Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of George William Curtis > Text of Washington Irving

An essay by George William Curtis

Washington Irving

Title:     Washington Irving
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

Forty years ago, upon a pleasant afternoon, you might have seen tripping with an elastic step along Broadway, in New York, a figure which even then would have been called quaint. It was a man of about sixty-six or sixty-seven years old, of a rather solid frame, wearing a Talma, as a short cloak of the time was called, that hung from the shoulders, and low shoes, neatly tied, which were observable at a time when boots were generally worn. The head was slightly declined to one side, the face was smoothly shaven, and the eyes twinkled with kindly humor and shrewdness. There was a chirping, cheery, old-school air in the whole appearance, an undeniable Dutch aspect, which, in the streets of New Amsterdam, irresistibly recalled Diedrich Knickerbocker. The observer might easily have supposed that he saw some later descendant of the renowned Wouter Van Twiller refined into a nineteenth-century gentleman. The occasional start of interest as the figure was recognized by some one in the passing throng, the respectful bow, and the sudden turn to scan him more closely, indicated that he was not unknown. Indeed, he was the American of his time universally known. This modest and kindly man was the creator of Diedrich Knickerbocker and Rip Van Winkle. He was the father of our literature, and at that time its patriarch. He was Washington Irving.

At the same time you might have seen another man, of slight figure and rustic aspect, with an air of seriousness, if not severity, moving with the crowd, but with something remote and reserved in his air, as if in the city he bore with him another atmosphere, and were still secluded among solitary hills. In the bright and busy street of the city which was always cosmopolitan, and in which there lingers a tradition, constantly renewed, of good-natured banter of the losel Yankee, this figure passed like the grave genius of New England. By a little play of fancy the first figure might have seemed the smiling spirit of genial cheerfulness and humor, of kindly sympathy even with the foibles and weaknesses of poor human nature; and the other the mentor of its earnest endeavor and serious duty. For he was the first of our poets, whose "Thanatopsis" was the hymn of his meditations among the primeval forests of his native hills, and who, in his last years, sat at the door of his early home and looked across the valley of the Westfield to the little town of Plainfield upon the wooded heights beyond, whose chief distinction is that there he wrote the "Waterfowl"; for this graver figure was the poet Bryant.

If in the same walk you had passed those two figures, you would have seen not only the first of our famous prose writers and the first of our acknowledged poets, but also the representatives of the two fundamental and distinctive qualities of our American literature, as of all literature--its grave, reflective, earnest character, and its sportive, genial, and humorous genius.

At the time of which I speak another figure also was familiar in Broadway, but less generally recognized as it passed than either of the others, although, perhaps, even more widely known to fame than they. This was Cooper, who gave us so many of the heroes of our childhood's delight, but who at this time was himself the hero of innumerable lawsuits, undertaken to chastise the press for what he believed to be unjust and libelous comments upon himself. Now that the uproar of that litigation is silent, and its occasion forgotten, it seems comical that a man for whom fame had already rendered a favorable judgment should be busily seeking the opinion of local courts upon transitory newspaper opinions of him-self and his writings. It is as if Dickens, when the whole English-reading world--judges on the bench and bishops in their studies, cobblers in their stalls and grooms in the stables--were all laughing over Pickwick, should have sued the _Eatanswill Gazette_ for calling him a clown. Thackeray pronounces Cooper's Long Tom Coffin one of the prizemen of fiction. That is a final judgment by the chief-justice. But who knows what was the verdict in Cooper's lawsuits to vindicate himself, and who cares? When Cooper died there was a great commemorative meeting in New York. Daniel Webster presided, and praised the storyteller; Bryant read a discourse upon him, while Irving sat by his side. One of the triumvirate of our early literature was gone, and two remained to foresee their own future in the honors paid to him. Indeed, it was to see them, quite as much as to hear of their dead comrade, that the multitude assembled that evening; and the one who was seen with the most interest was Irving, the one in whom the city of New York naturally feels a peculiar right and pride, as the most renowned of her children.

If I say that he made personally the same impression that his works make, you can easily see the man. As you read the story of his life you feel its constant gayety and cheerfulness. It was the life of a literary man and a man of society--a life without events, or only the events of all our lives, except that it lacks the great event of marriage. In place of it there is a tender and pathetic romance. Irving lived to be seventy-six years old. At twenty-six he was engaged to a beautiful girl, who died. He never married; but after his death, in a little box of which he always kept the key, was found the miniature of a lovely girl, and with it a braid of fair hair, and a slip of paper on which was written the name Matilda Hoffman, with some pages upon which the writing was long since faded. That fair face Irving kept all his life in a more secret and sacred shrine. It looks out, now and then, with unchanged loveliness from some pensive passage, which he seems to write with wistful melancholy of remembrance. That fond and immortal presence constantly renewed the gentle humanity, the tenderness of feeling, the sweet healthfulness and generous sympathy which never failed in his life and writings.

He was born in the city of New York in 1783, the year in which the Revolution ended in the acknowledgment of American independence. The British army marched out of the city, and the American army, with Washington at the head, marched in. "The patriot's work is ended just as my boy is born," said the patriotic mother, "and the boy shall be named Washington". Six years later, when Washington returned to New York to be inaugurated President, he was one day going into a shop when the boy's Scotch nurse democratically stopped the new republican chief magistrate and said to him, "Please your honor, here's a bairn was named for you". The great man turned and looked kindly on his little namesake, laid his hand upon his head, and blessed his future biographer.

The name of no other American has been so curiously confused with Washington's as that of Irving. Many a young fellow puzzles over the connection which the name seems vaguely to imply, and in other lands the identity of the men is confounded. When Irving first went to Europe, a very young man, well-educated, courteous, with great geniality of manner and charm of conversation, he was received by Prince Torlonia, the banker, in Rome, with unusual and flattering civility. His travelling companion, who had been treated by the prince with entire indifference, was perplexed at the warmth of Irving's welcome. Irving laughingly said that it only proved the prince's remarkable discrimination. But the young travellers laughed still more when the prince unconsciously revealed the secret of his attentions by taking his guest aside, and asking him how nearly he was related to General Washington.

Many years afterwards, when he had become famous, an English lady and her daughter paused in an Italian gallery before a bust of Washington. "And who was Washington, mamma?" asked the daughter. "Why, my dear, I am surprised at your ignorance," answered the mother, "he was the author of the _Sketch Book_." Long ago in Berlin I was talking with some American friends one evening at a cafe, and observed a German intently listening to our conversation as if trying his ability to understand the language. Presently he said to me, politely, "You are English, no?" But when I replied "No, we are Americans"--"Americans!" he exclaimed enthusiastically, grasping my hand and shaking it warmly, "Americans, ach! we all know your great General Washington Irving."

Irving's father was a Presbyterian deacon, in whose heart the sterner traditions of the Covenanters lingered. He tried hard to teach his son to contemn amusement, and to impale his youth upon the five points of Calvinism, rather than to play ball. But it was John Knox trying to curb the tricksy Ariel. Perhaps from some bright maternal ancestor the boy had derived his sweet gayety of nature which nothing could repress. His airy spirits bubbled like a sunny fountain in that some-what arid household. He read at ten a translation of the _Orlando Furioso_, and his father's yard, doubtless trim and well kept as beseemed a deacon's yard, became at once a field of chivalry. Candles were forbidden him in his chamber, but when he made the acquaintance of _Robinson Crusoe_ and _Sindbad the Sailor_, he secreted lights to illuminate his innocent revels with those immortal playmates.

