Washington Irving, by Charles Dudley Warner

IV

Society and “Salmagundi”

On Irving’s return to America in February, 1806, with reestablished health, life did not at first take on a more serious purpose. He was admitted to the bar, but he still halted. —[Irving once illustrated his legal acquirements at this time by the relation of the following anecdote to his nephew: Josiah Ogden Hoffman and Martin Wilkins, an effective and witty advocate, had been appointed to examine students for admission. One student acquitted himself very lamely, and at the supper which it was the custom for the candidates to give to the examiners, when they passed upon their several merits, Hoffman paused in coming to this one, and turning to Wilkins said, as if in hesitation, “though all the while intending to admit him, Martin, I think he knows a little law.”—“Make it stronger, Jo,” was the reply; “d —-d little.”]— Society more than ever attracted him and devoured his time. He willingly accepted the office of “champion at the tea-parties;” he was one of a knot of young fellows of literary tastes and convivial habits, who delighted to be known as “The Nine Worthies,” or “Lads of Kilkenny.” In his letters of this period I detect a kind of callowness and affectation which is not discernible in his foreign letters and journal.

These social worthies had jolly suppers at the humble taverns of the city, and wilder revelries in an old country house on the Passaic, which is celebrated in the “Salmagundi” papers as Cockloft Hall. We are reminded of the change of manners by a letter of Mr. Paulding, one of his comrades, written twenty years after, who recalls to mind the keeper of a porter house, “who whilom wore a long coat, in the pockets whereof he jingled two bushels of sixpenny pieces, and whose daughter played the piano to the accompaniment of broiled oysters.” There was some affectation of roistering in all this; but it was a time of social good-fellowship, and easy freedom of manners in both sexes. At the dinners there was much sentimental and bacchanalian singing; it was scarcely good manners not to get a little tipsy; and to be laid under the table by the compulsory bumper was not to the discredit of a guest. Irving used to like to repeat an anecdote of one of his early friends, Henry Ogden, who had been at one of these festive meetings. He told Irving the next day that in going home he had fallen through a grating which had been carelessly left open, into a vault beneath. The solitude, he said, was rather dismal at first, but several other of the guests fell in, in the course of the evening, and they had, on the whole, a pleasant night of it.

These young gentlemen liked to be thought “sad dogs.” That they were less abandoned than they pretended to be the sequel of their lives shows among Irving’s associates at this time who attained honorable consideration were John and Gouverneur Kemble, Henry Brevoort, Henry Ogden, James K. Paulding, and Peter Irving. The saving influence for all of them was the refined households they frequented and the association of women who were high-spirited without prudery, and who united purity and simplicity with wit, vivacity, and charm of manner. There is some pleasant correspondence between Irving and Miss Mary Fairlie, a belle of the time, who married the tragedian, Thomas A. Cooper; the “fascinating Fairlie,” as Irving calls her, and the Sophie Sparkle of the “Salmagundi.” Irving’s susceptibility to the charms and graces of women — a susceptibility which continued always fresh — was tempered and ennobled by the most chivalrous admiration for the sex as a whole. He placed them on an almost romantic pinnacle, and his actions always conformed to his romantic ideal, although in his writings he sometimes adopts the conventional satire which was more common fifty years ago than now. In a letter to Miss Fairlie, written from Richmond, where he was attending the trial of Aaron Burr, he expresses his exalted opinion of the sex. It was said in accounting for the open sympathy of the ladies with the prisoner that Burr had always been a favorite with them; “but I am not inclined,” he writes, “to account for it in so illiberal a manner; it results from that merciful, that heavenly disposition, implanted in the female bosom, which ever inclines in favor of the accused and the unfortunate. You will smile at the high strain in which I have indulged; believe me, it is because I feel it; and I love your sex ten times better than ever.”—[An amusing story in connection with this Richmond visit illustrates the romantic phase of Irving’s character. Cooper, who was playing at the theater, needed small-clothes for one of his parts; Irving lent him a pair — knee breeches being still worn — and the actor carried them off to Baltimore. From that city he wrote that he had found in the pocket an emblem of love, a mysterious locket of hair in the shape of a heart. The history of it is curious: when Irving sojourned at Genoa, he was much taken with the beauty of a young Italian lady, the wife of a Frenchman. He had never spoken with her, but one evening before his departure he picked up from the floor her handkerchief which she had dropped, and with more gallantry than honesty carried it off to Sicily. His pocket was picked of the precious relic while he was attending a religious function in Catania, and he wrote to his friend Storm, the consul at Genoa, deploring his loss. The consul communicated the sad misfortune to the lovely Bianca, for that was the lady’s name, who thereupon sent him a lock of her hair, with the request that he would come to see her on his return. He never saw her again, but the lock of hair was inclosed in a locket and worn about his neck, in memory of a radiant vision that had crossed his path and vanished.]

