When Irving sailed from New York, it was with lively anticipations of witnessing the stirring events to follow the return of Bonaparte from Elba. When he reached Liverpool, the curtain had fallen in Bonaparte’s theater. The first spectacle that met the traveler’s eye was the mail coaches, darting through the streets, decked with laurel and bringing the news of Waterloo. As usual, Irving’s sympathies were with the unfortunate. “I think,” he says, writing of the exile of St. Helena, “the cabinet has acted with littleness toward him. In spite of all his misdeeds he is a noble fellow [pace Madame de Remusat], and I am confident will eclipse, in the eyes of posterity, all the crowned wiseacres that have crushed him by their overwhelming confederacy. If anything could place the Prince Regent in a more ridiculous light, it is Bonaparte suing for his magnanimous protection. Every compliment paid to this bloated sensualist, this inflation of sack and sugar, turns to the keenest sarcasm.”
After staying a week with his brother Peter, who was recovering from an indisposition, Irving went to Birmingham, the residence of his brother-inlaw, Henry Van Wart, who had married his youngest sister, Sarah; and from thence to Sydenham, to visit Campbell. The poet was not at home. To Mrs. Campbell Irving expressed his regret that her husband did not attempt something on a grand scale.
“‘It is unfortunate for Campbell,’ said she, ‘that he lives in the same age with Scott and Byron.’ I asked why. ‘Oh,’ said she, ‘they write so much and so rapidly. Mr. Campbell writes slowly, and it takes him some time to get under way; and just as he has fairly begun out comes one of their poems, that sets the world agog, and quite daunts him, so that he throws by his pen in despair.’ I pointed out the essential difference in their kinds of poetry, and the qualities which insured perpetuity to that of her husband. ‘You can’t persuade Campbell of that,’ said she. ‘He is apt to undervalue his own works, and to consider his own little lights put out, whenever they come blazing out with their great torches.’
“I repeated the conversation to Scott some time afterward, and it drew forth a characteristic comment. ‘Pooh!’ said he, good humoredly; ‘how can Campbell mistake the matter so much? Poetry goes by quality, not by bulk. My poems are mere Cairngorms, wrought up, perhaps, with a cunning hand, and may pass well in the market as long as Cairngorms are the fashion; but they are mere Scotch pebbles, after all. Now, Tom Campbell’s are real diamonds, and diamonds of the first water.’”
Returning to Birmingham, Irving made excursions to Kenilworth, Warwick, and Stratford-on-Avon, and a tour through Wales with James Renwick, a young American of great promise, who at the age of nineteen had for a time filled the chair of natural philosophy in Columbia College. He was a son of Mrs. Jane Renwick, a charming woman and a lifelong friend of Irving, the daughter of the Rev. Andrew Jeffrey, of Lochmaben, Scotland, and famous in literature as “The Blue–Eyed Lassie” of Burns. From another song, “When first I saw my Face,” which does not appear in the poet’s collected works, the biographer quotes:
“But, sair, I doubt some happier swain
Has gained my Jeanie’s favor;
If sae, may every bliss be hers,
Tho’ I can never have her.
“But gang she east, or gang she west,
‘Twixt Nith and Tweed all over,
While men have eyes, or ears, or taste,
She’ll always find a lover.”
During Irving’s protracted stay in England he did not by any means lose his interest in his beloved New York and the little society that was always dear to him. He relied upon his friend Brevoort to give him the news of the town, and in return he wrote long letters — longer and more elaborate and formal than this generation has leisure to write or to read; letters in which the writer laid himself out to be entertaining, and detailed his emotions and state of mind as faithfully as his travels and outward experiences.
No sooner was our war with England over than our navy began to make a reputation for itself in the Mediterranean. In his letter of August, 1815, Irving dwells with pride on Decatur’s triumph over the Algerine pirates. He had just received a letter from “that — worthy little tar, Jack Nicholson,” dated on board the Flambeau, off Algiers. In it Nicholson says that “they fell in with and captured the admiral’s ship, and killed him.” Upon which Irving remarks: “As this is all that Jack’s brevity will allow him to say on the subject, I should be at a loss to know whether they killed the admiral before or after his capture. The well-known humanity of our tars, however, induces me to the former conclusion.” Nicholson, who has the honor of being alluded to in “The Croakers,” was always a great favorite with Irving. His gallantry on shore was equal to his bravery at sea, but unfortunately his diffidence was greater than his gallantry; and while his susceptibility to female charms made him an easy and a frequent victim, he could never muster the courage to declare his passion. Upon one occasion, when he was desperately enamored of a lady whom he wished to marry, he got Irving to write for him a love-letter, containing an offer of his heart and hand. The enthralled but bashful sailor carried the letter in his pocket till it was worn out, without ever being able to summon pluck enough to deliver it.
While Irving was in Wales the Wiggins family and Madame Bonaparte passed through Birmingham, on their way to Cheltenham. Madame was still determined to assert her rights as a Bonaparte. Irving cannot help expressing sympathy for Wiggins: “The poor man has his hands full, with such a bevy of beautiful women under his charge, and all doubtless bent on pleasure and admiration.” He hears, however, nothing further of her, except the newspapers mention her being at Cheltenham. “There are so many stars and comets thrown out of their orbits, and whirling about the world at present, that a little star like Madame Bonaparte attracts but slight attention, even though she draw after her so sparkling a tail as the Wiggins family.” In another letter he exclaims: “The world is surely topsy-turvy, and its inhabitants shaken out of place: emperors and kings, statesmen and philosophers, Bonaparte, Alexander, Johnson, and the Wigginses, all strolling about the face of the earth.”
