The Maclise Portrait-Gallery/Washington Irving

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XVIII.—WASHINGTON IRVING.

It is well said by Fraser, as he points to the ἔιδωλον of Washington Irving,—the first, by the way, to which the pseudonymous signature, "Alfred Croquis," is appended,—that, "in his modest deportment and easy attitude, we see all the grace and dignity of an English gentleman." Here I need hardly say, in explanation, that Washington Irving was an American, having been born in New York, April 3rd, 1783, and that he had made his first appearance in London in 1818, about twelve years
The Author of The Sketch Book.png

THE AUTHOR OF THE "SKETCH BOOK."

before this sketch appeared. Americans were then but little known in society or literature, and the accounts of their personal and domestic manners which had been given to us by such travellers as Mrs. Trollope and Captain Basil Hall, had not impressed us strongly in their favour. Beyond certain peculiarities of speech, and dress,—a habit of sitting with the feet higher than the head,—the custom of smoking, chewing, and expectorating on the carpet,—and "a thousand other gaucheries,"—we knew little enough of our "Transatlantic brethren"; and it was past our conception that "anything in the shape of a gentlemanly biped should come from America." Thus it came to pass that Washington Irving at once took, as it were by assault, a high place among us as an author and as a man. He still continues to retain it; and it would be difficult to name any one, among foreigners at least,—if we are so to rank this genial author,—who is so certain of enjoying in the future a definite and permanent rank among English classical writers. He is an elegant essayist, a refined humorist, a picturesque historian, and a graphic biographer; and by the kindly and altogether genial spirit with which his writings are interfused, has done much, just at the moment when it was most wanted, to unite by a living bond of unity two great nations, which must ever have, to a great extent, a common language and literature.

It was, I have said, in 1818, that Irving, on the failure of certain commercial enterprises, came to London. Here he met with two young artists who had preceded him, Charles Robert Leslie and Gilbert Stuart Newton,[1] and the trio,—all under an inspiration and promise of future fame which Time has in each case to some extent fulfilled,—became soon united in habits of close friendship and commensality. He had already gained some reputation in his native country by his Salmagundi, and Knickerbocker's History of New York, which latter work may be said to inaugurate American literature. His fame and name, moreover, were not altogether unknown among ourselves; and Knickerbocker had found its way even to remote Abbotsford, where Sir Walter Scott found mighty enjoyment in its quaint humour, reading it aloud to his family and friends, till, as he records, "our sides have been absolutely sore with laughing." His sister Sarah was married to a merchant at Birmingham, Mr. Henry Van Wart; and while a guest at their house, at Newhall Hill, he had amused himself by writing a series of papers to which he had given the name of The Sketch Book. On his arrival in London he offered these, together with certain numbers already printed in America, to that "Prince of Printers,"—as he called him,—John Murray, for examination; and it cannot but appear somewhat inexplicable to us, looking at the book now as an established classic, and perhaps the favourite among all his writings,—"typifying in its pages the pure diction and graces of Addison, and a revived portraiture of the times of Sir Roger de Coverley," as Fraser has it,—that it was rejected as unsuitable by the great bibliopole, who failed to see in it the elements of success, and who only ultimately took it up, when the failure of Miller, who had it in hand, compelled its author to seek elsewhere for protection once more.

How comes about this state of things? It has been said that booksellers are the only tradesmen who are not expected to know anything of the commodity in which they deal; but one would fancy that some insight at least into the commercial value of the article was requisite. And yet what a host of books could be mentioned, of high genius and popular acceptance, which, either "returned" at their outset, or insufficiently paid for, have left their authors to starve, while they have subsequently proved mines of wealth to the trading community, which at first rejected them! Thus Gay's Beggar's Opera, the most successful hit on the modern stage, was "returned"; no one would undertake Fielding's immortal Tom Jones, though the author offered the copyright for £20; Blair's Grave was rejected by at least two publishers in succession; Symmons estimated the Paradise Lost of Milton at no higher sum than £5; Miller would not give Thomson a farthing for Winter; Burns visited every publisher in London with his Justice, and asked £50 for the MS. in vain; Cave could get no one to join him in the Gentleman's Magazine; Buchan would willingly have sold his Domestic Medicine for £100, but could not get it, though, after it had passed through twenty-five editions, it was sold in thirty-two shares at £50 each; Cowper had terribly hard work with Johnson to prevail on him to publish the first volume of his poems, but could get nothing for the copyright; Bloomfield offered his Farmer's Boy to Phillips for a paltry dozen copies for himself, but the bookseller would have none on't; Beresford would gladly have disposed of his Miseries of Human Life, which has since realized £5000, for £20, but there was no bidder; Scott's Waverley, which has produced £10,000 at least, was hawked about among unwilling London publishers for £25 or £30; Murray refused Byron's Don Juan, though glad enough, when it had achieved success, as in the case of Irving's Sketch Book, to become its proprietor; the Robbers of Schiller could find no publisher; and the only man in London who had sagacity enough to see the saleability of the Rejected Addresses of the brothers Smith was Miller, again, who publishing it on the half-profit system, was glad, later on, to give £1000 for the copyright of it, and Horace in London. But why increase the list? There is a veteran author, still happily among us, Mr. Richard Hengist Horne, who, born with the century, remembers the battle of Trafalgar and was present at the funeral of Nelson. Many years ago,—in 1843,—he wrote an epic poem, which he could find no publisher to undertake, on the ground that epics did not sell. He resolved to belie the dictum, and published the poem himself, an octavo volume of 138 pages, at the price of one farthing, as indicated on the title-page. The number printed was limited, and only one copy was sold to each applicant. The edition was out of print in a few hours, and it was republished at five shillings. I was glad to give half a guinea for my original farthing copy, and it is now worth twice the amount. But quorsum hæc?—as Cicero is fond of asking. Why, this same Mr. Horne is author also of a scarce and curious volume to which I will refer the reader for an inquiry into the nature of the conspiracy which seems to exist for the purpose of debarring works of merit and interest from the reading world.[2]

