WASHINGTON IRVING may be regarded as the first author produced by the American Republic.
He was, we may recall, born in 1783, the year in which the Republic secured, under the Treaty of Paris, recognition of its independence.
My father’s home was a few miles south of Sunnyside. From time to time, my father would take me with him on his visits to his friend and author. I recall a word given to me by Irving a year or two before his death in regard to an interview that he had had with General Washington. He told me that when he was a youngster a year old, his nurse, who had the boy in a perambulator on the corner of Pearl Street and Broadway, held him up in her arms while Washington was passing on horseback in order that the General might place his hand on the head of the child who bore his name. “My nurse told me afterwards,” said the old gentleman, “that the General lifted me in his arms up to the pommel of his saddle and bestowed upon me a formal blessing.” I looked with reverential awe at the head that had been touched by the first President and was puzzled when the old gentleman said, “Haven, you will not see the spot that Washington touched.” I did not venture to put the question to Irving, but had word later with my father. “You goose,” said my father, “did you not know that Irving wears a wig?”
I was with my father again at Sunnyside on a grey day in November, 1859, when the friends from New York and the great group of neighbours from Tarrytown and the surrounding country had gathered together to pay their last honours to the memory of the first American author. The writer has in his memory a picture of the weather-beaten walls of the quaint little church with the background of forest trees and the surroundings of the moss-covered graves. Beyond, on the roadside, could be seen the grey walls of the old mill, in front of which Ichabod Crane had clattered past, pursued by the headless horseman. The adjoining road and the neighbouring fields were crowded with vehicles, large and small, which had gathered from all parts of the countryside. It was evident from the words and from the faces of those that had come together that the man whose life had just been brought to a close had not only made for himself a place in the literature of the world, but had been accepted as a personal friend by the neighbours of his home.
The final and, in some respects, the greatest of Irving’s productions, the Life of Washington, was completed on his seventy-sixth birthday. Six months prior to the close of his earthly labours, he had the satisfaction, before the final illness in November, of holding in his hands the printed volume.
Irving occupied an exceptional position among the literary workers of his country. It was his good fortune to begin his writing at a time when the patriotic sentiment of the nation was taking shape and when the citizens were giving their thought to the constructive work that was being done by their selected leaders in framing the foundations of the new state. It was given to Irving to make clear to his countrymen that Americans were competent not merely to organize a state but to produce literature. He was himself a clear-headed and devoted patriot, but he was able to free himself from his local feeling of antagonism toward the ancient enemy, Great Britain, and from the prejudice, always based upon ignorance, against other nations that is so often confused with patriotism.
Irving’s youthful memories and his early reading had to do with the events and with the productions of colonial days. Addison and Goldsmith are the two English writers with whose works Irving’s writings, or at least those relating to English subjects, have been most frequently compared. His biography of Goldsmith shows the keenest personal sympathy with the sweetness of nature and the literary ideals of the author of the “Vicar of Wakefield.” Irving’s works came, therefore, to be a connecting link between the literature of England (or the English inspired literature of America) and the literary creations that were more justly entitled to the name American, and Irving’s books express the character, the method of thought, the ideals and the aspirations of English folk on this side of the Atlantic.
His long sojourn in England occurred just after the close of the war of 1812-1815. The war ruined the for-tunes of the firm of which his brothers were the managers, and this bankruptcy, in preventing Irving from becoming a merchant, was the determining influence in bringing him to devote his life to literature. It was of enormous service to the relations between the two countries that in these years, when, as a result of the issues of the war, there was bitterness on both sides of the Atlantic, a cultivated, sweet-natured, clear-sighted citizen like Washing-ton Irving was sojourning in England as a kind of unofficial Ambassador of the new Republic.
The Englishmen who were disposed to think of the rebellious Yankees as a set of uncultivated and some-times insolent frontiersmen could not but recognize that in this particular American they had to do with a man of intellectual force and refinement of nature. If America could produce one such gentleman, it was probably not safe to assume that the community was entirely backward in its civilization.