The amusements which were permitted were of too depressing a character to be tolerated by the healthy boy, who, like the duck taking to the water from under the wing of the astonished hen, sometimes escaped from the serious house at night by dropping from a window, and with a delight that must have torn his father's heart with anguish had he known it, tasted the forbidden fruit of the theatre. It was a Presbyterian boy who tasted it then; but in the same city many years afterwards it was a Quaker boy whom I knew who was also enamoured of the play. "John," said his grieved father, "is this dreadful thing true that I hear of thee? Has thee ever been to see the play-actress Frances Kemble?" "Yes, father," answered the heroic John. "I hope thee has not been more than once, John," said the afflicted father. "Yes, father," replied John, resolved to make a clean breast of his sins, "more than thirty times." It is useless to try to prevent blue-birds from flying in the spring. The blithe creatures made to soar and sing will not be restrained. The same kind Providence that made Calvin made Shakespeare. The sun is higher than the clouds, and smiles are as heaven-born as tears. In Emerson's poem the squirrel says to the mountain:

"You're not so small as I,
And not half so spry;
* * * * *
"If I cannot carry forests on my back
Neither can you crack a nut."

It was in vain to try to thwart the young Irving's genius. Yet the boy who a little later was to light with rosy cheer the air which, as Wendell Phillips said, was still black with sermons; who was to give to our literature its first distinctly humorous strain, and innocently to amuse the world, was somehow or other, as he said, "taught to feel that everything pleasant was wicked".

If that were so, what a sinner Washington Irving was! If to make life easier by making it pleasanter, if to outwit trouble by gay banter, if with satire that smiles but never stings to correct foibles and to quicken good impulses; if to deepen and strengthen human sympathy, is not to be a human benefactor, what makes one? When Dr. Johnson said of Garrick that his death eclipsed the gayety of nations, he did not mean merely that the player would no longer make men laugh, but that he could no longer make them better. "If, however," said Irving--and Willis selected the words for the motto of his second volume of verse published in 1827--"I can by a 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."

That cannot be said to have been the spirit of any American author before Irving. Our colonial literature was mainly political and theological. You have only to return to the early New England days in the stories of Hawthorne, the magician who restores with a shuddering spell that old, sombre life, to understand the character of its reading. The books that were not treatises upon special topics all seemed to say with one of the grim bards of Calvinism:

"My thoughts on awful subjects roll,
Damnation and the dead."

Literature, in its proper sense, there was none. There was no imaginative creation, no play of fancy and humor, no subtle charm of the ideal life, no grace and delight of expression, which are essential to literature. The perpetual twilight and chill of the New England Puritan world were an arctic winter in which no flower of poesy bloomed and no bird sang. One of the French players who came to this country with Rachel says, in his journal, with a startled air, as if he had remarked in Americans a universal touch of lunacy, that he was invited to take a pleasure-drive to Greenwood Cemetery. Evidently he was not familiar with Froissart's epigram nor with the annals of the Puritan fathers, or he would have known that their favorite pleasure-ground was the graveyard. Judge Sewell's Journal, the best picture of daily New England life in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, is a portrait framed in black and hung with thick crape. It is a register of funerals--a book which seems to require a suit of sables for its proper reading.

The early Christians dwelt so often and so long in the catacombs that when they emerged, accustomed to associate life with the tomb, they doubtless regarded the whole world as a cemetery. The American Puritans inherited the disposition from their early confessors, and so powerful was the tendency that it laid its sombre spirit upon the earliest enduring poem in our literature, and the fresh and smiling nature of the new world was first depicted by our literary art as a tomb:

"The hills,
Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun; the vales
Stretching in pensive quietness between;
The venerable woods; rivers that move
In majesty; and the complaining brooks
That make the meadows green; and, poured round all,
Old ocean's gray and melancholy waste,
Are but the solemn decorations all
Of the great tomb of man."

"Thanatopsis" is the swan-song of Puritanism. Indeed, when New England Puritanism could sing, as for the first time it did in the verse of Bryant, the great change was accomplished. Out of strength had come forth sweetness. I am not decrying the Puritans. They were the stern builders of the modern world, the unconscious heralds of wider liberty, and a kindlier future for mankind. But

"God works in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform,"

and never more mysteriously than when he chose as the pioneers of religious liberty in the New World those who hung Quakers, and as the founders of civil equality those who permitted only members of their own Church to vote.

Irving was not a studious boy. He did not go to college. He read some law at sixteen, but he read much more literature, and sauntered in the country about New York with his gun and fishing-rod. He sailed up the Hudson, and explored for the first time the realm that was presently to be his forever by the right of eminent domain of the imagination. New York was a snug little city in those days. At the beginning of the century it was all below the present City Hall, and the young fellow, who was born a cosmopolitan, greatly enjoyed the charms of the modest society in which the Dutch and the English circles were still somewhat separated, and in which such literary cultivation as there was was necessarily foreign. But while he enjoyed he observed, and his literary instinct began to stir.

Under the name of "Jonathan Oldstyle", the young Irving printed in his brother's newspaper essays in the style of the _Spectator_, discussing topics of the town, and the modest theatre in John Street and its chance actors, as if it had been Drury Lane with Garrick and Mrs. Siddons. The little town kindly smiled upon the lively efforts of the Presbyterian deacon's son; and its welcome of his small essays, the provincial echo of the famous Queen Anne's men in London, is a touching revelation of our scant and spare native literary talent. The essays are forgotten now, but they were enough to bring Charles Brockden Brown to find the young author, and to tempt him, but in vain, to write for _The Literary Magazine and American Register_, which the novelist was just beginning in Philadelphia, a pioneer of American literary magazines, which Brown sustained for five years.

The youthful Addison of New Amsterdam was a delicate lad, and when he came of age he sailed for France and the Mediterranean, and passed two years in travelling. Napoleon Bonaparte was emperor, and at war with England, and the young American, despite his passport, was everywhere believed to be an Englishman. Travelling was hard work in those days of war, but the cheery youth proved the truth of the proverb that a light heart and a whole pair of breeches go round the world. At Messina, in Sicily, he saw Nelson's fleet pass through the strait, looking for the French ships; and before the year ended the famous battle of Trafalgar had been fought, and at Greenwich in England Irving saw the body of the great sailor lying in state, wrapped in his flag of victory. At Rome he made the acquaintance of Washington Allston, and almost resolved to be a painter. In Paris he saw Madame de Stael, who overwhelmed him with eager questions about his remote and unknown country, and in London he was enchanted by Mrs. Siddons. Some years afterwards, when the _Sketch Book_ had made him famous, he was presented to Mrs. Siddons, and the great actress said to him, in her deepest voice and with her stateliest manner, "You've made me weep." The modest young author was utterly abashed, and could say nothing. After the publication of his _Bracebridge_ Hall he was once more presented to her, and again with gloomy grandeur she said to him, "You've made me weep again." This time Irving received the solemn salute with more composure, and doubtless retorted with a compliment magnificent enough even for the sovereign Queen of Tragedy, who, as her niece Mrs. Fanny Kemble said of her, never laid aside her great manner, and at the dinner-table brandished her fork and stabbed the potatoes.

