|Youre here: Home » eDigg Biographies » Biographies T-Z » Washington Irving|
Washington Irving, the first American who obtained a European reputation merely as a man of letters, was born at New York, April 3, 1783. Both his parents were immigrants from Great Britain, his father, originally an officer in the merchant service, but at the time of Irving's birth a considerable merchant, having come from the Orkneys and his mother from Falmouth. Irving was intended for the legal profession, but his studies were interrupted by an illness necessitating a voyage to Europe, in the course of which he proceeded as far as Rome and made the acquaintance of Washington Allston. He was called to the Bar upon his return, but made little effort to practice, preferring to amuse himself with literary ventures. The first of these of any importance, a satirical miscellany entitled "Salmagundi," written in conjunction with his brother William and J. K. Paulding, gave ample proof of his talents as a humorist. These were still more conspicuously displayed in his next attempt, "Knickerbocker's History of New York" (1809). The satire of "Salmagundi" had been principally local, and the original design of "Knickerbocker's History" was only to burlesque a pretentious disquisition on the history of the city in a guide-book by Dr. Samuel Mitchell. The idea expanded as Irving proceeded, and he ended by not merely satirizing the pedantry of local antiquaries, but by creating a distinct literary type out of the solid Dutch burgher whose phlegm had long been an object of ridicule to the mercurial Americans. Though far from the most finished of Irving's productions, "Knickerbocker" manifests the most original power and is the most genuinely national in its quaintness and drollery. The very tardiness and prolixity of the story are skilfully made to heighten the humorous effect. The next few years were unproductive. Upon the death of his father, Irving had become a sleeping partner in his brother's commercial house, a branch of which was established at Liverpool. This, combined with the restoration of peace, induced him to visit England in 1815, when he found the stability of the firm seriously compromised. After some years of ineffectual struggle it became bankrupt. This misfortune compelled Irving to resume his pen as a means of subsistence. His reputation had preceded him to England, and the curiosity naturally excited by the then unwonted apparition of a successful American author procured him admission into the highest literary circles, where his popularity was insured by his amiable temper and polished manners.
Although one of the chief ornaments of American literature, Irving is not characteristically an American author. Like most of the transatlantic writers of his generation, he disappointed expectation by a scrupulous conformity to acknowledged European standards. The American vine had not then begun to produce the looked-for wild grapes. Irving, however, is one of the few authors of his period who really manifests traces of a vein of national peculiarity which might under other circumstances have been productive. "Knickerbocker's History of New York," although the air of mock solemnity which constitutes the staple of its humor is peculiar to no literature, manifests nevertheless, a power of producing a distinct national type. Had circumstances taken Irving to the West and placed him amid a society teeming with quaint and genial eccentricity, he might possibly have been the first Western humorist, and his humor might have gained in depth and richness. In England, on the other hand, everything encouraged his natural fastidiousness; he became a refined writer, but by no means a robust one. At the same time he is too essentially the man of his own age to pass for a paler Addison or a more decorous Sterne. He has far more of the poet than any of the writers of the eighteenth century, and his moralizing, unlike theirs, is unconscious and indirect.
The same poetical feeling is shown in his biographies; his subject is invariably chosen for its picturesqueness, and whatever is unessential to portraiture is thrown into the background. The result is that his biographies, however deficient in research, bear the stamp of genuine artistic intelligence, equally remote from compilation and disquisition. In execution they are almost faultless; the narrative is easy, the style pellucid, and the writer's judgment nearly always in accordance with the general verdict of history. They will not, therefore, be easily superseded, and indeed Irving's productions are in general impressed with that signet of classical finish which guarantees the permanency of literary work more surely than direct utility or even intellectual power. This refinement is the more admirable for being in great part the reflection of his own moral nature. Without ostentation or affectation, he was exquisite in all things, a mirror of loyalty, courtesy, and good taste in all his literary connections, and exemplary in all the relations of domestic life which he was called upon to assume. He never married, remaining true to the memory of an early attachment blighted by death.
|Copyright © 1999-2008 eDigg.com. All rights reserved.|