Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/A day with Washington Irving

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A Day with Washington Irving.

(From a letter to a friend shortly before the last mail from America
brought to England the news of Washington Irving's death.


Washington Irving had been the lion of the metropolis for more than a week, and it had been my rare good fortune to see much of him. He came here for the purpose of examining the Washington papers in the department of state, and he was the guest of his friend, the Honourable John P. Kennedy. My official position in the department had made it my duty to treat him with attention there; I met him also in company, and had a long talk with him in my quiet little library; and was his guide and companion in a visit to Arlington.[1] That my head should therefore have been full of ideas gathered from his delightful conversation was quite natural, and the fact that he once wrote to a friend a personal letter about Sir Walter Scott would seem to sanction my recording them for your gratification; and, according to my promise, therefore, I send you a few paragraphs bearing upon his own private habits and opinions. The title of his essay was "Abbotsford," and the subject of mine shall be "A day with Washington Irving," for I promise to confine myself in this letter to what I obtained while on our visit to Arlington.

Hardly had our carriage ceased rattling over the stony streets and reached the Long Bridge across the Potomac, before his conversation became so interesting that I involuntarily seized my notebook. At this professional movement he smiled, and as he did not demur, I proceeded to question him in regard to his literary career and other kindred matters, the substance of his replies being as follows:—

William Jerdan, of the London "Literary Gazette," was one of his earliest and best friends. He was the first to republish some of the stray papers of the Sketch Book—and, if you will pardon my egotism, I would here fix the fact, that the first and several of the most friendly reviews ever published in England, of my own poor productions, were written by the same distinguished critic. At the time alluded to, Mr. Irving was afloat in the world, and depended upon his pen for a living. After several of the essays had appeared in the "Gazette," the editor recommended that the whole collection should be printed in a book, and this, after some delay, was accomplished. The book was offered to John Murray, but was declined. Walter Scott recommended it to Archibald Constable, of Edinburgh and he was ready to take it; but, in the mean time, Mr. Irving had it published upon his own venture. That effort proved a failure; but the work was subsequently successful, with the imprint upon it of John Murray.

At this success no man was more astonished than himself; and when an American critic spoke of the story of "Rip Van Winkle" as a futile attempt at humour, he said he was more than half willing to believe his judgment correct. Indifference to censure and applause had never been, and was not then, a trait in his character.

On questioning Mr. Irving, in regard to "Knickerbocker's History of New York," he told me that it had cost him more hard work than any other of his productions, though he considered it decidedly the most original. He was often greatly perplexed to fix the boundary between the purely historical and the imaginative. The facts of history had given him great trouble.

As to his "Life of Washington," which had been so long expected by the public, and which was announced contrary to his wishes, and had given him great annoyance, he said, he hardly believed he would ever send it to press. He loved the subject, and thought first of writing such a work twenty years before. But so many able men had written upon it, he did not believe he could say anything new. Many had told him he ought to write it; but why should he! Ten years ago he had the work all written in chapters, up to the inauguration of Washington as President, and he could finish it then in a few days. But he did not like it—it did not suit him; and he expected to put it in the fire some of these days. He ought to have commenced it forty years ago. All that he could hope to do that was new, was to weave into his narrative what incidents he could obtain of a private and personal character. He supposed that some people thought him very foolish to be writing any book at his time of life; that he was then seventy years old; but the subject was intensely interesting to him, and he wished to write it for his own gratification. He might not live to complete it, but he would try what he could do; he must do something—he could not be idle.[2]

With regard to the Washington Papers in the Department of State, he said, he had found very little in them worth printing which had not already been published.

Mr. Irving's main object in visiting Arlington was to gather items of personal information about Washington. Mount Vernon he was already familiar with, and counting much upon an interview with Mr. Custis, he was not disappointed. Mr. Custis seemed to love and admire with intensity the name and character of Washington; he looked upon him as a special gift from God to his country, and did not hear our great author speak of our great General without emotion. He said that every American should be proud of the memory of Washington, and should make his example and his wonderful character a continual study.