Irving returned from this tour with established health--a refined, agreeable, exceedingly handsome and charming gentleman; with a confirmed taste for society, and a delightful store of interesting recollection and anecdote. With a group of cultivated and lively friends of his own age he dined and supped and enjoyed the town, and a little anecdote which he was fond of telling shows that the good old times were not unlike the good new times: One morning, after a gay dinner, Irving met one of his fellow-revellers, who told him that on the way borne, after draining the parting bumper, he bad fallen through a grating in the sidewalk, which had been carelessly left open, into the vault beneath. It was impossible to climb out, and at first the solitude was rather dismal, he said; but several of the other guests fell in, in the course of the evening, and, on the whole, they had quite a pleasant time of it.

In the midst of this frolicking life, and growing out of it, Irving's real literary career began. With his brother William, and his friend James K. Paulding, who afterwards wrote the _Dutchman's Fireside_, and was one of the recognized American authors of fifty years ago, he issued every fortnight a periodical, which ran for twenty numbers, and stopped in the midst of its success. It was modelled upon the _Spectator_ and Goldsmith's _Citizen of the World_, describing and criticising the manners and morals of the town with extravagant humor and pungency, and a rollicking independence which must have been both startling and stimulating.

Perhaps, also, the town was secretly pleased to discover that it was sufficiently important to be worthy of such bright raillery and humorous reproof. _Salmagundi_ was only a lively _jeu d'esprit_, and Irving was never proud of it. "I know," said Paulding, writing to him in later life, "you consider old Sal as a sort of saucy, flippant trollope, belonging to nobody, and not worth fathering." But, nevertheless, Irving's genius was trying its wings in it, and pluming itself for flight. _Salmagundi_ undoubtedly, to a later taste, is rather crude and cumbrous fun, but it is interesting as the immediate forerunner of our earliest work of sustained humor, and of the wit of Holmes and Lowell at a later date. When it was discontinued, at the beginning of 1808, Irving and his brother began the _History of New York_, which was originally designed to be a parody of a particular book. But the work was interrupted by the business difficulties of the brother, and at last Irving resumed it alone, recast it entirely, and as he finished it the engagement with Matilda Hoffman ended with her death, and the long arid secret romance of his life began.

Knickerbocker's _History_ was published just before Christmas, 1809, and made a merry Christmas for our grandfathers and grandmothers eighty years ago. The fun began before the book was published. In October the curiosity of the town of eighty thousand inhabitants was awakened by a series of skilful paragraphs in the _Evening Post_. The art of advertising was never more ingeniously illustrated. Mr. Fulkerson himself would have paid homage to the artist. One day the quid-nuncs found this paragraph in the paper, It was headed,


"Left his lodgings, some time since, and has not since been heard of, a small elderly gentleman, dressed in an old black coat and cocked hat, by the name of Knickerbocker. As there are some reasons for believing that he is not entirely in his right mind, and, as great anxiety is entertained about him, any information concerning him left either at the Columbian Hotel, Mulberry Street, or at the office of this paper, will be thankfully received.

"P. S.--Printers of newspapers would be aiding the cause of humanity by giving an insertion to the above.

"_October 25th._"

This was followed within a fortnight by another ingenious lure:

"_To the Editor of the Evening Post:_

"Sir,--Having read in your paper of the 26th October last a paragraph respecting an old gentleman by the name of Knickerbocker, who was missing from his lodgings, if it would be any relief to his friends, or furnish them with any clue to discover where he is, you may inform them that a person answering the description was seen by the passengers of the Albany stage early in the morning, about four or five weeks ago, resting himself by the side of the road, a little above Kingsbridge. He had in his hands a small bundle, tied in a red bandana handkerchief. He appeared to be travelling northward, and was very much fatigued and exhausted.

"_November 6._ A Traveller."

Ten days after came a letter signed by Seth Handaside, landlord of the Independent Handaside:

"Columbian Hotel, Mulberry Street.

"Sir,--You have been kind enough to publish in your paper a paragraph about Mr. Diedrich Knickerbocker, who was missing so strangely from his lodgings some time since. Nothing satisfactory has been heard from the old gentleman since, but a very curious written Book has been found in his room in his own handwriting. Now, I wish you to notice him, if he is still alive, that if he does not return and pay off his bill for board and lodging, I shall have to dispose of his Book to satisfy me for the same."

This is very simple jesting, but at that time it was very effective in a town that enjoyed the high spirits of _Salmagundi_. Moreover, the book which was announced in this lively strain was as unprecedented as the announcement. It was a very serious time and country, and the work of the small elderly gentleman who carried a little bundle tied in a red bandana handkerchief appeared in the midst of the sober and dry effusions of our Puritan literature, and of an eager and energetic life still engrossed with the subjection of a continent and the establishment of a new nation. It was the work of a young man of twenty-six, who lived fifty years afterwards with constantly increasing fame, making many and admirable contributions to literature. But nothing that followed surpassed the joyous brilliancy and gay felicity of his first book, which was at once acknowledged as the wittiest book that America had produced.

Knickerbocker's _History_ is a prolonged and elaborate and audacious burlesque of the early annals of New Amsterdam. The undaunted Goth of the legend who plucked the Roman senator by the beard was not a more ruthless iconoclast than this son of New Amsterdam, who drew its grave ancestors from venerable obscurity by flooding them with the cheerful light of blameless fun. To pass the vague and venerable traditions of the austere and heroic founders of the city through the alembic of a youth's hilarious creative humor, and to turn them out in forms resistlessly grotesque, but with their identity unimpaired, was a stroke as daring as it was successful. But the skill and power with which this is done can be best appreciated by those who are most familiar with the history which the gleeful genius burlesques.

Irving follows the actual story closely, and the characters that he develops faithfully, although with rollicking caricature, are historical. Indeed, the fidelity is so absolute that the fiction is welded with the fact. The days of the Dutch ascendency in New York are inextricably associated with this ludicrous narrative. It is impossible not to think of the forefathers of New Amsterdam as Knickerbocker describes them. The Wouter Van Twiller, the Wilhemus Kieft, the Peter Stuyvesant, who are familiarly and popularly known, are not themselves, but the figures drawn by Diedrich Knickerbocker. In comical despair, the historian Grahame, whose _Colonial History_ is still among the best, says of Knickerbocker: "If Sancho Panza had been a real governor, misrepresented by the wit of Cervantes, his future historian would have found it no easy matter to bespeak a grave attention to the annals of his administration."

