History of American Literature
by Edward Simonds
Chapter 1: I
| II | III
| IV | Chapter 2: I
| II | III
| IV | V
| Chapter 3: I | II
| III | IV
| Chapter 4: I | II
| III | IV
| V | Chapter 5: I
| II | III
| IV | Chapter 6: I
| II | III
| IV | V
| VI | Chapter 7: I
| II | III
| IV |
WASHINGTON IRVING: 1783-1859.
First among American
writers to obtain universal recognition abroad, our first true literary artist
and our earliest "classic", is Washington Irving. If some few among
our earlier pioneers in letters had already detected in American soil the germs
of a native literature, it is Irving to whom belongs the honor of successfully
developing those germs in works which still preserve their freshness, their
delicacy, and their charm. To the inspiration of native themes, Irving owed
much of his ample success.
was born in the city of New York, April 3, 1783. It was the year which marked
the end of the long struggle for liberty and the beginning of peace. The British
troops evacuated the city and the Continental forces assumed possession. "Washington's
work is ended," said Mrs. Irving, "and the child shall be named after
him." Some six years later, we are told, when the first president returned
to New York, then the seat of government, a Scotch maid-servant of the family
finding herself and the child by chance in the presence of Washington, presented
the lad to him. "Please, your honor," said Lizzie, all aglow, "here's
a bairn was named after you." And the Father of his Country gravely laid
his hand upon the head of his future biographer and blessed him.
The household in
William Street was comfortably well-to-do. The father, William Irving, a Scotchman,
born in the Orkney Islands, and until his marriage an officer upon a vessel
plying between Falmouth and New York, was now engaged in the hardware trade.
He was a man of strict integrity, rather severe in his attitude toward life,
with a good deal of the old strict Covenanter spirit in his make-up. He took
little interest in amusements, required that at least one of the half-holidays
in every week should be piously employed with the catechism, and saw to it that
his children were well grounded in sound Presbyterian doctrine. The mother,
daughter of an English curate, was far less rigid in her views and more vivacious
in temperament. Needless is it to say that the future chronicler of the Knickerbocker
legends resembled the mother more closely than the father in his inheritance
of spirits. Full of drollery and mischief, the boy ran merry riot, sometimes
a source of perplexity even to the more indulgent parent, who once was heard
to exclaim: "O Washington, if you were only good!" He loved music
and delighted in the theatre, whither, in spite of his father's prejudices,
the boy often betook himself, secretly, in company with his young comrade, Paulding.
was desultory, and his schooling ended at sixteen. This cutting short of the
school-days was due to the state of his health in these early years, which forbade
confinement or close association with books. Yet he read, and read intelligently,
becoming familiar with the best, especially books of travel, voyages, and adventure.
In his rambles about the city -- for he lived much out of doors -- he oftenest
turned toward the docks, dreamily wandering among the piers and along the waterside
with mind apparently stirred by the sight of the shipping and the romantic suggestions
of foreign lands. Up the Hudson, also, he wandered -- into the Highlands and
over all the country-side, until the suburbs of Manhattan and the picturesque
region of the Catskills were familiar ground. Law vs. Literature.
Irving settled down more or less seriously to a professional career. Upon leaving
school, he began the study of law. Tradition has it, however, that Irving's
reading was more upon works of general literature than on those concerned with
legal practice. His excursions continued. In 1798, he thoroughly explored that
idyllic region of Sleepy Hollow, afterward immortalized in the Sketch-Book.
In 1800, he took an extended trip up the Hudson and into the Mohawk Valley.
Although he had become in 1802 a law clerk in the office of Josiah Hoffman,
he was at least to outward appearance a good deal of an idler. He had always
been fond of society and entered with zest into its pleasures. In the wide circle
of his friendships, he was a conspicuous and favorite figure, admired for his
genial, happy gayety, and for his warmth and kindliness of heart. His
first contributions to literature were made at this time. In 1802, he published
in the Morning Chronicle, a paper just established
by his elder brother, Peter Irving, a series of letters
signed Jonathan Oldstyle." These papers were in frank
imitation of the Spectator and Tatler essays,
full of boyish humor, and directed with the audacity of youth at some of the
visible follies of the day.
