile when he told of reading a smuggled copy of the Arabian Nights in school, instead of his geography; she was silent when he slipped away from family prayers to climb out of his bedroom window and go to the theater, while his sterner father thought of him as sound asleep in his bed.

Little harm came from these escapades, for Irving was a merry lad with no meanness in him; but his schooling was sadly neglected. His brothers had graduated from Columbia; but on the plea of delicate health he abandoned the idea of college, with a sigh in which there was perhaps as much satisfaction as regret. At sixteen he entered a law office, where he gave less time to studying Blackstone than to reading novels and writing skits for the newspapers.

Finding Himself

This happy indifference to work and learning, this disposition to linger on the sunny side of the street, went with Irving through life. Experimentally he joined his brothers, who were in the hardware trade; but when he seemed to be in danger of consumption they sent him to Europe, where he enjoyed himself greatly, and whence he returned perfectly well. Next he was sent on business to England; and there, when the Irving Brothers failed, their business having been ruined by the War of 1812, Irving manfully resolved to be no longer a burden on others and turned to literature for his support. With characteristic love of doing what he liked he refused a good editorial position (which Walter Scott obtained for him) and busied himself with his Sketch Book (1820). This met with a generous welcome in England and America, and it was followed by the equally popular Bracebridge Hall and Tales of a Traveller. By these three works Irving was assured not only of literary fame but, what was to him of more consequence, of his ability to earn his living.

Life Abroad

Next we find him in Spain, whither he went with the purpose of translating Navarrete's Voyages of Columbus, a Spanish book, in which he saw a chance of profit from his countrymen's interest in the man who discovered America. Instead of translating another man's work, however, he wrote his own Life and Times of Columbus (1828). The financial success of this book (which is still our most popular biography of the great explorer) enabled Irving to live comfortably in Spain, where he read diligently and accumulated the material for his later works on Spanish history.

By this time Irving's growing literary fame had attracted the notice of American politicians, who rewarded him with an appointment as secretary of the legation at London. This pleasant office he held for two years, but was less interested in it than in the reception which English men of letters generously offered him. Then he apparently grew homesick, after an absence of seventeen years, and returned to his native land, where he was received with the honor due to a man who had silenced the galling question, "Who reads an American book?"

His Mellow Autumn

The rest of Irving's long life was a continued triumph. Amazed at first, and then a little stunned by the growth, the hurry, the onward surge of his country, he settled back into the restful past, and was heard with the more pleasure by his countrymen because he seemed to speak to them from a vanished age. Once, inspired by the tide of life weeping into the West, he journeyed beyond the Mississippi and found material for his pioneering books; but an active life was far from his taste, and presently he built his house "Sunnyside" (appropriate name) at Tarrytown on the Hudson. There he spent the remainder of his days, with the exception of four years in which he served the nation as ambassador to Spain. This honor, urged upon him by Webster and President Tyler, was accepted with characteristic modesty not as a personal reward but as a tribute which America had been wont to offer to the profession of letters.

Chief Works of Irving

A good way to form a general impression of Irving's works is to arrange them chronologically in five main groups. The first, consisting of the Salmagundi essays, the Knickerbocker History and a few other trifles, we may call the Oldstyle group, after the pseudonym assumed by the author. [Footnote: Ever since Revolutionary days it had been the fashion for young American writers to use an assumed name. Irving appeared at different times as "Jonathan Oldstyle," "Diedrich Knickerbocker" and "Geoffrey Crayon, Gent."] The second or Sketch-Book group includes the Sketch Book, Bracebridge Hall and Tales of a Traveller. The third or Alhambra group, devoted to Spanish and Moorish themes, includes The Conquest of Granada, Spanish Voyages of Discovery, The Alhambra and certain similar works of a later period, such as Moorish Chronicles and Legends of the Conquest of Spain. The fourth or Western group contains A Tour on the Prairies, Astoria and Adventures of Captain Bonneville. The fifth or Sunnyside group is made up chiefly of biographies, Oliver Goldsmith, Mahomet and his Successors and The Life of Washington. Besides these are some essays and stories assembled under the titles of Spanish Papers and Wolfert's Roost.

The Salmagundi papers and others of the Oldstyle group would have been forgotten long ago if anybody else had written them. In other words, our interest in them is due not to their intrinsic value (for they are all "small potatoes") but to the fact that their author became a famous literary man. Most candid readers would probably apply this criticism also to the Knickerbocker History, had not that grotesque joke won an undeserved reputation as a work of humor.

