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IN “The Author's Account of Himself,” which prefaces “ The Sketch-Book,” Geoffrey Crayon compares himself with the unlucky landscape painter who had sketched in nooks and corners and by-places, but had neglected to paint St. Peter's and the Coliseum, and had not a single glacier or volcano in his whole collection. This restriction in theme, which Irving whimsically confesses, was in part, no doubt, as he would have us believe, the result of following the bent of a vagrant inclination, but it was also an evidence of the happiest artistic instinct. One of Irving's most intimate friends has noted his “ wonderful knack at shutting his eyes to the sinister side of anything." To ignore the sinister side of life is to restrict one's art; but Irving was led by a faultless taste to those subjects that lay well within his powers. Better than most authors of equal rank, he knew what to avoid. In his unfailing sense of proportion, purity of feeling, and fine reserve, he recalls some of the best eighteenth century writers. He learned from them not only the art of character drawing, but the doctrine that an author's aim should be “the diligent dispensation of pleasure." “ One of the most charming masters of our lighter language,” declared Thackeray, in praising the “ good Irving, the peaceful, the friendiy," —“the first ambassador whom the New World of Letters sent to the Old.”
The classic qualities of style which won Thackeray's admiration were the expression of a nature polished and refined, of a gentle and kindly heart. Irving's humor is sly, but not malicious. The tone of pleasant banter is never broken. Except in the serious histories, to which his later years were devoted, he is fond of elaborate chaffing. Yet his ironies are upon the surface; there is no undertone of bitterness; he shuts his eyes to the sinister side. Even his caricatures are marked by a delicate restraint, and, writing in a generation when “sentiment” was the fashion, he kept within the bounds of manly feeling and good sense.
Irving wrote, in short, as he lived, like a gentleman-like a sunnier Addison, a more fortunate Goldsmith. Such writing lasts. The service which Irving performed for American letters in his day is of course accomplished, and those peculiar conditions can never recur. Yet if anything hitherto
written in America is certain to be read in the future, “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” will not be forgotten. History, local tradition, and landscape blend here in most gracious harmony with the quiet, mellow tones of Irving's art. In the present volume they are printed first, followed by “ The Devil and Tom Walker" (from “ The Tales of a Traveller "), where Irving has adopted, in handling a New England legend, a method somewhat similar to that employed in the Hudson River romances. The English portions of “ The Sketch-Book” are introduced by “ The Voyage," a felicitous and most characteristic composition. “ Westminster Abbey” and “ Stratford-on-Avon” deal with subjects perpetually interesting to American readers, and have done much in guiding the steps of American travellers in England. The volume closes with a sketch from “ Bracebridge Hall” entitled “The Stout Gentleman,” which has been characterized by Mr. Charles Dudley Warner as one of Irving's daintiest and most artistic bits of restrained humor.
(From Sketch Book)