1804, Washington Irving was sent abroad by his brothers, who were anxious over
the condition of his health. On this first visit, Irving was absent a year and
a half. He touched at the Mediterranean ports and incidentally enjoyed the experience
of a real capture by pirates. He sojourned four months in Paris, and the same
length of time in London. He made acquaintance with many distinguished people
and drank joyously of the romance of the Old World as found in its scenery,
its manners, its languages, its literature, and its art. The experience was
in every way broadening and educational; the youth became a man of the world.
Pleased and stimulated as well as restored in health, he returned to America
early in 1806.
A year later Irving,
together with his intimate friend, James K. Paulding, and his brother, William
Irving, joined in a rollicking bit of literary mystification -- the publication
at irregular intervals of a lively little journal entitled Salmagundi.
This publication appeared anonymously throughout its successful career, which
continued from January, 1807, to January, 1808, and included twenty numbers.
The series was modeled upon the periodicals of Addison
and Steele; the style was amateurish; the humor was of a
coarser type, but it tickled the fancy of its readers from the start. Its modest
programme was announced in the first number. "Our intention is simply to
instruct the young, reform the old, correct the town, and castigate the age." The Knickerbocker History, 1809.
Two years later,
in December, 1809, appeared Irving's first notable work, the famous Knickerbocker
History of New York. Its author was now twenty-six years old. He was still
unsettled in his plans, although admitted to the bar; he was not attracted to
his profession nor likely to make headway in its pursuit. The months just preceding
had, moreover, been saddened by the experience of an overwhelming sorrow, and
the depression of its shadow was not to be relieved for many years. Irving
had become tenderly attached to the beautiful Matilda Hoffman, daughter of the
gentleman in whose office he had followed the study of law. She was stricken
with fatal illness, and with the gradual fading of her life in the almost constant
presence of her devoted lover, the sunshine seemed to fade from the life of
this hitherto light-hearted youth. It is a marvel that out of these months of
doubt and gloom should have come a volume which is still recognized as the masterpiece
of American humor -- for as such the Knickerbocker History may fairly
A Masterpiece of
epic of the doughty Dutch burghers of New Amsterdam purports to be the serious
work of Diedrich Knickerbocker, in whose mystifying personality considerable
interest had been aroused by very ingenious advertisements preceding the publication
of the book. In the broadly humorous pages of the narrative, Irving's lively
imagination runs with reckless abandon. In the golden age of the settlement,
the renowned Wouter van Twiller sits in ominous silence, lost in his doubts
and in the cloud of smoke rising from his pipe, until he emerges from both these
hazy envelopments to pronounce judgment in the affairs of the colony. His successor,
William the Testy, wiry and waspish, in his broad-skirted coat with its huge
buttons, cocked hat stuck on the back of his head, and a cane as high as his
chin, storms through the city; his soul burning like a vehement rushlight in
his bosom, inciting him to incessant bickering and broils. Old Peter Stuyvesant,
surnamed "the Headstrong," brilliantly clad in brimstone-colored breeches,
stumps with his wooden leg before his admiring people and valiantly leads his
army against the Swedes in that most awful of battles -- when "the earth
shook as if struck by a paralytic stroke -- trees shrunk aghast, and withered
at the sight -- rocks burrowed in the ground like rabbits -- and even Christina
Creek turned from its course, and ran up a hill in breathless terror."
Significance of Knickerbocker.
