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American Literature:
 Glance At Colonial And Revolutionary Literature

 Literature At The Dawn Of The Century

 Charles Brockden Brown

 Washington Irving And The Knickerbocker Group

 William C. Bryant

 James Fenimore Cooper

 The Early Literary Magazines


 New England Literature


 Read More Articles About: American Literature

Washington Irving And The Knickerbocker Group

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

The author who was first to gain for American literature a recognized place in European eyes was Washington Irving. Born in New York City in 1783, the year of the peace between Great Britain and the United States, he was named after the great Commander-in-Chief and first President of the Republic, and, while yet a child, "blessed" by him. His was indeed an international mission to heal to some extent by the sympathetic charm of his style and his personality the breach between the two countries, aggravated by the second war of 1812. He became "the first literary Ambassador of the New World to the Old." Like a loyal son of the soil, he breathed the breath of literary immortality into the traditions of his own country, as well as voyaged to England and began to write about English scenes and associations. Born of a Scotch father and an English mother, he belonged in religion to the conservative Episcopalians. Professor Richardson has remarked, he was "the first conspicuous American author who was neither a Puritan nor a Southron; his local tone is that of New York City and the Hudson." Quick to assimilate the customs and characteristics of other lands, he was the first to make distinctly American. themes familiar to the world of letters. The main reason for this lay in his truly Addisonian style, the result of close acquaintance with the English essayists of the Eighteenth Century. Irving, like Bryant and Longfellow after him, studied law, but he found his true bent when he contributed, in 1802, to his brother Peter's newspaper, "The New York Morning Chronicle," a series of letters over the signature of "Jonathan Oldstyle," satirizing the town follies and foibles, and reflecting the theaters and coffee-houses. While he still groped toward his destiny his ill-health gave the decisive turn to his observation. He walked much along the Palisades and in the Hudson region, thus becoming familiar with the scenes he was later to adorn with humorous fancy and romance. In 1804, when he was twenty-one, his persistent ill health led to a sea voyage and a "grand tour of Europe then a rare thing covering two years. To quote Professor Richardson again : "The American author was getting his education; the crude Westerner was becoming a citizen of the world. To see Mrs. Sid-dons and Kemble; to talk with the greatest of talkers, Madame de Staël; to tread the pavement of Westminster Abbey or St. Peter's; to gaze on Vesuvius and the Coliseum all this was a new experience for an American.

Brockden Brown introduced the weird, the romantic, the appalling, the native American, and made a failure, on the whole; Irving, using the English manner for his treatment of American themes, made one of those happy compromises to which pioneers sometimes owe their success."