The business of the Irving brothers soon absorbed all Washington’s time and attention. Peter was an invalid, and the whole weight of the perplexing affairs of the failing firm fell upon the one who detested business, and counted every hour lost that he gave to it. His letters for two years are burdened with harassments in uncongenial details and unsuccessful struggles. Liverpool, where he was compelled to pass most of his time, had few attractions for him, and his low spirits did not permit him to avail himself of such social advantages as were offered. It seems that our enterprising countrymen flocked abroad, on the conclusion of peace. “This place [writes Irving] swarms with Americans. You never saw a more motley race of beings. Some seem as if just from the woods, and yet stalk about the streets and public places with all the easy nonchalance that they would about their own villages. Nothing can surpass the dauntless independence of all form, ceremony, fashion, or reputation of a downright, unsophisticated American. Since the war, too, particularly, our lads seem to think they are ‘the salt of the earth’ and the legitimate lords of creation. It would delight you to see some of them playing Indian when surrounded by the wonders and improvements of the Old World. It is impossible to match these fellows by anything this side the water. Let an Englishman talk of the battle of Waterloo, and they will immediately bring up New Orleans and Plattsburg.
“A thoroughbred, thoroughly appointed soldier is nothing to a Kentucky rifleman,” etc., etc. In contrast to this sort of American was Charles King, who was then abroad: “Charles is exactly what an American should be abroad: frank, manly, and unaffected in his habits and manners, liberal and independent in his opinions, generous and unprejudiced in his sentiments towards other nations, but most loyally attached to his own.” There was a provincial narrowness at that date and long after in America, which deprecated the open-minded patriotism of King and of Irving as it did the clear-sighted loyalty of Fenimore Cooper.
The most anxious time of Irving’s life was the winter of 1815–16. The business worry increased. He was too jaded with the din of pounds, shillings, and pence to permit his pen to invent facts or to adorn realities. Nevertheless, he occasionally escapes from the treadmill. In December he is in London, and entranced with the acting of Miss O’Neil. He thinks that Brevoort, if he saw her, would infallibly fall in love with this “divine perfection of a woman.” He writes: “She is, to my eyes, the most soul-subduing actress I ever saw; I do not mean from her personal charms, which are great, but from the truth, force, and pathos of her acting. I have never been so completely melted, moved, and overcome at a theatre as by her performances . . . . Kean, the prodigy, is to me insufferable. He is vulgar, full of trick, and a complete mannerist. This is merely my opinion. He is cried up as a second Garrick, as a reformer of the stage, etc. It may be so. He may be right, and all the other actors wrong. This is certain: he is either very good or very bad. I think decidedly the latter; and I find no medium opinions concerning him. I am delighted with Young, who acts with great judgment, discrimination, and feeling. I think him much the best actor at present on the English stage . . . . In certain characters, such as may be classed with Macbeth, I do not think that Cooper has his equal in England. Young is the only actor I have seen who can compare with him.” Later, Irving somewhat modified his opinion of Kean. He wrote to Brevoort: “Kean is a strange compound of merits and defects. His excellence consists in sudden and brilliant touches, in vivid exhibitions of passion and emotion. I do not think him a discriminating actor, or critical either at understanding or delineating character; but he produces effects which no other actor does.”
In the summer of 1816, on his way from Liverpool to visit his sister’s family at Birmingham, Irving tarried for a few days at a country place near Shrewsbury on the border of Wales, and while there encountered a character whose portrait is cleverly painted. It is interesting to compare this first sketch with the elaboration of it in the essay on “The Angler” in the “Sketch–Book.”
“In one of our morning strolls [he writes, July 15] along the banks of the Aleen, a beautiful little pastoral stream that rises among the Welsh mountains and throws itself into the Dee, we encountered a veteran angler of old Isaac Walton’s school. He was an old Greenwich outdoor pensioner, had lost one leg in the battle of Camperdown, had been in America in his youth, and indeed had been quite a rover, but for many years past had settled himself down in his native village, not far distant, where he lived very independently on his pension and some other small annual sums, amounting in all to about L 40. His great hobby, and indeed the business of his life, was to angle. I found he had read Isaac Walton very attentively; he seemed to have imbibed all his simplicity of heart, contentment of mind, and fluency of tongue. We kept company with him almost the whole day, wandering along the beautiful banks of the river, admiring the ease and elegant dexterity with which the old fellow managed his angle, throwing the fly with unerring certainty at a great distance and among overhanging bushes, and waving it gracefully in the air, to keep it from entangling, as he stumped with his staff and wooden leg from one bend of the river to another. He kept up a continual flow of cheerful and entertaining talk, and what I particularly liked him for was, that though we tried every way to entrap him into some abuse of America and its inhabitants, there was no getting him to utter an ill-natured word concerning us. His whole conversation and deportment illustrated old Isaac’s maxims as to the benign influence of angling over the human heart . . . . I ought to mention that he had two companions — one, a ragged, picturesque varlet, that had all the air of a veteran poacher, and I warrant would find any fish-pond in the neighborhood in the darkest night; the other was a disciple of the old philosopher, studying the art under him, and was son and heir apparent to the landlady of the village tavern.”
