It is over twenty years since the death of Washington Irving removed that personal presence which is always a powerful, and sometimes the sole, stimulus to the sale of an author’s books, and which strongly affects the contemporary judgment of their merits. It is nearly a century since his birth, which was almost coeval with that of the Republic, for it took place the year the British troops evacuated the city of New York, and only a few months before General Washington marched in at the head of the Continental army and took possession of the metropolis. For fifty years Irving charmed and instructed the American people, and was the author who held, on the whole, the first place in their affections. As he was the first to lift American literature into the popular respect of Europe, so for a long time he was the chief representative of the American name in the world of letters. During this period probably no citizen of the Republic, except the Father of his Country, had so wide a reputation as his namesake, Washington Irving.
It is time to inquire what basis this great reputation had in enduring qualities, what portion of it was due to local and favoring circumstances, and to make an impartial study of the author’s literary rank and achievement.
The tenure of a literary reputation is the most uncertain and fluctuating of all. The popularity of an author seems to depend quite as much upon fashion or whim as upon a change in taste or in literary form. Not only is contemporary judgment often at fault, but posterity is perpetually revising its opinion. We are accustomed to say that the final rank of an author is settled by the slow consensus of mankind in disregard of the critics; but the rank is after all determined by the few best minds of any given age, and the popular judgment has very little to do with it. Immediate popularity, or currency, is a nearly valueless criterion of merit. The settling of high rank even in the popular mind does not necessarily give currency; the so-called best authors are not those most widely read at any given time. Some who attain the position of classics are subject to variations in popular and even in scholarly favor or neglect. It happens to the princes of literature to encounter periods of varying duration when their names are revered and their books are not read. The growth, not to say the fluctuation, of Shakespeare’s popularity is one of the curiosities of literary history. Worshiped by his contemporaries, apostrophized by Milton only fourteen pears after his death as the “dear son of memory, great heir to fame,”
“So sepulchred in such pomp dost lie,
That kings, for such a tomb, would wish to die,”
he was neglected by the succeeding age, the subject of violent extremes of opinion in the eighteenth century, and so lightly esteemed by some that Hume could doubt if he were a poet “capable of furnishing a proper entertainment to a refined and intelligent audience,” and attribute to the rudeness of his “disproportioned and misshapen” genius the “reproach of barbarism” which the English nation had suffered from all its neighbors. Only recently has the study of him by English scholars — I do not refer to the verbal squabbles over the text — been proportioned to his preeminence, and his fame is still slowly asserting itself among foreign peoples.
There are already signs that we are not to accept as the final judgment upon the English contemporaries of Irving the currency their writings have now. In the case of Walter Scott, although there is already visible a reaction against a reaction, he is not, at least in America, read by this generation as he was by the last. This faint reaction is no doubt a sign of a deeper change impending in philosophic and metaphysical speculation. An age is apt to take a lurch in a body one way or another, and those most active in it do not always perceive how largely its direction is determined by what are called mere systems of philosophy. The novelist may not know whether he is steered by Kant, or Hegel, or Schopenhauer. The humanitarian novel, the fictions of passion, of realism, of doubt, the poetry and the essays addressed to the mood of unrest, of questioning, to the scientific spirit and to the shifting attitudes of social change and reform, claim the attention of an age that is completely adrift in regard to the relations of the supernatural and the material, the ideal and the real. It would be natural if in such a time of confusion the calm tones of unexaggerated literary art should be not so much heeded as the more strident voices. Yet when the passing fashion of this day is succeeded by the fashion of another, that which is most acceptable to the thought and feeling of the present may be without an audience; and it may happen that few recent authors will be read as Scott and the writers of the early part of this century will be read. It may, however, be safely predicted that those writers of fiction worthy to be called literary artists will best retain their hold who have faithfully painted the manners of their own time.
