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A Student's 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 |
Chapter 3.


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.

Family and Birth.

Washington Irving 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.


Irving's training 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.

Nevertheless young 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.

First European Journey.

In 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.

Salmagundi, 1807.

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 be ranked.

A Masterpiece of Humor.

This inimitable 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.

Reception of Knickerbocker.

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."

The Second Voyage.

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.

With 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.

Tales 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.

Spanish 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.

The Alhambra.

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.

In 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 IV at 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.

The home-coming 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.

This comfortable 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.

Literary Product.

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.

A Portrait.

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.

"If, however, 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.

Full 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.

Suggestions for Reading.

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.

For illustrations 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.

The authoritative 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.

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 |
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