A contrast to this pleasing picture is afforded by some character sketches at the little watering-place of Buxton, which our kindly observer visited the same year.
“At the hotel where we put up [he writes] we had a most singular and whimsical assemblage of beings. I don’t know whether you were ever at an English watering-place, but if you have not been, you have missed the best opportunity of studying English oddities, both moral and physical. I no longer wonder at the English being such excellent caricaturists, they have such an inexhaustible number and variety of subjects to study from. The only care should be not to follow fact too closely, for I ‘ll swear I have met with characters and figures that would be condemned as extravagant, if faithfully delineated by pen or pencil. At a watering-place like Buxton, where people really resort for health, you see the great tendency of the English to run into excrescences and bloat out into grotesque deformities. As to noses, I say nothing of them, though we had every variety: some snubbed and turned up, with distended nostrils, like a dormer window on the roof of a house; others convex and twisted like a buck-handled knife; and others magnificently eforescent, like a full-blown cauliflower. But as to the persons that were attached to these noses, fancy any distortion, protuberance, and fungous embellishment that can be produced in the human form by high and gross feeding, by the bloating operations of malt liquors, and by the rheumy influence of a damp, foggy, vaporous climate. One old fellow was an exception to this, for instead of acquiring that expansion and sponginess to which old people are prone in this country, from the long course of internal and external soakage they experience, he had grown dry and stiff in the process of years. The skin of his face had so shrunk away that he could not close eyes or mouth — the latter, therefore, stood on a perpetual ghastly grin, and the former on an incessant stare. He had but one serviceable joint in his body, which was at the bottom of the backbone, and that creaked and grated whenever he bent. He could not raise his feet from the ground, but skated along the drawing-room carpet whenever he wished to ring the bell. The only sign of moisture in his whole body was a pellucid drop that I occasionally noticed on the end of along, dry nose. He used generally to shuffle about in company with a little fellow that was fat on one side and lean on the other. That is to say, he was warped on one side as if he had been scorched before the fire; he had a wry neck, which made his head lean on one shoulder; his hair was smugly powdered, and he had a round, smirking, smiling, apple face, with a bloom on it like that of a frostbitten leaf in autumn. We had an old, fat general by the name of Trotter, who had, I suspect, been promoted to his high rank to get him out of the way of more able and active officers, being an instance that a man may occasionally rise in the world through absolute lack of merit. I could not help watching the movements of this redoubtable old Hero, who, I’ll warrant, has been the champion and safeguard of half the garrison towns in England, and fancying to myself how Bonaparte would have delighted in having such toast-and-butter generals to deal with. This old cad is doubtless a sample of those generals that flourished in the old military school, when armies would manoeuvre and watch each other for months; now and then have a desperate skirmish, and, after marching and countermarching about the ‘Low Countries’ through a glorious campaign, retire on the first pinch of cold weather into snug winter quarters in some fat Flemish town, and eat and drink and fiddle through the winter. Boney must have sadly disconcerted the comfortable system of these old warriors by the harrowing, restless, cut-and-slash mode of warfare that he introduced. He has put an end to all the old carte and tierce system in which the cavaliers of the old school fought so decorously, as it were with a small sword in one hand and a chapeau bras in the other. During his career there has been a sad laying on the shelf of old generals who could not keep up with the hurry, the fierceness and dashing of the new system; and among the number I presume has been my worthy house-mate, old Trotter. The old gentleman, in spite of his warlike title, had a most pacific appearance. He was large and fat, with a broad, hazy, muffin face, a sleepy eye, and a full double chin. He had a deep ravine from each corner of his mouth, not occasioned by any irascible contraction of the muscles, but apparently the deep-worn channels of two rivulets of gravy that oozed out from the huge mouthfuls that he masticated. But I forbear to dwell on the odd beings that were congregated together in one hotel. I have been thus prolix about the old general because you desired me in one of your letters to give you ample details whenever I happened to be in company with the ‘great and glorious,’ and old Trotter is more deserving of the epithet than any of the personages I have lately encountered.”
It was at the same resort of fashion and disease that Irving observed a phenomenon upon which Brevoort had commented as beginning to be noticeable in America.
“Your account [he writes of the brevity of the old lady’s nether garments] distresses me . . . . I cannot help observing that this fashion of short skirts must have been invented by the French ladies as a complete trick upon John Bull’s ‘woman-folk.’ It was introduced just at the time the English flocked in such crowds to Paris. The French women, you know, are remarkable for pretty feet and ankles, and can display them in perfect security. The English are remarkable for the contrary. Seeing the proneness of the English women to follow French fashions, they therefore led them into this disastrous one, and sent them home with their petticoats up to their knees, exhibiting such a variety of sturdy little legs as would have afforded Hogarth an ample choice to match one of his assemblages of queer heads. It is really a great source of curiosity and amusement on the promenade of a watering-place to observe the little sturdy English women, trudging about in their stout leather shoes, and to study the various ‘understandings’ betrayed to view by this mischievous fashion.”
The years passed rather wearily in England. Peter continued to be an invalid, and Washington himself, never robust, felt the pressure more and more of the irksome and unprosperous business affairs. Of his own want of health, however, he never complains; he maintains a patient spirit in the ill turns of fortune, and his impatience in the business complications is that of a man hindered from his proper career. The times were depressing.
