Slike strani
PDF
ePub

INTRODUCTION

I. THE LIFE OF IRVING

THE life of Irving is the story of how an American made his way into the world of letters and founded a literature. In 1783, the year of his birth, there were no American writers who commanded attention beyond the locality in which they happened to live; before his death, in 1859, an Englishman's sneering question, "Who now reads an American book?" had completely lost its point.

Washington Irving was born in New York, in surroundings not especially favorable to the development of literary genius. But innate love of the strange and picturesque, stimulated by reading "Robinson Crusoe" and "Sindbad the Sailor" and "Orlando Furioso," which the boy preferred to the regular exercises of the school, easily supplied what was lacking. With these books as guides, he explored the neighboring country; he visited the scene of the latest murder, or, better still, of the latest ghost story, and asked the pier-heads along the river what was going on in the mysterious land beyond the sea. How it happened that at the age of sixteen he left school and began the study of the law, he himself never quite understood; doubtless it was because law and the study of it offered opportunities for "elegant leisure," without the responsibilities which the other learned professions entailed. But with admission to the bar and a few discouraging attempts to apply his legal knowledge-which, in the opinion of his preceptors, was not very great-his career as a lawyer ended. Of far greater significance, at this distance of time, is his first journey up the Hudson, to Johnstown, where his sister resided. He was only seventeen years old then, but the play of light and shadow on the Kaatskill

Mountains exercised "the most witching effect upon his imagination," an effect hard to explain at the time, but intelligible later, when Hendrick Hudson's crew and others interpreted the mystery.

66

As a rule, the first attempts of great writers fall noiselessly upon the world. Not so in the case of Irving. Under the name Jonathan Oldstyle" he contributed now and then to the Morning Chronicle, a daily paper edited by his brother. It is commonly regarded as indicative of the barrenness of our literature in those days that these articles were extensively copied throughout the country, and that Charles Brockden Brown, the author of a number of sombre novels, urged the young writer to become a regular contributor to a magazine recently established in Philadelphia. Perhaps a suggestion of what afterward became known as 66 Irving humor" may better account for the currency which the papers won.

Brown's offer was flattering to a youth of nineteen, but there were several reasons for declining it: never having seriously thought of adopting literature as a profession, he did not see how valuable such an apprenticeship might be; to the very end of his life the idea of grinding out a certain number of pages every month under contract was repugnant; most important of all, his health was the subject of deep concern to his family, and they were opposed to his engaging in any occupation which might further endanger it. His brothers, who were fairly well established in business, advised him to lay aside all serious work for a time and to travel-in Europe preferably-supporting the advice by a tender of expenses for the trip. With what eagerness Irving accepted may be learned from the "Author's Account of Himself in the Sketch Book": "Europe held forth all the charms of storied and poetical associations. There were to be seen the masterpieces of art, the refinements of highly cultivated society, the quaint peculiarities of ancient and local custom. My native country was full of youthful promise; Europe was rich in the accumulated treasures of age. Her very ruins told the history of times gone by, and every mouldering stone was a chronicle. I longed to wander over the scenes of renowned achievement-to tread, as it were, in the footsteps.

""

66

[blocks in formation]

of antiquity-to loiter about the ruined castle-to meditate on the falling tower-to escape, in short, from the commonplace realities of the present, and lose myself among the shadowy grandeurs of the past." This was the prospect the journey afforded, and, somewhat to the surprise of his friends, who hardly expected him to reach Land's End alive, it was fully realized.

Within a few months after his return from Europe (1806) Irving was admitted to the bar. Then he began to cast about for something to do. Politics seemed to offer a promising field. So he wrote to Mr. Hoffman, with whom he had been last registered as a student, and who had much influence in politics, asking him for "a word in season," and adding with artless simplicity that while he himself had no claims upon the patronage of any party his brother John was a good lawyer and was qualified to fill almost any office. Nothing came of this request; and active participation in a single election settled his political aspirations forever. Meanwhile, his health being fully restored, some outlet had to be found for his energies. He therefore proposed to his brother William and a friend, James K. Paulding, that they should publish a paper. The public might purchase it, or the public might not; at any rate it would afford amusement to three worthy young men. His colleagues readily took to the plan, and all set to work "to instruct the young, to reform the old, to correct the town, and to castigate the age," with all the pertness that youthful brilliancy can summon on occasion. The first number of the paper, called Salmagundi, appeared on January 24, 1807.

