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The Sunny Master Of Sunnyside

July 2024
17min read

Blending satire and nostalgia, Washington Irving taught his readers both to love the past and chuckle over its absurdities


”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.

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.

But it is in his Astoria--a book written in large part out of patriotic pride--that Irving told his most exciting story of heroic American adventure. After his return from Europe in 1832, Irving had wanted to demonstrate that, despite his literary delight in the antiquities of England and Spain and Germany, his first loyalty was to America. Thus when John Jacob Astor offered him access to the records of the great fur-trading house which he headed, Irving jumped at the chance. The book that resulted is an exciting account of the treacherous and bloody competition of American and British fur companies, of the pageantry of life and death among the wild savages of the plains, and the incredible hardships of the mountain men who braved starvation, Indians, and wild animals among the defiles of the Rockies. Especially graphic is the account of the capture by Indians of the ship Tonquin, the massacre of all on board, and the subsequent explosion of the ship in which most of the Indians were killed.

Irving’s heroes and adventurers, unlike those of most earlier American writers, are human. He likes them, and so does his reader. Irving could see the good not only in his namesake George Washington (who once, when Irving was an infant, patted his head and gave him a patriarchal blessing) but also in the fierce half-pirates and conquistadors of early Spanish America. He had a kind word to say for Aaron Burr after his trial and for Napoleon after Waterloo; he praised King Philip for his coinage, his fidelity to his race, and his love of his family.


Perhaps living was able to understand his characters because he relied as much as possible on his own personal experiences in writing his stories of adventure. Not that Irving himself--despite his calmness when the ship on which he was voyaging was captured by Mediterranean pirates, despite his rambles through robber-infested Spain and his adventurous tour through the Shawnee and Osage country--was heroic. Far from it. In reality, he was a mild little man who dreaded even to give a speech in public--he broke down at the public dinner in New York for Dickens in 1842--and during his western trip was so unnerved when a false alarm of a Shawnee attack was made that he tangled himself in his trousers and could not get them on. He also studied locales and historical sources carefully. Much of the feeling of authenticity of the History of New York, for instance, was the result of Irving’s thorough knowledge of the city gained from boyhood rambles about the streets and docks, as well as his meticulous research--Irving was one of the first to consult these records--into the old Dutch documents. If the strange adventure of Brom Bones and Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow is vivid, it is partly because as a young man Irving had again and again visited the area. Similarly, the biography of Columbus was based in part on original research into long-neglected Spanish archives; Irving’s intimate knowledge of Spain, where he lived from 1826 to 1829 and again (as United States minister) from 1842 to 1846, gave it added color. The western books, too, grew out of personal knowledge.

Irving’s love for an adventurous past is at all times tempered with a nostalgic sadness that the beauty of old-time Spain and the heroism of the American frontier has yielded or is about to yield to the harsh commonplaces of modern existence. In the History of New York, for instance, he pictures the mythical Golden Age of the city before “Yankee” efficiency destroyed the comfortable Dutch phlegm. He liked to imagine, as he remarks in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” “a retreat whither I might steal from the world and its distractions, and dream quietly away the remnant of a troubled life.” Perhaps the clearest statement of his nostalgia is in a little-known sketch, “The Creole Village,” which was published in 1837. Here Irving, with very obvious criticism of the American civilization he sees around him, contrasts the calm, comfortable, peaceful, though poverty-stricken French Creole village in Louisiana with a bustling, speculating, ugly, businesslike “Yankee” town rising just down-river.

How many Americans must have sympathized with Irving’s regret at the frenzied pace of “progress” and the change from old values to new! During his lifetime the territory of the nation as a whole at least tripled. His own beloved New York City multiplied more than ten times in population and changed from a friendly little provincial city into a hectic metropolis. Commerce and the industrial revolution swept away much of the calm old village life. The gentlemanly, almost feudal society of colonial New York changed, as James Fenimore Cooper so bitterly lamented in his trilogy of novels, Satanstoe, The Chainbearer , and The Redskins, to raw democracy. No wonder that Cooper fled either to Europe or, in imagination, to the depths of the wilderness with his frontiersman hero, Natty Bumppo—or that the poet William Cullen Bryant should seek the woods, where “calm shade” could “bring a kindred calm,” and “the sweet breeze” could “waft a balm” to his “sick heart.” But even beyond this general feeling of the time, Irving himself had perhaps even greater reason to dream fondly of the past. He had grown up in an atmosphere of comfort and security, had lived a gay, if somewhat spoiled life with the bright young literary group in New York, and had been indulged in his desire for a long, carefree trip through Europe. As a partner in his brothers’ firm, he had had to do little but draw his income. But in 1818, as a result of debts incurred during the War of 1812, the business had failed. Irving found himself stranded in Europe, with little money and the sudden need to support himself. With courage and good humor he turned the writing that had been his avocation into his profession. He was not a man to complain. But perhaps, in a story like “Rip Van Winkle,” when after twenty years’ sleep old Rip returns to find his Dutch village changed almost beyond recognition, his old friends scattered, and the new inhabitants suspicious and quarrelsome, Irving is expressing a reaction to a personal situation as well as to the swift change in the nation.

Closely related to this nostalgia for the past is Irving’s love of the picturesque. The moss-grown Creole village, the old Dutch farmhouses, the queer-gabled old mansions of New York appealed to him not only because they were old but because they made what he and his generation considered beautiful pictures. Irving always had a painter’s eye. Indeed, on his visit to Europe in 1805 the well-known painter Washington Allston, recognizing his talent as a landscape artist, tried to persuade him to join the American art colony in Rome. And though Irving resisted the temptation to turn to canvas and brush, much of his literary technique relies on pictorial effects.