There is greater
significance in the appearance of the Knickerbocker History of New York
than at first appears. From our modern point of view it was the first American
book. Not only was it the starting-point of the Knickerbocker tradition, but
it was pleasing testimony to the fact that even in the recently developed civilization
of the New World material existed which possessed true literary value; and that
in the evolution of its artistic spirit America had arrived where she might
hope to produce works of the creative imagination -- where her representatives
might be recognized as men of letters, abroad as well as at home.
While the lively
humor of Knickerbocker proved unnecessarily irritating to some of the
descendants of the Dutch heroes so cleverly caricatured by Irving, the good-natured
laughter of the historian was understood and heartily echoed by most of Irving's
contemporaries. In England the History was read and applauded. It proved
the introduction of Irving to the literary circle in which he was soon to mingle;
and Sir Walter Scott declared that it was as good as the
work of Jonathan Swift. He afterward told its author that
he had read it aloud to his household, and that they had laughed over its pages
till their sides were sore. In Business.
Still Irving remained
undecided as to future plans of life. Uncongenial though it was, he became a
partner with his brothers in the hardware business, for the most part attending
to the interests of the firm outside of New York. He traveled much and was a
familiar as well as a welcome figure in the society of Philadelphia, Washington,
and Baltimore. During the war of 1812, he bore himself patriotically and offered
his services to the state. He was in fact made governor's aid and military secretary,
and was addressed as "Colonel."
In 1815, Washington
Irving made his second trip to Europe, expecting to be absent but a few months;
he remained abroad seventeen years. He was occupied with the business affairs
of the firm, which were at this time in a bad way; still he found time for occasional
visits to some of the principal towns of England, making congenial acquaintance
with distinguished persons. It was in 1817 that he paid that visit of personal
tribute to Walter Scott, which he has so charmingly described in the sketch
of Abbotsford. The Sketch-Book, 1819.
the business failure of Irving Brothers in 1818, a crisis came in the personal
affairs of the younger brother, and Washington Irving betook himself more seriously
to literary effort. The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon,
Esq., was published in America, in 1819. This first series contained the
first five of the sketches including Rip Van Winkle.
The completed work appeared in 1820. It proved an instant success in America,
and with its issue by a British publisher that same year Irving's literary fame
was established. The genial spirit, delicate humor, and graceful sentiment,
together with its flowing diction, placed the Sketch-Book among the best
examples of this familiar essay type in our literature. Twice in this volume
does Irving utilize for his sketches material drawn from the old Dutch associations
of Manhattan and the Highlands of the Hudson. In the Legend
of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, we recognize two masterpieces,
our most popular classics in the field of the short story. Among the thirty
odd papers which comprise the Sketch-Book, there are
several conceived in the old spirit of the Spectator essays, notably
those on The Boar's Head Tavern, Westminster
Abbey, Rural Funerals, The
Pride of the Village, and The Angler. A
group of studies dealing with the household pleasures of the holiday season
at a typical English hall is particularly attractive, and is our first introduction
to the environment which Irving chose as the setting of his next book, Bracebridge
Hall. Brace-bridge Hall, 1822.
of a Traveller, 1824.
This volume followed
in 1822; and two years thereafter, the third in this series of sketch-books,
-- for all are modeled on the same general plan, -- The Tales of a Travell.
Irving's best work is found among these sketches and tales. The influence of
Addison and of Goldsmith is obvious in the plan and in many details of this
work, but the originality of Geoffrey Crayon is just as evident. The native
vein which had been worked with such success in Rip Van Winkle was followed
almost as successfully in Dolph Heyliger, and was
drawn upon in Kidd the Pirate, The
Devil and Tom Walker, and Wolfert Webber.
These tales exhibit their author as a master in narrative, and are justly regarded
as our earliest examples of that highly developed form of
literature -- the short story.
History and Romance, 1826-32.
If we choose to
group the works of Irving according to their themes, it is easy to find an order
of division. Following that first group of early essays, including the Knickerbocker
History, the Sketch-Book, Bracebridge Hall, and Tales of a Traveller (1809-24), we have a well-defined period in the author's life during which his
interest centres in the historical records of Spain. Columbus.
