Not long after the discontinuance of “Salmagundi,” Irving, in connection with his brother Peter, projected the work that was to make him famous. At first nothing more was intended than a satire upon the “Picture of New York,” by Dr. Samuel Mitchell, just then published. It was begun as a mere burlesque upon pedantry and erudition, and was well advanced, when Peter was called by his business to Europe, and its completion was fortunately left to Washington. In his mind the idea expanded into a different conception. He condensed the mass of affected learning, which was their joint work, into five introductory chapters — subsequently he said it would have been improved if it had been reduced to one, and it seems to me it would have been better if that one had been thrown away — and finished “A History of New York, by Diedrich Knickerbocker,” substantially as we now have it. This was in 1809, when Irving was twenty-six years old.
But before this humorous creation was completed, the author endured the terrible bereavement which was to color all his life. He had formed a deep and tender passion for Matilda Hoffman, the second daughter of Josiah Ogden Hoffman, in whose family he had long been on a footing of the most perfect intimacy, and his ardent love was fully reciprocated. He was restlessly casting about for some assured means of livelihood which would enable him to marry, and perhaps his distrust of a literary career was connected with this desire, when after a short illness Miss Hoffman died, in the eighteenth year of her age. Without being a dazzling beauty, she was lovely in person and mind, with most engaging manners, a refined sensibility, and a delicate and playful humor. The loss was a crushing blow to Irving, from the effects of which he never recovered, although time softened the bitterness of his grief into a tender and sacred memory. He could never bear to hear her name spoken even by his most intimate friends, or any allusion to her. Thirty years after her death, it happened one evening at the house of Mr. Hoffman, her father, that a granddaughter was playing for Mr. Irving, and in taking her music from the drawer, a faded piece of embroidery was brought forth. “Washington,” said Mr. Hoffman, picking it up, “this is a piece of poor Matilda’s workmanship.” The effect was electric. He had been talking in the sprightliest mood before, but he sunk at once into utter silence, and in a few moments got up and left the house.
After his death, in a private repository of which he always kept the key, was found a lovely miniature, a braid of fair hair, and a slip of paper, on which was written in his own hand, “Matilda Hoffman;” and with these treasures were several pages of a memorandum in ink long since faded. He kept through life her Bible and Prayer Book; they were placed nightly under his pillow in the first days of anguish that followed her loss, and ever after they were the inseparable companions of all his wanderings. In this memorandum — which was written many years afterwards — we read the simple story of his love:
“We saw each other every day, and I became excessively attached to her. Her shyness wore off by degrees. The more I saw of her the more I had reason to admire her. Her mind seemed to unfold leaf by leaf, and every time to discover new sweetness. Nobody knew her so well as I, for she was generally timid and silent; but I in a manner studied her excellence. Never did I meet with more intuitive rectitude of mind, more native delicacy, more exquisite propriety in word, thought, and action, than in this young creature. I am not exaggerating; what I say was acknowledged by all who knew her. Her brilliant little sister used to say that people began by admiring her, but ended by loving Matilda. For my part, I idolized her. I felt at times rebuked by her superior delicacy and purity, and as if I was a coarse, unworthy being in comparison.”
At this time Irving was much perplexed about his career. He had “a fatal propensity to belles-lettres;” his repugnance to the law was such that his mind would not take hold of the study; he anticipated nothing from legal pursuits or political employment; he was secretly writing the humorous history, but was altogether in a low-spirited and disheartened state. I quote again from the memorandum:
“In the mean time I saw Matilda every day, and that helped to distract me. In the midst of this struggle and anxiety she was taken ill with a cold. Nothing was thought of it at first; but she grew rapidly worse, and fell into a consumption. I cannot tell you what I suffered. The ills that I have undergone in this life have been dealt out to me drop by drop, and I have tasted all their bitterness. I saw her fade rapidly away; beautiful, and more beautiful, and more angelical to the last. I was often by her bedside; and in her wandering state of mind 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 had ever known before. Her malady was rapid in its career, and hurried her off in two months. Her dying struggles were painful and protracted. For three days and nights I did not leave the house, and scarcely slept. I was by her when she died; all the family were assembled round her, some praying, others weeping, for she was adored by them all. I was the last one she looked upon. I have told you as briefly as I could what, if I were to tell with all the incidents and feelings that accompanied it, would fill volumes. She was but about seventeen years old when she died.