Personally, Irving must have awakened a reciprocal admiration. A drawing by Vanderlyn, made in Paris in 1805, and a portrait by Jarvis in 1809, present him to us in the fresh bloom of manly beauty. The face has an air of distinction and gentle breeding; the refined lines, the poetic chin, the sensitive mouth, the shapely nose, the large dreamy eyes, the intellectual forehead, and the clustering brown locks are our ideal of the author of the “Sketch–Book” and the pilgrim in Spain. His biographer, Mr. Pierre M. Irving, has given no description of his appearance; but a relative, who saw much of our author in his latter years, writes to me: “He had dark gray eyes; a handsome straight nose, which might perhaps be called large; a broad, high, full forehead, and a small mouth. I should call him of medium height, about five feet eight and a half to nine inches, and inclined to be a trifle stout. There was no peculiarity about his voice; but it was pleasant and had a good intonation. His smile was exceedingly genial, lighting up his whole face and rendering it very attractive; while, if he were about to say anything humorous, it would beam forth from his eyes even before the words were spoken. As a young man his face was exceedingly handsome, and his head was well covered with dark hair; but from my earliest recollection of him he wore neither whiskers nor moustache, but a dark brown wig, which, although it made him look younger, concealed a beautifully shaped head.” We can understand why he was a favorite in the society of Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia, and Albany, as well as of New York, and why he liked to linger here and there, sipping the social sweets, like a man born to leisure and seemingly idle observation of life.

It was in the midst of these social successes, and just after his admission to the bar, that Irving gave the first decided evidence of the choice of a career. This was his association with his eldest brother, William, and Paulding in the production of “Salmagundi,” a semimonthly periodical, in small duodecimo sheets, which ran with tolerable regularity through twenty numbers, and stopped in full tide of success, with the whimsical indifference to the public which had characterized its every issue. Its declared purpose was “simply to instruct the young, reform the old, correct the town, and castigate the age.” In manner and purpose it was an imitation of the “Spectator” and the “Citizen of the World,” and it must share the fate of all imitations; but its wit was not borrowed, and its humor was to some extent original; and so perfectly was it adapted to local conditions that it may be profitably read today as a not untrue reflection of the manners and spirit of the time and city. Its amusing audacity and complacent superiority, the mystery hanging about its writers, its affectation of indifference to praise or profit, its fearless criticism, lively wit, and irresponsible humor, piqued, puzzled, and delighted the town. From the first it was an immense success; it had a circulation in other cities, and many imitations of it sprung up. Notwithstanding many affectations and puerilities it is still readable to Americans. Of course, if it were offered now to the complex and sophisticated society of New York, it would fail to attract anything like the attention it received in the days of simplicity and literary dearth; but the same wit, insight, and literary art, informed with the modern spirit and turned upon the follies and “whim-whams” of the metropolis, would doubtless have a great measure of success. In Irving’s contributions to it may be traced the germs of nearly everything that he did afterwards; in it he tried the various stops of his genius; he discovered his own power; his career was determined; thereafter it was only a question of energy or necessity.

In the summer of 1808 there were printed at Ballston–Spa — then the resort of fashion and the arena of flirtation — seven numbers of a duodecimo bagatelle in prose and verse, entitled “The Literary Picture Gallery and Admonitory Epistles to the Visitors of Ballston–Spa, by Simeon Senex, Esquire.” This piece of summer nonsense is not referred to by any writer who has concerned himself about Irving’s life, but there is reason to believe that he was a contributor to it, if not the editor. —[For these stray reminders of the old-time gayety of Ballston–Spa, I am indebted to J. Carson Brevoort, Esq., whose father was Irving’s most intimate friend, and who told him that Irving had a hand in them.]

In these yellow pages is a melancholy reflection of the gayety and gallantry of the Sans Souci Hotel seventy years ago. In this “Picture Gallery,” under the thin disguise of initials, are the portraits of well-known belles of New York whose charms of person and graces of mind would make the present reader regret his tardy advent into this world, did not the “Admonitory Epistles,” addressed to the same sex, remind him that the manners of seventy years ago left much to be desired. In respect of the habit of swearing, “Simeon” advises “Myra” that if ladies were to confine themselves to a single round oath, it would be quite sufficient; and he objects, when he is at the public table, to the conduct of his neighbor who carelessly took up “Simeon’s” fork and used it as a toothpick. All this, no doubt, passed for wit in the beginning of the century. Punning, broad satire, exaggerated compliment, verse which has love for its theme and the “sweet bird of Venus” for its object, an affectation of gallantry and of ennui, with anecdotes of distinguished visitors, out of which the screaming fun has quite evaporated, make up the staple of these faded mementos of an ancient watering-place. Yet how much superior is our comedy of today? The beauty and the charms of the women of two generations ago exist only in tradition; perhaps we should give to the wit of that time equal admiration if none of it had been preserved.

