Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Critical Introduction by J. H. Millar
Washington Irving (17831859)
[Washington Irving was born in New York in 1783. At an early age he began to make an amusement of what was afterwards to become his business, and his first considerable workKnickerbockers History of New Yorkappeared when he was twenty-six. He travelled much in Europe, and particularly in England, where he was welcomed with the utmost cordiality by all the leading men of letters, and where his writings won the applause not only of critics like Lockhart and Jeffrey, but also of the general public, to whose national partiality the pictures of English life and manners to be found in The Sketchbook and Bracebridge Hall made a powerful appeal. His industry was prodigious, and scarce any topic came amiss to his facile pen. Tales of a Traveller, a history of the Conquest of Granada, a Life of Goldsmith and another of Washington, an account of Columbus and his voyages, and the story of Mahomet and his successorsthese may be reckoned as the chief productions of an honourable and happy life, which terminated in 1859.]
THERE are few writers, wrote Washington Irving, for whom the reader feels such personal kindness as for Oliver Goldsmith, for few have so eminently possessed the magic gift of identifying themselves with their writings. The remark is equally applicable to Goldsmiths biographer. His every page overflows with benevolence and geniality. A refined and highly trained intellect, a delicate and discriminating taste, an unaffected love of letters, and a truly amiable disposition are everywhere manifest. His notes of a visit paid to Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford, are a model of tact, reticence, and good feeling. Moreover, a strong and refreshing vein of common-sense runs through all the opinions he expresses. No American, before or since, has given utterance to views more manly, more clear-headed, or more just, on the relations of the old country to the new. In short, all his writings conspire to present the portrait of a man whose mental and moral qualities would command the highest esteem in private life.
Unluckily, something more than extreme amiability, even when combined with the soundest sense, is necessary to the attainment of greatness in literature; and it is a fact that Washington Irving went far to blast the rich promise of his natural parts, and to render his admirable equipment of no avail by his blind and obstinate devotion to an obsolete and exploded convention. He did well to study Addison, Goldsmith, and Sterne with profound attention. He did very ill to imitate them with a fidelity as servile as it is ridiculous. No excellence was too great, no mannerism too trivial for him to mimic. Types of character and tricks of style, modes of thought and turns of phrase, all are appropriated and reproduced with the most painful exactitude. And they suffer sadly in the process. Pleasing and pertinent reflections become chilly and colourless platitudes; while exquisite humour is transformed into a laboured archness. A favourite and highly effective artifice of the novelists and essayists of the eighteenth century was the apparently grave and ingenuous collocation of two absolutely incongruous ideas. This whimsical device Washington Irving employs with a persistency of reiteration almost maddening to a mind already fatigued by his cumbrous and unnecessary apparatus of story within story. The rich spirit of pensive eloquence which a former generation detected in his works, is as poor an atonement for such wilful artistic blunders as are the singular sweetness of the composition and the mildness of the sentiments. The accuracy of the last phrase is beyond question. Washington Irving assuredly does not over-stimulate. He is too often content to appeal to the ear by mechanic echoes of what has been said before; he is too apt to tempt the literary appetite with a dish of cauld kail het again; though the kail is never uneatable, and performances like the Life of Goldsmith may be read without effort, if without the keen pleasure afforded by Lockharts biography of Burns, or Southeys of Nelson.
In view of what has been said it is not surprising that Washington Irvings style should be signally deficient in two respects: it lacks life, and it lacks distinction. One crowded hour of Sir Walter Scotts careless and often slovenly prose is worth an age of Washington Irvings insipidities; and a single tow-row of Mr. Stevensons thunder is infinitely more alarming than all the storms in which the clouds roll in volumes over the mountain tops, the rain begins to patter down in broad and scattered drops, the wind freshens, the lightning leaps from cloud to cloud, the peals are echoed from mountain to mountain, and, in short, all the elements go through their appropriate and stereotyped evolutions with the punctuality, precision, and tameness of clock-work. The bones of the skeleton, to employ a familiar metaphor, are adjusted with the utmost nicety and correctness, but they have lost the potentiality of life. On the other hand, it is to be said, that the close study of such writers as Washington Irving selected for his models could scarce be barren of all good result; that if he never rises to animation he never sinks below a tolerably high standard of elegance; and that he everywhere preserves a spotless purity of idiom. Nor must it be forgotten that from the foregoing strictures a portionthough not a large oneof his compositions falls to be excluded. When he writes in the character of Diedrich Knickerbocker, and deals with the early Dutch settlers in America, their manners and superstitions, their traditions and customs, he contrives for the moment to shake off many of his accustomed fetters. The History of New York, indeed, is extremely tedious because it is extremely long. But the tale of Rip van Winkle, for example, is a little masterpiece of its kind, and several other stories display an almost equally firm command of material, and an almost equally happy adaptation of means to end. A comparison of The Student of Salamanca with Dolph Heyliger will demonstrate more clearly, perhaps, than aught else, the difference between Washington Irving trudging along the beaten track, and Washington Irving following the true bent of his genius. It can hardly fail to inspire sincere regret that he turned his natural gifts to so little purpose, and refused to strive for that position among English prose writers to which he might, without presumption, have aspired.