“In America [he writes to Brevoort] you have financial difficulties, the embarrassments of trade, the distress of merchants, but here you have what is far worse, the distress of the poor — not merely mental sufferings, but the absolute miseries of nature: hunger, nakedness, wretchedness of all kinds that the laboring people in this country are liable to. In the best of times they do but subsist, but in adverse times they starve. How the country is to extricate itself from its present embarrassment, how it is to escape from the poverty that seems to be overwhelming it, and how the government is to quiet the multitudes that are already turbulent and clamorous, and are yet but in the beginning of their real miseries, I cannot conceive.”
The embarrassments of the agricultural and laboring classes and of the government were as serious in 1816 as they have again become in 1881.
During 1817 Irving was mostly in the depths of gloom, a prey to the monotony of life and torpidity of intellect. Rays of sunlight pierce the clouds occasionally. The Van Wart household at Birmingham was a frequent refuge for him, and we have pretty pictures of the domestic life there; glimpses of Old Parr, whose reputation as a gourmand was only second to his fame as a Grecian, and of that delightful genius, the Rev. Rann Kennedy, who might have been famous if he had ever committed to paper the long poems that he carried about in his head, and the engaging sight of Irving playing the flute for the little Van Warts to dance. During the holidays Irving paid another visit to the haunts of Isaac Walton, and his description of the adventures and mishaps of a pleasure party on the banks of the Dove suggest that the incorrigible bachelor was still sensitive to the allurements of life; and liable to wander over the “dead-line” of matrimonial danger. He confesses that he was all day in Elysium. “When we had descended from the last precipice,” he says, “and come to where the Dove flowed musically through a verdant meadow — then — fancy me, oh, thou ‘sweetest of poets,’ wandering by the course of this romantic stream — a lovely girl hanging on my arm, pointing out the beauties of the surrounding scenery, and repeating in the most dulcet voice tracts of heaven-born poetry. If a strawberry smothered in cream has any consciousness of its delicious situation, it must feel as I felt at that moment.” Indeed, the letters of this doleful year are enlivened by so many references to the graces and attractions of lovely women, seen and remembered, that insensibility cannot be attributed to the author of the “Sketch–Book.”
The death of Irving’s mother in the spring of 1817 determined him to remain another year abroad. Business did not improve. His brother-inlaw Van Wart called a meeting of his creditors, the Irving brothers floundered on into greater depths of embarrassment, and Washington, who could not think of returning home to face poverty in New York, began to revolve a plan that would give him a scanty but sufficient support. The idea of the “Sketch–Book” was in his mind. He had as yet made few literary acquaintances in England. It is an illustration of the warping effect of friendship upon the critical faculty that his opinion of Moore at this time was totally changed by subsequent intimacy. At a later date the two authors became warm friends and mutual admirers of each other’s productions. In June, 1817, “Lalla Rookh” was just from the press, and Irving writes to Brevoort: “Moore’s new poem is just out. I have not sent it to you, for it is dear and worthless. It is written in the most effeminate taste, and fit only to delight boarding-school girls and lads of nineteen just in their first loves. Moore should have kept to songs and epigrammatic conceits. His stream of intellect is too small to bear expansion — it spreads into mere surface.” Too much cream for the strawberry!
Notwithstanding business harassments in the summer and fall of 1817 he found time for some wandering about the island; he was occasionally in London, dining at Murray’s, where he made the acquaintance of the elder D’Israeli and other men of letters (one of his notes of a dinner at Murray’s is this: “Lord Byron told Murray that he was much happier after breaking with Lady Byron — he hated this still, quiet life”); he was publishing a new edition of the “Knickerbocker,” illustrated by Leslie and Allston; and we find him at home in the friendly and brilliant society of Edinburgh; both the magazine publishers, Constable and Blackwood, were very civil to him, and Mr. Jeffrey (Mrs. Renwick was his sister) was very attentive; and he passed some days with Walter Scott, whose home life he so agreeably describes in his sketch of “Abbotsford.” He looked back longingly to the happy hours there (he writes to his brother): “Scott reading, occasionally, from ‘Prince Arthur;’ telling border stories or characteristic ancedotes; Sophy Scott singing with charming ‘naivete’ a little border song; the rest of the family disposed in listening groups, while greyhounds, spaniels, and cats bask in unbounded indulgence before the fire. Everything about Scott is perfect character and picture.”
In the beginning of 1818 the business affairs of the brothers became so irretrievably involved that Peter and Washington went through the humiliating experience of taking the bankrupt act. Washington’s connection with the concern was little more than nominal, and he felt small anxiety for himself, and was eager to escape from an occupation which had taken all the elasticity out of his mind. But on account of his brothers, in this dismal wreck of a family connection, his soul was steeped in bitterness. Pending the proceedings of the commissioners, he shut himself up day and night to the study of German, and while waiting for the examination used to walk up and down the room, conning over the German verbs.
In August he went up to London and cast himself irrevocably upon the fortune of his pen. He had accumulated some materials, and upon these he set to work. Efforts were made at home to procure for him the position of Secretary of Legation in London, which drew from him the remark, when they came to his knowledge, that he did not like to have his name hackneyed about among the office-seekers in Washington. Subsequently his brother William wrote him that Commodore Decatur was keeping open for him the office of Chief Clerk in the Navy Department. To the mortification and chagrin of his brothers, Washington declined the position. He was resolved to enter upon no duties that would interfere with his literary pursuits.
