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An essay by George William Curtis

Statues In Central Park In 1889

Title:     Statues In Central Park In 1889
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

The Easy Chair recently spoke of the statue of Longfellow which has been erected in the city of Portland, where he was born, and "Charter Oak," writing from Connecticut, asks why there is as yet no statue of Washington Irving in Central Park, the beautiful sylvan resort of his native city of New York. It is a question which the Easy Chair has already asked, and which must constantly suggest itself in the spacious public grounds which are becoming the most comprehensive of Walhallas. The London Times calls Westminster Abbey "our Walhalla," meaning that of England only. But the pleasure-ground of New York is truly a Pantheon. It is dedicated to all the gods except its own. With unwonted metropolitan modesty the city honors especially those who are not children of New York.

Webster is there, but not John Jay; Shakespeare and Scott and Burns and Dante and Halleck even, but not Irving. It is grotesque that a space set apart in New York for recreation, and decorated with marbles and bronzes commemorating illustrious men, and among them authors and statesmen, should still lack a fitting memorial of the greatest statesman and the greatest author who were born in the city. Webster's famous panegyric of Jay, that when the ermine of the Chief-Justiceship fell upon his shoulders it touched nothing that was not as pure as itself, suggests that a statue of John Jay might be of peculiar service as an object of admonitory meditation in the bowery seclusion of a city that more recently contemplated a statue to Tweed. In Couture's picture of the "Decadence of the Romans," behind the luxurious and voluptuous groups of intoxicated revellers in the foreground stand in sad severity the statues of the elder Romans surveying the scene. In the lofty aspect of Jay, filling with calm dignity the seclusion of some winding walk, would there be felt amazement and reproof? Is it to escape the sculptured rebuke of contrast with the civic heroes of to-day that it is not seen, and that the eye of the student who reflects that the city of New York has contributed few very great names to our history seeks in vain the statue of John Jay in Central Park?

Irving has every claim to this especial distinction. It is his kindly genius which made the annals of New Amsterdam the first work of our creative literature, and which invested the great river of New York with imperishable romance. Undoubtedly he wrote those annals in characters of rollicking fun, and even over the heroism of the doughty Peter Stuyvesant he has cast a humorous halo. But not all our authors combined are so identified with New York as Irving. His earlier squib of "Salmagundi" treats "the town" with an arch memory of the Spectator loitering in London, and his spell was such that in a later day Dennett, in the Nation, happily nicknamed the work of the talent which he had quickened the Knickerbocker literature.

The same genius in a tenderer mood colored the shores of the Hudson with the softest hues of legend. The banks at Tarrytown stretching backward to Sleepy Hollow, the broad water of the Tappan Zee, the airy heights of the summer Katskill, were mere landscape, pleasing scenery only, until Irving suffused them with the rosy light of story, and gave them the human association which is the crowning charm of landscape. In many a scene a hundred mountain ranges survey the lower land far reaching to the ocean. The scene is grand, but nameless, bare of tradition, and forgotten. But where

"The mountains look on Marathon,
And Marathon looks on the sea,"

the eye and the heart are enchanted with the story of Greece and its heroic human associations.

In the first century of our literature, which is ending, very few of our authors have laid this legendary spell upon American scenes as Irving did upon the Hudson. They have not much endeared the country to the popular imagination, like Burns and Scott in Scotland, where every hill and stream and bird and flower is reflected individually and fondly in tale and song. The Easy Chair once met at Niagara a young Scotchman who had come straight from his native land, and at every turn and glimpse upon Goat Island and along the banks of the river he fairly bubbled and murmured with the music of Burns and the other poets about Scottish streams and scenes, of which he was reminded at every step. So in his "Poems of Places" Longfellow reveals the charm which literature imparts to scenery--a charm which he illustrates in his "Nuremberg" and "Belfry at Bruges," and in his "Lost Youth," with its beautiful pictures of Portland, a poem which probably gives to a larger number of persons a more distinct and pleasing interest in that delightful city than anything else connected with it.

Irving is the magician who has cast this glamour upon New York, the roaring mart of trade, the humming hive of industry. He shows us in these crowded and hurried streets the leisurely forms of old Dutch burghers, their comely wives and buxom daughters, and their tranquil existence. Upon this very spot, which thus becomes a palimpsest, one life over-writing another, he awakens a romantic interest which gives it an endless fascination. He is thus a universal benefactor.

His Rip Van Winkle, indolent but kindly vagabond that he is, asserts the charm of a loitering life in the woods and fields, against all the tremendous energy and lucrative devotion to dollars, the overpowering crowd and crushing competition, of the whirring emporium. It is not necessary to defend poor Rip, or justify him as a moral exemplar. Pax, good Zeal-in-the-land Busy! But how soothing, as we mop our brows in the ardent struggle, and waste our lives in the furious accumulation of the means of living, to behold that figure stretched by the brook, or pleasing the children, or sauntering homeward at sunset! Other figures allure us, but still he holds his place. The new writers create their worlds. The new standards, another literary spirit, a fresh impulse, appear all around us. But still Rip Van Winkle lounges idly by, an unwasted figure of the imagination, the first distinct creation of our literature, the constant, unconscious satirist of our life.

The edicts of Fortune are caprices. Halleck, who sang of Marco Bozzaris, has his statue in the Park. Bryant still awaits his, and Irving, first of all, is without his memorial. The Germans have justly honored Humboldt in our Walhalla, the Scotch have commemorated Burns, the Italians have given to it Mazzini. The Puritan Pilgrim, ancestor of distinctive America, New England in bronze, is properly there. But where, asked the thoughtful child, reading the epitaphs in the graveyard, where be the bad people buried? Those whom the statues recall are all well and wisely honored in this most cosmopolitan of countries and of cities. But where, amid Germans and Italians and Scotchmen and great New-Englanders--where be the New-Yorkers?

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Statues In Central Park In 1889