Washington Irving: Contribution to American Literature

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      LIFE.—Washington Irving was born in New York City in 1783, the year in which Benjamin Franklin signed at Paris the treaty of peace with England after the Revolutionary War. Irving's father, a Scotchman from the Orkney Islands, was descended from De Irwyn, armor bearer to Robert Bruce. Irving's mother was born in England, and the English have thought sufficiently well of her son to claim that he belonged to England as much as to America. In fact, he sometimes seemed to them to be more English than American, especially after he had written something unusually good.

Washington Irving
Washington Irving

      When Irving was a boy, the greater part of what is now New York City was picturesque country. He mingled with the descendants of the Dutch, passed daily by their old-style houses, and had excellent opportunities for hearing the traditions and learning the peculiarities of Manhattan's early settlers, whom he was afterwards to immortalize in American literature. On his way to school he looked at the stocks and the whipping post, which had a salaried official to attend to the duties connected with it. He could have noticed two prisons, one for criminals and the other for debtors. He could scarcely have failed to see the gallows, in frequent use for offenses for which the law to-day prescribes only a short term of imprisonment. Notwithstanding the twenty-two churches, the pious complained that the town was so godless as to allow the theaters to be open on Saturday night.

      Instead of going to bed after the family prayers, Irving sometimes climbed through a window, gained the alley, and went to the theater. In school he devoured as many travels and tales as possible, and he acquired much early skill in writing compositions for boys in return for their assistance in solving his arithmetical problems—a task that he detested.

      At the age of fifteen he was allowed to take his gun and explore the Sleepy Hollow region, which became the scene of one of his world-famous stories. When he was seventeen, he sailed slowly up the Hudson River on his own voyage of discovery. Hendrick Hudson's exploration of this river gave it temporarily to the Dutch; but Irving annexed it for all time to the realm of the romantic imagination. The singers and weavers of legends were more than a thousand years in giving to the Rhine its high position in that realm; but Irving in a little more than a decade made the Hudson almost its peer.

      In such unique environment, Irving passed his boyhood. Unlike his brothers, he did not go to Columbia College, but like Charles Brockden Brown studied law, and like him never seriously practiced the profession. Under the pen name of "Jonathan Oldstyle," he was writing, at the age of nineteen, newspaper letters, modeled closely after Addison's Spectator. Ill health drove Irving at twenty-one to take a European trip, which lasted two years. His next appearance in literature after his return was in connection with his brother, William Irving, and James K. Paulding. The three started a semi-monthly periodical called Salmagundi, fashioned after Addison's Spectator and Goldsmith's Citizen of the World. The first number was published January 24, 1807, and the twentieth and last, January 25, 1808. "In Irving's contributions to it," says his biographer, "may be traced the germs of nearly everything he did afterwards."

     The year 1809 was the most important in Irving's young life. In that year Matilda Hoffman, to whom he was engaged, died in her eighteenth year. Although he outlived her fifty years, he remained a bachelor, and he carried her Bible with him wherever he traveled in Europe or America. In the same year he finished one of his masterpieces, Diedrich Knickerbocker's History of New York. Even at this time he had not decided to follow literature as a profession.

      In 1815 he went to England to visit his brother, who was in business there. It was not, however, until the failure of his brother's firm in 1818 that Irving determined to make literature his life work. While in London he wrote the Sketch Book (1819), which added to his fame on both sides of the Atlantic. This visit abroad lasted seventeen years. Before he returned, in 1832, he had finished the greater part of the literary work of his life. Besides the Sketch Book, he had written Bracebridge Hall, Tales of a Traveller, Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, The Conquest of Granada, The Companions of Columbus, and The Alhambra. He had been secretary of the American legation at Madrid and at London. He had actually lived in the Alhambra.

      Soon after his return, he purchased a home at Tarrytown (now Irvington) in the Sleepy Hollow district on the Hudson. He named his new home "Sunnyside." With the exception of four years (1842-1846), when he served as minister to Spain, Irving lived here, engaged in literary work, for the remainder of his life. When he died in 1859, he was buried in the Sleepy Hollow cemetery, near his home.