“I cannot tell you what a horrid state of mind I was in for a long time. I seemed to care for nothing; the world was a blank to me. I abandoned all thoughts of the law. I went into the country, but could not bear solitude, yet could not endure society. There was a dismal horror continually in my mind, that made me fear to be alone. I had often to get up in the night, and seek the bedroom of my brother, as if the having a human being by me would relieve me from the frightful gloom of my own thoughts.
“Months elapsed before my mind would resume any tone; but the despondency I had suffered for a long time in the course of this attachment, and the anguish that attended its catastrophe, seemed to give a turn to my whole character, and throw some clouds into my disposition, which have ever since hung about it. When I became more calm and collected, I applied myself, by way of occupation, to the finishing of my work. I brought it to a close, as well as I could, and published it; but the time and circumstances in which it was produced rendered me always unable to look upon it with satisfaction. Still it took with the public, and gave me celebrity, as an original work was something remarkable and uncommon in America. I was noticed, caressed, and, for a time, elevated by the popularity I had gained. I found myself uncomfortable in my feelings in New York, and traveled about a little. Wherever I went, I was overwhelmed with attentions; I was full of youth and animation, far different from the being I now am, and I was quite flushed with this early taste of public favor. Still, however, the career of gayety and notoriety soon palled on me. I seemed to drift about without aim or object, at the mercy of every breeze; my heart wanted anchorage. I was naturally susceptible, and tried to form other attachments, but my heart would not hold on; it would continually recur to what it had lost; and whenever there was a pause in the hurry of novelty and excitement, I would sink into dismal dejection. For years I could not talk on the subject of this hopeless regret; I could not even mention her name; but her image was continually before me, and I dreamt of her incessantly.”
This memorandum, it subsequently appeared, was a letter, or a transcript of it, addressed to a married lady, Mrs. Foster, in which the story of his early love was related, in reply to her question why he had never married. It was in the year 1823, the year after the publication of “Bracebridge Hall,” while he sojourned in Dresden, that he became intimate with an English family residing there, named Foster, and conceived for the daughter, Miss Emily Foster, a warm friendship and perhaps a deep attachment. The letter itself, which for the first time broke the guarded seclusion of Irving’s heart, is evidence of the tender confidence that existed between him and this family. That this intimacy would have resulted in marriage, or an offer of marriage, if the lady’s affections had not been preoccupied, the Fosters seem to have believed. In an unauthorized addition to the, “Life and Letters,” inserted in the English edition without the knowledge of the American editor, with some such headings as, “History of his First Love brought to us, and returned,” and “Irving’s Second Attachment,” the Fosters tell the interesting story of Irving’s life in Dresden, and give many of his letters, and an account of his intimacy with the family. From this account I quote:
“Soon after this, Mr. Irving, who had again for long felt ‘the tenderest interest warm his bosom, and finally enthrall his whole soul,’ made one vigorous and valiant effort to free himself from a hopeless and consuming attachment. My mother counseled him, I believe, for the best, and he left Dresden on an expedition of several weeks into a country he had long wished to see; though, in the main, it disappointed him; and he started with young Colbourne (son of general Colbourne) as his companion. Some of his letters on this journey are before the public; and in the agitation and eagerness he there described, on receiving and opening letters from us, and the tenderness in his replies — the longing to be once more in the little Pavilion, to which we had moved in the beginning of the summer — the letters (though carefully guarded by the delicacy of her who intrusted them to the editor, and alone retained among many more calculated to lay bare his true feelings, even fragmentary as they are), point out the truth.