Our common friend of Arlington House, with his wife, received Mr. Irving with every manifestation of regard, and after the true open-handed and open-hearted Virginia fashion. The pictures, the books, and the furniture—relics of Mount Vernon—were all exhibited; and it seemed to me that Mr. Custis was particularly happy in expressing his "recollections of the chief," which you remember is a pet phrase with our friend. But Mr. Irving had himself seen General Washington. He said there was some celebration going on in New York, and the General was there to participate in the ceremony. "My nurse," continued Mr. Irving, "a good old Scotchwoman, was very anxious for me to see him, and held me up in her arms as he rode past. This, however, did not satisfy her. So the next day, when walking with me in Broadway, she espied him in a shop; she seized my hand, and darting in, exclaimed, in her bland Scotch, 'Please, your Excellency, here's a bairn that's called after ye!' General Washington then turned his benevolent face full upon me, smiled, laid his hand upon my head, and gave me his blessing, which," added Mr. Irving, earnestly, "I have reason to believe has attended me through life. I was but five years old, yet I can feel that hand even now!"

Of all the reminiscences which Mr. Irving brought from Arlington House the most agreeable was, that he had noticed a striking resemblance between Mrs. Custis and his own mother. The latter had been dead nearly forty years, and he had been a very extensive traveller, but he had never seen a face towards which his heart seemed to yearn so strongly. I noticed the fact that he could hardly keep his eyes off of her, and he thought proper to apologise for his apparent rudeness by alluding to the emotions which her presence excited in his breast. He subsequently accounted to me for the resemblance by analyzing the peculiar expression of the eyes, caused by unusually long eyelashes, all of which seemed to be confirmed in my opinion by the dreamy expression of his own eyes. From the tone of his conversation it was apparent that his admiration for a true woman was unbounded. He said that he never tired of looking at them. It had always been his custom in travelling over the world to take particular notice of the women whom he met (especially if they were beautiful), and to amuse himself by composing stories, purely imaginary of course, in which they conspicuously figured.

When questioned as to his manner of writing, Mr. Irving gave me the following particulars: He usually wrote with great rapidity. Some of the most popular passages in his books were written with the greatest ease, and the more uninteresting ones were those which had cost him the most trouble. At one time he had to labour very hard to bring up one part of an essay to the level of another. He never allowed a thing to go to press, however, without writing it or overlooking it a second time; he was always careful about that. Several of the papers in the Sketch Book were written before breakfast; one he remembered especially—"The Wife." At one time, in England, Thomas Moore called upon him when deeply engaged in writing a story, and as the poet saw page after page of Mr. Irving's manuscript thrown aside, he stepped quietly into the room, and did not speak a word until the task was ended, when he said it would have been a pity to have disturbed a man under such circumstances. The first things he ever printed were school compositions, which he was in the habit of sending to the "Weekly Museum," a little quarto journal published in New York, when he was a boy twelve or fourteen years old. Many papers that he sent to the printer were rejected, but those assaults upon his pride did not make him unhappy. At no period of his life had he ever attempted to make a grand sentence; his chief object had been to utter his thoughts in the fewest possible words, as simple and plain as language would allow. The only poetry he had ever attempted was a piece entitled, "Lines to the Passaic." These verses were written in an album for the amusement of a party of ladies and gentlemen, which he had joined, to the Falls. He said they ought never to have been printed, for in his opinion they were very poor, very poor stuff. In 1802, when nineteen years of age, he published in a paper called "The Chronicle," edited by his brother, a series of letters with the signature of Jonathan Old Style—but these productions he never recognised. In consequence of ill health, he went to Europe in 1804, and after his return to New York, in 1807, he took the chief part in "Salmagundi." "Knickerbocker's New York" was published in 1809, and in 1813 he edited the "Analectic Magazine," at which time he became an aide-de-camp and was called Colonel Irving. The years in which his succeeding books made their appearance, as near as he could remember, were as follow: "The Sketch Book," in 1818; "Bracebridge Hall," in 1822; "Tales of a Traveller," in 1824; "Columbus," in 1828; "Conquest of Granada," in 1829; "Alhambra," in 1832; "Crayon Miscellany," in 1835; "Astoria," in 1836; "Bonneville's Adventures," in 1837; "Oliver Goldsmith," in 1849; and "Mahomet," in 1850. The University of Oxford made him a D.C.L. in 1831, when he was Secretary of Legation in London, and the date of his appointment as Minister to Spain was 1842, the same having been conferred without his solicitation. The fifty guinea gold medal conferred upon him by George IV. was for historical composition, and the person who received the other medal of the same year (1831) was Henry Hallam.