Knickerbocker History

The story of the Knickerbocker fabrication illustrates the happy-go-lucky method of all Irving's earlier work. He had tired of his Salmagundi fooling and was looking for variety when his eyes lighted on Dr. Mitchill's Picture of New York, a grandiloquent work written by a prominent member of the Historical Society. In a light-headed moment Irving and his brother Peter resolved to burlesque this history and, in the approved fashion of that day, to begin with the foundation of the world. Then Peter went to Europe on more important business, and Irving went on with his joke alone. He professed to have discovered the notes of a learned Dutch antiquarian who had recently disappeared, leaving a mass of manuscript and an unpaid board-bill behind him. After advertising in the newspapers for the missing man, Irving served notice on the public that the profound value of Knickerbocker's papers justified their publication, and that the proceeds of the book would be devoted to paying the board-bill. Then appeared, in time to satisfy the aroused curiosity of the Historical Society, to whom the book was solemnly dedicated, the History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker (1809).

This literary hoax made an instant sensation; it was denounced for its scandalous irreverence by the members of the Historical Society, especially by those who had Dutch ancestors, but was received with roars of laughter by the rest of the population. Those who read it now (from curiosity, for its merriment has long since departed, leaving it dull as any thrice-repeated joke) are advised to skip the first two books, which are very tedious fooling, and to be content with an abridged version of the stories of Wouter van Twiller, William the Testy and Peter the Headstrong. These are the names of real Dutch governors of New Amsterdam, and the dates given are exact dates; but there history ends and burlesque begins. The combination of fact and nonsense and the strain of gravity in which absurdities are related have led some critics to place the Knickerbocker History first in time of the notable works of so-called American humor. That is doubtless a fair classification; but other critics assert that real humor is as purely human as a smile or a tear, and has therefore no national or racial limitations.

Sketch Book

The Sketch Book, chief of the second group of writings, is perhaps the best single work that Irving produced. We shall read it with better understanding if we remember that it was the work of a young man who, having always done as he pleased, proceeds now to write of whatever pleasant matter is close at hand. Being in England at the time, he naturally finds most of his material there; and being youthful, romantic and sentimental, he colors everything with the hue of his own disposition. He begins by chatting of the journey and of the wide sea that separates him from home. He records his impressions of the beautiful English country, tells what he saw or felt during his visit to Stratford on Avon, and what he dreamed in Westminster Abbey, a place hallowed by centuries of worship and humanized by the presence of the great dead. He sheds a ready tear over a rural funeral, and tries to make us cry over the sorrows of a poor widow; then to relieve our feelings he pokes a bit of fun at John Bull. Something calls his attention to Isaac Walton, and he writes a Waltonian kind of sketch about a fisherman. In one chapter he comments on contemporary literature; then, as if not quite satisfied with what authors are doing, he lays aside his record of present impressions, goes back in thought to his home by the Hudson, and produces two stories of such humor, charm and originality that they make the rest of the book appear almost commonplace, as the careless sketches of a painter are forgotten in presence of his inspired masterpiece.

These two stories, the most pleasing that Irving ever wrote, are "Rip van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." They should be read if one reads nothing else of the author's twenty volumes.

Spanish Themes

The works on Spanish themes appeal in different ways to different readers. One who knows his history will complain (and justly) that Irving is superficial, that he is concerned with picturesque rather than with important incidents; but one who likes the romance of history, and who reflects that romance plays an important part in the life of any people, will find the legends and chronicles of this Spanish group as interesting as fiction. We should remember, moreover, that in Irving's day the romance of old Spain, familiar enough to European readers, was to most Americans still fresh and wondrous. In emphasizing the romantic or picturesque side of his subject he not only pleased his readers but broadened their horizon; he also influenced a whole generation of historians who, in contrast with the scientific or prosaic historians of to-day, did not hesitate to add the element of human interest to their narratives.

The Alhambra

The most widely read of all the works of the Spanish group is The Alhambra (1832). This is, on the surface, a collection of semihistorical essays and tales clustering around the ancient palace, in Granada, which was the last stronghold of the Moors in Europe; in reality it is a record of the impressions and dreams of a man who, finding himself on historic ground, gives free rein to his imagination. At times, indeed, he seems to have his eye on his American readers, who were then in a romantic mood, rather than on the place or people he was describing. The book delighted its first critics, who called it "the Spanish Sketch Book"; but though pleasant enough as a romantic dream of history, it hardly compares in originality with its famous predecessor.