“Here is the key to the journey to Silesia, the return to Dresden, and, finally, to the journey from Dresden to Rotterdam in our company, first planned so as to part at Cassel, where Mr. Irving had intended to leave us and go down the Rhine, but subsequently could not find in his heart to part. Hence, after a night of pale and speechless melancholy, the gay, animated, happy countenance with which he sprang to our coach-box to take his old seat on it, and accompany us to Rotterdam. There even could he not part, but joined us in the steamboat; and, after bearing us company as far as a boat could follow us, at last tore himself away, to bury himself in Paris, and try to work . . . .
“It was fortunate, perhaps, that this affection was returned by the warmest friendship only, since it was destined that the accomplishment of his wishes was impossible, for many obstacles which lay in his way; and it is with pleasure I can truly say that in time he schooled himself to view, also with friendship only, one who for some time past has been the wife of another.”
Upon the delicacy of this revelation the biographer does not comment, but he says that the idea that Irving thought of marriage at that time is utterly disproved by the following passage from the very manuscript which he submitted to Mrs. Foster:
“You wonder why I am not married. I have shown you why I was not long since. When I had sufficiently recovered from that loss, I became involved in ruin. It was not for a man broken down in the world, to drag down any woman to his paltry circumstances. I was too proud to tolerate the idea of ever mending my circumstances by matrimony. My time has now gone by; and I have growing claims upon my thoughts and upon my means, slender and precarious as they are. I feel as if I already had a family to think and provide for.”
Upon the question of attachment and depression, Mr. Pierre Irving says:
“While the editor does not question Mr. Irving’s great enjoyment of his intercourse with the Fosters, or his deep regret at parting from them, he is too familiar with his occasional fits of depression to have drawn from their recurrence on his return to Paris any such inference as that to which the lady alludes. Indeed, his memorandum book and letters show him to have had, at this time, sources of anxiety of quite a different nature. The allusion to his having to put once more to sea evidently refers to his anxiety on returning to his literary pursuits, after a season of entire idleness.”
It is not for us to question the judgment of the biographer, with his full knowledge of the circumstances and his long intimacy with his uncle; yet it is evident that Irving was seriously impressed at Dresden, and that he was very much unsettled until he drove away the impression by hard work with his pen; and it would be nothing new in human nature and experience if he had for a time yielded to the attractions of loveliness and a most congenial companionship, and had returned again to an exclusive devotion to the image of the early loved and lost.
That Irving intended never to marry is an inference I cannot draw either from his fondness for the society of women, from his interest in the matrimonial projects of his friends and the gossip which has feminine attractions for its food, or from his letters to those who had his confidence. In a letter written from Birmingham, England, March 15, 1816, to his dear friend Henry Brevoort, who was permitted more than perhaps any other person to see his secret heart, he alludes, with gratification, to the report of the engagement of James Paulding, and then says:
“It is what we must all come to at last. I see you are hankering after it, and I confess I have done so for a long time past. We are, however, past that period [Irving was thirty-two] when a man marries suddenly and inconsiderately. We may be longer making a choice, and consulting the convenience and concurrence of easy circumstances, but we shall both come to it sooner or later. I therefore recommend you to marry without delay. You have sufficient means, connected with your knowledge and habits of business, to support a genteel establishment, and I am certain that as soon as you are married you will experience a change in your ideas. All those vagabond, roving propensities will cease. They are the offspring of idleness of mind and a want of something to fix the feelings. You are like a bark without an anchor, that drifts about at the mercy of every vagrant breeze or trifling eddy. Get a wife, and she’ll anchor you. But don’t marry a fool because she his a pretty face, and don’t seek after a great belle. Get such a girl as Mary — — or get her if you can; though I am afraid she has still an unlucky kindness for poor ——-, which will stand in the way of her fortunes. I wish to God they were rich, and married, and happy!”