The gayety of this blithe genius bursting in upon our staid literature is irresistible. Irving's temperament, his travels, his humor, gave him a cosmopolitan point of view; and his little native city, with its local sense of importance, and its droll aristocratic traditions springing from Dutch burgomasters and traders, impressed his merry genius like a complacent Cranford or Tarascon taking itself with a provincial seriousness, which, to his sympathetic fancy, was an exhaustless fountain of fun. Part of the fun to us, and perhaps to Irving, was the indignation with which it was received by the descendants of the Dutch families in the city and State. The excited drawing-rooms denounced it as scandalous satire and ridicule. Even Irving's friend, Gulian Verplanck, nine years afterwards, deepening the comedy of his remark by his evident unconsciousness of the drollery of his gravity, grieved that the author's exuberance of genuine humor should be wasted on a coarse caricature. Irving, who was then in Europe, saw Verplanck's strictures just as he had written _Rip Van Winkle_, and he wrote to a friend at home that he could not help laughing at Verplanck's outburst of filial feeling for his ancestors, adding, in the true Knickerbocker vein, "Remember me heartily to him, and tell him that I mean to grow wiser and better and older every day, and to lay the castigation he has given seriously to heart."

The success of Knickerbocker's _History_ was immediate, and it was the first American work of literature which arrested attention in Europe.

Sir Walter Scott, who was then the most famous of English poets, and was about to publish the first of the Waverley Novels, was delighted with a humor which he thought recalled Swift's, and a sentiment that seemed to him as tender as Sterne's. He wrote a generous acknowledgment to the American friend who had sent him the book, and in later years he welcomed Diedrich Knickerbocker at Abbotsford, and the American has given a charming and vivid picture of Scott's home and its master.

But the success of his book did not at once determine Irving's choice of a career. He was still a gilded youth who enjoyed the gay idleness of society, and who found in writing only another and pleasant recreation. He had been bred in the conservative tradition which looked upon livelihood by literature as the deliberate choice of Grub Street, and the wretchedness of Goldsmith as the necessary and natural fate of authors; but it is droll that, although he recoiled from the uncertainty of support by literary labor, he was willing to try the very doubtful chances of office-holding as a means of securing leisure for literary pursuits. He offered himself as a candidate for appointment as the clerk of a court in the city. By tradition and sympathy he was a Federalist, but he had taken no active part in politics, and his chance was slight. He went to Albany, however, and in a lively letter he paints a familiar picture of the crowd of office-hunters who, he says, "like a cloud of locusts, have descended upon the city to devour every plant and herb and every green thing." He was sick with a cold, and stifled in rooms heated by stoves, and was utterly disgusted, as he says, "by the servility and duplicity and rascality I have witnessed among the swarms of scrub politicians who crawl about the great metropolis of our State like so many vermin about the head of the body politic."

Again the good old times were apparently very much like the good new times. Thirty-nine years after Irving's discomfiture in trying to get a public office, Hawthorne was turned out of one that he held, and wrote to a friend: "It seems to me that an inoffensive man of letters, having obtained a pitiful little office on no other plea than his pitiful little literature, ought not to be left at the mercy of these thick-skulled and no-hearted ruffians." The language is strong, but the epithets are singularly well-chosen. The distinctive qualities of the ringleaders, whether of high or low degree, in the degradation of public trusts into private and party spoils, have never been more accurately or effectively described than by the words "thick-skulled" and "no-hearted".

The story of the sturdy beggar who asked General Jackson to give him the mission to France, and finally came down to a request for an old coat, well illustrates a system which regards public office not as a public trust, but as private alms. The service of the State, whether military or civil, is an object of high and generous ambition, because it involves the leadership of men. But if Irving and Hawthorne thought that what is called office-seeking is disgusting, it was not because the public service is not noble and dignified, but because we choose to allow it to be so often dependent, not upon fitness and character, but upon the personal or political favor of the "thick-skulled" and "no-hearted".

But the problem of a career was soon solved. In the year 1810 Irving formed a business connection with two of his brothers, and the next five years were passed in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, forming various literary plans, looking out for his business interests, sparkling in society; and when war with England began, serving upon the governor's military staff as Colonel Washington Irving. In the spring of 1815 he sailed to roam again through Europe, but the illness of his brother compelled him to remain in England in charge of the business. "London," as a shrewd and celebrated American recently said, "was then as it is now, the social centre of the world." Irving saw famous men and women, and his charming sweetness and humor opened all doors and hearts. But the business fell into distress, then into disaster, and in the beginning of 1818 the house failed. He was now thrown wholly upon his literary resources, which did _not_ fail, and in the spring of 1819, when he was thirty-six years old, the first number of the _Sketch Book_ was issued in New York.

The merry, exuberant, satirical Diedrich Knickerbocker was transformed into the genial, urbane, and tender-hearted Geoffrey Crayon. Our fathers and grandfathers knew him well. They had been bred upon Addison and Goldsmith, the essayists and the poets of the eighteenth century, and in Geoffrey Crayon they recognized and welcomed another member of that delightful literary society. He was all the more welcome that he was an American--one of themselves. The bland and courteous Geoffrey, indeed, had few rivals among his countrymen. In our little American world of letters at that time he came and conquered. Bryant's "Thanatopsis", had been published only two years before; Halleck's and Drake's lively but strictly local "Croakers" were still appearing, and Edward Everett had just hailed Percival's first volume as authorizing great expectations.

But prophecy is always dangerous. The year before, Sydney Smith had said, in the _Edinburgh Review_, "Literature the Americans have none--no native literature we mean. It is all imported. They had a Franklin, indeed, and may afford to live half a century on his fame. There is, or was, a Mr. Dwight, who wrote some poems, and his baptismal name was Timothy. There is also a small account of Virginia by Jefferson, and an epic poem by Mr. Joel Barlow, and some pieces of pleasantry by Mr. Irving. But why should Americans write books, when a six weeks' passage brings them, in their own tongue, _our_ sense, science, and genius, on bales and hogsheads? Prairies, steamboats, grist-mills are their natural objects for centuries to come. Then, when they have got to the Pacific Ocean, epic poems, plays, pleasures of memory, and all the elegant gratifications of an ancient people who have tamed the wild earth, and sat down to amuse themselves. This is the natural march of human affairs." As the sarcastic Yorkshire canon, sitting on the Edinburgh Olympus, wiped his pen, the _Sketch Book_ was published. The good canon was right as to our small literary product, but even an _Edinburgh Review_ could not wisely play the prophet.

This Mr. Everett also discovered, for his "great expectations" of Percival were not fulfilled. A desponding student of our poetry recently sighs that Percival is a forgotten poet, and then, seizing a promiscuous assortment of names, exclaims that Charles Sprague, William Wirt, Washington Irving, and Jack Downing may be referred to as forgotten authors. But this is the luxury of woe. Why should not Percival be a forgotten poet? That is to say, what is there in the verse of Percival that should command interest and attention to-day? He was a remarkably accomplished man and a most excellent gentleman, and his name is very familiar in the reading-books of the time when grandfathers of to-day were going to school. But he was a noted poet not because he took rank with his contemporaries--with Byron and Scott and Keats and Shelley and Coleridge and Wordsworth--but because there were very few Americans who wrote verses, and our fathers patriotically stood by them.

Yet because the note of a singer of another day is not heard by us, it does not follow that he did not touch the heart of his time. Grenville Mellen is a forgotten poet also, and Rufus Dawes and John Neal and James G. Eastburn. If the gentle reader will turn to the pages of Kettell, or any early American anthology, he will seem to himself to be walking among tombs. Upon each page might be suitably inscribed, "Sacred to the memory" of almost every one of the singers. But can we say with honest reproach, "forgotten poets"? The loiterer in the wood hears the song of the wood-thrush, but is the hermit-bird wronged, or is his song less sweet, because it is not echoed round the world? Is Fame to be held responsible for not retaining the name of every minstrel who loiters by and touches his harp lightly, and sings a sweet song as he passes on? Is it a hard fate to give pleasure to those who listen because those out of hearing do not applaud?

