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I. THE AUTHOR
WASHINGTON IRVING was born in New York on April 3, 1783, while the city was still in the possession of the British troops. Although his father was a Scotchman by birth and had been in America only a few years before the Revolution began, the family was staunchly patriotic. The boy was not christened till after the British had evacuated the city, and after the American forces had marched in; “Washington's work is ended," the mother said, and the child shall be named for him.” A few years later, when Washington came to New York to be inaugurated as the first President of the United States, a Scotch maidservant of the Irvings took the child up to him in a shop one day, saying, “Please, your honor, here's a bairn was named for you," and the great mar gave the boy his blessing.
In New York Washington Irving grew to manhood going to school, playing along the wharves amid the shipping of all nations, and making voyages in a sloop up the Hudson River. To his lasting regret in later life he did not avail himself of the chance of entering Columbia College, where his two elder brothers had been graduated. He studied law for a while, but without putting his heart into the sk. When he was only nineteen he wrote a series of light and clever essays for the newspaper one of his brothers had just then started; these papers were signed “Jonathan Oldstyle;" they were praised and widely copied in the newspapers of other cities. His health was feeble, and when he was twenty-one his brothers sent him to Europe, trusting that the long voyage and the change of scene would do him good. So ill did he seem as he was helped up the side of the ship that the Captain said to himself, “There's a chap who will go overboard before we get across.”
But his brothers were right, and the sea-captain was wrong. Irving gained strength during the voyage and during his rambles through France, Italy, and England. He returned home, after an absence of a year and a half, and resumed his law studies. He was even admitted to the bar, although he knew little law and had no great liking for it. Early in 1807, before he was twenty-four years old, he joined one of his brothers and his friend, Paulding, in sending forth the first number of Salmagundi, an intermittent publication, containing essays and social sketches and much pleasant satire of the ways of the hour. Twenty numbers were issued during the year; and then Irving's attention was called to other things.
He fell in love and was engaged to be married; but before the wedding day the chosen bride caught cold and, after a brief illness, died. Irving bore the sudden blow bravely, but he never recovered from it. He was then occupied in writing a burlesque history of New York; and after the first bitterness of his grief had passed away, he went back to his labor on this book of humor.
That a work abounding in playful fun should have been written in these hours of sadness may seem strange to some; but it is among the paradoxes of literature that the writings which have called forth the most laughter are those of men themselves serious. Molière had a melancholy of his
own; Cervantes was grave rather than gay; and Swift was morose beyond the verge of misanthropy. There is more than a suggestion of the humor of Cervantes and of the humor of Swift in the book that Irving wrote in those days of despondency. This book was called "A History of New York, by Diedrich Knickerbocker;" it was published at the end of 1809; and it met with an instant appreciation, which has continued down to the present time.
In spite of the encouragement of this success Irving did not promptly undertake another book. For eight or ten years he seems to have found it hard to settle himself down to anything. He went to Washington for a while; and then he edited a magazine in Philadelphia. During the war of 1812 he served on the governor's staff. In 1815, after peace was declared, he went over to England to see his brother. He had meant to be gone only a few months, but he remained abroad seventeen years.
In 1819, being then about thirty-six years old, Irving began to publish in parts a miscellany of essays and stories and travel-sketches. He called it “The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon." The first number contained the immortal tale of “Rip Van Winkle," and the rest of the seven numbers had papers inferior in interest only to this. The complete book was published toward the end of 1820 both in New York and London; and its success was as widespread in Great Britain as in the United States. Washington Irving was the first author of American birth to win acceptance in the mother-country. Perhaps this. popularity in England is due partly to the fact that, although he was a most loyal American, he had a strong liking for the old home of the race and a willingness to describe it in his pleasant pages. No single work has.. been more potent than the “Sketch-Book” in directing to Stratford on Avon and through Westminster Abbey the unending procession of transatlantic travellers from America.
Having at last discovered what he could do, Irving was no longer indolent, and he followed up the success of the “Sketch-Book” with two other books not unlike it in style and in subject. The first of these was “Bracebridge Hall,” which appeared two years later, in 1822; the second was the “Tales of a Traveller," which was published in 1824, after he had been for several months wandering about the continent of Europe in search of health. After these books were printed Irving was again in doubt what to undertake next; but soon the project seized him
of going to Spain to make a translation of certain important documents concerning Columbus.
Irving's stay in Spain was prolonged from February, 1826, to September, 1829, and it was the most fruitful period of his literary career. He soon gave up translating to begin an original work, “The Life and Voyages of Columbus.” This was published in 1828; and it was followed the year after by the “Conquest of Granada.” When Irving finally left Spain he brought with him the materials for his account of the “Companions of Columbus," published in 1831, and for the volume on the “Albambra." This last book, which appeared in 1832, has been called a "Spanish Sketch-Book," and its success, like that of the original “Sketch-Book," was immediate and has been enduring.
Toward the close of his stay in Spain Irving was appointed secretary of legation in London. This post he filled for some two years, when he resigned. In the spring of 1832 he went back to America, arriving in New York in May, and receiving at once many tokens of the high esteem in which he was held by his fellow-countrymen. He was the acknowledged leader of American literature Publicly and privately he was made welcome. He settled down at Sunnyside, the home he chose for himself at Tarrytown on the banks of the Hudson, near the Sleepy Hollow he had celebrated. There he lived quietly for ten years, writing a little now and then, editing a book or two and collecting material for a biography of Washington.
Then, most unexpectedly, the Secretary of State, Daniel Webster, proffered him the appointment of Minister to Spain. He did not like the idea of leaving his pleasant home, but he was induced to accept. He knew that his appointment was a compliment to the whole profession of letters. Like the other American authors who have been sent abroad as ministers to foreign countries he acquitted himself well at his post; so did Franklin in France, Bancroft in England and in Germany, Motley in Austria