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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
There is perhaps no better illustration of this new attitude than the difference between Irving and his own father. If Irving was not the wise and learned author who had occupied the center of the stage during so much of earlier American history, it was no fault of Deacon William Irving. And if the elder Irving hoped for sober, God-fearing, and practical offspring, his son Washington (born in 1783, he was the youngest of a family of eleven) disappointed him. He paid little attention to school. Though he read his father’s copies of Milton and Pilgrim’s Progress, he preferred lighter literature, like Don Quixote . Even worse, he scrambled out of his bedroom window at night to attend the theater. He refused to be a minister and indeed, throughout his whole life, he never took formal religion seriously. When he studied law under Judge Hoffman, he wrote more essays than briefs and was far more interested in the pretty young Hoffman daughters (with one of whom, Matilda, he later fell in love) than in attorneys or clients.
Having passed his bar examinations (evidently through pull—one of the examiners admitted that he knew “damned little’), he did not practice but was installed in a comfortable nook at his brothers’ importing firm, where his duties rarely interfered with his social and literary pursuits. Soon he became one of the leading members of a group of witty and talented young New Yorkers that came to be known as the Knickerbocker school. Like Irving, these young men had been born too late to remember the hardships of the Revolutionary War, when British soldiers had been billeted in many houses in the city and food had at times been hard to obtain. They represented a gayer generation that had rescued New York from the rusticity of its Dutch origin; it now rivaled Philadelphia in the sophistication of its culture.
Having broken away from their mother country, Americans at the beginning of the nineteenth century were eager to develop traditions and legends of their own. They wanted to find a past, an American past. Amateur archaeologists, among them Thomas Jefferson and Governor DeWitt Clinton of New York, attempted to unravel the mysteries of the ancient civilization of the Mound Builders. Other scholars studied the culture of the Indians, speculating as to their possible origin in the lost tribes of Israel and theorizing that perhaps the pyramids of the Aztecs had been influenced by the ancient Egyptians. Historians were assembling materials on the Revolutionary War, and Parson Weems--originator of the cherry tree story--had by 1800 already begun to build up the heroic myth of George Washington. Poets, too, were writing on the history and legends of the young republic.
Irving not only realized the desires of Americans of his time for legends of their own but also pioneered the very themes that were later to make American romantic writing great. His History of New York established a pattern that would be followed by Longfellow in his legends of Paul Revere and Miles Standish, and Hawthorne in his gloomy allegories of Puritan New England. In his Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus and in his Voyages and Discoveries of the Companions of Columbus, Irving took up the themes of exploration and seafaring that Cooper and Melville were later to treat in more detail. Irving was one of the first to recognize that the Indian was also a fitting subject for American literature. His pictures of Indians in The Sketch Book precede both Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales and Longfellow’s glorification of the noble savage in Hiawatha. Even more important, Irving was one of the first (in a literary sense) to “open up the West,” with books like Astoria--a description of John Jacob Astor’s fur empire in the Northwest--and The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, U.S.A. Furthermore, Irving saw a fertile field in the biography of national heroes; his five-volume Life of George Washington became a landmark in the developing legend of the father of his country.
But Irving did not limit himself to American themes. Much of his appeal lay in his love of high adventure and heroism in the long ago and far away. An age that idolized Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott responded enthusiastically to Irving’s dramatic pictures of the conquest of Granada, or the life and campaigns of Mahomet. For all the romance of foreign lands, however, his American stories remained his most popular works. His life of Columbus, which followed the rise and fall of the Admiral of the Ocean Sea, was welcomed as a part of the epic of America--as was his piece in the Sketch Book on King Philip--“Philip of Pokanoket”--which glorified a truly noble Indian leader.