Contrary to the expectations of the authors, Salmagundi was well received. The town liked to hear from Cockloft Hall now and then at the rate of a shilling an issue. Instead of a few months, the average life of a publication undertaken as it was, it lasted a year; and its demise was then due, not to lack of patronage or a dearth of subjects, but to a misunderstanding with the printer. The latter had taken out a copyright when the success of the venture had been demonstrated, and showed no disposition to divide the profits; the authors objected to so unequal an arrangement and cut off supplies. Irving never attached

much importance to his contributions; but it may be worth while to note that a number of years later, when critics had no reason for bestowing praise where it was not deserved, William Cullen Bryant "doubted whether he ever excelled some of the Salmagundi papers which bear the most evident marks of his style."

66

Literary genius in America had much to contend with in the early nineteenth century; one circumstance, and only one, was in its favor: competition was not active. But a great many books were printed, most of which have long since been consigned to dusty death-among them "A Picture of New York," written by a man highly esteemed by the elders of his generation, but of such varied attainments-physician, lawyer, chemist, Indian commissioner, Congressman, and editor of a medical journal-as to excite the mirth of the youth. Irving and his brother Peter were amused by the "Picture," saw the possibilities of a burlesque, and set about collecting material for a rival history, to date from the foundation of the world. Peter Irving's sudden departure for Europe on business left Washington free to use at his pleasure a mass of notes which in less skilful hands might have proved unmanageable; he altered the original plan, only touching with mock seriousness upon the more important events between the creation and the arrival of Hendrick Hudson upon the shores of America, and expending the wealth of his humor on the dynasty of the Dutch. This is the origin of "Knickerbocker's History of New York." It was published on December 6, 1809, a date well worth committing to memory, because it marks the real beginning of American literature. The book was cleverly heralded. As it purports to be an authentic history, the work of one Diedrich Knickerbocker, the newspapers were advised of the sudden disappearance of the old man, and were asked to assist in tracing his whereabouts; curiosity having been thus aroused, his literary remains were given to the world. The scheme was eminently successful. Everybody read the book; not everybody knew how to interpret it. The aristocratic families of New York were inclined to be indignant at the liberties taken with their names. It is even recorded that a German scholar, commenting on a

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

INTRODUCTION

xiii

passage in Thucydides, referred seriously to the factions of the Long Pipes and the Short Pipes to illustrate the remarks of the Greek historian on the evils arising from factions in Greece, a tribute rather to American cleverness than to German scholarship.

"Knickerbocker's History of New York" easily placed Irving in the front rank of American writers. But it is a singular illustration of how slow men are to discern the direction in which their talents lie that he had at this time no thought of devoting his whole attention to literature. "He liked the exercise of his pen as an amusement, or as an occasional source of profit, but to be tied down to a literary career as his destiny presented no enviable prospect to him. His whole soul recoiled from the idea of dependence upon literature for his daily bread. Such a career was beset with too many trials and vexations, was too precarious, too fitful, too much exposed to caprice, vicissitude, and failure. His happiness was at stake in securing some employment that would insure a steady income."* When, therefore, his brothers proposed that he become a member of an importing firm they had recently organized he readily assented. But neither trade nor art profited by the move. The sordid concerns of traffic " soon became distasteful to him; and his rare social qualities secured him abundant amusement without the exercise of his pen. After a year's experience in business he was forced to admit that after all he wrote best under pressure. "The spur of necessity was needed to quicken and invigorate his literary ambition, which gradually wore off under the temptations to ease and indolence his circumstances offered, until at last he settled down into a sort of gentleman of leisure." Finally, in 1812, an "amusing occupation, without any mental responsibility of consequence," presented itself-editorial charge of the Select Reviews, known thereafter as the Analectic Magazine. His contributions were not numerous or notable; and to one part of his duties as editor, book-reviewing, he had a positive aversion; he wished to be just, but was not "ambitious of being wise or facetious at the expense of others." ‡ The

66

‡ Ibid., 227.

*

Life and Letters, I., 194. + Ibid., 214.

« PrejšnjaNaprej »