In 1826, Irving
went to Madrid to make a translation of some important historical documents
then appearing as extracts from the journals of Columbus. Impressed with the
richness of this material bearing on the discovery of the New World, he determined
to write a life of the great navigator. Thus the author of the Sketch-Book
who had recounted with such charm the old Dutch traditions of his native land,
creating for the valley of the Hudson an atmosphere of romance which has never
vanished, became the first among American writers to draw upon that store of
romantic legend and rich historic chronicle which, from the era of the Moors
to that of the Discoverer, have given fascination and allurement to this poetic
and picturesque land of Spain. Besides his Life and Voyages of Columbus (1828) and the Voyages and Discoveries of the Companions
of Columbus (1831), his most serious undertakings, Irving wrote a Chronicle
of the Conquest of Granada (1829) and -- most attractive of all the
Spanish series -- the Alhambra (1832). This last
volume is another "sketch-book." For a period Irving dwelt within
the walls of this historic structure under the spell of its beautiful architecture
and its romantic associations; haunting its marble halls, gazing from lofty
windows over the surrounding landscape, or pacing at evening through its deserted
gardens, melodious with the song of the nightingale, it is no wonder that his
imagination kindled in the glow of ancient splendor until he wrote in poetic
strain of the moonlit nights in this enchanted palace.
Again in England.
1829, Irving had been pleasantly surprised by an appointment as Secretary of
Legation to the Court of St. James. It had required, however, the urgency
of his friends to induce him to accept the honor. Naturally diffident, he shrank
from the public responsibilities of a diplomatic position; moreover, several
literary projects were engaging his attention. However, the post, once assumed,
proved agreeable, and until the fall of 1831 he continued in the position. It
was during these last two years of official routine that the series of Spanish
volumes was completed. In 1830, Irving had been awarded one
of the two medals annually placed by George
the disposal of the Royal Society of Literature, to be given to authors of works
of eminent merit.
The historian, Hallam, received the other. Shortly
thereafter the University of Oxford conferred upon the American writer the degree
of D.C.L. In May, 1832, Irving, who had been longing for his native land,
returned to America, distinguished and admired abroad, to find himself honored
and beloved by his countrymen at home.
Third Period, 1832-42.
was signalized by a spontaneous outburst of hearty welcome which partly expressed
itself in a public banquet tendered by the city of New York to her own humorous
historian, "the Dutch Herodotus, Diedrich Knickerbocker" -- as the
recipient was facetiously named in a toast. Greatly impressed by the development
of his country during the years of his absence, Irving made an extended tour
in the South and the West, pushing out into the wild regions of the Pawnee country,
on the waters of the Arkansas. In his Tour on the Prairies (1835), the author describes the life of the ranger and the trapper as he saw
it on this excursion. But the characteristic feature of this period in Irving's
life is his establishment at Sunnyside, near Tarrytown, on the Hudson. Sunnyside.
little farm of earlier Dutch possession has, through its associations with our
first conspicuous man of letters, acquired a fame almost as general as that
attaching to the home of Scott. This American Abbotsford, as it is often called,
was an ideal location for the residence of "Knickerbocker." It was
the old estate of the Van Tassels. Its comfortable stone cottage was humorously
said to have been modeled after the cocked hat of Peter the Headstrong; at all
events, a whimsical weather-cock brought over from Rotterdam perched above its
pretentious little tower, and ivy grown from a slip secured at Melrose Abbey
clustered thickly over its walls. It was and is a charming place. Sleepy Hollow
itself was hard by, and Sunnyside, in its owner's lifetime at least, had an
atmosphere of retirement and seclusion delightfully congenial to the world-weary
traveler. Here, surrounded by a bevy of nieces whose youth and spirits made
the old Dutch cottage bright with laughter, Irving felt himself finally at home. So general and widespread was his popularity, however, that
many attempts were made to induce Irving's entrance upon a public career. He
was urged to accept nominations for the office of Mayor of New York, and for
a seat in Congress; he was even obliged to decline the portfolio of the Secretary
of the Navy in President Van Buren's cabinet. The charms of Sunnyside and of
his vivacious household held him fast.