This resolution, which exhibited a modest confidence in his own powers, and the energy with which he threw himself into his career, showed the fiber of the man. Suddenly, by the reverse of fortune, he who had been regarded as merely the ornamental genius of the family became its stay and support. If he had accepted the aid of his brothers, during the experimental period of his life, in the loving spirit of confidence in which it was given, he was not less ready to reverse the relations when the time came; the delicacy with which his assistance was rendered, the scrupulous care taken to convey the feeling that his brothers were doing him a continued favor in sharing his good fortune, and their own unjealous acceptance of what they would as freely have given if circumstances had been different, form one of the pleasantest instances of brotherly concord and self-abnegation. I know nothing more admirable than the lifelong relations of this talented and sincere family.
Before the “Sketch–Book” was launched, and while Irving was casting about for the means of livelihood, Walter Scott urged him to take the editorship of an anti-Jacobin periodical in Edinburgh. This he declined because he had no taste for politics, and because he was averse to stated, routine literary work. Subsequently Mr. Murray offered him a salary of a thousand guineas to edit a periodical to be published by himself. This was declined, as also was another offer to contribute to the “London Quarterly” with the liberal pay of one hundred guineas an article. For the “Quarterly” he would not write, because, he says, “it has always been so hostile to my country, I cannot draw a pen in its service.” This is worthy of note in view of a charge made afterwards, when he was attacked for his English sympathies, that he was a frequent contributor to this anti-American review. His sole contributions to it were a gratuitous review of the book of an American author, and an explanatory article, written at the desire of his publisher, on the “Conquest of Granada.” It is not necessary to dwell upon the small scandal about Irving’s unAmerican’ feeling. If there was ever a man who loved his country and was proud of it; whose broad, deep, and strong patriotism did not need the saliency of ignorant partisanship, it was Washington Irving. He was, like his namesake, an American, and with the same pure loyalty and unpartisan candor.
The first number of the “Sketch–Book” was published in America in May, 1819. Irving was then thirty-six years old. The series was not completed till September, 1820. The first installment was carried mainly by two papers, “The Wife” and “Rip Van Winkle:” the one full of tender pathos that touched all hearts, because it was recognized as a genuine expression of the author’s nature; and the other a happy effort of imaginative humor, one of those strokes of genius that re-create the world and clothe it with the unfading hues of romance; the theme was an old-world echo, transformed by genius into a primal story that will endure as long as the Hudson flows through its mountains to the sea. A great artist can paint a great picture on a small canvas.
The “Sketch–Book” created a sensation in America, and the echo of it was not long in reaching England. The general chorus of approval and the rapid sale surprised Irving, and sent his spirits up, but success had the effect on him that it always has on a fine nature. He writes to Leslie: “Now you suppose I am all on the alert, and full of spirit and excitement. No such thing. I am just as good for nothing as ever I was; and, indeed, have been flurried and put out of my way by these pufflngs. I feel something as I suppose you did when your picture met with success, — anxious to do something better, and at a loss what to do.”
It was with much misgiving that Irving made this venture. “I feel great diffidence,” he writes Brevoort, March 3, 1819,” about this reappearance in literature. I am conscious of my imperfections, and my mind has been for a long time past so pressed upon and agitated by various cares and anxieties, that I fear it has lost much of its cheerfulness and some of its activity. I have attempted no lofty theme, nor sought to look wise and learned, which appears to be very much the fashion among our American writers at present. I have preferred addressing myself to the feelings and fancy of the reader more than to his judgment. My writings may appear, therefore, light and trifling in our country of philosophers and politicians. But if they possess merit in the class of literature to which they belong, it is all to which I aspire in the work. I seek only to blow a flute accompaniment in the national concert, and leave others to play the fiddle and Frenchhorn.” This diffidence was not assumed. All through his career, a breath of criticism ever so slight acted temporarily like a boar-frost upon his productive power. He always saw reasons to take sides with his critic. Speaking of “vanity” in a letter of March, 1820, when Scott and Lockhart and all the Reviews were in a full chorus of acclaim, he says: “I wish I did possess more of it, but it seems my curse at present to have anything but confidence in myself or pleasure in anything I have written.”
In a similar strain he had written, in September, 1819, on the news of the cordial reception of the “Sketch–Book” in America:
“The manner in which the work has been received, and the eulogiums that have been passed upon it in the American papers and periodical works, have completely overwhelmed me. They go far, far beyond my most sanguine expectations, and indeed are expressed with such peculiar warmth and kindness as to affect me in the tenderest manner. The receipt of your letter, and the reading of some of the criticisms this morning, have rendered me nervous for the whole day. I feel almost appalled by such success, and fearful that it cannot be real, or that it is not fully merited, or that I shall not act up to the expectations that may be formed. We are whimsically constituted beings. I had got out of conceit of all that I had written, and considered it very questionable stuff; and now that it is so extravagantly be praised, I begin to feel afraid that I shall not do as well again. However, we shall see as we get on. As yet I am extremely irregular and precarious in my fits of composition. The least thing puts me out of the vein, and even applause flurries me and prevents my writing, though of course it will ultimately be a stimulus . . . .
“I have been somewhat touched by the manner in which my writings have been noticed in the ‘Evening Post.’ I had considered Coleman as cherishing an ill-will toward me, and, to tell the truth, have not always been the most courteous in my opinions concerning him. It is a painful thing either to dislike others or to fancy they dislike us, and I have felt both pleasure and self-reproach at finding myself so mistaken with respect to Mr. Coleman. I like to out with a good feeling as soon as it rises, and so I have dropt Coleman a line on the subject.
