Washington Irving

by Edwin Watts Chubb

Washington Irving may be called the father of American literature. It is true he is not the first writer who flourished on American soil, but in point of accomplishment he is the first literary man to impress himself upon the readers of the two continents. And what a sweet, beautiful soul he is! The only rival he has is Franklin, and Franklin is not a literary man, though he produced a literary masterpiece in his Autobiography. The test of a great piece of literature is, In a hundred years can it be bought in a new edition for ten cents? The New Testament can be bought for ten cents, so can the Autobiography, and the Sketch Book. These emerge from the sea of mediocrity of early American life. They abide while the works of the Michael Wigglesworths and Anne Bradstreets can be found only in the collections of the fortunate book-lover.

The early settlers believed in the virtue of large families. It is well, for otherwise Franklin and Irving would have been lost to American life. Franklin was the youngest son in a family of seventeen children, there were two girls younger (Benjamin was the eighth child of the second wife), and Irving was the eighth son and last child in a family of eleven children. It is not hard to account for Irving's first name. Nowadays when you meet a boy named Dewey or Garfield it is not difficult to guess the boy's age. Irving was born in 1783; the air was laden with the praises of the great American leader. "Washington's work is ended," said the mother, "and the child shall be named after him." Several years after this when Washington, as President, was in New York, Lizzie, the Scotch servant of the Irving family, followed the great man into a shop and said, "Please, your honor, here's a bairn was named after you." Washington placed his hand on the lad's head and gave him a fatherly blessing.

Like Lowell and Bryant, Irving was first devoted to the law, but his devotion was not of the quality that consumes. He soon strayed into pleasanter paths. In January, 1807, appeared the first number of Salmagundi, a humorous periodical which caused a great deal of curiosity as to the authors, whose witty articles appeared anonymously. Two years later came the droll History of New York by Diedrich Knickerbocker, a book in which according to Scott were to be seen traces of the wit of Swift. Scott said that he used to read it aloud to his wife and guests until "our sides were absolutely sore with laughing."

Before this work had appeared, Irving lost in three consecutive years three persons who would have rejoiced the most in his success,—his father, "the tenderest and best of sisters, a woman of whom a brother might be proud," and his sweetheart, Matilda Hoffman. She was a rare and beautiful maiden who had kindled in the heart of Irving a passion which survived her death until he himself passed away an old man. When he died his friends found her miniature and a lock of fair hair, together with the part of a manuscript written for a lady who had asked Irving why he had never married. Describing Miss Hoffman he says:

"The more I saw her, the more I had reason to admire her. Her mind seemed to unfold itself leaf by leaf, and every time to discover new sweetness. Nobody knew her so well as I, for she was generally silent.... Never did I meet with more intuitive rectitude of mind, more delicacy, more exquisite propriety in word, thought, and action than in this young creature. Her brilliant little sister used to say that 'people began by admiring her, but ended by loving Matilda.' For my part I idolized her." Irving then continues by giving a long account of his efforts to succeed in his literary and legal work with a view of earning a place in life so as to enable him to marry. "In the midst of this struggle and anxiety she fell into a consumption. I cannot tell you what I suffered.... I saw her fade rapidly away, beautiful, and more beautiful, and more angelic to the very last. I was often by her bedside, and when her mind wandered she would talk to me with a sweet, natural, and affecting eloquence that was overpowering. I saw more of the beauty of her mind in that delirious state than I ever had before.... I was by her when she died, and was the last she ever looked upon.... She was but seventeen."

So poignant was the grief of Irving that for thirty years after her death he did not like any one to mention her name to him. One day he was visiting her father when one of her nieces, taking some music from a drawer, brought with it a piece of embroidery. "Washington," said Mr. Hoffman, "this was poor Matilda's work." The effect was instantaneous. The light-hearted conversationalist of a moment before became silent and soon left the house. When in Bracebridge Hall he writes,—"I have loved as I never again shall love in this world—I have been loved as I shall never again be loved,"—is he not thinking of the fair Matilda? And in a note-book we find,—"She died in the beauty of her youth, and in my memory she will ever be young and beautiful."