Many an author may have a tone and a touch which please the ear and taste of his own day, and which, as characteristic of a time, may be only curious to a later taste, like the costumes and dances of our great-grandmothers. But young America, sauntering at the club and at Newport, would not willingly wear the boots of Beau Nash, nor even the cloak of Beau Brummel. The law which provides that nothing shall be lost is equally observable in the realm of literary fame. Is anything of literature lost that deserves longer remembrance? or, more properly, can it be lost? A fair answer to the question can be found in the reply to another, whether delving in Kettell, or in any other anthology, reveals treasures dropped by Fame as precious as those she carries.

There are two ways in which authors survive: one by the constant reading of his works, the other by his name. Is Milton a forgotten author? But how much is he read, compared with the contemporary singers? Is Plato forgotten? Yet how many know him except by name? Irving thus far holds both. Time, like a thrifty husbandman, winnows its wheat, blowing away much chaff, but the golden grain remains. This is true not only of the whole multitude of authors, but of the works of each author. How many of them really survive in the anthology only? _Astoria_ and _Captain Bonneville_ and _Mahomet_ and other books of Irving will disappear; but _Knickerbocker_ and _Rip Van Winkle_ still buffet the relentless wave of oblivion, and their buoyancy is undiminished.

As for Sprague--a mild, genial, charming gentleman, who carried his simple freshness of nature and of manner to the end, and about whose venerable head in State Street always shone the faint halo of early poetic renown--his literary talent was essentially for a day, not for all time. But what then? On Christmas Eve we hear the passing music in the street that supplies for us the song of the waits. Distant and melodious, it pensively recalls the days and the faces and the voices that are no more. But the singers are not the same waits that we heard long ago; still less are they those that the youth of a century ago heard with the same musing melancholy. But the substance of the song, and the emotion which it awakens, and the tender pathos of association --these are all the same. Sprague was a wait of yesterday, of last year, of fifty years ago. Others sing in the street the song that he sang, and, singing, they pass on, and the sweet strain grows fainter, softer, and fainter and fainter, and the echoes answer, "Dying, dying, dying," and it is gone.

See how tenderly Mr. Stedman speaks of the troubadours who are singing for us now, whose names are familiar, who trill and twitter in the magazines, and in tasteful and delicate volumes, which seem to tempt the stream of time to suffer such light and graceful barks to slip along unnoted to future ages. But the kindly critic's tone forecasts the fate of the sparkling ventures.

Moore tells us of the Indian maids upon the banks of the Ganges who light a tiny taper, and, on a frail little chip, set it afloat upon the river. It twinkles and dwindles, and flashes and expires. Mr. Stedman watches the minor poets trimming their tapers and carefully launching their chips upon the brimming river. "Pleasant journey," he cries cheerily from the shore, as if he were speaking to hearty Captain Cook going up the side of his great ship, and shaking out his mighty canvas to circumnavigate the globe. "Pleasant journey," cries the cheery critic; but there is a wistful something in his tone that betrays a consciousness of the swift extinction of the pretty perfumed flickering flame.

So scant, indeed, was the blossom of our literature when the _Sketch Book_ was published, that even twenty years later, when Emerson described the college Commencement Day as the only tribute of a country too busy to give to letters any more, Geoffrey Crayon, with the exception of Cooper, had really no American competitors. Long afterwards I met Mr. Irving one morning at the office of Mr. Putnam, his publisher, and in his cordial way, with a twinkle in his eye, and in his pleasant husky voice, he said, "You young literary fellows to-day have a harder time than we old fellows had. You trip over each other's heels; there are so many of you. We had it all our own way. But the account is square, for you can make as much by a lecture as we made by a book." Then, laughing slyly, he added, "A pretty figure I should make lecturing in this voice." Indeed, his modesty forbade him to risk that voice in public addresses.

Irving, I think, made but one speech. It was at the dinner given to him upon his return from Europe in 1832, after his absence of seventeen years. Like other distinguished Americans who have felt the fascination of the old home of their ancestors, and who have not thought that a narrow heart and a barbaric disdain of everything foreign attested the truest patriotism, he was suspected of some alienation from his country. His speech was full of emotion, and his protestation of love for his native land was received with boundless acclamation. But he could not overcome his aversion to speech-making. When Dickens came, and the great dinner was given to him in New York, Irving was predestined to preside. Nobody else could be even mentioned. He was himself conscious of it, and was filled with melancholy forebodings. Professor Felton, of Harvard, compared Irving's haunting terror and dismay at the prospect of this speech to that of Mr. Pickwick at the prospect of leading that dreadful horse all day.

Poor Irving went about muttering, "I shall certainly break down. I know I shall break down." At last the day, the hour, and the very moment itself arrived, and he rose to propose the health of Dickens. He began pleasantly and smoothly in two or three sentences, then hesitated, stammered, smiled, and stopped; tried in vain to begin again, then gracefully gave it up, announced the toast--"Charles Dickens, the guest of the nation"--then sank into his chair amid immense applause, whispering to his neighbor, "There, I told you I should break down, and I've done it."

When Thackeray came, Irving consented to preside at a dinner if speeches were absolutely forbidden. The condition was faithfully observed, but it was the most extraordinary instance of American self-command on record. Whenever two or three Americans are gathered together, somebody must make a speech; and no wonder, because somebody always speaks so well. The custom is now so confirmed that it is foolish and useless to oppose it.

I remember a few years since that a dinner was given to a famous American artist long resident abroad, and, as the condition of the attendance of a distinguished guest whose presence was greatly desired, the same agreement was made that Irving required at the Thackeray dinner. It was a company of exceedingly clever and brilliant men, but the gayety of the feast was extinguished by the general consciousness that the situation was abnormal. It was a fruit without flavor, a flower without fragrance, a symphony without melody, a dinner without speeches. But the dinner of which I speak, when the condition of Irving's presence was that there should be no speeches, was the great exception. It was the only dinner of the kind that I have ever known. But Irving's cheery anecdote and gayety, the songs and banter of the company, the happy chat and sparkling wit, took the place of eloquence, and I recall no dinner more delightful.

However scant was our literature when the _Sketch Book_ appeared, it is a mistake to suppose that Irving owes his success to English admiration. That was, undoubtedly, very agreeable to him and to his countrymen. But it is well to correct a misapprehension which is still cherished. Many years ago an English critic said that Irving was much more relished and admired in England than in his own country, and added: "It is only recently critics on the lookout for a literature have elevated him to his proper and almost more than his proper place. This docility to English guidance in the case of their best, or almost their best, prose writer, may perhaps be followed by a similar docility in the case of their best, or almost their best, poet, Poe, whom also England had preceded the United States in recognizing." This comical patron is all the more amusing from his comparative estimate of Poe.