“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 contemplated publishing in England, but the papers began to be reprinted, and he was obliged to protect himself. He offered the sketches to Murray, the princely publisher, who afterwards dealt so liberally with him, but the venture was declined in a civil note, written in that charming phraseology with which authors are familiar, but which they would in vain seek to imitate. Irving afterwards greatly prized this letter. He undertook the risks of the publication himself, and the book sold well, although “written by an author the public knew nothing of, and published by a bookseller who was going to ruin.” In a few months Murray, who was thereafter proud to be Irving’s publisher, undertook the publication of the two volumes of the “Sketch–Book,” and also of the “Knickerbocker” history, which Mr. Lockhart had just been warmly praising in “Blackwood’s.” Indeed, he bought the copyright of the “Sketch–Book” for two hundred pounds. The time for the publisher’s complaisance had arrived sooner even than Scott predicted in one of his kindly letters to Irving, “when
“‘Your name is up and may go
From Toledo to Madrid.’”
Irving passed five years in England. Once recognized by the literary world, whatever was best in the society of letters and of fashion was open to him. He was a welcome guest in the best London houses, where he met the foremost literary personages of the time, and established most cordial relations with many of them; not to speak of statesmen, soldiers, and men and women of fashion, there were the elder D’Israeli, Southey, Campbell, Hallam, Gifford, Milman, Foscolo, Rogers, Scott, and Belzoni fresh from his Egyptian explorations. In Irving’s letters this old society passes in review: Murray’s drawing-rooms; the amusing blue-stocking coteries of fashion of which Lady Caroline Lamb was a promoter; the Countess of Besborough’s, at whose house the Duke could be seen; the Wimbledon country seat of Lord and Lady Spence; Belzoni, a giant of six feet five, the center of a group of eager auditors of the Egyptian marvels; Hallam, affable and unpretending, and a copious talker; Gifford, a small, shriveled, deformed man of sixty, with something of a humped back, eyes that diverge, and a large mouth, reclining on a sofa, propped up by cushions, with none of the petulance that you would expect from his Review, but a mild, simple, unassuming man — he it is who prunes the contributions and takes the sting out of them (one would like to have seen them before the sting was taken out); and Scott, the right honest-hearted, entering into the passing scene with the hearty enjoyment of a child, to whom literature seems a sport rather than a labor or ambition, an author void of all the petulance, egotism, and peculiarities of the craft. We have Moore’s authority for saying that the literary dinner described in the “Tales of a Traveller,” whimsical as it seems and pervaded by the conventional notion of the relations of publishers and authors, had a personal foundation. Irving’s satire of both has always the old-time Grub Street flavor, or at least the reminiscent tone, which is, by the way, quite characteristic of nearly everything that he wrote about England. He was always a little in the past tense. Buckthorne’s advice to his friend is, never to be eloquent to an author except in praise of his own works, or, what is nearly as acceptable, in disparagement of the work of his contemporaries. “If ever he speaks favorably of the productions of a particular friend, dissent boldly from him; pronounce his friend to be a blockhead; never fear his being vexed. Much as people speak of the irritability of authors, I never found one to take offense at such contradictions. No, no, sir, authors are particularly candid in admitting the faults of their friends.” At the dinner Buckthorne explains the geographical boundaries in the land of literature: you may judge tolerably well of an author’s popularity by the wine his bookseller gives him. “An author crosses the port line about the third edition, and gets into claret; and when he has reached the sixth or seventh, he may revel in champagne and burgundy.” The two ends of the table were occupied by the two partners, one of whom laughed at the clever things said by the poet, while the other maintained his sedateness and kept on carving. “His gravity was explained to us by my friend Buckthorne. He informed me that the concerns of the house were admirably distributed among the partners. Thus, for instance, said he, the grave gentleman is the carving partner, who attends to the joints; and the other is the laughing partner, who attends to the jokes.” If any of the jokes from the lower end of the table reached the upper end, they seldom produced much effect. “Even the laughing partner did not think it necessary to honor them with a smile; which my neighbor Buckthorne accounted for by informing me that there was a certain degree of popularity to be obtained before a book seller could afford to laugh at an author’s jokes.”
In August, 1820, we find Irving in Paris, where his reputation secured him a hearty welcome: he was often at the Cannings’ and at Lord Holland’s; Talma, then the king of the stage, became his friend, and there he made the acquaintance of Thomas Moore, which ripened into a familiar and lasting friendship. The two men were drawn to each other; Irving greatly admired the “noble hearted, manly, spirited little fellow, with a mind as generous as his fancy is brilliant.” Talma was playing “Hamlet” to overflowing houses, which hung on his actions with breathless attention, or broke into ungovernable applause; ladies were carried fainting from the boxes. The actor is described as short in stature, rather inclined to fat, with a large face and a thick neck; his eyes are bluish, and have a peculiar cast in them at times. He said to Irving that he thought the French character much changed — graver; the day of the classic drama, mere declamation and fine language, had gone by; the Revolution had taught them to demand real life, incident, passion, character. Irving’s life in Paris was gay enough, and seriously interfered with his literary projects. He had the fortunes of his brother Peter on his mind also, and invested his earnings, then and for some years after, in enterprises for his benefit that ended in disappointment.