In May, 1815, Irving went abroad for the second time. His purpose was to stay a few months; he remained seventeen years. The first sight that greeted the newly arrived American in Liverpool was the mail-coach bringing the news of the battle of Waterloo. Irving's sympathies were with Napoleon. "In spite of all his misdeeds he is a noble fellow, and I am confident will eclipse in the eyes of posterity all the crowned wiseacres that have crushed him by their overwhelming confederacy." In the year 1818 the Irving brothers went into bankruptcy. Washington's interest in the business was that of a younger brother who had little responsibility. But of late years he had been much harassed by the accumulating troubles. With the end of the business anxieties he turns to literature with a whole-souled devotion. His home friends tried to secure for him the position of Secretary of the Legation in London; his brother William wrote that Commodore Decatur was keeping open for his acceptance the office of Chief Clerk in the Navy Department; but Irving turned the offers aside. Irving is usually imaged as a sunshiny, genial, easy-going gentleman into whose blood little of the iron of firmness had been infused. The fact that he not only refused these offers but also rejected offers from Scott and Murray shows that he had will enough to keep to the bent of his genius at a time when he needed money and influence. Murray offered him a salary of £1000 a year to be the editor of a periodical.

The first number of the Sketch Book appeared in May, 1819, and consisted mainly in point of merit of two papers, The Wife and Rip Van Winkle. The series was finished in 1820. The work was highly successful in America, and Irving was deeply moved by the cordial expressions of praise that reached him. His manly nature is revealed in a letter to a friend in which he says,—"I hope you will not attribute all this sensibility to the kind reception I have met to an author's vanity. I am sure it proceeds from very different sources. Vanity could not bring the tears into my eyes as they have been brought by the kindness of my countrymen. I have felt cast down, blighted, and broken-spirited, and these sudden rays of sunshine agitate me more than they revive me. I hope—I hope I may yet do something more worthy of the appreciation lavished on me."

Irving had not intended to publish the Sketch Book in England, but owing to reprints by others he was obliged to take the matter in his own hands. Murray refused to undertake the work. Then Irving became his own publisher. But the work sold so well that Murray bought the copyright for two hundred pounds.

In 1826 we find Irving in Spain. To the American reader the name of Spain is forever associated with that of Irving, for The Alhambra, The Conquest of Granada, and The Life of Columbus are the rich evidences of his absorption of the spirit of Spain. The Life of Columbus was written with great care. Irving wanted to produce something that would do credit to the scholarship of his loved America. Murray paid about fifteen thousand dollars for the English copyright. For the Conquest of Granada he received ten thousand dollars, and for The Alhambra a Mr. Bentley paid five thousand.

While Irving was in Madrid one of his most welcome visitors was Longfellow, then a young man of twenty, fresh from college. Writing to his father Longfellow says,—"Mr. Rich's family is very agreeable, and Washington Irving always makes one there in the evening. This is altogether delightful, for he is one of those men who put you at ease with them in a moment. He makes no ceremony whatever with one, and of course is a very fine man in society, all mirth and good humor. He has a most beautiful countenance, and a very intellectual one, but he has some halting and hesitating in his conversation, and says very pleasant, agreeable things in a husky, weak, peculiar voice. He has a dark complexion, dark hair, whiskers already a little gray. This is a very offhand portrait of so illustrious a man."

It is interesting to compare this sketch with one that Longfellow drew from memory many years later,—"I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Irving in Spain, and found the author, whom I had loved, repeated in the man. The same playful humor, the same touches of sentiment, the same poetic atmosphere; and what I admired still more, the entire absence of all literary jealousy, of all that mean avarice of fame which counts what is given to another as so much taken from one's self.... Passing his house at the early hour of six one summer morning, I saw his study window already wide open. On my mentioning it to him afterwards he said, 'Yes, I am always at work by six.' Since then I have often remembered that sunny morning and that open window, so suggestive of his sunny temperament and his open heart, and equally so of his patient and persistent toil."

Irving's career is usually looked upon as ideal. In many ways it was singularly blessed. Friends, influence, fame, and wealth were his. When an American publisher undertook the issuing of a new edition of Irving's works in 1848, there was much uncertainty as to the success of the venture, but the author received eighty-eight thousand dollars from 1848 to 1859. He also had the satisfaction of working to the last, although the last year was one of suffering. "I am rather fatigued, my dear, by my night's rest," he replied to the anxious inquiry of a niece. He had been hard at work upon his Life of Washington, and he sometimes feared he might have overtaxed his brain. "I do not fear death," he said, "but I would like to go down with all sails set."

This modest prayer was granted. To the day of his death he was able to receive visitors, talk intelligently, read for his own pleasure, and take short drives. The day before he died he attended church, and on coming home he remarked that he must "get a dispensation to allow whist on Sunday evenings," because he dreaded the long, lonely nights. On Monday he went to bed, and as he turned to arrange the pillows he gave a slight exclamation and instantly expired.

By his mother's side they laid him, in a cemetery overlooking the Hudson and the valley of Sleepy Hollow, a region made forever famous by the genial pen of Irving. "I could not but remember his last words to me," writes a friend who made a pilgrimage to the spot on the day of the funeral, "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."