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IRVING's life was by no means a usual one for a man of letters, and yet it cannot be called an adventurous life or even in its incidents especially striking. Compared with Byron's or George Borrow's, it was mild and simple ; although when set against Wordsworth's or Em-. erson's, Irving's career seems almost public. It was, however, a quiet life that the author led; the two public positions of honour that came to him involved him in no exciting crises. If we seek an adjective to characterize his life, we shall probably rest satisfied with such a word as“ significant.” He enjoyed advantages far beyond most of his fellow-countrymen of the first half of the last century, and he used these advantages wholly for the good of our growing literature, helping to restore between England and America the natural literary kinship that had been so violently disturbed by the American Revolution.
Irving was born in New York, April 3, 1783, of parents who had come over from England and had successfully established themselves in America. What he was as a boy and young man, is told best in his own words that stand as a sort of preface to the Sketch-Book:
“I was always fond of visiting new scenes, and observing strange characters and manners. Even when a mere
child I began my travels, and made many tours of discovery into foreign parts and unknown regions of my native city, to the frequent alarm of my parerts, and the emolument of the town-crier. As I grew into boyhood, I extended the range of my observations. My holiday afternoons were spent in rambles about the surrounding country. I made myself familiar with all its places famous in history or fable. I knew every spot where a murder or robbery had been committed, or a ghost
I visited the neighbouring villages, and added greatly to my stock of knowledge by noting their habits and customs, and conversing with their sages and great men. I even journeyed one long summer's day to the summit of the most distant whence I stretched my eye over many a mile of terra incognita, and was astonished to find how vast a globe I inhabited.
“ This rambling propensity strengthened with my years. Books of voyages and travels became my passion, and in devouring their contents, I neglected the regular exercises of the school. How wistfully would I wander about the pier-heads in fine weather, and watch the parting ships, bound to distant climes; with what longing eyes would I gaze after their lessening sails, and waft myself in imagination to the ends of the earth!
“Further reading and thinking, though they brought this vague inclination into more reasonable bounds, only served to make it more decided. I visited various parts of my own country; and had I been merely a lover of fine scenery, I should have felt little desire to seek elsewhere its gratification, for on no country have the charms of nature been more prodigally lavished. .
“But Europe held forth the charms of storied and poetical association. There were to be seen the masterpieces of art, the refinements of highly cultivated society, the quaint peculiarities of ancient and local custom. My native country was full of youthful promise: Europe was rich in the accumulated treasures of age. Her
ruins told the history of times gone by, and every mouldering stone was a chronicle. I longed to wander over the scenes of renowned achievement, - to tread, as it were, in the footsteps of antiquity, — to loiter about the ruined castle, — to meditate on the falling tower, to escape, in short, from the commonplace realities of the present, and lose myself among the shadowy grandeurs of the past. ...
It has been either my good or evil lot to have my roving passion gratified. I have wandered through different countries, and witnessed many of the shifting scenes of life. I cannot say that I have studied them with the eye of a philosopher, but rather with the sauntering gaze with which humble lovers of the picturesque stroll from the window of one print-shop to another, caught sometimes by the delineations of beauty, sometimes by the distortions of caricature, and sometimes by the loveliness of landscape. ..."
Irving was intended for the law, a profession that does not very well accord with the “roving passion”, but his health gave way in the midst of his studies, and a voyage to Europe was prescribed for him. We may almost assume that his cure began with the mere announcement of the good fortune before him. The spirit of his first journey (albeit a little older in tone in the written words) is told in the opening essay of this volume, The Voyage. On this trip he went as far as Italy, a country which seems, contrary to its usual effect upon romantic minds, to have left less impression upon him than either England or Spain.
After returning to America, he was admitted to the bar, but, following his inclinations, he did not practise, but turned to writing. With his brother and a friend he produced Salmagundi, a work of the sort implied by its name, - a mixture. In 1809 appeared his Knickerbocker's History of New York, a volume intended partly as a take-off on some current guide-book to New York, and partly as humorous yet kindly portrayal of the old Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam. The success of this book placed Irving in the public mind as a writer of much promise. It has genial humour and sympathetic insight and no small power of creating character.
In 1815, little dreaming that he was to remain abroad for seventeen years, Irving sailed again for Liverpool, to have some oversight, though not management, of his brother's business there. Bankruptcy fell upon the house after some years, and Irving found himself compelled to seek self-support by his writing. He had made a number of sketches or essays which he had sent to America for occasional publication, and which, after appearing there, had been copied, with favourable comment, in a London periodical. These sketches Irving determined to collect and publish in book form in America and England.