The business reverses which befell the Irving brothers, and which drove Washington to the toil of the pen, and cast upon him heavy family responsibilities, defeated his plans of domestic happiness in marriage. It was in this same year, 1816, when the fortunes of the firm were daily becoming more dismal, that he wrote to Brevoort, upon the report that the latter was likely to remain a bachelor: “We are all selfish beings. Fortune by her tardy favors and capricious freaks seems to discourage all my matrimonial resolves, and if I am doomed to live an old bachelor, I am anxious to have good company. I cannot bear that all my old companions should launch away into the married state, and leave me alone to tread this desolate and sterile shore.” And, in view of a possible life of scant fortune, he exclaims: “Thank Heaven, I was brought up in simple and inexpensive habits, and I have satisfied myself that, if need be, I can resume them without repining or inconvenience. Though I am willing, therefore, that Fortune should shower her blessings upon me, and think I can enjoy them as well as most men, yet I shall not make myself unhappy if she chooses to be scanty, and shall take the position allotted me with a cheerful and contented mind.”
When Irving passed the winter of 1823 in the charming society of the Fosters at Dresden, the success of the “Sketch–Book” and “Bracebridge Hall” had given him assurance of his ability to live comfortably by the use of his pen.
To resume. The preliminary announcement of the History was a humorous and skillful piece of advertising. Notices appeared in the newspapers of the disappearance from his lodging of “a small, elderly gentleman, dressed in an old black coat and cocked hat, by the name of Knickerbocker.” Paragraphs from week to week, purporting to be the result of inquiry, elicited the facts that such an old gentleman had been seen traveling north in the Albany stage; that his name was Diedrich Knickerbocker; that he went away owing his landlord; and that he left behind a very curious kind of a written book, which would be sold to pay his bills if he did not return. So skillfully was this managed that one of the city officials was on the point of offering a reward for the discovery of the missing Diedrich. This little man in knee breeches and cocked hat was the germ of the whole “Knickerbocker legend,” a fantastic creation, which in a manner took the place of history, and stamped upon the commercial metropolis of the New World the indelible Knickerbocker name and character; and even now in the city it is an undefined patent of nobility to trace descent from “an old Knickerbocker family.”
The volume, which was first printed in Philadelphia, was put forth as a grave history of the manners and government under the Dutch rulers, and so far was the covert humor carried that it was dedicated to the New York Historical Society. Its success was far beyond Irving’s expectation. It met with almost universal acclaim. It is true that some of the old Dutch inhabitants who sat down to its perusal, expecting to read a veritable account of the exploits of their ancestors, were puzzled by the indirection of its commendation; and several excellent old ladies of New York and Albany were in blazing indignation at the ridicule put upon the old Dutch people, and minded to ostracize the irreverent author from all social recognition. As late as 1818, in an address before the Historical Society, Mr. Gulian C. Verplanck, Irving’s friend, showed the deep irritation the book had caused, by severe strictures on it as a “coarse caricature.” But the author’s winning ways soon dissipated the social cloud, and even the Dutch critics were erelong disarmed by the absence of all malice in the gigantic humor of the composition. One of the first foreigners to recognize the power and humor of the book was Walter Scott. “I have never,” he wrote, “read anything so closely resembling the style of Dean Swift as the annals of Diedrich Knickerbocker. I have been employed these few evenings in reading them aloud to Mrs. S. and two ladies who are our guests, and our sides have been absolutely sore with laughing. I think, too, there are passages which indicate that the author possesses power of a different kind, and has some touches which remind me of Sterne.”
The book is indeed an original creation, and one of the few masterpieces of humor. In spontaneity, freshness, breadth of conception, and joyous vigor, it belongs to the springtime of literature. It has entered into the popular mind as no other American book ever has, and it may be said to have created a social realm which, with all its whimsical conceit, has almost historical solidity. The Knickerbocker pantheon is almost as real as that of Olympus. The introductory chapters are of that elephantine facetiousness which pleased our great-grandfathers, but which is exceedingly tedious to modern taste; and the humor of the book occasionally has a breadth that is indelicate to our apprehension, though it perhaps did not shock our great-grandmothers. But, notwithstanding these blemishes, I think the work has more enduring qualities than even the generation which it first delighted gave it credit for. The world, however, it must be owned, has scarcely yet the courage of its humor, and dullness still thinks it necessary to apologize for anything amusing. There is little doubt that Irving himself supposed that his serious work was of more consequence to the world.