The “Sketch–Book” was making a great fame for him in England. Jeffrey, in the “Edinburgh Review,” paid it a most flattering tribute, and even the savage “Quarterly” praised it. A rumor attributed it to Scott, who was always masquerading; at least, it was said, he might have revised it, and should have the credit of its exquisite style. This led to a sprightly correspondence between Lady Littleton, the daughter of Earl Spencer, one of the most accomplished and lovely women of England, and Benjamin Rush, Minister to the Court of St. James, in the course of which Mr. Rush suggested the propriety of giving out under his official seal that Irving was the author of “Waverley.” “Geoffrey Crayon is the most fashionable fellow of the day,” wrote the painter Leslie. Lord Byron, in a letter to Murray, underscored his admiration of the author, and subsequently said to an American, “His Crayon — I know it by heart; at least, there is not a passage that I cannot refer to immediately.” And afterwards he wrote to Moore, “His writings are my delight.” There seemed to be, as some one wrote, “a kind of conspiracy to hoist him over the heads of his contemporaries.” Perhaps the most satisfactory evidence of his popularity was his publisher’s enthusiasm. The publisher is an infallible contemporary barometer.
It is worthy of note that an American should have captivated public attention at the moment when Scott and Byron were the idols of the English-reading world.
In the following year Irving was again in England, visiting his sister in Birmingham, and tasting moderately the delights of London. He was, indeed, something of an invalid. An eruptive malady — the revenge of nature, perhaps, for defeat in her earlier attack on his lungs,-appearing in his ankles, incapacitated him for walking, tormented him at intervals so that literary composition was impossible, sent him on pilgrimages to curative springs, and on journeys undertaken for distraction and amusement, in which all work except that of seeing and absorbing material had to be postponed. He was subject to this recurring invalidism all his life, and we must regard a good part of the work he did as a pure triumph of determination over physical discouragement. This year the fruits of his interrupted labor appeared in “Bracebridge Hall,” a volume that was well received, but did not add much to his reputation, though it contained “Dolph Heyliger,” one of his most characteristic Dutch stories, and the “Stout Gentleman,” one of his daintiest and most artistic bits of restrained humor. —[‘I was once’ says his biographer reading aloud in his presence a very flattering review of his works, which, had been sent him by the critic in 1848, and smiled as I came to this sentence: ‘His most comical pieces have always a serious end in view.’—‘You laugh,’ said he, but it is true. I have kept that to myself hitherto, but that man has found me out. He has detected the moral of the Stout Gentleman with that air of whimsical significance so natural to him.’]
Irving sought relief from his malady by an extended tour in Germany. He sojourned some time in Dresden, whither his reputation had preceded him, and where he was cordially and familiarly received, not only by the foreign residents, but at the prim and antiquated little court of King Frederick Augustus and Queen Amalia. Of Irving at this time Mrs. Emily Fuller (nee Foster), whose relations with him have been referred to, wrote in 1860:
“He was thoroughly a gentleman, not merely in external manners and look, but to the innermost fibres and core of his heart; sweet-tempered, gentle, fastidious, sensitive, and gifted with the warmest affections; the most delightful and invariably interesting companion; gay and full of humor, even in spite of occasional fits of melancholy, which he was, however, seldom subject to when with those he liked; a gift of conversation that flowed like a full river in sunshine — bright, easy, and abundant.”
Those were pleasant days at Dresden, filled up with the society of bright and warm-hearted people, varied by royal boar hunts, stiff ceremonies at the little court, tableaux, and private theatricals, yet tinged with a certain melancholy, partly constitutional, that appears in most of his letters. His mind was too unsettled for much composition. He had little self-confidence, and was easily put out by a breath of adverse criticism. At intervals he would come to the Fosters to read a manuscript of his own.
“On these occasions strict orders were given that no visitor should be admitted till the last word had been read, and the whole praised or criticised, as the case may be. Of criticism, however, we were very spare, as a slight word would put him out of conceit of a whole work. One of the best things he has published was thrown aside, unfinished, for years, because the friend to whom he read it, happening, unfortunately, not to be well, and sleepy, did not seem to take the interest in it he expected. Too easily discouraged, it was not till the latter part of his career that he ever appreciated himself as an author. One condemning whisper sounded louder in his ear than the plaudits of thousands.”
This from Miss Emily Foster, who elsewhere notes his kindliness in observing life:
“Some persons, in looking upon life, view it as they would view a picture, with a stern and criticising eye. He also looks upon life as a picture, but to catch its beauties, its lights — not its defects and shadows. On the former he loves to dwell. He has a wonderful knack at shutting his eyes to the sinister side of anything. Never beat a more kindly heart than his; alive to the sorrows, but not to the faults, of his friends, but doubly alive to their virtues and goodness. Indeed, people seemed to grow more good with one so unselfish and so gentle.”
In London, some years later:
“He was still the same; time changed him very little. His conversation was as interesting as ever [he was always an excellent relater]; his dark gray eyes still full of varying feeling; his smile ‘half playful, half melancholy, but ever kind. All that was mean, or envious, or harsh, he seemed to turn from so completely that, when with him, it seemed that such things were not. All gentle and tender affections, Nature in her sweetest or grandest moods, pervaded his whole imagination, and left no place for low or evil thoughts; and when in good spirits, his humor, his droll descriptions, and his fun would make the gravest or the saddest laugh.”