If it were true that Irving's countrymen had not recognized and honored him from the first, it might be suspected that it was because they were descendants of the people who showed little contemporaneous appreciation of Shakespeare. But it is certainly creditable to the literary England which was busy idolizing Scott and Byron, that it recognized also the charming genius of Irving, and that Leslie, the painter, could truly write of him, "Geoffrey Crayon is the most fashionable fellow of the day."

But while the English appreciation of Irving is very creditable to England, English conceit must not go so far as to suppose that it was that appreciation which commended him to his own countrymen. At the time when Sydney Smith wrote the article from which we have quoted there was apparently an almost literary sterility in this country, and the professional critics of the critical journals were, as Professor Lounsbury says in his admirable _Life of Cooper_, undoubtedly greatly affected by English opinion. But there was an American reading public independent of the few literary periodicals, as was shown when Cooper's _Spy_ was published at the end of 1821, the year in which Bryant's first volume of poems and Dana's _Idle Man_ appeared. Cooper had published his _Precaution_ in 1819, a book which Professor Lounsbury is one of the very few men who are known to have read. He was an unknown author. But the _Spy_ was instantly successful. Some of the timid English journals awaited the English opinion, for Murray had declined, upon Gifford's advice, to publish the book. But a publisher was found, and England and Europe followed America in their approval. Cooper always said, and truly, that it was to his countrymen alone that he owed his first success, and his biographer concedes that the success of the _Spy_ was determined before the opinion of Europe was known.

Nearly three years before, in May, 1819, the first number of Irving's _Sketch Book_ was published. He sent the manuscript to his brother, who had regretted Irving's refusal of a government place in the Navy Board, and to whom he wrote, "My talents are merely literary, and all my habits of thinking, reading, etc., have been in a different direction from that required for the active politician.... In fact, I consider myself at present as making a literary experiment, in the course of which I only care to be kept in bread and cheese. Should it not succeed--should my writings not acquire critical applause--I am content to throw up the pen, and that to any commonplace employment. But if they should succeed, it would repay me for a world of care and privation to be placed among the established authors of my country, and to win the affection of my countrymen."

The first number of the _Sketch Book_ was published simultaneously in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Its success was immediate. In September, 1819, Irving wrote: "The manner in which the work has been received, and the eulogiums that have been passed upon it in the American papers and periodical works, have quite overwhelmed me ... I feel almost appalled by such success." The echo of the acclamation reached England. Murray at first declined to publish it, as he had at first declined Cooper's _Spy_. But when England ascertained that the American judgment was correct, and that it was a popular work, Murray was willing to publish it.

The delightful genius which his country had recognized with joy it never ceased proudly and tenderly to honor. When, in 1832, he returned to his native land, as his latest biographer, Mr. Warner, records, "America greeted her most famous literary man with a spontaneous outburst of love and admiration." It was in his own country that he had published his works. It was his own countrymen whose applause apprised England of the charm of the new author; and it is a humorous mentor who now teaches us that it was our happy docility to English guidance which enabled us to recognize and honor him.

Was it docility to the same beneficent guidance which enabled us to perceive the genius of Carlyle, whose works we first collected, and taught England to read and admire? Did it enable us, also, to inform England that in Robert Browning she had another poet? Was it the same docility which enabled us to reveal to England one of her most philosophic observers in Herbert Spencer, and to offer to Darwin his most appreciative correspondents and interpreters in Chauncey Wright, John Fiske, and Professors Gray and Wyman? There are many offences to be scored against us, but failure to know our own literary genius is not one of them.

Indeed, there is not one great literary fame in America that was not first recognized here. Not to one of them has docility to English literary opinion conducted us, as is often believed. Bryant and Cooper and Irving, Bancroft and Prescott and Motley, Emerson and Channing, Longfellow, Hawthorne, Lowell, Whittier, and Holmes were authors whom we were content to admire and love without knowing or asking whether England had heard of them, or what she thought of them. The "greatness" of Poe England may have preceded us in recognizing. That is an assertion which we are not disposed to dispute. But Walter Scott was not more immediately popular and beloved in England than was Washington Irving in America; and American guidance led England to Scott quite as much as English guidance drew America to Irving.

The first number of the _Sketch Book_ contained the tale of _Rip Van Winkle_, one of the most charming and suggestive of legends, whose hero is an exceedingly pathetic creation. It is, indeed, a mere sketch, a hint, a suggestion; but the imagination readily completes it. It is the more remarkable and interesting because, although the first American literary creation, it is not in the least characteristic of American life, but, on the contrary, is a quiet and delicate satire upon it. The kindly vagabond asserts the charm of loitering idleness in the sweet leisure of woods and fields against the characteristic American excitement of the overflowing crowd and crushing competition of the city, its tremendous energy and incessant devotion to money-getting.

It is not necessary to defend poor Rip, or to justify the morality of his example. It is the imagination that interprets him; and how soothing to those who give their lives to the furious accumulation of the means of living to behold that figure stretched by the brook, or finding nuts with the children, or sauntering homeward at sunset! Later figures of our literature allure us--Hester Prynne, wrapped in her cloak of Nersus, the Scarlet Letter, Hosea Biglow, Evangeline, Uncle Tom, and Topsy--but the charm of this figure is unfading. The new writers introduce us to their worlds, and with pleasure we make the acquaintance of new friends. The new standards of another literary spirit are raised, a fresh literary impulse surrounds us; but it is not thunder that we hear in the Kaatskills on a still summer afternoon it is the distant game of Hendrick Hudson and his men; and on the shore of our river, rattling and roaring with the frenzied haste and endless activity of prosperous industry, still Rip Van Winkle lounges idly by, an unwasted figure of the imagination, the constant and unconscious satirist of American life.

He seems to me peculiarly congenial with the temperament of Irving. He, too, was essentially a loiterer. He had the same freshness of sympathy, the same gentleness of nature, the same taste for leisure and repose. His genius was reminiscent, and, as with all humorists, its climate was that of April. The sun and the shower chased each other. Irving's intellectual habit was emotional rather than thoughtful. In politics and public affairs he took no part, although office was often urged upon him, as when the friends of General Jackson wished him to go as representative to Congress, or President Van Buren offered him the secretaryship of the navy, or Tammany Hall, in New York, unanimously and vociferously nominated him for mayor, an incident in the later annals of the city which transcends the most humorous touch in _Knickerbocker's History_. He was appointed secretary of legation in England in 1829, and in 1842, when Daniel Webster was secretary of state, minister to Spain.

But what we call practical politics was always distasteful to him. The spirit which I once heard laugh at a young man new in politics because he treated "the boys" with his own good cigars instead of buying bad ones at the saloon--the spirit which I once heard assure a man of public ability and fitness that he could never reach political office unless he pushed himself, and paid agents to buy votes, because no man could expect an office to be handed to him on a gold plate--the spirit which, to my knowledge, displayed a handful of bank-notes in the anteroom of a legislature, and exclaimed, "That's what makes the laws!"--this was a spirit which, like other honorable men and patriotic Americans, Irving despised.