After returning to New York, Irving eventually gathered around him a group of friends now known as the Knickerbocker school, which comprised James Kirke Paulding (a connection of Irving by marriage, who after-ward became Secretary of the Navy, under Van Buren), and the poets Drake and Halleck. All four were Knicker-bockers to the bone. Together with Paulding, Irving now followed up his early boyish letters with the lively "Salmagundi" papers ( 1807-8). This little paper became the playful satirical censor of that society which dwelt on the island of Manhattan. Behind the mock individualities of such pseudonyms as Anthony Evergreen, Launcelot Langstaff, and William Wizard, these wits indulged their varied rapier play and thrust of mirth at the provincial town that was yet to astonish the world by its growth in size, riches, and power. It was a spirit of fun akin to that which inspired "Salmagundi," that prompted Irving to that elaborate burlesque-chronicle, Knicker-bocker's "History of New York," designed at first as a mere parody of Samuel L. Mitchill's pretentious and then newly-issued "Picture of New York." The book, prefaced by a circumstantial account of the fabulous Diedrich Knickerbocker, and of the way in which the manuscript came into the editor's hands, became in the course of development a jest upon real history, the result being an immortally amusing cartoon of the Dutchman of the original Nieuw Amsterdam. Irving made humorous use of the old Dutch traditions, clustering them about the romantic scenery of the Hudson. Its mock heroic character had at times the coarseness of Fielding. The most familiar episode in the book is the description of the mustering of the clans under Peter Stuyvesant and the attack on the Swedish Fort Christiana. Walter Scott declared Diedrich to be a cousin of Swift and of Sterne. Encouraged by his success, Irving made ten years later a fresh incursion into the Dutch traditions of his native State. The immortal story of Rip Van Winkle, the vagabond of the Catskills, and his twenty years' nap, and the "Legend of Sleepy Hollow," with its quaint picture of the Yankee schoolmaster, Ichabod Crane, gave Irving a new claim to European consideration; as did his later flights in this realm of fiction, such as Dolph Heydiger in "Bracebridge Hall," "The Money Diggers," "Kidd the Pirate," and "Wolfert Weber" in the "Tales of a Traveler;" and the late published "Wolfert's Roost." But Irving simultaneously in "The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.," published in London during his second sojourn abroad, and in "Bracebridge Hall" was the new Columbus to rediscover "Merry Old England" for Americans. His pleasant description of English country life and its good old Yuletide cheer was also supplemented by such tales of pathos as "The Broken Heart," over which Byron is said to have wept, and "The Pride of the Village." His Westminster Abbey meditation has been praised as equal to that on the same theme in Addison's "Spectator." Irving also opened up for Englishmen as well as Americans a new literary Mecca in Shakespeare's birthplace, Stratford-on-Avon, which has since his time been a favorite point of pilgrimage for the entire English-speaking race. He investigated, too, Shakespeare-land in London, at the Boar's Head Tavern. In the same finished style he wrote his "Tales of a Traveler," which rank high in the second class of American fiction.

From 1842 to 1846 Washington Irving represented the United States as its Minister at Madrid. Attracted by his studies for the "Life and Voyages of Columbus," he found a new field of peculiar interest to Americans in the Iberian peninsula and in the romance of Spain. Truly picturesque are his succeeding books, "The Conquest of Granada," "The Companions of Columbus," and the "Alhambra." His history of "Mahomet and His Successors" was comparatively unsuccessful, but his "Life of Oliver Goldsmith" is a delightful literary memoir. Upon his return to American soil Irving was greeted as the great international representative of the motherland. Having won high honors for American literature abroad, he lapsed into modest retirement at Sunnyside, that now historic home of his on the banks of the Hudson, the river of his romance; and here he lived out, surrounded by friends and enacting the part of a sort of a national literary host, a ripe old age, the influence of which was as sweet and wholesome as his contributions to the world of letters. His "Life of Washington," intended to be the chief and crowning work of his career, is still consulted as an authority. He died at Tarrytown, N. Y., in 1859.

Associated in memory with Irving are the poets Joseph Rodman Drake (1795-1820) and Fitz-Greene Halleck (1790-1867). These two comrades made their début in the Irving style in the "Croaker Papers," a series of humorous and satirical verses contributed to the "New York Evening Post" during the Salmagundi period. In the year that Irving in Europe published "The Sketch Book" (1819), Drake gave America "The Culprit Fay." Three years before this, Bryant had produced his unique "Thanatopsis," and Drake's "Fay," a delicate fairy-tale of the Highlands of the Hudson, was the second best poem then produced in America. As Poe declared, this brilliant poem is fanciful rather than imaginative. Drake's patriotic lyric, "The American Flag," is a spirited national anthem of the first luster. But this promising poet died at the age of twenty-five, lamented by Halleck in the touching elegy, the first stanza of which runs :

"Green be the turf above thee,
Friend of my better days ;
None knew thee but to love thee,
Nor named thee but to praise."

Halleck himself lived half a century longer and witnessed the growth of a new literary New York. His noble ode on the Greek hero, Marco Bozzaris, is worthy to rank in its way with Drake's "American Flag," while his "Alnwick Castle," a playful contrast between mediaeval and modern life, has a Praed-like daintiness.

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