Irving was the first connecting link between the English-speaking peoples on the two sides of the Atlantic, and his service to both countries in this relation can hardly be over-estimated.
Irving’s Life and Letters present many evidences of his genius for friendship. He showed as a traveller that happy faculty of coming at once into sympathy with the people of the immediate surroundings. With all circles with which he came into relations, he gave and received the best that there was to give or to receive. This enabled him to understand the spirit of the peoples with whom he had to do in France, in Spain, on the banks of the Elbe, and in his tramps through Italy and Sicily, but, as said, he was particularly fortunate in securing sympathetic relations with the people in England. He made friends everywhere, but in securing new friends in Europe, he did not forget or break relations with his old-time associates in America.
As one result of Irving’s long absence from his New York home, we have the body of letters written by him to New York friends, and the most important in the series were those to one of his earliest associates, Henry Brevoort. These letters of Irving and Brevoort (together with the answers from Brevoort to Irving) have now been collected and for the first time, in completeness, brought into print for the information of the present generation of Americans. Mr. Hellman has edited the two volumes of this series, which presents a record of friend-ship such as is hardly parallelled in the annals of our literature. From time to time, the veil of Irving’s reserve is lifted so as to divulge the inner ideals of his chivalrous soul. From time to time in the earlier portion of the series, the tribulations of business affairs interpose their shadows, but for the most part these letters present a sane and cheerful record of a noble life and of a loyal relation of friendship. The letters are valuable not only for their portrayal of the character of the man, or of the two men, but they have continuing interest in the references of a first-hand observer to the important events and the noteworthy characters of the early nineteenth century. The final letter in the Irving series is one particularly worth reading. It touches upon literature, royalty, social affairs, and diplomacy. “In my diplomacy,” writes Irving, “I have depended more upon good intentions and frank and open conduct than upon any subtle management. I have the opinion that the old maxim, Honesty is the best policy, holds good in diplomacy.”
Brevoort did not possess the high literary standard or the grace of expression of his famous friend, but his letters touch with a charming grace and a sense of humour on topics intimately interwoven with the cultural, the commercial and the political development of America during the first half of the nineteenth century. Brevoort’s letters have a special attraction in picturing. to the Americans of our generation a group of men and women among whom Irving and himself were the most interesting. Old families of New York, early writers, actors, statesmen, artists, again cross from the land of shadows, and carry us along familiar highways and fascinating by-ways of our city’s past.
Brevoort’s letters from Paris in April, 1812, are interesting as pictures of the French life of the time, and they are evidence that BrevoOrt was a careful observer of the conditions about him. In one of the later letters of the series, written in December, 1842, reference is made to Charles Dickens whose “American Notes” called forth from Brevoort intelligent comment. During his stay in Paris, Dickens had become deeply attached to Irving and in his last letter before his departure for Spain, Dickens had written “wherever you go, God bless you ! What pleasure I have had in seeing and talking with you, I will not attempt to say. As long as I live, I shall never forget the privilege of my association with you.” He asks Irving to write to him “if you have leisure under its sunny skies to think of a man who loves you and holds communication with your spirit oftener, perhaps, than any other person alive.”
The last letter in the series from Brevoort gives what may be called an intimate picture of the gossip and scan dal of the New York families of 1843. The epistle is a very mine of news for the absent friend who was then immersed in the difficulties of his Spanish mission. Irving’s reply refers to this letter as “most kind and welcome.” The wonder remains for us that these two men, at the time both past sixty, could, despite the far different lines along which their lives ran and the great distances which for so many years separated them, have thus cordially kept up their relationship in the same spirit of affection that animated them in the early days when they were looked upon as the merriest of young fellows in the little City of New York.
The letters are an assured testimonial to the fineness of nature of the two men. It is the privilege of Henry Brevoort to have his memory recalled in these later generations on the ground of the friendship for him of Washington Irving.