He touched upon literary men generally, and upon certain living English writers. He said of —— * * *

On looking at a picturesque group of children by the way-side, he was reminded of Wilkie. He knew the painter well. Returning from Italy, Wilkie had heard of his being in Spain, and went all the way from Madrid to spend a couple of months or more. He spoke of the artist as an honest blunt man and a capital painter; but in a few of his Spanish pictures he had committed the error of introducing Scotch accessories. When in Madrid they walked a great deal together, went into all sorts of places, and the painter was constantly taking sketches. "On one occasion," said Mr. Irving, "when my attention had been attracted by a gaudily dressed group of soldiers and women, I turned to him and said, 'There, Wilkie, there's something very fine!' He looked attentively for a moment, and shaking his head, hastily replied, 'Too costumey, too costumey.' The fact was, he delighted more in the rich brown of old rags than he did in the bright colours of new lace and new cloth."

Speaking to Mr. Irving of a headache with which I was suffering, he remarked, that was a thing he had never experienced. Indeed, he thought that no man had ever lived so long a life as he had, with fewer aches and pains. He mentioned the singular fact that for a period of twenty years, from 1822 to 1842, he had not been conscious of the least bodily suffering. A good dinner was a thing that he had always enjoyed, but he liked it plain and well cooked. In early life he was very fond of walking; but owing to a cutaneous affection which came upon him in Spain, his ankles were somewhat weakened, and he had since that time taken the most of his exercise on horseback. This last remark was made in reply to the surprise which Mr. Custis expressed at seeing him skip up a flight of stairs three steps at a time, and for which he apologised, by saying that he frequently forgot himself. While alluding to his habits, he remarked that a quiet, sedentary life agreed with him, and that he often sat at his writing-table, when at work, from four to six hours without ever rising from his chair. He also avowed himself a great lover of sleep. When at home, he always took a nap after dinner, but somehow of late years he could not sleep well at night; he frequently spent more than half the night wakeful, and at such times he was in the habit of reading a great deal. He said that he really envied the man who could sleep soundly.

I had a short talk with Mr. Irving about the copyright treaty which was drawn up by Messrs. Webster and Crampton, and then in the hands of Mr. Everett. He did not believe it would be ratified by the senate, and spoke in rather severe terms of the want of intelligence, on purely literary matters, in that distinguished body, and also of the conduct of certain publishers who were doing all they could to prevent the ratification of the treaty.

An incident related by Mr. Irving, tending to illustrate the character of Andrew Jackson, was to this effect: "When Secretary of Legation at St. James's, in 1831, he was left by Mr. McLane to represent the country in the capacity of Chargé d'Affaires for a period of three months. During that time the coronation of William the Fourth took place, and his expenses were unusually heavy. When he came home he presented a claim for 100l., which was a smaller sum than he had expended. The President said there was no law providing for such claims, but ordered that he should receive the pay of a Chargé for the time employed. And he did receive it—a sum amounting to more than twice what had been prayed for."

But enough. Though not afraid to tire you with pleasant reminiscences of a man universally honoured and beloved, yet my selfishness and modesty prompt me to reserve a portion of my notes of Mr. Irving's conversation for my special gratification. A few of his statements bearing upon the truth of history I may give you on some future occasion.

Charles Lanman (U.S.)

  1. Arlington was the residence of Mr. George W. P. Custis, a relative of George Washington, and the inheritor of many valuable household gods from that distinguished American. Since the visit herein described was made, Mr. Custis has died, leaving a "Private Life of Washington."
  2. The first volume of the "Life of Washington" was published in 1855, and the fifth and last in 1859.