The literary work
of these ten years is comparatively unimportant: A Tour on the Prairies (1835), Abbotsford and Newstead Abbey (1835),
Legends of the Conquest of Spain (1836), Astoria (1836), Adventures of Captain Bonneville (1837),
and sketches contributed to the Knickerbocker Magazine
complete the record. A life-long project -- to write the
history of the conquest of Mexico -- was during this period generously abandoned
by Irving, when he learned that Prescott was contemplating such a plan, -- and
this after long preparation, and while actually engaged upon the early chapters
of the work. Minister to Spain, 1842-46.
In 1842, Washington
Irving was named by Daniel Webster, then Secretary of State
under President Tyler, for the post of Minister to Spain. This honor Irving
accepted; although with the regret of departure before him, he was overheard
murmuring to himself -- "It is hard, -- very hard; yet I must try to bear
it. God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb." Last Years, 1846-59.
After four years'
residence at Madrid, Irving returned, once more eager for the quiet retirement
of Sunnyside. In the congenial environment of his home it was now his pleasant
lot to pass in comfort and in quiet the thirteen years remaining to him. His
Life of Goldsmith (1849), Mahomet
and his Successors (1850), and his noteworthyLife
of Washington (1855-59) occupied these last years. In 1855, the sketches
contributed some years before to the Knickerbocker Magazine were published
under the title of Wolfert's Roost. Irving's Washington
represents the most serious labor of his entire career. Depreciated by many
critics as without historical value, it has been praised by others; its power
and charm as a literary work have never failed of appreciation.
These last years
of Irving's life were happy and serene. There is a picturesque sketch of his
personal appearance in one of the Easy Chair papers in Harper's
Magazine which describes the author of Knickerbocker "on
an autumnal afternoon tripping with an elastic step along Broadway, with `low-quartered'
shoes neatly tied, and a Talma cloak -- a short garment that hung from the shoulders
like the cape of a coat. There was a chirping, cheery, old-school air in his
appearance which was undeniably Dutch, and most harmonious with the associations
of his writing. He seemed, indeed, to have stepped out of his own books; and
the cordial grace and humor of his address, if he stopped for a passing chat,
were delightfully characteristic. He was then our most famous man of letters,
but he was simply free from all self-consciousness and assumption and dogmatism."
It is this simplicity,
this cheeriness of spirit, this native humor and cordial grace of address which
most distinguish the man in his literary work. He is always amiable -- a truly
lovable soul. For obvious reasons when we think of the Sketch-Book and
of Bracebridge Hall we are reminded of the Spectator essays and
Sir Roger de Coverley; but the spirit of Irving was more closely akin
to that of Goldsmith than to that of Addison.
I can by lucky chance, in these days of evil, rub out one wrinkle from the brow
of care, or beguile the heavy heart of one moment of sadness; if I can, now
and then, penetrate the gathering film of misanthropy, prompt a benevolent view
of human nature, and make my reader more in good-humor with his fellow-beings
and himself -- surely, surely, I shall not then have written entirely in vain."
Such was the literary
aspiration of Washington Irving as expressed in connection with his works which
are best remembered: an aspiration, perhaps, not the most lofty which can impel
a writer in the practice of his art, -- but one altogether worthy, and in its
realization eminently deserving of the appreciation and gratitude of mankind.
of years and modestly happy in his fame, Washington Irving died at Sunnyside,
November 28, 1859. He was buried on a little elevation overlooking Sleepy Hollow,
and commanding a view of the Hudson -- so intimately connected with his writings
and associated with his name.
