The Sunny Master Of Sunnyside
Blending satire and nostalgia, Washington Irving taught his readers both to love the past and chuckle over its absurdities
December 1961 | Volume 13, Issue 1
”I seek only to blow a flute accompaniment in the national concert, and leave others to play the fiddle and the French horn.” So wrote Washington Irving early in his long career:
I have attempted no lofty theme, nor sought to look wise and learned, which appears to be very much the fashion among our American writers, at present. I have preferred addressing myself to the feelings and fancy of the reader more than to his judgment. My writings, therefore, may appear light and trifling in our country of philosophers and politicians. But if they possess merit in the class of literature to which they belong, it is all to which I aspire in the work.
Today Irving’s candid appraisal of his own work seems a valid one. He was never to be profound. He was always to appeal to the “feelings and fancy” of his readers more than to their intellects. Yet the charm of his personality and the geniality of his style enabled him to blow such a graceful and popular “flute accompaniment” to the deeper diapasons of his era that he became one of the most influential figures in the history of American literature.
Perhaps no American author, with the possible exception of Longfellow, was so genuinely beloved as Irving in his time. On the day of his funeral in 1859, New York City courts adjourned, flags were hung at half-mast, and all the bells of the city tolled their grief. Thousands of people in England as well as America felt that they had lost a friend. But few mourned Irving’s passing more than his fellow writers in America. They remembered how, at great personal sacrifice, he had given up his notes on the conquest of Mexico to Prescott; how he had arranged for the first publication of William Cullen Bryant’s poems in England; and too, how he had been America’s most effective literary ambassador to Europe. As one contemporary commented, “The older authors felt that a friend, not a rival—the younger, that a father—had gone.”
From the beginning of his career as a writer, Irving had won a tremendous popularity in America. His first major work, A History of New York by Diedrich Knickerbocker, published in 1809 when he was twenty-six, had scored an instant success. Despite the objections of some descendants of old Dutch families to the frivolous way in which Irving had treated their ancestors, Diedrich (according to one observer) “excited an interest in the metropolis never before roused up by any literary occurrence; scarcely, perhaps, by any public event.” Irving himself, modest though he always was, admitted that the book “took” the town. Soon he had become a literary lion in New York and was being read not only in the drawing rooms of the city but even in the log huts of the frontier. His next important work, The Search Book of Geoffrey Crayon, which appeared ten years later, was just as successful. Though the later books never enjoyed quite the vogue of these two, Irving never lost the admiration of his vast American public. Returning home in 1832 after seventeen years in Europe, he was greeted as a national hero. All the outstanding literary men of New York attended the public dinner given to honor him. The papers were full of his praises. At various times he was offered the nomination for mayor of New York, the nomination for candidate for Congress, and the opportunity to become Secretary of the Navy under Martin Van Buren. He declined all. But when Secretary of State Webster appointed him minister to Spain in 1842, he accepted, and all America rejoiced in its new envoy.
The first American writer to win wide acclaim in Europe, Irving was as popular abroad as at home. In England, with the publication of his early successes, he was accepted in the most refined intellectual circles. He became the fast friend of the poet Tom Moore. Samuel Rogers, whose literary breakfasts were far more memorable than his poetry, invited him to his table. He wandered across the romantic Scottish moors with Sir Walter Scott. He met William Wordsworth. Byron was heard to say that Irving’s writings were his delight and that he knew Geoffrey Crayon by heart. Royalty in England, Spain, France, and Germany also received Irving. When he was given a Doctor of Laws degree at Oxford in June, 1830, the ceremony was almost drowned out by the roaring cheers from the undergraduates chanting the titles of his books. He was so well-known (or American history so little known) that when a little English girl looked at a statue of George Washington and asked who he was, her mother answered, “Why, my dear, don’t you know? He wrote the Sketch Book !”
The adulation that was showered on Irving at home was due in large part to the fact that his works so exactly fitted the needs and tastes of the time. America was no longer, as it had been in colonial days, a cluster of coastal settlements facing the perils of an illimitable wilderness. Nor was it any longer racked by a grim struggle for independence. By the 1820’s, the internal discord that had disturbed the early days of the Republic was subsiding into what was to be known as the Era of Good Feelings. After years of hardship and war, after the struggle to set up a new form of government, Americans wished to relax. In literature as in so many other things, they were willing to accept gladly what an earlier generation might well have considered light and trifling.