It seems strange that after this success Irving should have hesitated to adopt literature as his profession. But for two years, and with leisure, he did nothing. He had again some hope of political employment in a small way; and at length he entered into a mercantile partnership with his brothers, which was to involve little work for him, and a share of the profits that should assure his support, and leave him free to follow his fitful literary inclinations. Yet he seems to have been mainly intent upon society and the amusements of the passing hour, and, without the spur of necessity to his literary capacity, he yielded to the temptations of indolence, and settled into the unpromising position of a “man about town.” Occasionally, the business of his firm and that of other importing merchants being imperiled by some threatened action of Congress, Irving was sent to Washington to look after their interests. The leisurely progress he always made to the capital through the seductive society of Philadelphia and Baltimore did not promise much business dispatch. At the seat of government he was certain to be involved in a whirl of gayety. His letters from Washington are more occupied with the odd characters he met than with the measures of legislation. These visits greatly extended his acquaintance with the leading men of the country; his political leanings did not prevent an intimacy with the President’s family, and Mrs. Madison and he were sworn friends.
It was of the evening of his first arrival in Washington that he writes: “I emerged from dirt and darkness into the blazing splendor of Mrs. Madison’s drawing-room. Here I was most graciously received; found a crowded collection of great and little men, of ugly old women and beautiful young ones, and in ten minutes was hand and glove with half the people in the assemblage. Mrs. Madison is a fine, portly, buxom dame, who has a smile and a pleasant word for everybody. Her sisters, Mrs. Cutts and Mrs. Washington, are like two merry wives of Windsor; but as to Jemmy Madison — oh, poor Jemmy! — he is but a withered little apple john.”
Odd characters congregated then in Washington as now. One honest fellow, who, by faithful fagging at the heels of Congress, had obtained a profitable post under government, shook Irving heartily by the hand, and professed himself always happy to see anybody that came from New York; “somehow or another, it was natteral to him,” being the place where he was first born. Another fellow-townsman was “endeavoring to obtain a deposit in the Mechanics’ Bank, in case the United States Bank does not obtain a charter. He is as deep as usual; shakes his head and winks through his spectacles at everybody he meets. He swore to me the other day that he had not told anybody what his opinion was, whether the bank ought to have a charter or not. Nobody in Washington knew what his opinion was — not one — nobody; he defied any one to say what it was — anybody — damn the one! No, sir, nobody knows;’ and if he had added nobody cares, I believe honest would have been exactly in the right. Then there’s his brother George: ‘Damn that fellow — knows eight or nine languages; yes, sir, nine languages — Arabic, Spanish, Greek, Ital —-And there’s his wife, now — she and Mrs. Madison are always together. Mrs. Madison has taken a great fancy to her little daughter. Only think, sir, that child is only six years old, and talks the Italian like a book, by —-; little devil learnt it from an Italian servant — damned clever fellow; lived with my brother George ten years. George says he would not part with him for all Tripoli,’” etc.
It was always difficult for Irving, in those days, to escape from the genial blandishments of Baltimore and Philadelphia. Writing to Brevoort from Philadelphia, March 16, 1811, he says: “The people of Baltimore are exceedingly social and hospitable to strangers, and I saw that if I once let myself get into the stream, I should not be able to get out under a fortnight at least; so, being resolved to push home as expeditiously as was honorably possible, I resisted the world, the flesh, and the devil at Baltimore; and after three days’ and nights’ stout carousal, and a fourth’s sickness, sorrow, and repentance, I hurried off from that sensual city.”
