Charm Of Washington Irving

( Originally Published 1916 )


MORE than a half century ago I was a regular reader in the old Mercantile Library, then lodged over Platt's Hall, on Montgomery street, in San Francisco. One day the librarian showed me, with much pride, a handsome library edition of the works of Washington Irving, whose recent death had called out many tributes in the newspapers. He was unknown to me then, but I took out The Sketch Book, and, after devouring this with the keenest pleasure, I read all of Irving except the formidable seven-volume life of Washing-ton. He opened a new world to me, for he made England real and he was the first to make me feel the charm of Moorish Spain. He was also the first American author who gave me a sense of a fine literary style. A boy reads for matter, not for style, and it proves Irving's great qualities that he was able to impress a young reader with the charm of his style.

Irving was the first to demonstrate to Europe that in this new country had sprung up a genuine national literature. Scott, Byron and other competent critics declared that Irving's work was worthy of a place beside the best work of English authors. Many critics even attributed to Scott the authorship of The Sketch Book, which first appeared with Irving's identity concealed under the pen name of Geoffrey Crayon. Yet all admitted that here was a new note in literature a note of simple, unattained pathos, of keen sympathy with grief and suffering, of tenderness that is almost feminine in its intuition and charm, and of humor that has in it no malice and no sting.

Irving, who was born in 1783 and died in 1859, came of good Scotch and English stock. He derived his fancy and his literary tastes from his mother, the grand-daughter of an English curate. From his tenth year he devoured books, having an especial liking for travel, fiction and poetry.

He did not go to college, but he enjoyed thorough legal training, although he never practiced his profession. He was singularly fortunate in the possession of means, so that when he was threatened with consumption he was able to take a European tour, which, in the opening years of the nineteenth century, was very expensive. In Rome he became an ardent friend of Washington Allston, the artist, and in Paris and London he formed many friend-ships with famous men and women. On his return to this country, in 18o6, he began to devote himself to literature. Three years later he brought out Knickerbocker's History of New York, which made a great hit.

The death of Matilda Hoffman, the girl he loved and was to marry, proved a great shock, but he rallied after several months and devoted himself to society and writing. In 1815 he decided to go to Europe to see his brother Peter, but he remained for seventeen years, spending most of the time in travel. He met all the great person-ages of London and he was entertained at Abbottsford by Sir Walter Scott, of whom he has given the best picture in all literature. In 1819 appeared The Sketch Book, which established Irving's reputation as an essayist. To Irving's great surprise, it had as notable a success in London as in New York, and it opened all doors to the handsome young American. Then followed in rapid succession Bracebridge Hall, a volume of sketches of English country life; Tales of a Traveler, Life of Columbus, The Conquest of Granada and The Alhambra. bra. Irving was the first to bring out the romance of the Moorish conquest of Spain, and The Alhambra has been a classic for three-quarters of a century.

It was one of the bits of good fortune that are strung along the thread of Irving's life that he should have secured a patron in old John Jacob Astor. For this founder of one of the greatest American fortunes Irving wrote Astoria, the record of an unsuccessful attempt to found a fur-trading post on the far Pacific, and the Adventures of Captain Bonneville, written from the talk of an old fur-trader and adventurer. Irving also wrote the lives of Washington and Mohammed, and he gathered material for a history of Mexico, but generously abandoned the project when he learned that his friend Prescott had decided to write of the conquest by Cortez. Irving filled several diplomatic posts, the most noteworthy being that of American Minister to Spain from 1842 to 1846. He had a long and happy life, filled with work that he loved and with friendships that served to help him forget his lifelong sorrow.

To one who has not read Irving the best thing to take up first is The Sketch Book. This volume includes, besides a number of the most delightful essays and tales, two of his best short stories, Rip Fan Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, either of which would have made the reputation of any American writer. Rip Van Winkle was made familiar to every child in this country, thirty years ago, by Joe Jefferson's remarkable performance of the play, which he developed from the story. The other story is not so well known, but the picture of the headless horseman pursuing the lean and terrified Ichabod Crane is one which no reader will ever forget. In his Sketch Book Irving gave reminiscences of his early life, as well as many sketches of travel. In its style it reminds one of Addison, with a touch of warmth that the writer of The Spectator seldom puts into his work. The chapters, which range from a sketch of the long ocean voyage to Europe to papers on Christmas and Stratford-on-Avon, all breathe a spirit of mellow culture that is rare in these strenuous days. Irving, by his reading, his travels and his social intercourse, developed a style that is well-nigh perfect in its limpid clearness, its varied charm and its literary quality. The man himself impresses one as finer and richer than anything which may be found in his books.

The other books which anyone wishing to know the real Irving should read are Bracebridge Hall, The Alhambra and Knickerbocker's History of New York. In the first we get a series of superb pictures of life in one of the old baronial halls of England. In The Alhambra Irving has not only given splendid pen pictures of the finest remains of the Moorish conquest of Spain, but he has told many legends and stories that are full of charm. The History of New York is the best piece of sustained humor that has yet been produced in this country. Some descendants of the old Dutch Governors of New Amsterdam have tried to show that Irving has grossly maligned these worthies, but through the air of convincing narration which Irving adopted we may see gleams of fun emerging. It is rich in spontaneous humor and free from malice.

It is well for us in these days of business hustle and social activity to read Irving, for he ads on the mind like a sedative. His style exhales the aroma of a fine old leisure that has become one of the lost American arts. He is always unhurried, always master of his materials, ever charming, never dull or prosy. In a word, his best works are the most agreeable companions, which entertain while they in-strut, and which never leave upon the mental palate any of the evil taste of the more highly seasoned literature of our day. Blessed is the reader who can relish Irving, for he will always have an unfailing resource in time of trouble or depression.

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