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Washington Irving Today

ISSUE:  Spring 1936

The Life of Washington Irving. By Stanley T. Williams, New York: Oxford University Press. Two volumes. $15.00.

Irving runs to 946 large pages and includes nearly four thousand notes. In his Introduction he seems to feel it necessary almost to apologize for its great length: if we understand Irving, we understand “a dominating tendency of American literature prior to the Civil War”; moreover, he wished to contribute to that accumulating store of factual materials upon which alone an adequate criticism of American thought can finally be based. There can be no doubt that he has made a contribution, and a very important one. He has literally scoured the world for his materials; the life of Washington Irving will never need to be written again.

What, then, of the man who emerges from this mountain of words, and what of the writer? There are a good many entries on the debit side. He was an idler and dilettante, not even ambitious enough in his youth to go to college. He trifled with the law over the period of a decade; even after he was established as a famous writer, he was capable of drifting with the tide for years at a stretch; as late as 1823 and 1824 he gave himself to hack work. Indifferent to political principles, he was not, as has often been stated, uninterested in politics as a game, “and it was not because he wrote The Sketch Book’ that he had in succession opportunities to become a candidate for Mayor on the Tammany ticket, a Democratic candidate for Congress, and Secretary of the Navy under the adroit Van Buren.” There is no social criticism of any importance in his books, and his romantic bent cannot excuse him for this, for even here he was the dilettante, “dead to the deeper impulses of romanticism” itself. Among his literary gods, Scott alone was first-rate: he saw nothing in Wordsworth or Shelley; Poe and Hawthorne were in his eyes simply two more among the group of rising young American authors who paid homage to him as their rightful king; Tennyson and Browning he could not read at all. His scholarship was weak; Spanish was the only foreign language he ever mastered. In biography, his characteristic method was to base his work upon an authoritative collection of materials assembled by some first-rate scholar, to supplement it, to embroider upon it, to infuse it with his “charm.” During his early life he was the elegant expatriate, a part of English rather than of American literature; after his return to America in 1832, he closed his eyes increasingly to the unlovelier aspects of the young Republic’s life, and through his association with John Jacob Astor he himself became “the historian for big business of the ‘thirties.” Professor Williams may be rationalizing a little, from the standpoint of a later age, when he tries to describe the secret of Irving’s popularity with his countrymen at this time: “Astor had made his money in furs; Irving in literature; nothing was too good for either.” We may doubt whether the people of the time understood themselves quite so clearly. But it is hard to forgive Irving’s own Philistine statement of his latter days: “I have as great contempt for these things [literature, etc.] as anybody, though I have to stoop to them occasionally for the sake of a livelihood.”

Very occasionally, perhaps, Professor Williams may be said to disregard Mr. Chesterton’s warning that we must not forget our age is only an age, not the Day of Judgment. But it would be very unfair to suggest that he belongs with the “debunkers.” He has, he says, not tried to measure Irving’s output “by the immemorial touchstones of the past, tested by which he is often trivial, or by the standards of today, by which he has been outmoded”; instead he has attempted “a study of his career and writings in fusion with the literary criteria of his own time.” There are kind words for “The Sketch Book,” the “Knickerbocker’s History,” and “The Alhambra”; even “Astoria” is defended from the worst charges against it. I think that, in common with many of his predecessors, Professor Williams is a little hard on “Tales of a Traveller”—a book that contains “The Devil and Tom Walker” cannot be too contemptuously dismissed. The “Goldsmith” is a “thrice-bastard biography,” yet Professor Williams knows that Irving gave it something which John Forster found it quite impossible to put into his infinitely more scholarly study. And nothing could be finer than his discussion of the “Washington,” his just and generous recognition of what it was Irving himself gave that book, for all that he took over the groundwork, with inadequate acknowledgment, from Sparks. “Irving was, in a sense, a forerunner of the ‘modern’ biographer. Like him, he used others’ researches; like him, he acknowledged obligations sketchily; like him, his aims were pictorial, literary, and, with limitations, psychological.”

Irving belonged to the genteel tradition, and it is in this light that he must be judged. It is as difficult for us today to realize that “Bracebridge Hall” was once attacked for its “indecencies” as it is to remember that when “Enoch Arden” first appeared, there were Englishmen, not confined in asylums, who chose to regard Tennyson as a dangerous champion of bigamy. More impressive, even, in the case of Irving, is the fact that the historian Prescott could find hardly anything fine enough to say concerning his absurdly sentimental biography of Margaret Miller Davidson. Such instances show how difficult it is, with the little knowledge that even the best informed of us has, to attempt a judgment of any one among the typical figures of the past. How far is our dissatisfaction with Irving dissatisfaction with Irving, and how far is it dissatisfaction with his age? He cannot be completely exonerated on this score, for Fenimore Cooper was a contemporary, and Cooper saw much, much more clearly. At least this must be said for Irving, however: he stands or falls as a man of letters. Of how many of the amateur sociologists and pseudo-psychologists who are masquerading as novelists today (and who would all be very scornful if they were compared to Washington Irving) could that be said?

No minute study of Professor Williams’s own contributions can be attempted in a review of this character. He attempts nothing revolutionary; his new evidence does not permit it. Instead he seeks “to add subtler, more delicate traits to the conventional image, showing him [Irving] hated as well as loved, writing desperately for bread instead of dwelling serenely in the Alhambra or at Sunnyside.” He has been entirely successful. Writing at such length and in such thoroughly scholarly fashion, he has voluntarily relinquished the larger audience which might have welcomed a more popular book. For this one must still go to the vivid pages of Mr. George S. Hellman’s “Washington Irving, Esquire.” But the book is consistently interesting and the scholarship is nowhere oppressive. The Oxford Press has given the two volumes a handsome format, except for the many excellent illustrations, which are printed in a style suggestive of the rotogravure sections in the “movie” magazines.


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