I have spoken of Birmingham in connection with The Sketch Book. It was at Mr. Van Wart's house, at Edgbaston, that Irving wrote the immortal Rip Van Winkle. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was suggested by his brother-in-law. The Stout Gentleman was written, too, at Birmingham. Many of his letters to Leslie are dated from that town, and headed "Edgbaston Castle," or "Van Tromp House"; and it was the magnificent mansion of the Holtes at Aston, now the property of the town, which served as an ideal model for his Bracebridge Hall. Some interesting reminiscences of Washington Irving in Birmingham were communicated to the Illustrated Midland News, of Sept. 25, 1869, by Elihu Burritt, the learned American blacksmith, who long held a Consular position in that town.

When in London, Irving took up his residence for a while in Canonbury House, Islington. To the literary pilgrim from the far West, this "land of the grey old past" is the Mecca and Medina of his youthful aspirations. "None but those who have experienced it," says Irving, in one of his own charming essays, "can form an idea of the delicious throng of sensations which rush into an American's bosom, when he first comes in sight of Europe. There is a volume of associations with the very name. It is the land of promise, teeming with everything of which his childhood has heard, or on which his studious years have pondered."[3] We can thus understand the feelings with which the young American enthusiast of letters made choice, as abode, of the ancient red-brick tower of Canonbury. It derives its name from having been built upon the site of the country residence of the Prior of the Canons of St. Bartholomew, and was, according to tradition, a hunting seat of Queen Elizabeth, where she was wont to take the air when "Merry Islington" was a woodland solitude. The Tower was built by Sir John Spencer of Crosby Place, whose only daughter and heiress eloped hence, concealed in a baker's basket, to become the wife of William, second Lord Compton, created in 1618 Earl of Northampton, a lineal ancestor of the ninth Earl and first Marquis of Northampton, the present owner of Canonbury. Here subsequently lived Ephraim Chambers, whose Encyclopædia is the basis and parent of all subsequent Cyclopædias in the English and other European languages; and here, too, he died in 1740, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Here also Newbery, the children's bookseller, lodged; and in his rooms Goldsmith often hid from his creditors, and consecrated the spot to all time by writing there his Deserted Village, and the immortal Vicar of Wakefield. William Woodfall, too, the publisher of the letters of "Junius," once had lodgings in this historic tower. Here Irving installed himself; exploring the neighbourhood, and eating his solitary dinners at the "Black Bull," which, according to tradition, was a country seat of Sir Walter Raleigh. Here he sat and sipped his modest glass in a quaint old room, wherein imagination whispered many a council had been held. But all this soon came to an end. On the next Sunday the world and his wife came thronging to Canonbury Castle; the road was alive with the tread of feet and the clack of tongues; and the would-be hermit found that his retreat was a show-house, and the tower and its contents thrown open to cockney visitors at sixpence a head!

Maginn would fain have known if this genial writer was affiliated to the great smoke-guild, whose members are scattered all over the world,—in simple words, whether or not he was a smoker. "To judge," says he, "by his gentlemanly appearance he ought to be one. Smoking is, and always has been, a healthful and fashionable English custom; there were schools and professors established here for the purpose of teaching the mystery of smoking, on the first introduction of the Virginian weed, and the mode of exspifflicating the smoke out of one's mouth is at present, as it were, a Shibboleth demonstrative of an English gentleman." This momentous query I cannot determine; but being myself moderately addicted to the occasional "taking of fumes by pipes to dry and comfort," as the sage of Verulam hath it, I should not be sorry to have the question resolved in the affirmative,—I should not be sorry, moreover, to know that, like Tom Campbell, he imbibed the Nicotian solace through what the "Doctor" somewhat irreverently terms the "impure channel" of a halfpenny pipe. This is a primitive and time-honoured method, while the cigarro is a modern and coxcombical innovation. I am acquainted with the various forms of "drinking tobacco," as our forefathers termed the process, and speak not unadvisedly. I have smoked Kanaster at Berlin in the capacious porcelain bowl of the German student, and in the mighty meer-schaum of the Viennese; I have inhaled caporal through a brûle-gueule in a Parisian mansarde; I am moderately familiar with the ostentatious nargeeleh of the Persians, the hookah of the Turks, the simpler cutty-pipe of the Scotch, the dudheen of the Irish, and the briar-root of everybody,—cum multis aliis,—and solemnly declare, as the result of my experience, that nothing, in point of economy, elegance and convenience, excels the "Broseley straw," or " Churchwarden," of English manufacture:—