He was a gentleman of manly feeling and of moral refinement, who had had glimpses of what is called "the inside" of politics; and, as he believed these qualities would make participation in politics uncomfortable, he abstained. To those of us who are wiser than he, who know that simple honesty and public spirit and self-respect and contempt of sneaking and fawning and bribery and crawling are the conditions of political preferment, Irving, in not perceiving this, must naturally seem to be a queer, wrong-headed, and rather super-celestial American, who had lived too much in the heated atmosphere of European aristocracies and altogether too little in the pure and bracing air of American ward politics and caucuses and conventions. To use an old New York phrase, Irving preferred to stroll and fish and chat with Rip Van Winkle rather than to "run wid der machine".

The _Sketch Book_ made Irving famous, and with its predecessor, _Knickerbocker_, and its successor, _Bracebridge Hall_, disclosed the essential quality of his genius. But all these books performed another and greater service than that of winning the world to read an American book: this was the restoration of a kindlier feeling between the two countries which, by all ties, should be the two most friendly countries on the globe. The books were written when our old bitterness of feeling against England had been renewed by the later war. In the thirty years since the Revolution ended we had patriotically fostered the quarrel with John Bull. Our domestic politics had turned largely upon that feeling, and the game of French and English was played almost as fiercely upon our side of the ocean as upon their own.

The great epoch of our extraordinary material development and prosperity had not opened, and, even had John Bull been friendlier than he was, it would have been the very flattery of falsehood had he complimented our literature, our science, our art. Sydney Smith's question, "Who reads an American book?" was contemptuous and exasperating. But here was an American who wrote books which John Bull was delighted to read, and was compelled to confess that they depicted-the most characteristic and attractive aspects of his own life with more delicate grace than that of any living Englishman.

It was Irving who recalled the old English Christmas. It was his cordial and picturesque description of the great holiday of Christendom which preceded and stimulated Dickens's _Christmas Carols_ and Thackeray's _Holiday Tales_. It was the genial spirit of Christmas, native to his gentle heart and his happy temperament, which made Irving, as Thackeray called him, a peacemaker between the mother-country and her proud and sensitive offspring of the West. He showed John Bull that England is ours as well as his.

"Old fellow," he said, "you cannot help yourself. It is the same blood that flows in our veins, the same language that we speak, the same traditions that we cherish. If you love liberty, so do we; if you will see fair play, so will we. It is natural to you, so it is to us. We cannot escape our blood. Shakespeare is not your poet more than ours. If your ancestors danced round the Maypole, so did our ancestors in your ancestors' shoes. If Old England cherished Christmas and New England did not, Bradford and Endicott and Cotton were Englishmen, not Americans. If old English life and customs and traditions are dear to you, listen to my story, and judge whether they are less dear to us." Then, with a merry smile, the young stranger holds out his hand to John Bull, and exclaims, "Behold, here is my arm! I bare it before your eyes, and here it is--it is the strawberry-mark; come to my bosom, I am your long-lost brother."

It was an incalculable service which Irving rendered in renewing a common feeling between England and America. It was involuntary, because in writing he had no such purpose. He was only following the bent of his own taste, and his works reflected only his individual sympathies. But it was this very fact--it was the English instinct in the American, the appreciation native in the heart of the Western stranger of the true poetic charm of England--which was the spell of the magician. Irving had the same imaginative enthusiasm for traditional and poetic England that Burke had for political England. Indeed, it is an England which never actually existed except in the English and American imagination. The coarse, mercenary, material England which Lecky photographs in his history of the eighteenth century was the same England in which Burke lived, and which his glowing imagination exalted into the magnificent image of constitutional liberty before which he bowed his great head. So with the old England that Irving drew. He saw with poetic fancy a rural Arcadia, and reproduced the vision with airy grace and called it England. No wonder that John Bull was delighted with an artist who could paint so fascinating a picture, and write under it John Bull's portrait.

To change a word in Marvell's noble lines, when Irving was in England

"He nothing common saw or mean
Upon that memorable scene."

Only an American could have seen England as he described it, and invested it with an enchantment which the mass of Englishmen had neither suspected nor perceived. Irving's instinct was that of Hawthorne afterwards, who called England "Our Old Home". There is a foolish American habit growing patriotically out of our old contentions with England, and politically out of our desire to conciliate the Irish vote in this country, of branding as servile and un-American the natural susceptibility of people of English descent, but natives of another land, to the charm of their ancestral country. But the American is greatly to be pitied who thinks to prove the purity of his patriotism by flouting the land in which he has a legitimate right, the land of Alfred and Runnymede, of Chaucer and Shakespeare and Milton, of Hampden and Cromwell, of Newton and Bunyan, of Somers and Chatham and Edmund Burke, the cradle of constitutional liberty and parliamentary government. If the great body of the literature of our language in which we delight, if the sources of our law and politics, if the great exploits of contemporary scholarship and science, are largely beyond our boundaries, yet are legitimately ours as well as all that we have ourselves achieved, why should we spurn any of our just and hereditary share in the great English traditions of civilization and freedom?

Irving returned to America in 1832, and here he afterwards remained, except during his absence as minister in Spain. In an earlier visit to that country he had felt the spell of its romantic history, and had written the _Life of Columbus_, the _Conquest of Granada_, and the _Chronicles of the Alhambra_. During all his later years he was busy with his pen, and, while the modest author had risen to the chief place in American literature, its later constellation was rising into the heavens.

But his intrinsic modesty never disappeared either from the works or the character of the benign writer. In the height of his renown there was no kind of presumption or conceit in his simple and generous breast. Some time after his return from his long absence in Europe, and before Putnam became his publisher, Irving found some disinclination upon the part of publishers to issue new editions of his books, and he expressed, with entire good humor, the belief that he had had his day.

It is doubtless true, as _Blackwood_ remarked, with what we may call _Blackwood_ courtesy, when Mr. Lowell was American minister in England, that Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Addison, Pope, and so many more "will not be replaced by Mr. Washington Irving and Mr. Lowell". But it is equally true that, since Swift, _Blackwood_ cannot find in English literature political satire more trenchant, humorous, forcible, and effective than the _Biglow Papers_, and nothing in Swift more original. It is said that it is ludicrous to compare the mild humor of Rip Van Winkle with the "robustious fun of Swift". But this is a curious "derangement of epitaphs". Swift has wit, and satiric power, and burning invective, and ribaldry, and caustic, scornful humor; but fun, in any just sense, he has not. He is too fierce to be funny. The tender and imaginative play of Rip Van Winkle are wholly beyond the reach of Swift.

Irving and other American writers are not the rivals of their British associates in the literature of the English language--they are worthy comrades. Wordsworth and Byron are not Shakespeare and Milton, but they are nevertheless Wordsworth and Byron, and their place is secure. So the brows of Irving and Cooper, of Bryant and Longfellow, and of Lowell, of Emerson and Hawthorne do not crave the laurels of any other master. The perturbed spirit of _Blackwood_ may rest in the confident assurance that no generous and intelligent student of our literature admires Gibbon less because he enjoys Macaulay, or depreciates Bacon because he delights in Emerson, or denies the sting of Gulliver because he feels the light touch of Knickerbocker. It is with good fame as with true love:

"True love in this differs from gold and clay,
That to divide is not to take away."