The writings of
Washington Irving are not, in the largest sense, great; but they have the literary
qualities that always charm and are always valued. The student in his reading
of this author will be impressed with the gentleness, the geniality, the wholesome
enjoyment in life, the hearty sympathy with all things human, which distinguished
the winning personality of the man. He will note that the sources of Irving's
material are almost entirely in the past, in history, biography, and tradition;
also that the subjects which attracted his attention are romantic. His whimsical
humor it was that first claimed public recognition; but this was more and more
tempered by the delicate sentiment which gives to his sketches and tales their
finest flavor. The mere humorist is without sentiment and is never romantic.
Irving was an idealist and a lover of romance.
One's reading of
Irving will doubtless begin with the Sketch-Book -- probably with the
world-famous narrative Rip Van Winkle. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is
a companion piece. Westminster Abbey should be compared with Addison's
Visit to Westminster Abbey. Next take the sketches of English manners,
Christmas, The Stage Coach, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and The
Christmas Dinner. These papers will furnish a pleasant introduction to the
volume entitled Bracebridge Hall, into which the reader may dip at will,
by no means felling it necessary to read every sketch. One -- The Stout Gentleman
-- should be carefully studied; it is one of Irving's most brilliant essays,
and should be appreciated by the student. The story of Dolph Heyliger,
at the close of the volume, takes us back to the Dutch burghers of Manhattan
and the legend-haunted shores of the Hudson. The sketch entitled The Author,
at the opening of the volume, and The Author's Farewell, at its close,
should be included for the insight they afford into the personality of Irving
himself. The Tales of a Traveller exhibit the writer in his most vivacious
mood. Charmingly reminiscent of his visit with Scott, is Irving's delightful
sketch of Abbotsford. The Alhambra contains some of Irving's most attractive
work. The imaginative and poetical qualities of his prose are found preëminently
in this volume. The wonderful charm of his style in both narrative and descriptive
writing is nowhere more in evidence than here. His descriptions of the historic
structure, its gardens, its spacious courtyards, the orange and lemon trees
silvery in the radiance of moonlight, its pavilions and arcades, the notes of
guitar and lovers' serenades, the lulling patter of its fountains -- these descriptions
are more than sketches; they are word-paintings which glow with color and fitly
interpret the spirit of romance which abides in the locality and the theme.
As examples of
Irving's more serious historical writing, the account of the discovery of land,
Book III, chapter iv, in the Life of Columbus, and of the landing of
the discoverer, Book IV, chapter i, are especially suggested.
of this author's humor in its most rollicking vein, the student is referred
to the Knickerbocker History, Book III, chapter i, which contains the
description of Wouter Van Twiller, and Book V, chapters i and viii, wherein
the character of Peter the Headstrong is introduced and the account given of
the famous battle between the Dutch and the Swedes at the taking of Fort Christina.
In reading Irving,
the student may feel assured that he is giving his time to a writer who is not
only a prince among entertainers, but one who may well serve as a model of prose
style. As a master of English, Irving is well-nigh incomparable among American
authors; certainly, for ease, fluency, vivacity, grace, and elegance he is yet
unsurpassed. Biographical and Critical Authorities.
biography of Washington Irving is the Life, by Pierre M. Irving. In the
American Men of Letters Series the volume on Irving is by Charles Dudley
Warner. A briefer life of the author is that by H.W. Boynton in the Riverside
Biographical Series. A delightfully written sketch of Irving
by George William Curtis may be found among the Easy Chair articles in
Harper's Magazine (June, 1881), vol. 63, p. 145, and another in the same
magazine (April, 1883), vol. 66, p. 790. An elaboration of this same material
is included in Curtis's Literary and Social Essays (Harper's), p. 239.
An interesting English estimate is given in Thackeray's Nil Nisi Bonum (Roundabout
Papers, or Harper's Monthly, March, 1860). The Critic, March
31, 1883, was published as an Irving Centenary number.