      Long before his death he was known on both sides of the Atlantic as America's greatest author. Englishmen who visited this country expressed a desire to see its two wonders, Niagara Falls and Irving. His English publishers alone paid him over $60,000 for copyright sales of his books in England. Before he died, he had earned more than $200,000 with his pen.

      Irving's personality won him friends wherever he went. He was genial and kindly, and his biographer adds that it was never Irving's habit to stroke the world the wrong way. One of his maxims was, "When I cannot get a dinner to suit my taste, I endeavor to get a taste to suit my dinner."


      KNICKERBOCKER'S HISTORY OF NEW YORK.—The New York Evening Post for December 28, 1809, said: "This work was found in the chamber of Mr. Diedrich Knickerbocker, the old gentleman whose sudden and mysterious disappearance has been noticed. It is published in order to discharge certain debts he has left behind." This disguise, however, was too thin to deceive the public, and the work was soon popularly called Irving's Knickerbocker's History of New York.

      Two hundred years before its publication, Hendrick Hudson, an explorer in the service of Holland, had sailed into New York Bay and discovered Manhattan Island and the Hudson River for the Dutch. They founded the city of New Amsterdam and held it until the English captured it in 1664. Irving wrote the history of this settlement during the Dutch occupation. He was led to choose this subject, because, as he tells us, few of his fellow citizens were aware that New York had ever been called New Amsterdam, and because the subject, "poetic from its very obscurity," was especially available for an American author, since it gave him a chance to adorn it with legend and fable. He states that his object was "to embody the traditions of our city in an amusing form" and to invest it "with those imaginative and whimsical associations so seldom met with in our country, but which live like charms and spells about the cities of the old world."

      Irving achieved his object and produced an entertaining compound of historical fact, romantic sentiment, exaggeration, and humor. He shows us the contemplative Dutchmen on their first voyage in the Half Moon, sailing into New York Bay, prohibited by Hudson "from wearing more than five jackets and six pair of breeches." We see the scrupulously "honest" Dutch traders buying furs from the Indians, using an invariable scale of avoirdupois weights, a Dutchman's hand in the scale opposite the furs weighing one pound, his foot two pounds. We watch the puzzled Indians trying to account for the fact that the largest bundle of furs never weighed more than two pounds. We attend a council of burghers at Communipaw, called to devise means to protect their town from an English expedition. While they are thoughtfully smoking, the English sail by without seeing the smoke-enveloped town. Irving shows us the Dutchmen estimating their distances and time by the period consumed in smoking a pipe,—Hartford, Connecticut, being two hundred pipes distant. He allows us to watch a housewife emptying her pocket in her search for a wooden ladle and filling two corn baskets with the contents. He takes us to a tea party attended by "the higher classes or noblesse, that is to say such as kept their own cows and drove their own wagons," where we can see the damsels knitting their own woolen stockings and the vrouws serving big apple pies, bushels of doughnuts, and pouring tea out of a fat Delft teapot. He draws this picture of Wouter Van Twiller, Governor of New Amsterdam:—

      "The person of this illustrious old gentleman was formed and proportioned as though it had been moulded by the hands of some cunning Dutch statuary, as a model of majesty and lordly grandeur. He was exactly five feet six inches in height, and six feet five inches in circumference. His head was a perfect sphere…. "His habits were as regular as his person. He daily took his four stated meals, appropriating exactly an hour to each; he smoked and doubted eight hours, and he slept the remaining twelve of the four-and-twenty."