In the year that Irving published the _Sketch Book_, Cooper published his first novel, and two years before Bryant's _Thanatopsis_ had been published. When, forty years afterwards, in the last year of his life, the last volume of the _Life of Washington_ was issued, Irving and Bryant and Cooper were no longer the solitary chiefs of our literature. An illustrious company had received the torch unextinguished from their hands--Whittier, Hawthorne, Emerson, Longfellow, Holmes, Lowell, Bancroft, Prescott, Motley, Parkman, Mrs. Stowe, had all taken their places, yet all gladly and proudly acknowledged Irving as the patriarch. It is our happy fortune that these names, of which we are all proud, are not those of men of letters only, but of typical American citizens. The old traditions of the literary life, the mad roystering, the dissipation, Grub Street, the sponging-house, the bailiff, the garret, and the jail, genius that fawns for place and flatters for hire, the golden talent wrapped in a napkin, and often a dirty and ragged napkin, have vanished in our American annals of letters. Pure, upright, faithful, industrious, honorable, and honored, there is scarcely one American author of eminence who may not be counted as a good and useful citizen of the Republic of the Union, and a shining light of the Republic of Letters.

Of Washington Irving, as of so many of this noble company, it is especially true that the author was the man. The healthy fun and merry satire of Diedrich Knickerbocker, the sweet humor and quick sympathy and simple pathos of Geoffrey Crayon, were those of the modest master of Sunnyside. Every literary man of Irving's time, whether old or young, had nothing but affectionate praise of his artless urbanity and exhaustless good-nature. These qualities are delightfully reflected in Thackeray's stories of him in the _Roundabout Papers_ upon Irving and Macaulay, "the Goldsmith and the Gibbon of our time".

"He came to one of my lectures in Washington," Thackeray says, "and the retiring President, Mr. Fillmore, and his successor, Mr. Pierce, were present. 'Two kings of Brentford smelling at one rose,' said Irving, with his good-natured smile. In his little bower of a home at Sunnyside he was always accessible. One English newspaper man came and introduced himself, and partook of luncheon with the family, and, while the host fell into a little doze, as was his habit, the wary Englishman took a swift inventory of everything in the house, and served up the description to the British public, including the nap of his entertainer. At another time, Irving said, 'Two persons came to me, and one held me in conversation while the other miscreant took my portrait.'" Thackeray tells these little stories with admiring sympathy. His manly heart always grew tender over his fellow-authors who had no acrid drop in their humor, and Irving's was as sweet as dew.

It is late for a fresh compliment to be paid to him, but the London _Spectator_ paid it in 1883, the year of his centenary, by saying, "Since the time of Pope more than one hundred essayists have attempted to excel or to equal the _Tatler_ and _Spectator_. One alone, in a few of his best efforts, may be said to have rivalled them, and he is Washington Irving." The _Spectator_ adds that one has surpassed them, "the incomparable Elia".

Irving's temperament, however, was much more congenial with that of the early essayists than Charles Lamb's, and his pictures of English country life in _Bracebridge Hall_ have just the delicate, imaginative touch of the sketches of Sir Roger de Coverley. But in treating distinctively English topics, however airy and vivid his touch may be, Irving is manifestly enthralled by his admiration for the literary masters of the Anne time, and by the spirit of their writing. It is in the Knickerbocker world that he is characteristically at home. Indeed, it is his humorous and graphic fancy more than the sober veracity of history which has given popular and perpetual form to the early life of New York, and it is Irving who has enriched it with romantic tradition such as suffuses the story of no other State.

The bay, the river, the city, the Kaatskill Mountains, as Choate said of Faneuil Hall and Webster, breathe and burn of him. He has charmed the Hudson with a peculiar spell. The quaint life of its old Dutch villages, the droll legend of Sleepy Hollow, the pathetic fate of Rip Van Winkle, the drowsy wisdom of Communipaw, the marvellous municipality of New Amsterdam, and the Nose of Anthony guarding the Highlands, with the myriad sly and graphic allusions and descriptions strewn all through his books, have made the river Irving's river, and the state Irving's state, and the city Irving's city, so that the first instinctive question of every lover of Irving from beyond the state, as he enters Central Park and beholds its memorial statues, is, "Where is the statue of Irving?"

Unhappily, echo, and not the park guide-book, answers. There is, indeed, a bust, and, in a general sense, "Si monumentum" may serve for a reply. From that point of view, indeed, Westminster Abbey, as the monument of English heroes in letters and arms, in the Church and the State, would be superfluous. But the abbey is a shrine of pilgrimage because of the very fact that it is the burial-place of famous Englishmen. The Central Park, in New York, is already a Walhalla of famous men, and the statue that would first suggest itself as peculiarly fitting for the Park is of the New-Yorker who first made New York distinctively famous in literature--the New-Yorker whose kindly genius first made American literature respected by the world.

Reversing the question, "Where be the bad people buried?" the wondering pilgrim in the Park asks, "Where be Irving and Bryant and Cooper?" They were not Americans only, but, by birth or choice, New-Yorkers, and the three distinctive figures of our early literature. It was very touching to see the venerable Bryant, in the soft May sunshine, when the statue of Halleck was unveiled, standing with bare head and speaking of his old friend and comrade. But who that listened could not see, through tender mists of years, the grave and reverend form of the speaker himself, transformed to marble or bronze, sitting serene forever beneath the shadowing trees, side by side with the poet of Faust and the worshipper of Highland Mary?

But Bryant would have been the first to name Washington Irving as the most renowned distinctively American man of letters whose figure, reproduced characteristically and with simple quaintness, should decorate the Park. To a statue of Washington Irving all the gates should open, as every heart would open, in welcome. That half-humorous turn of the head and almost the twinkling eye, that brisk and jaunty air, that springing step, that modest and gentle and benign presence, all these could be suggested by the artist, and in their happy combination the pleased loiterer would perceive old Diedrich Knickerbocker and the summer dreamer of the Hudson legends, the charming biographer of Columbus and of Goldsmith, the cheerful gossip of Wolfert's Roost, and the mellow and courteous Geoffrey Crayon, who first taught incredulous Europe that beyond the sea there were men also, and that at last all the world must read an American book.

Irving was seventy-six years old when he died, late in 1859. Born in the year in which the Revolution ended, he died on the eve of the civil war. His life exactly covered the period during which the American republic was an experiment. It ended just as the invincible power of free institutions was to be finally demonstrated. His life had been one of singular happiness, both of temperament and circumstance. His nature was too simple and gentle to breed rivalries or to tolerate animosities. Through the sharpest struggles of our politics he passed without bitterness of feeling and with universal respect, and his eyes happily closed before seeing a civil war which, although the most righteous of all wars, would have broken his heart. The country was proud of him: the older authors knew in him not a rival, but a friend, the younger loved him as a father. Such love, I think, is better than fame. On the day of his burial in the ground overlooking the Hudson and the valley of Sleepy Hollow, unable to reach Tarrytown in time for the funeral, I came down the shore of the river which he loved and immortalized. As the train hastened and wound along, I saw the Catskills draped in autumnal mist, not concealing, but irradiating them with lingering and pathetic splendor. Far away towards the south the river-bank on which his home lay was Sunnyside still, for the sky was cloudless and soft with serene sunshine. I could not but remember his last words to me, more than a year before, when his book was finished and his health was failing: "I am getting ready to go; I am shutting up my doors and windows", and I could not but feel that they were all open now, and bright with the light of eternal morning.

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Washington Irving