My Literary Passions, by William Dean Howells

IV. Irving

I have told how Cervantes made his race precious to me, and I am sure that it must have been he who fitted me to understand and enjoy the American author who now stayed me on Spanish ground and kept me happy in Spanish air, though I cannot trace the tie in time and circumstance between Irving and Cervantes. The most I can make sure of is that I read the ‘Conquest of Granada’ after I read Don Quixote, and that I loved the historian so much because I had loved the novelist much more. Of course I did not perceive then that Irving’s charm came largely from Cervantes and the other Spanish humorists yet unknown to me, and that he had formed himself upon them almost as much as upon Goldsmith, but I dare say that this fact had insensibly a great deal to do with my liking. Afterwards I came to see it, and at the same time to see what was Irving’s own in Irving; to feel his native, if somewhat attenuated humor, and his original, if somewhat too studied grace. But as yet there was no critical question with me. I gave my heart simply and passionately to the author who made the scenes of that most pathetic history live in my sympathy, and companioned me with the stately and gracious actors in them.

I really cannot say now whether I loved the Moors or the Spaniards more. I fought on both sides; I would not have had the Spaniards beaten, and yet when the Moors lost I was vanquished with them; and when the poor young King Boabdil (I was his devoted partisan and at the same time a follower of his fiery old uncle and rival, Hamet el Zegri) heaved the Last Sigh of the Moor, as his eyes left the roofs of Granada forever, it was as much my grief as if it had burst from my own breast. I put both these princes into the first and last historical romance I ever wrote. I have now no idea what they did in it, but as the story never came to a conclusion it does not greatly matter. I had never yet read an historical romance that I can make sure of, and probably my attempt must have been based almost solely upon the facts of Irving’s history. I am certain I could not have thought of adding anything to them, or at all varying them.

In reading his ‘Chronicle’ I suffered for a time from its attribution to Fray Antonio Agapida, the pious monk whom he feigns to have written it, just as in reading ‘Don Quixote’ I suffered from Cervantes masquerading as the Moorish scribe, Cid Hamet Ben Engeli. My father explained the literary caprice, but it remained a confusion and a trouble for me, and I made a practice of skipping those passages where either author insisted upon his invention. I will own that I am rather glad that sort of thing seems to be out of fashion now, and I think the directer and franker methods of modern fiction will forbid its revival. Thackeray was fond of such open disguises, and liked to greet his reader from the mask of Yellowplush and Michael Angelo Titmarsh, but it seems to me this was in his least modern moments.

My ‘Conquest of Granada’ was in two octavo volumes, bound in drab boards, and printed on paper very much yellowed with time at its irregular edges. I do not know when the books happened in my hands. I have no remembrance that they were in any wise offered or commended to me, and in a sort of way they were as authentically mine as if I had made them. I saw them at home, not many months ago, in my father’s library (it has long outgrown the old bookcase, which has gone I know not where), and upon the whole I rather shrank from taking them down, much more from opening them, though I could not say why, unless it was from the fear of perhaps finding the ghost of my boyish self within, pressed flat like a withered leaf, somewhere between the familiar pages.

When I learned Spanish it was with the purpose, never yet fulfilled, of writing the life of Cervantes, although I have since had some forty-odd years to do it in. I taught myself the language, or began to do so, when I knew nothing of the English grammar but the prosody at the end of the book. My father had the contempt of familiarity with it, having himself written a very brief sketch of our accidence, and he seems to have let me plunge into the sea of Spanish verbs and adverbs, nouns and pronouns, and all the rest, when as yet I could not confidently call them by name, with the serene belief that if I did not swim I would still somehow get ashore without sinking. The end, perhaps, justified him, and I suppose I did not do all that work without getting some strength from it; but I wish I had back the time that it cost me; I should like to waste it in some other way. However, time seemed interminable then, and I thought there would be enough of it for me in which to read all Spanish literature; or, at least, I did not propose to do anything less.

I followed Irving, too, in my later reading, but at haphazard, and with other authors at the same time. I did my poor best to be amused by his ‘Knickerbocker History of New York’, because my father liked it so much, but secretly I found it heavy; and a few years ago when I went carefully through it again. I could not laugh. Even as a boy I found some other things of his uphill work. There was the beautiful manner, but the thought seemed thin; and I do not remember having been much amused by ‘Bracebridge Hall’, though I read it devoutly, and with a full sense that it would be very ‘comme il faut’ to like it. But I did like the ‘Life of Goldsmith’; I liked it a great deal better than the more authoritative ‘Life by Forster’, and I think there is a deeper and sweeter sense of Goldsmith in it. Better than all, except the ‘Conquest of Granada’, I liked the ‘Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ and the story of Rip Van Winkle, with their humorous and affectionate caricatures of life that was once of our own soil and air; and the ‘Tales of the Alhambra’, which transported me again, to the scenes of my youth beside the Xenil. It was long after my acquaintance with his work that I came to a due sense of Irving as an artist, and perhaps I have come to feel a full sense of it only now, when I perceive that he worked willingly only when he worked inventively. At last I can do justice to the exquisite conception of his ‘Conquest of Granada’, a study of history which, in unique measure, conveys not only the pathos, but the humor of one of the most splendid and impressive situations in the experience of the race. Very possibly something of the severer truth might have been sacrificed to the effect of the pleasing and touching tale, but I do not under stand that this was really done. Upon the whole I am very well content with my first three loves in literature, and if I were to choose for any other boy I do not see how I could choose better than Goldsmith and Cervantes and Irving, kindred spirits, and each not a master only, but a sweet and gentle friend, whose kindness could not fail to profit him.

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38