Irving has shared the neglect of the writers of his generation. It would be strange, even in America, if this were not so. The development of American literature (using the term in its broadest sense) in the past forty years is greater than could have been expected in a nation which had its ground to clear, its wealth to win, and its new governmental experiment to adjust; if we confine our view to the last twenty years, the national production is vast in amount and encouraging in quality. It suffices to say of it here, in a general way, that the most vigorous activity has been in the departments of history, of applied science, and the discussion of social and economic problems. Although pure literature has made considerable gains, the main achievement has been in other directions. The audience of the literary artist has been less than that of the reporter of affairs and discoveries and the special correspondent. The age is too busy, too harassed, to have time for literature; and enjoyment of writings like those of Irving depends upon leisure of mind. The mass of readers have cared less for form than for novelty and news and the satisfying of a recently awakened curiosity. This was inevitable in an era of journalism, one marked by the marvelous results attained in the fields of religion, science, and art, by the adoption of the comparative method. Perhaps there is no better illustration of the vigor and intellectual activity of the age than a living English writer, who has traversed and illuminated almost every province of modern thought, controversy, and scholarship; but who supposes that Mr. Gladstone has added anything to permanent literature? He has been an immense force in his own time, and his influence the next generation will still feel and acknowledge, while it reads, not the writings of Mr. Gladstone, but, maybe, those of the author of “Henry Esmond” and the biographer of “Rab and His Friends.” De Quincey divides literature into two sorts, the literature of power and the literature of knowledge. The latter is of necessity for today only, and must be revised tomorrow. The definition has scarcely De Quincey’s usual verbal felicity, but we can apprehend the distinction he intended to make.
It is to be noted also, and not with regard to Irving only, that the attention of young and old readers has been so occupied and distracted by the flood of new books, written with the single purpose of satisfying the wants of the day, produced and distributed with marvelous cheapness and facility, that the standard works of approved literature remain for the most part unread upon the shelves. Thirty years ago Irving was much read in America by young people, and his clear style helped to form a good taste and correct literary habits. It is not so now. The manufacturers of books, periodicals, and newspapers for the young keep the rising generation fully occupied, with a result to its taste and mental fiber which, to say the least of it, must be regarded with some apprehension. The “plant,” in the way of money and writing industry invested in the production of juvenile literature, is so large and is so permanent an interest, that it requires more discriminating consideration than can be given to it in a passing paragraph.
Besides this, and with respect to Irving in particular, there has been in America a criticism — sometimes called the destructive, sometimes the Donnybrook Fair — that found “earnestness” the only amusing thing in the world, that brought to literary art the test of utility, and disparaged what is called the “Knickerbocker School” (assuming Irving to be the head of it) as wanting in purpose and virility, a merely romantic development of the post-Revolutionary period. And it has been to some extent the fashion to damn with faint admiration the pioneer if not the creator of American literature as the “genial” Irving.
Before I pass to an outline of the career of this representative American author, it is necessary to refer for a moment to certain periods, more or less marked, in our literature. I do not include in it the works of writers either born in England or completely English in training, method, and tradition, showing nothing distinctively American in their writings except the incidental subject. The first authors whom we may regard as characteristic of the new country — leaving out the productions of speculative theology — devoted their genius to politics. It is in the political writings immediately preceding and following the Revolution — such as those of Hamilton, Madison, Jay, Franklin, Jefferson that the new birth of a nation of original force and ideas is declared. It has been said, and I think the statement can be maintained, that for any parallel to those treatises on the nature of government, in respect to originality and vigor, we must go back to classic times. But literature, that is, literature which is an end in itself and not a means to something else, did not exist in America before Irving. Some foreshadowings (the autobiographical fragment of Franklin was not published till 1817) of its coming may be traced, but there can be no question that his writings were the first that bore the national literary stamp, that he first made the nation conscious of its gift and opportunity, and that he first announced to trans-Atlantic readers the entrance of America upon the literary field. For some time he was our only man of letters who had a reputation beyond seas.
Irving was not, however, the first American who made literature a profession and attempted to live on its fruits. This distinction belongs to Charles Brockden Brown, who was born in Philadelphia, January 27, 1771, and, before the appearance in a newspaper of Irving’s juvenile essays in 1802, had published several romances, which were hailed as original and striking productions by his contemporaries, and even attracted attention in England. As late as 1820 a prominent British review gives Mr. Brown the first rank in our literature as an original writer and characteristically American. The reader of today who has the curiosity to inquire into the correctness of this opinion will, if he is familiar with the romances of the eighteenth century, find little originality in Brown’s stories, and nothing distinctively American. The figures who are moved in them seem to be transported from the pages of foreign fiction to the New World, not as it was, but as it existed in the minds of European sentimentalists.