As to Irving’s “state of mind” in Dresden, it is pertinent to quote a passage from what we gather to be a journal kept by Miss Flora Foster:
“He has written. He has confessed to my mother, as to a true and dear friend, his love for E— — and his conviction of its utter hopelessness. He feels himself unable to combat it. He thinks he must try, by absence, to bring more peace to his mind. Yet he cannot bear to give up our friendship — an intercourse become so dear to him, and so necessary to his daily happiness. Poor Irving!”
It is well for our peace of mind that we do not know what is going down concerning us in “journals.” On his way to the Herrnhuthers, Mr. Irving wrote to Mrs. Foster:
“When I consider how I have trifled with my time, suffered painful vicissitudes of feeling, which for a time damaged both mind and body — when I consider all this, I reproach myself that I did not listen to the first impulse of my mind, and abandon Dresden long since. And yet I think of returning! Why should I come back to Dresden? The very inclination that dooms me thither should furnish reasons for my staying away.”
In this mood, the Herrnhuthers, in their right-angled, whitewashed world, were little attractive.
“If the Herrnhuthers were right in their notions, the world would have been laid out in squares and angles and right lines, and everything would have been white and black and snuff-color, as they have been clipped by these merciless retrenchers of beauty and enjoyment. And then their dormitories! Think of between one and two hundred of these simple gentlemen cooped up at night in one great chamber! What a concert of barrel-organs in this great resounding saloon! And then their plan of marriage! The very birds of the air choose their mates from preference and inclination; but this detestable system of lot! The sentiment of love may be, and is, in a great measure, a fostered growth of poetry and romance, and balder-dashed with false sentiment; but with all its vitiations, it is the beauty and the charm, the flavor and the fragrance, of all intercourse between man and woman; it is the rosy cloud in the morning of life; and if it does too often resolve itself into the shower, yet, to my mind, it only makes our nature more fruitful in what is excellent and amiable.”
Better suited him Prague, which is certainly a part of the “naughty world” that Irving preferred:
“Old Prague still keeps up its warrior look, and swaggers about with its rusty corselet and helm, though both sadly battered. There seems to me to be an air of style and fashion about the first people of Prague, and a good deal of beauty in the fashionable circle. This, perhaps, is owing to my contemplating it from a distance, and my imagination lending it tints occasionally. Both actors and audience, contemplated from the pit of a theatre, look better than when seen in the boxes and behind the scenes. I like to contemplate society in this way occasionally, and to dress it up by the help of fancy, to my own taste. When I get in the midst of it, it is too apt to lose its charm, and then there is the trouble and ennui of being obliged to take an active part in the farce; but to be a mere spectator is amusing. I am glad, therefore, that I brought no letters to Prague. I shall leave it with a favorable idea of its society and manners, from knowing nothing accurate of either; and with a firm belief that every pretty woman I have seen is an angel, as I am apt to think every pretty woman, until I have found her out.”
In July, 1823, Irving returned to Paris, to the society of the Moores and the fascinations of the gay town, and to fitful literary work. Our author wrote with great facility and rapidity when the inspiration was on him, and produced an astonishing amount of manuscript in a short period; but he often waited and fretted through barren weeks and months for the movement of his fitful genius. His mind was teeming constantly with new projects, and nothing could exceed his industry when once he had taken a work in hand; but he never acquired the exact methodical habits which enable some literary men to calculate their power and quantity of production as accurately as that of a cotton mill.
The political changes in France during the period of Irving’s long sojourn in Paris do not seem to have taken much of his attention. In a letter dated October 5, 1826, he says: “We have had much bustle in Paris of late, between the death of one king and the succession of another. I have become a little callous to public sights, but have, notwithstanding, been to see the funeral of the late king, and the entrance into Paris of the present one. Charles X. begins his reign in a very conciliating manner, and is really popular. The Bourbons have gained great accession of power within a few years.”
The succession of Charles X. was also observed by another foreigner, who was making agreeable personal notes at that time in Paris, but who is not referred to by Irving, who, for some unexplained reason, failed to meet the genial Scotsman at breakfast. Perhaps it is to his failure to do so that he owes the semi-respectful reference to himself in Carlyle’s “Reminiscences.” Lacking the stimulus to his vocabulary of personal acquaintance, Carlyle simply wrote: “Washington Irving was said to be in Paris, a kind of lion at that time, whose books I somewhat esteemed. One day the Emerson–Tennant people bragged that they had engaged him to breakfast with us at a certain cafe next morning. We all attended duly, Strackey among the rest, but no Washington came. ‘Could n’t rightly come,’ said Malcolm to me in a judicious aside, as we cheerfully breakfasted without him. I never saw Washington at all, but still have a mild esteem of the good man.” This ought to be accepted as evidence of Carlyle’s disinclination to say ill-natured things of those he did not know.
The “Tales of a Traveller” appeared in 1826. In the author’s opinion, with which the best critics agreed, it contained some of his best writing. He himself said in a letter to Brevoort, “There was more of an artistic touch about it, though this is not a thing to be appreciated by the many.” It was rapidly written. The movement has a delightful spontaneity, and it is wanting in none of the charms of his style, unless, perhaps, the style is over-refined; but it was not a novelty, and the public began to criticise and demand a new note. This may have been one reason why he turned to a fresh field and to graver themes. For a time he busied himself on some American essays of a semi-political nature, which were never finished, and he seriously contemplated a Life of Washington; but all these projects were thrown aside for one that kindled his imagination — the Life of Columbus; and in February, 1826, he was domiciled at Madrid, and settled down to a long period of unremitting and intense labor.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:51