"Little tube of mighty power,
Charmer of an idle hour,

......

Lip of wax, and eye of fire;"

as Isaac Hawkins Browne has it, among his fine imitations. It was while manipulating such an instrument,—for it is marvellous how little it has changed in form since the introduction of tobacco,—that Raleigh or Tarlton (the story is told of both) was inundated with water by his servant, aghast at the unwonted incandescence of his master. It was the right thing in Shakespeare's time for your brave gallant to smoke his "clay" upon the very stage (how odd it is that the great bard makes no mention of Tobacco,—Ben Jonson is full of allusions to it!), and there he sat:—

"—————— attended by his page,
That only serves to fill those pipes with smoke
For which he pawned hath his riding cloak."[4]

Pope allots to

"History her pot, Theology her pipe,"

and truth to say, the parsons have rivalled the poets in their devotion to the herb of Santa Croce,—"divine Tobacco," as Spenser has it. It is fine to think of Robert Hall lighting his Broseley at the pulpit-lamps at the close of his sermon, and of Samuel Parr half hidden by fuliginous clouds, a yard or so behind the bowl of a huge "churchwarden." It is fine, too, to think of Charles Lamb,—as he was wont to think of Charles Cotton, in that delectable chamber, "piscatoribus sacrum,"—of Hobbes, and Barrow, and Aldrich, and Newton, and Milton, and the host of glorious intelligences who have delighted in a pipe; and we are thankful for the innocent enjoyment which is intensified by such a multitude of pleasant associations. Let us think, at last, as we reverse the exhausted bowl, and replace it in its nook, of the fine monitory symbolism that resides in the familiar implement, as expressed in an ancient distich:—

"Mens ignis, tubulus corpus mihi, vitaque fumus,
Herba penus, clavus fata, suprema cinis:"

which has been thus quaintly Englished:—

"Of lordly man how humbling is the type,
A fleeting shadow, a tobacco-pipe,
His mind, the fire; his frame, the tube of clay;
His breath, the smoke thus idly puff'd away;
His food, the herb that fills the hollow bowl;
Death is the stopper; ashes end the whole."

Washington Irving never married. He was engaged early in life to a young lady of rare beauty and worth. She died; and the bereaved man thenceforth contented himself with the memory of his vanished love, sought no other bride, and lived for literature, friendship and nature. His latter years,—after long sojourn in the storied countries of the elder world,—were passed at his delightful residence, "Sunnyside," on the banks of the Hudson river, about twenty-five miles from the city of New York. Here he was visited by Frederika Bremer, who has left us a charming description of the man and his home; and here he died suddenly of heart-disease, November 28th, 1860, in the seventy-seventh year of his age.

Thackeray, whom the death of Irving inspired with one of the best of his Roundabout Papers, styles him the "Goldsmith of our time," associating him with Macaulay as our "Gibbon." There is an obituary notice of him in the Gentleman's Magazine, vol. liii. p. 82; there is his Life and Letters, by his nephew, the Rev. Pierre E. Irving (H. G. Bohn, 1862-3, 4 vols. 8vo); there is a Transatlantic volume, Irvingiana, a Memorial of Washington Irving, New York, 1860, 4to; and there is an article in the new edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica, "Washington Irving," from the pen of Mr. Richard Garnett, written with characteristic taste, fulness of knowledge, and delicacy of judgment.

I ought not, even in this imperfect memoir, to omit to state that it was Washington Irving, who, in 1830, was selected with Henry Hallam, to receive one of the two fifty-guinea gold medals of the Royal Society of Literature, instituted by George IV., for eminence in historical composition. He also received the honorary degree of D.C.L., from the University of Oxford.


  1. It is customary to speak of these eminent artists as Americans, but the appellation is hardly correct. The former, who became a Royal Academician, and died in 1859, was a native of London; the latter, who finished his days in a madhouse in 1835, was born in Canada, and was a British subject at least.
  2. Exposition of the False Medium and Barriers excluding Men of Genius from the Public. London, Effingham Wilson, 1833, 8vo. "What centuries of unjust deeds are here!"
  3. Sketch Book ("The Voyage").
  4. Springes to Catch Woodcocks. By Henry Parrot, 1613.