Jarvis, the artist, was at that time the eccentric and elegant lion of society in Baltimore. “Jack Randolph” had recently sat to him for his portrait. “By the bye [the letter continues] that little ‘hydra and chimera dire,’ Jarvis, is in prodigious circulation at Baltimore. The gentlemen have all voted him a rare wag and most brilliant wit; and the ladies pronounce him one of the queerest, ugliest, most agreeable little creatures in the world. The consequence is there is not a ball, tea-party, concert, supper, or other private regale but that Jarvis is the most conspicuous personage; and as to a dinner, they can no more do without him than they could without Friar John at the roystering revels of the renowned Pantagruel.” Irving gives one of his bon mots which was industriously repeated at all the dinner tables, a profane sally, which seemed to tickle the Baltimoreans exceedingly. Being very much importuned to go to church, he resolutely refused, observing that it was the same thing whether he went or stayed at home. “If I don’t go,” said he, “the minister says I ‘ll be d —— d, and I ‘ll be d —— d if I do go.”
This same letter contains a pretty picture, and the expression of Irving’s habitual kindly regard for his fellow-men:
“I was out visiting with Ann yesterday, and met that little assemblage of smiles and fascinations, Mary Jackson. She was bounding with youth, health, and innocence, and good humor. She had a pretty straw hat, tied under her chin with a pink ribbon, and looked like some little woodland nymph, just turned out by spring and fine weather. God bless her light heart, and grant it may never know care or sorrow! It’s enough to cure spleen and melancholy only to look at her.
“Your familiar pictures of home made me extremely desirous again to be there . . . . I shall once more return to sober life, satisfied with having secured three months of sunshine in this valley of shadows and darkness. In this space of time I have seen considerable of the world, but I am sadly afraid I have not grown wiser thereby, inasmuch as it has generally been asserted by the sages of every age that wisdom consists in a knowledge of the wickedness of mankind, and the wiser a man grows the more discontented he becomes with those around him. Whereas, woe is me, I return in infinitely better humor with the world than I ever was before, and with a most melancholy good opinion and good will for the great mass of my fellow-creatures!”
Free intercourse with men of all parties, he thought, tends to divest a man’s mind of party bigotry.
“One day [he writes] I am dining with a knot of honest, furious Federalists, who are damning all their opponents as a set of consummate scoundrels, panders of Bonaparte, etc. The next day I dine, perhaps, with some of the very men I have heard thus anathematized, and find them equally honest, warm, and indignant; and if I take their word for it, I had been dining the day before with some of the greatest knaves in the nation, men absolutely paid and suborned by the British government.”
His friends at this time attempted to get him appointed secretary of legation to the French mission, under Joel Barlow, then minister, but he made no effort to secure the place. Perhaps he was deterred by the knowledge that the author of “The Columbiad” suspected him, though unjustly, of some strictures on his great epic. He had in mind a book of travel in his own country, in which he should sketch manners and characters; but nothing came of it. The peril to trade involved in the War of 1812 gave him some forebodings, and aroused him to exertion. He accepted the editorship of a periodical called “Select Reviews,” afterwards changed to the “Analectic Magazine,” for which he wrote sketches, some of which were afterwards put into the “Sketch–Book,” and several reviews and naval biographies. A brief biography of Thomas Campbell was also written about this time, as introductory to an edition of “Gertrude of Wyoming.” But the slight editorial care required by the magazine was irksome to a man who had an unconquerable repugnance to all periodical labor.
In 1813 Francis Jeffrey made a visit to the United States. Henry Brevoort, who was then in London, wrote an anxious letter to Irving to impress him with the necessity of making much of Mr. Jeffrey. “It is essential,” he says — “that Jeffrey may imbibe a just estimate of the United States and its inhabitants; he goes out strongly biased in our favor, and the influence of his good opinion upon his return to this country will go far to efface the calumnies and the absurdities that have been laid to our charge by ignorant travelers. Persuade him to visit Washington, and by all means to see the Falls of Niagara.” The impression seems to have prevailed that if Englishmen could be made to take a just view of the Falls of Niagara, the misunderstandings between the two countries would be reduced. Peter Irving, who was then in Edinburgh, was impressed with the brilliant talent of the editor of the “Review,” disguised as it was by affectation, but he said he “would not give the Minstrel for a wilderness of Jeffreys.”
