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was appointed by President Jackson chargé d'affaires of the American legation in London. In 1832 he came back to the United States, and was enthusiastically welcomed. A trip to the western parts of the country resulted in two volumes, Astoria and Captain Bonneville, the former written at the suggestion of John Jacob Astor, the founder of the Oregon settlement, Astoria, and the latter a working-over of some pioneer reminiscences.
In 1842 Irving was appointed by President Tyler American minister to Spain, where he successfully represented his country for four years. After his return home, he wrote his Life of Goldsmith (1848), not a work of investigation, but a thoroughly pleasant condensation of Forster's Life. Goldsmith was a most congenial subject, perhaps the most congenial Irving could have chosen, and he filled the book with his own spirit.
A period of literary inactivity was followed by Mahomet and his Successors in 1850, and by the first volume of the Life of George Washington five years later. This work of Irving's old age lacks the vitality and charın that was still apparent in the Goldsmith. On November 28, 1859, the year of the publication of his last volume, Irving died, full of years and honour. Sunnyside, his house on the Hudson, passed to his next of kin : he had never married.
It will be seen that Irving's life was mainly a literary one. Apart from his literary productions, the three facts that stand out most clearly are his long residence abroad, his winning an English audience for American books, and his appointment to Spain, — one of the many tributes which American politics has worthily rendered to American letters.
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In his own lifetime Irving was probably the most important figure in American literature.
But in literary matters people are not usually very grateful for past services. We are prone to value an author for what he can give us to-day, not for what he gave us yesterday; and although we often recognize our past debt, it does not seem to us to call for present payment. When the ser vice was rendered not in our own youthful days, but in the youth of our nation, the sense of gratitude is still more remote. Suppose Irving did much for American literature, we ask, will he do something pleasant and beneficial for us? The question is a practical one, at least.
The answer to the question, let me say at once, is Yes. But before giving reasons for that answer, I should like to explain something that is involved in what has already been said. We ought, indeed, to require of a writer that he shall give us something good, — another way of saying that he ought to be true to the principles of his art, but we ought to be ready to give as well as to take, and we ought, as students, to encourage in ourselves that historical sense which peoples the past with living forms instead of with dry dates and facts. In tracing literary influences, in revivifying a by-gone day, we are doing
THE SKETCH-BOOK - 2
more than arousing and gratifying a petty curiosity. We are coming closer to other truths and other facts than those immediately about us, and therefore we are learning more about life. We say that travel gives us new experience. That is true ; and learning to know the past is to travel in the region of time, just as surely as taking a journey is to travel in the region of space. It would be wholly worth our while to study Washington Irving for the single reason, that to our beginning literature he brought a fine, true impulse, and established cordial relations with our kinsmen beyond the ocean.
But Irving has more than this to give us. meet the most ardent ignorers of the past on their own ground and point out to them in Irving, and in these essays chosen from his Sketch-Book, things of present-day value to those into whose hands this volume will come.
Irving is commonly and truly accounted to possess charm. Charm is not easy to define, as any one may see who remarks the quality in a friend or neighbour, and then tries to explain it to an acquaintance. But let us seek to explain this quality of charm in Irving, not that we may have the sense of accomplishing a duty, but that in the end we may know Irving better, and, knowing one writer better, be competent to understand all writers better.
I think that I feel in him first of all a pleasant friendliness. I read page after page, and find nothing sharp, nothing bitter, nothing hostile. He is not a flabby yielder to every man's opinion, he has a backbone of his own; but he likes life, and he likes people, and feels wholly willing to show his liking freely. You can hardly read a dozen pages without feeling that it would be pleasant to know the author, and that if you knew him, he would meet you more than halfway.
That is a sign of health, is it not? and Irving is healthy and wholesome. His mind is clear and sane, his influence sound. He is drawn to congenial things, to things clean and pleasant, like himself; and by virtue of this power he passes on to you, through the medium of his writing, many of the fine and noble and inspiring things that have appealed to him.
That is as much as to say that he transmits well, — he is a good conductor, if one may apply the electric image to one who lived before these days of practical electricity. Note well the things he thus transmits. His soul is attracted to nothing low or vulgar, nor is it led away by mere gorgeousness or by idle sentimentality. He sees the true romance in life, and when, as not infrequently, he speaks of matters that might be deemed commonplace, it is because he sees in them not the commonplace, but romance itself. Irving, like Longfellow, brings to his fellow-countrymen a thing we Americans instinctively crave, the romance from overseas; and, more than Longfellow, he reveals some of the romance in things nearer home, on the whole, a truer, more perfect gift.
He loses no national quality in adventuring into far-off fields. Irving is the same lover of his own country whether he is writing of the Catskill Mountains or of Westminster Abbey. And in this preservation of his own independence, he gives one proof the more of an author's right to find his material at home or abroad. Charity is proverbially said to begin at home, but liter. ature begins anywhere : it is at home where its inspiration arises; and where inspiration is not present it is a stranger, though the scene be the domestic hearth itself.
Irving has excellent insight. As that word implies, his vision does not stop at the surface of things; it penetrates to the essentials, to the heart. The meaning, the significance, of scenes and actions grows clear to him ; he understands what he sees. And as practice tends, in other matters, to make perfect, so his habit of looking deeply grows itself more deep and tends toward perfectness; he becomes expert in his insight, more and more certain in his judgements, - a safe guide to follow.
Observation, which is the power to note external facts, is often granted to a man, without the balancing gift of insight along with it. But almost never, I think, is insight bestowed upon a person who lacks the power of observation. It is almost as if observation gave the premises, insight the conclusion. And what conclusions can be drawn without premises ? Be that as it may, observation, and excellent observation, is one of Irving's qualities. He sees things, as well as sees into things. Many and many a fact that a careless eye would not see, that an ordinary eye would not especially note, he sees keenly and records vividly.
No one can record, either vividly or tamely, all that he sees : in a day one sees more than he could tell in a week. Whoever records must choose between what is worth mentioning, and what is not worth mentioning, -or, more accurately, he must choose between things pre-eminently