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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
What Irving’s works had, indeed--and this was their greatest asset--was personality, the warm, genial personality of Irving himself. Rarely in literature have the writings been so much the man. When Henry Wadsworth Longfellow met Irving, he remarked that he saw the author he loved repeated in the flesh. In all of Irving’s writing, his biographer Charles Dudley Warner comments, one quality is constant--the flavor of the author. The writings are delightful because Irving was delightful.
In his personal life, he was generous and always loyal, possessing what Warner called “a boundless capacity for good fellowship.” Every ship on which he sailed became a home, every officer a friend. After his death, Emily Foster (by then Mrs. Fuller), the woman he had wanted to marry and with whose family he had spent many weeks in Dresden in 1822–23, wrote of him:
He was thoroughly a gentleman, not merely in external manners and look, but to the innermost fibres and core of his heart: sweet-tempered, gentle, fastidious, sensitive, and gifted with the warmest affections; the most delightful and invariably interesting companion; gay and full of humor, even in spite of occasional fits of melancholy. …
He had, she said, “a gift of conversation that flowed like a full river in sunshine--bright, easy, and abundant.”
Perhaps, however, what Irving’s age best liked about him was his gentle and persistent optimism. When he chose the name Sunnyside for the cottage on the Hudson near Tarrytown that he turned into the home of his old age, he was expressing one of his basic views. Despite his recurrent invalidism and his many pressing financial and personal difficulties, he remained cheerful. He tried to be like his character “The Contented Man” in The Crayon Miscellany, who in the midst of calamity was always glad for what he had. “I endeavor,” Irving wrote as he suffered from dirty inns and vile food on his first trip to Europe, “to be pleased with everything about me. … When I cannot get a dinner to suit my taste, I endeavor to get a taste to suit my dinner.” In the preface to Bracebridge Hall he wrote that he always tried “to see the world in as pleasant a light as circumstances will permit.”
I have always had an opinion that much good might be done by keeping mankind in good humor with one another. I may be wrong in my philosophy, but I shall continue to practice it until convinced of its fallacy. When I discover the world to be all that it has been represented by sneering cynics, and whining poets, I will turn to and abuse it also; in the meanwhile, worthy reader, I hope you will not think lightly of me, because I cannot believe this to be so very bad a world as it is represented.
But--since geniality is not necessarily genius, and good humor and charm are not necessarily profound--Irving may have been right in his own appraisal of his work. Perhaps it never was his to “attempt a lofty theme” or “to seek to look wise and learned.” His writings, though they are full of warm understanding of human nature, may indeed to some critics seem only “light and trifling.” But on the other hand, Irving’s “flute accompaniment” was exactly the most valuable part he could have played in “the national concert” of his time. Had he attempted to be profound, he might have sacrificed those qualities which made his work so enjoyable; moreover, he might not have attained the tremendous popularity that enabled him to open a way in America for the great romantic movement that was to follow and to prove to the whole world that good writing could be produced by and about America. Thus, though he perhaps cannot (as he himself too modestly admitted in the prospectus for The Sketch Book ) “aspire to those high honors which are the rewards of loftier intellects,” he has assuredly attained what in the same work he said was “the dearest wish of his heart”--a secure and cherished … corner in the good opinions and kind feelings of his countrymen.”