      THE SKETCH BOOK GROUP.—The only one of his productions to which Irving gave the name of The Sketch Book was finished in 1820, the year in which Scott's Ivanhoe, Keats's Eve of St. Agnes, and Shelley's Prometheus Unbound appeared. Of the same general order as The Sketch Book are Irving's Bracebridge Hall (1822) and Tales of a Traveller (1824). These volumes all contain short stories, essays, or sketches, many of which are suggestive of Addison's Spectator. The Sketch Book is the most famous of Irving's works of this class. While it contains some excellent essays or descriptions, such as those entitled Westminster Abbey and Stratford-on-Avon, the book lives to-day because of two short stories, Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. These were not equaled by Addison, and they have not been surpassed by any English writers of the nineteenth century. Both stories take their rise from the "Knickerbocker Legend," and they are thoroughly American in coloring and flavor, even if they did happen to be written in England. No story in our literature is better known than that of Rip Van Winkle watching Hendrick Hudson and his ghostly crew playing ninepins in the Catskill Mountains and quaffing the magic liquor which caused him to sleep for twenty years.

      For nearly one hundred years Ichabod Crane's courtship of Katrina Van Tassel, in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, has continued to amuse its readers. The Indian summer haze is still resting on Sleepy Hollow, our American Utopia, where we can hear the quail whistling, see the brook bubbling along among alders and dwarf willows, over which amber clouds float forever in the sky; where the fragrant buckwheat fields breathe the odor of the beehive; where the slapjacks are "well buttered and garnished with honey or treacle, by the delicate little dimpled hand of Katrina Van Tassel," where a greeting awaits us from the sucking pigs already roasted and stuffed with pudding; where the very tea tables of the Dutch housewives welcome us with loads of crisp crumbling crullers, honey cakes, and "the whole family of cakes," surrounded by pies, preserves, roast chicken, bowls of cream, all invested with a halo from the spout of the motherly Dutch teapot.

      The Alhambra, a book of tales of the old Moorish palace in Granada, Spain, has been aptly termed "The Spanish Sketch Book." This has preserved the romance of departed Moorish glory almost as effectively as the Knickerbocker sketches and stories have invested the early Dutch settlers of New York with something like Homeric immortality. A traveler in Spain writes of The Alhambra: "Not Ford, nor Murray, nor Hare has been able to replace it. The tourist reads it within the walls it commemorates as conscientiously as the devout read Ruskin in Florence." [Footnote: Introduction to Pennell's illustrated edition of The Alhambra.]

      In his three works, The Sketch Book, The Tales of a Traveller, and The Alhambra, Irving proved himself the first American master of the short tale or sketch, yet he is not the father of the modern short story, which aims to avoid every sentence unless it directly advances the narrative or heightens the desired impression. His description and presentation of incident do not usually tend to one definite goal, after the fashion theoretically prescribed by the art of the modern short story. The author of a modern short tale would need to feel the dire necessity of recording the sage observation of a Dutch housewife, that "ducks and geese are foolish things, and must be looked after, but girls can take care of themselves." Irving, however, in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, has sufficient leisure to make this observation and to stop to listen to "the pensive whistle of the quail," or to admire "great fields of Indian corn, with its golden ears peeping from their leafy coverts, and holding out the promise of cakes and hasty puddings."

      Some have even proposed that his stories be called "narrative-essays," but they show a step beyond Addison in the evolution of the short story because they contain less essay and more story. It is true that Irving writes three pages of essay before beginning the real story in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, but the most of this preliminary matter is very interesting description. The quiet valley with its small brook, the tapping woodpecker, the drowsy shade of the trees, the spots haunted by the headless Hessian,—all fascinate us and provide an atmosphere which the modern short-story teller too seldom secures. The novice in modern short-story writing should know at the outset that it takes more genius to succeed with a story like The Legend of Sleepy Hollow than with a tale where the writer relies on the more strait-laced narration of events to arouse interest.