The years from 1811 to 1815, when he went abroad for the second time, were passed by Irving in a sort of humble waiting on Providence. His letters to Brevoort during this period are full of the ennui of irresolute youth. He idled away weeks and months in indolent enjoyment in the country; he indulged his passion for the theater when opportunity offered; and he began to be weary of a society which offered little stimulus to his mind. His was the temperament of the artist, and America at that time had little to evoke or to satisfy the artistic feeling. There were few pictures and no galleries; there was no music, except the amateur torture of strings which led the country dance, or the martial inflammation of fife and drum, or the sentimental dawdling here and there over the ancient harpsichord, with the songs of love, and the broad or pathetic staves and choruses of the convivial table; and there was no literary atmosphere.
After three months of indolent enjoyment in the winter and spring of 1811, Irving is complaining to Brevoort in June of the enervation of his social life: “I do want most deplorably to apply my mind to something that will arouse and animate it; for at present it is very indolent and relaxed, and I find it very difficult to shake off the lethargy that enthralls it. This makes me restless and dissatisfied with myself, and I am convinced I shall not feel comfortable and contented until my mind is fully employed. Pleasure is but a transient stimulus, and leaves the mind more enfeebled than before. Give me rugged toils, fierce disputation, wrangling controversy, harassing research — give me anything that calls forth the energies of the mind; but for Heaven’s sake shield me from those calms, those tranquil slumberings, those enervating triflings, those siren blandishments, that I have for some time indulged in, which lull the mind into complete inaction, which benumb its powers, and cost it such painful and humiliating struggles to regain its activity and independence!”
Irving at this time of life seemed always waiting by the pool for some angel to come and trouble the waters. To his correspondent, who was in the wilds of Michilimackinac, he continues to lament his morbid inability. The business in which his thriving brothers were engaged was the importation and sale of hardware and cutlery, and that spring his services were required at the “store.” “By all the martyrs of Grub Street [he exclaims], I ‘d sooner live in a garret, and starve into the bargain, than follow so sordid, dusty, and soul-killing a way of life, though certain it would make me as rich as old Croesus, or John Jacob Astor himself!” The sparkle of society was no more agreeable to him than the rattle of cutlery. “I have scarcely [he writes] seen anything of the —— s since your departure; business and an amazing want of inclination have kept me from their threshold. Jim, that sly poacher, however, prowls about there, and vitrifies his heart by the furnace of their charms. I accompanied him there on Sunday evening last, and found the Lads and Miss Knox with them. S—— was in great spirits, and played the sparkler with such great success as to silence the whole of us excepting Jim, who was the agreeable rattle of the evening. God defend me from such vivacity as hers, in future — such smart speeches without meaning, such bubble and squeak nonsense! I ‘d as lieve stand by a frying-pan for an hour and listen to the cooking of apple fritters. After two hours’ dead silence and suffering on my part I made out to drag him off, and did not stop running until I was a mile from the house.” Irving gives his correspondent graphic pictures of the social warfare in which he was engaged, the “host of rascally little tea-parties” in which he was entangled; and some of his portraits of the “divinities,” the “blossoms,” and the beauties of that day would make the subjects of them flutter with surprise in the churchyards where they lie. The writer was sated with the “tedious commonplace of fashionable society,” and languishing to return to his books and his pen.
In March, 18122, in the shadow of the war and the depression of business, Irving was getting out a new edition of the “Knickerbocker,” which Inskeep was to publish, agreeing to pay $1200 at six months for an edition of fifteen hundred. The modern publisher had not then arisen and acquired a proprietary right in the brains of the country, and the author made his bargains like an independent being who owned himself.