Mr. Brown received a fair education in a classical school in his native city, and studied law, which he abandoned on the threshold of practice, as Irving did, and for the same reason. He had the genuine literary impulse, which he obeyed against all the arguments and entreaties of his friends. Unfortunately, with a delicate physical constitution he had a mind of romantic sensibility, and in the comparative inaction imposed by his frail health he indulged in visionary speculation, and in solitary wanderings which developed the habit of sentimental musing. It was natural that such reveries should produce morbid romances. The tone of them is that of the unwholesome fiction of his time, in which the “seducer” is a prominent and recognized character in social life, and female virtue is the frail sport of opportunity. Brown’s own life was fastidiously correct, but it is a curious commentary upon his estimate of the natural power of resistance to vice in his time, that he regarded his feeble health as good fortune, since it protected him from the temptations of youth and virility.
While he was reading law he constantly exercised his pen in the composition of essays, some of which were published under the title of the “Rhapsodist;” but it was not until 1797 that his career as an author began, by the publication of “Alcuin: a Dialogue on the Rights of Women.” This and the romances which followed it show the powerful influence upon him of the school of fiction of William Godwin, and the movement of emancipation of which Mary Wollstonecraft was the leader. The period of social and political ferment during which “Alcuin” was put forth was not unlike that which may be said to have reached its height in extravagance and millennial expectation in 1847–48. In “Alcuin” are anticipated most of the subsequent discussions on the right of women to property and to self-control, and the desirability of revising the marriage relation. The injustice of any more enduring union than that founded upon the inclination of the hour is as ingeniously urged in “Alcuin” as it has been in our own day.
Mr. Brown’s reputation rests upon six romances: “Wieland,” “Ormond,” “Arthur Mervyn,” “Edgar Huntly,” “Clara Howard,” and “Jane Talbot.” The first five were published in the interval between the spring of 1798 and the summer of 1801, in which he completed his thirtieth year. “Jane Talbot” appeared somewhat later. In scenery and character, these romances are entirely unreal. There is in them an affectation of psychological purpose which is not very well sustained, and a somewhat clumsy introduction of supernatural machinery. Yet they have a power of engaging the attention in the rapid succession of startling and uncanny incidents and in adventures in which the horrible is sometimes dangerously near the ludicrous. Brown had not a particle of humor. Of literary art there is little, of invention considerable; and while the style is to a certain extent unformed and immature, it is neither feeble nor obscure, and admirably serves the author’s purpose of creating what the children call a “crawly” impression. There is undeniable power in many of his scenes, notably in the descriptions of the yellow fever in Philadelphia, found in the romance of “Arthur Mervyn.” There is, however, over all of them a false and pallid light; his characters are seen in a spectral atmosphere. If a romance is to be judged, not by literary rules, but by its power of making an impression upon the mind, such power as a ghastly story has, told by the chimney-corner on a tempestuous night, then Mr. Brown’s romances cannot be dismissed without a certain recognition. But they never represented anything distinctively American, and their influence upon American literature is scarcely discernible.
Subsequently Mr. Brown became interested in political subjects, and wrote upon them with vigor and sagacity. He was the editor of two short-lived literary periodicals which were nevertheless useful in their day: “The Monthly Magazine arid American Review,” begun in New York in the spring of 1798, and ending in the autumn of 1800; and “The Literary Magazine and American Register,” which was established in Philadelphia in 1803 — It was for this periodical that Mr. Brown, who visited Irving in that year, sought in vain to enlist the service of the latter, who, then a youth of nineteen, had a little reputation as the author of some humorous essays in the “Morning Chronicle” newspaper.
Charles Brockden Brown died, the victim of a lingering consumption, in 1810, at the age of thirty-nine. In pausing for a moment upon his incomplete and promising career, we should not forget to recall the strong impression he made upon his contemporaries as a man of genius, the testimony to the charm of his conversation and the goodness of his heart, nor the pioneer service he rendered to letters before the provincial fetters were at all loosened.