      HISTORY AND BIOGRAPHY.—Of The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828), Irving said "it cost me more toil and trouble than all my other productions." While the method of scientific historical study has completely changed since his time, no dry-as-dust historian has yet equaled Irving in presenting the human side of Columbus, his ideals, his dreams, and his mastery of wind and wave and human nature in the greatest voyage of the ages. Others have written of him as a man who once lived but who died so very long ago that he now has no more life than the portraits of those old masters who made all their figures look like paralytics. Irving did not write this work as if he were imagining a romance. He searched for his facts in all the musty records which he could find in Spain, but he then remembered that they dealt with a living, enthusiastic human being, sometimes weak, and sometimes invested with more than the strength of all the generations that had died without discovering the New World. It was this work which, more than any other, brought Irving the degree of D.C.L. from Oxford University. And yet, when he appeared to take his degree, the undergraduates of Oxford voiced the judgment of posterity by welcoming him with shouts of "Diedrich Knickerbocker!" "Ichabod Crane!" "Rip Van Winkle!"

      The Conquest of Granada (1829) is a thrilling narrative of the subjugation by Ferdinand and Isabella of the last kingdom of the Moors in Spain. In this account, royal leaders, chivalrous knights, single-handed conflicts, and romantic assaults make warfare seem like a carnival instead of a tragedy.

      The life of Oliver Goldsmith (1849) ranks among the best biographies yet written by an American, not because of its originality, but for its exquisitely sympathetic portraiture of an English author with whom Irving felt close kinship.

      His longest work, the Life of George Washington (1855-1859), lacks the imaginative enthusiasm of youth, but it does justice to "the magnificent patience, the courage to bear misconstruction, the unfailing patriotism, the practical sagacity, the level balance of judgment combined with the wisest toleration, the dignity of mind, and the lofty moral nature," which made George Washington the one man capable of leading a forlorn army in the Revolution, of presiding over the destinies of the young Republic, and of taking a sure place among the few great heroes of all time. This work is also an almost complete history of the Revolutionary War. It is unfortunate that the great length of this Life (eight volumes) has resulted in such a narrowing of its circle of readers.

      GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS.—Washington Irving is the earliest American whose most popular works are read for pure pleasure and not for some historical or educational significance. His most striking qualities are humor and restrained sentiment. The work by which he will be longest known is his creation of the "Knickerbocker Legend" in the History of New York and his two most famous short stories, Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Although he is not the father of the modern short story, which travels like an airship by the shortest line to its destination, he is yet one of the great nineteenth-century story tellers. Some of his essays or papers, like Westminster Abbey, Stratford-on-Avon, and Christmas do not suffer by comparison with Addison's writings.

      Much of Irving's historical work and many of his essays do not show great depth or striking originality. He did some hack writing, dealing with our great West, but the work by which he is best known is so original that no other American writers can for a moment compare with him in his special field. He gave us our own Homeric age and peopled it with Knickerbockers, who are as entertaining as Achilles, Priam, or Circe.

      His best work is a product of the romantic imagination, but his romanticism is of a finer type than that of Charles Brockden Brown and the English Gothic school (p. 88), for Irving's fondness for Addison and Goldsmith, in conjunction with his own keen sense of humor, taught him restraint, balance, and the adaptation of means to ends.

      Irving has an unusual power of investing his subjects with the proper atmosphere. In this he resembles the greatest landscape painters. If he writes of early settlers of New York, we are in a Dutch atmosphere. If he tells the legends of the Alhambra, the atmosphere is Moorish. If he takes us to the Hudson or the Catskills or Sleepy Hollow or Granada, he adds to our artistic enjoyment by enveloping everything in its own peculiar atmosphere.

      His clear, simple, smooth prose conceals its artistic finish so well and serves as the vehicle for so much humor, that readers often pass a long time in his company without experiencing fatigue. His style has been criticized for lack of vigor and for resemblance to Goldsmith's. Irving's style, however, is his own, and it is the style natural to a man of his placid, artistic temperament. America takes special pride in Washington Irving, because he was the first author to invest her brief history with the enduring fascination of romance. We shall the better appreciate our debt to him, if we imagine that some wizard has the power to subtract from our literature the inimitable Knickerbocker, Rip Van Winkle, Sleepy Hollow, and our national romantic river, the storied Hudson.

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