Western Stories

Except to those who like a brave tale of exploration, and who happily have no academic interest in style, Irving's western books are of little consequence. In fact, they are often omitted from the list of his important works, though they have more adventurous interest than all the others combined. A Tour on the Prairies, which records a journey beyond the Mississippi in the days when buffalo were the explorers' mainstay, is the best written of the pioneer books; but the Adventures of Captain Bonneville, a story of wandering up and down the great West with plenty of adventures among Indians and "free trappers," furnishes the most excitement. Unfortunately this journal, which vies in interest with Parkman's Oregon Trail, cannot be credited to Irving, though it bears his name on the title-page. [Footnote: The Adventures is chiefly the work of a Frenchman, a daring free-rover, who probably tried in vain to get his work published. Irving bought the work for a thousand dollars, revised it slightly, gave it his name and sold it for seven or eight times what he paid for it. In Astoria, the third book of the western group, he sold his services to write up the records of the fur house established by John Jacob Astor, and made a poor job of it.]


Of the three biographies Oliver Goldsmith (1849) is the best, probably because Irving had more sympathy and affinity with the author of "The Deserted Village" than with Mahomet or Washington. The Life of Washington (1855-1859) was plainly too large an undertaking for Irving's limited powers; but here again we must judge the work by the standards of its own age and admit that it is vastly better than the popular but fictitious biographies of Washington written by Weems and other romancers. Even in Irving's day Washington was still regarded as a demigod; his name was always printed in capitals; and the rash novelist who dared to bring him into a story (as Cooper did in The Spy) was denounced for his lack of reverence. In consequence of this false attitude practically all Washington's biographers (with the exception of the judicious Marshall) depicted him as a ponderously dignified creature, stilted, unlovely, unhuman, who must always appear with a halo around his head. Irving was too much influenced by this absurd fashion and by his lack of scholarship to make a trustworthy book; but he gave at least a touch of naturalness and humanity to our first president, and set a new biographical standard by attempting to write as an honest historian rather than as a mere hero-worshiper.

An Appreciation of Irving

The three volumes of the Sketch-Book group and the romantic Alhambra furnish an excellent measure of Irving's literary talent. At first glance these books appear rather superficial, dealing with pleasant matters of no consequence; but on second thought pleasant matters are always of consequence, and Irving invariably displays two qualities, humor and sentiment, in which humanity is forever interested. His humor, at first crude and sometimes in doubtful taste (as in his Knickerbocker History) grew more refined, more winning in his later works, until a thoughtful critic might welcome it, with its kindness, its culture, its smile in which is no cynicism and no bitterness, as a true example of "American" humor,--if indeed such a specialized product ever existed. His sentiment was for the most part tender, sincere and manly. Though it now seems somewhat exaggerated and at times dangerously near to sentimentality, that may not be altogether a fault; for the same criticism applies to Longfellow, Dickens and, indeed, to most other writers who have won an immense audience by frankly emphasizing, or even exaggerating, the honest sentiments that plain men and women have always cherished both in life and in literature.

Style of Irving

The style of Irving, with its suggestion of Goldsmith and Addison (who were his first masters), is deserving of more unstinted praise. A "charming" style we call it; and the word, though indefinite, is expressive of the satisfaction which Irving's manner affords his readers. One who seeks the source of his charm may find it in this, that he cherished a high opinion of humanity, and that the friendliness, the sense of comradeship, which he felt for his fellow men was reflected in his writing; unconsciously at first, perhaps, and then deliberately, by practice and cultivation. In consequence, we do not read Irving critically but sympathetically; for readers are like children, or animals, in that they are instinctively drawn to an author who trusts and understands them.

Thackeray, who gave cordial welcome to Irving, and who called him "the first ambassador whom the New World of letters sent to the Old," was deeply impressed by the fact not that the young American had an excellent prose style but that "his gate was forever swinging to visitors." That is an illuminating criticism; for we can understand the feeling of the men and women of a century ago who, having read the Sketch Book, were eager to meet the man who had given them pleasure by writing it. In brief, though Irving wrote nothing of great import, though he entered not into the stress of life or scaled its heights or sounded its deeps, we still read him for the sufficient but uncritical reason that we like him.

In this respect, of winning our personal allegiance, Irving stands in marked contrast to his greatest American contemporary, Cooper. We read the one because we are attracted to the man, the other for the tale he has to tell.


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