Irving, notwithstanding the success of “Salmagundi,” did not immediately devote himself to literature, nor seem to regard his achievements in it as anything more than aids to social distinction. He was then, as always, greatly influenced by his surroundings. These were unfavorable to literary pursuits. Politics was the attractive field for preferment and distinction; and it is more than probable that, even after the success of the Knickerbocker history, he would have drifted through life; half lawyer and half placeman, if the associations and stimulus of an old civilization, in his second European residence, had not fired his ambition. Like most young lawyers with little law and less clients, he began to dabble in local politics. The experiment was not much to his taste, and the association and work demanded, at that time, of a ward politician soon disgusted him. “We have toiled through the purgatory of an election,” he writes to the fair Republican, Miss Fairlie, who rejoiced in the defeat he and the Federals had sustained.

“What makes me the more outrageous is, that I got fairly drawn into the vortex, and before the third day was expired, I was as deep in mud and politics as ever a moderate gentleman would wish to be; and I drank beer with the multitude; and I talked hand-bill fashion with the demagogues; and I shook hands with the mob, whom my heart abhorreth. ‘T is true, for the first two days I maintained my coolness and indifference. The first day I merely hunted for whim, character, and absurdity, according to my usual custom; the second day being rainy, I sat in the bar-room at the Seventh Ward, and read a volume of ‘Galatea,’ which I found on a shelf; but before I had got through a hundred pages, I had three or four good Feds sprawling round me on the floor, and another with his eyes half shut, leaning on my shoulder in the most affectionate manner, and spelling a page of the book as if it had been an electioneering hand-bill. But the third day — ah! then came the tug of war. My patriotism then blazed forth, and I determined to save my country!

“Oh, my friend, I have been in such holes and corners; such filthy nooks and filthy corners; sweep offices and oyster cellars! I have sworn brother to a leash of drawers, and can drink with any tinker in his own language during my life — faugh! I shall not be able to bear the smell of small beer and tobacco for a month to come . . . . Truly this saving one’s country is a nauseous piece of business, and if patriotism is such a dirty virtue — prythee, no more of it.”

He unsuccessfully solicited some civil appointment at Albany, a very modest solicitation, which was never renewed, and which did not last long, for he was no sooner there than he was “disgusted by the servility and duplicity and rascality witnessed among the swarm of scrub politicians.” There was a promising young artist at that time in Albany, and Irving wishes he were a man of wealth, to give him a helping hand; a few acts of munificence of this kind by rich nabobs, he breaks out, “would be more pleasing in the sight of Heaven, and more to the glory and advantage of their country, than building a dozen shingle church steeples, or buying a thousand venal votes at an election.” This was in the “good old times!”

Although a Federalist, and, as he described himself, “an admirer of General Hamilton, and a partisan with him in politics,” he accepted a retainer from Burr’s friends in 1807, and attended his trial in Richmond, but more in the capacity of an observer of the scene than a lawyer. He did not share the prevalent opinion of Burr’s treason, and regarded him as a man so fallen as to be shorn of the power to injure the country, one for whom he could feel nothing but compassion. That compassion, however, he received only from the ladies of the city, and the traits of female goodness manifested then sunk deep into Irving’s heart. Without pretending, he says, to decide on Burr’s innocence or guilt, “his situation is such as should appeal eloquently to the feelings of every generous bosom. Sorry am I to say the reverse has been the fact: fallen, proscribed, prejudged, the cup of bitterness has been administered to him with an unsparing hand. It has almost been considered as culpable to evince toward him the least sympathy or support; and many a hollow-hearted caitiff have I seen, who basked in the sunshine of his bounty while in power, who now skulked from his side, and even mingled among the most clamorous of his enemies . . . . I bid him farewell with a heavy heart, and he expressed with peculiar warmth and feeling his sense of the interest I had taken in his fate. I never felt in a more melancholy mood than when I rode from his solitary prison.” This is a good illustration of Irving’s tender-heartedness; but considering Burr’s whole character, it is altogether a womanish case of misplaced sympathy with the cool slayer of Alexander Hamilton.

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