Irving’s letters of this period are full of the gossip of the town and the matrimonial fate of his acquaintances. The fascinating Mary Fairlie is at length married to Cooper, the tragedian, with the opposition of her parents, after a dismal courtship and a cloudy prospect of happiness. Goodhue is engaged to Miss Clarkson, the sister to the pretty one. The engagement suddenly took place as they walked from church on Christmas Day, and report says “the action was shorter than any of our naval victories, for the lady struck on the first broadside.” The war colored all social life and conversation. “This war [the letter is to Brevoort, who is in Europe] has completely changed the face of things here. You would scarcely recognize our old peaceful city. Nothing is talked of but armies, navies, battles, etc.” The same phenomenon was witnessed then that was observed in the war for the Union: “Men who had loitered about, the hangers-on and encumbrances of society, have all at once risen to importance, and been the only useful men of the day.” The exploits of our young navy kept up the spirits of the country. There was great rejoicing when the captured frigate Macedonian was brought into New York, and was visited by the curious as she lay wind-bound above Hell Gate. “A superb dinner was given to the naval heroes, at which all the great eaters and drinkers of the city were present. It was the noblest entertainment of the kind I ever witnessed. On New Year’s Eve a grand ball was likewise given, where there was a vast display of great and little people. The Livingstons were there in all their glory. Little Rule Britannia made a gallant appearance at the head of a train of beauties, among whom were the divine H— — who looked very inviting, and the little Taylor, who looked still more so. Britannia was gorgeously dressed in a queer kind of hat of stiff purple and silver stuff, that had marvelously the appearance of copper, and made us suppose that she had procured the real Mambrino helmet. Her dress was trimmed with what we simply mistook for scalps, and supposed it was in honor of the nation; but we blushed at our ignorance on discovering that it was a gorgeous trimming of marten tips. Would that some eminent furrier had been there to wonder and admire!”
With a little business and a good deal of loitering, waiting upon the whim of his pen, Irving passed the weary months of the war. As late as August, 1814, he is still giving Brevoort, who has returned, and is at Rockaway Beach, the light gossip of the town. It was reported that Brevoort and Dennis had kept a journal of their foreign travel, “which is so exquisitely humorous that Mrs. Cooper, on only looking at the first word, fell into a fit of laughing that lasted half an hour.” Irving is glad that he cannot find Brevoort’s flute, which the latter requested should be sent to him: “I do not think it would be an innocent amusement for you, as no one has a right to entertain himself at the expense of others.” In such dallying and badinage the months went on, affairs every day becoming more serious. Appended to a letter of September 9, 1814, is a list of twenty well-known mercantile houses that had failed within the preceding three weeks. Irving himself, shortly after this, enlisted in the war, and his letters thereafter breathe patriotic indignation at the insulting proposals of the British and their rumored attack on New York, and all his similes, even those having love for their subject, are martial and bellicose. Item: “The gallant Sam has fairly changed front, and, instead of laying siege to Douglas castle, has charged sword in hand, and carried little Cooper’s’ entrenchments.”
As a Federalist and an admirer of England, Irving had deplored the war, but his sympathies were not doubtful after it began, and the burning of the national Capitol by General Ross aroused him to an active participation in the struggle. He was descending the Hudson in a steamboat when the tidings first reached him. It was night, and the passengers had gone into the cabin, when a man came on board with the news, and in the darkness related the particulars: the burning of the President’s house and government offices, and the destruction of the Capitol, with the library and public archives. In the momentary silence that followed, somebody raised his voice, and in a tone of complacent derision “wondered what Jimmy Madison would say now.” “Sir,” cried Mr. Irving, in a burst of indignation that overcame his habitual shyness, “do you seize upon such a disaster only for a sneer? Let me tell you, sir, it is not now a question about Jimmy Madison or Jimmy Armstrong. The pride and honor of the nation are wounded; the country is insulted and disgraced by this barbarous success, and every loyal citizen would feel the ignominy and be earnest to avenge it.” There was an outburst of applause, and the sneerer was silenced. “I could not see the fellow,” said Mr. Irving, in relating the anecdote, “but I let fly at him in the dark.”
The next day he offered his services to Governor Tompkins, and was made the governor’s aid and military secretary, with the right to be addressed as Colonel Washington Irving. He served only four months in this capacity, when Governor Tompkins was called to the session of the legislature at Albany. Irving intended to go to Washington and apply for a commission in the regular army, but he was detained at Philadelphia by the affairs of his magazine, until news came in February, 1815, of the close of the war. In May of that year he embarked for England to visit his brother, intending only a short sojourn. He remained abroad seventeen years.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:51