The advent of Cooper, Bryant, and Halleck was some twenty years after the recognition of Irving; but thereafter the stars thicken in our literary sky, and when in 1832 Irving returned from his long sojourn in Europe, he found an immense advance in fiction, poetry, and historical composition. American literature was not only born — it was able to go alone. We are not likely to overestimate the stimulus to this movement given by Irving’s example, and by his success abroad. His leadership is recognized in the respectful attitude towards him of all his contemporaries in America. And the cordiality with which he gave help whenever it was asked, and his eagerness to acknowledge merit in others, secured him the affection of all the literary class, which is popularly supposed to have a rare appreciation of the defects of fellow craftsmen.
The period from 1830 to 1860 was that of our greatest purely literary achievement, and, indeed, most of the greater names of today were familiar before 1850. Conspicuous exceptions are Motley and Parkman and a few belles-lettres writers, whose novels and stories mark a distinct literary transition since the War of the Rebellion. In the period from 1845 to 1860, there was a singular development of sentimentalism; it had been, growing before, it did not altogether disappear at the time named, and it was so conspicuous that this may properly be called the sentimental era in our literature. The causes of it, and its relation to our changing national character, are worthy the study of the historian. In politics, the discussion of constitutional questions, of tariffs and finance, had given way to moral agitations. Every political movement was determined by its relation to slavery. Eccentricities of all sorts were developed. It was the era of “transcendentalism” in New England, of “come-outers” there and elsewhere, of communistic experiments, of reform notions about marriage, about woman’s dress, about diet; through the open door of abolitionism women appeared upon its platform, demanding a various emancipation; the agitation for total abstinence from intoxicating drinks got under full headway, urged on moral rather than on the statistical and scientific grounds of today; reformed drunkards went about from town to town depicting to applauding audiences the horrors of delirium tremens — one of these peripatetics led about with him a goat, perhaps as a scapegoat and sin-offering; tobacco was as odious as rum; and I remember that George Thompson, the eloquent apostle of emancipation, during his tour in this country, when on one occasion he was the cynosure of a protracted anti-slavery meeting at Peterboro, the home of Gerrit Smith, deeply offended some of his co-workers, and lost the admiration of many of his admirers, the maiden devotees of green tea, by his use of snuff. To “lift up the voice” and wear long hair were signs of devotion to a purpose.
In that seething time, the lighter literature took a sentimental tone, and either spread itself in manufactured fine writing, or lapsed into a reminiscent and melting mood. In a pretty affectation, we were asked to meditate upon the old garret, the deserted hearth, the old letters, the old well-sweep, the dead baby, the little shoes; we were put into a mood in which we were defenseless against the lukewarm flood of the Tupperean Philosophy. Even the newspapers caught the bathetic tone. Every “local” editor breathed his woe over the incidents of the police court, the falling leaf, the tragedies of the boardinghouse, in the most lachrymose periods he could command, and let us never lack fine writing, whatever might be the dearth of news. I need not say how suddenly and completely this affectation was laughed out of sight by the coming of the “humorous” writer, whose existence is justified by the excellent service he performed in clearing the tearful atmosphere. His keen and mocking method, which is quite distinct from the humor of Goldsmith and Irving, and differs, in degree at least, from the comic-almanac exaggeration and coarseness which preceded it, puts its foot on every bud of sentiment, holds few things sacred, and refuses to regard anything in life seriously. But it has no mercy for any sham.
I refer to this sentimental era — remembering that its literary manifestation was only a surface disease, and recognizing fully the value of the great moral movement in purifying the national life — because many regard its literary weakness as a legitimate outgrowth of the Knickerbocker School, and hold Irving in a manner responsible for it. But I find nothing in the manly sentiment and true tenderness of Irving to warrant the sentimental gush of his followers, who missed his corrective humor as completely as they failed to catch his literary art. Whatever note of localism there was in the Knickerbocker School, however dilettante and unfruitful it was, it was not the legitimate heir of the broad and eclectic genius of Irving. The nature of that genius we shall see in his life.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56