In “The Author’s Account of Himself,” prefixed to The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon (Irving enjoyed a mild pun), he wrote of himself with his usual accuracy in self-criticism:

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 the 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. As it is the fashion for modern tourists to travel pencil in hand, and bring home their portfolios filled with sketches, I am disposed to get up a few for the entertainment of my friends.

From the beginning Irving was a master of picturesque caricature in an age that delighted in it. Diedrich Knickerbocker’s History of New York, for instance, presented a series of amusing scenes typical of Irving’s peculiar brand of humor: Wouter Van Twiller’s rotund city council--each alderman had been chosen by weight--snoring over the affairs of state; the ancient Dutch burghers smoking their pipes on the benches of their whitewashed houses under shade of giant sycamores, surrounded by clucking hens and cackling geese and grunting hogs; the parties at which many-petticoated Dutch damsels sat with their swains around tables graced with immense apple pies, dishes of doughnuts, and a huge earthen dish filled with slices of fat pork which the guests dexterously harpooned with their forks. Perhaps the most amusing scene of all is that of the storming of Fort Goed Hope by the Wethersfield Yankees, who in the middle of a sultry day, while the defenders slept soundly after a huge dinner, “inhumanly seized Jacobus Van Curlet and his sturdy myrmidons by the nape of the neck, gallanted them to the gate of the fort,” and dismissed each one with a hearty kick on the heavy seat of their enormous Dutch breeches.

Irving also displayed a talent for genre painting. Take, for instance, his sketch of the Van Tassel farm in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

It was one of those spacious farm-houses, with high-ridged but lowly-sloping roofs, built in the style handed down from the first Dutch settlers; the low projecting eaves forming a piazza along the front, capable of being closed up in bad weather. Under this were hung flails, harness, various utensils of husbandry, and nets for fishing in the neighboring river. Benches were built along the side for summer use; and a great spinning-wheel at one end, and a churn at the other, showed the various uses to which this important porch might be devoted.

The old farmhouse is situated on the banks of the Hudson. Over it a great elm arches. Beside it runs a sparkling brook. And hard by is a vast barn and an abundantly populated farmyard. This is rural life as Americans of the day loved to see it. No wonder Irving’s tales were popular.

Irving--who in the preface to The Sketch Book had patriotically lauded the beauties of American scenery; who had exclaimed, “No, never need an American look beyond his own country for the sublime and beautiful of natural scenery”; whose skill at landscape had so impressed Washington Allston in Rome--reproduced exactly in his prose the gentle yet grand tones of the best native American landscape painters. Rip Van Winkle might almost be Asher B. Durand or Thomas Cole as, “late in the afternoon,” he throws himself down on a green knoll “that crowned the brow of a precipice”:

From an opening between the trees he could overlook all the lower country for many a mile of rich woodland. He saw at a distance the lordly Hudson, far, far below him, moving on its silent but majestic course, with the reflection of a purple cloud, or the sail of a lagging bark, here and there sleeping on its glassy bosom, and at last losing itself in the blue highlands.

On the other side he looked down into a deep mountain glen, wild, lonely, and shagged, the bottom filled with fragments from the impending cliffs, and scarcely lighted by the reflected rays of the setting sun. For some time Rip lay musing on this scene; evening was gradually advancing; the mountains began to throw their long blue shadows over the valleys. …

Crag, river, glen, blue shadows, evening light, boat on the water—these are the very trademarks of the Hudson River school.

Irving’s age liked a vigorous emotional appeal, and Irving himself had reason to be sentimental. The beautiful young woman to whom he had been engaged as a young man--Matilda Hoffman, the daughter of his law teacher--had died before they could be married. Though it is not true (as contemporary biographers liked to say) that this tragedy broke his heart and forever put marriage out of his mind--later, in Germany, he became much interested in a Miss Emily Foster, and in France had a slight flirtation with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the poet’s widow--his youthful disappointment did cast a cloud over his life.

But Irving was too sensible a person to wallow in sentimentality. He was also saved by his humor, most of which is basically satiric. On various levels, the situations of the History of New York make fun of the phlegmatic Dutch and the overactive Yankees, of city authorities during Irving’s own time in New York, of the Puritan chroniclers who started every history with an account of the Creation and the Flood, of Jefferson and the policies of his Administration, and finally, of human nature in general. Book I of the History : “Containing Divers Ingenious Theories and Philosophic Speculations, Concerning the Creation and Population of the World, as Connected with the History of New York,” is a take-off on the early colonial historians like Increase Mather and his son Cotton (this was the original purpose of the History ). In describing how one of New York’s Dutch elders puts a patented windmill on the battlements and hires a trumpeter to defend the city, Irving is poking fun at the inventor Jefferson and his policies of nonintervention and peace before the War of 1812. Similarly, in “Rip Van Winkle” there is political satire in the questions thrown at poor old Rip when he comes down from the mountain. Ichabod Crane is a caricature of the Yankee schoolmaster, with his superstitious fear of witches and his avid desire to get hold of the Van Tassel farm, sell it, load his goods and Katrina on a wagon, and move west. It is not unsatiric that the foolish pedant ends up, as we are told, a member of Congress!

Yet, though the humor is satiric, nowhere does any note of bitterness creep in. Irving has no enemies; he makes one like even the persons he satirizes. Dame Van Winkle may have a sharp tongue, but she is otherwise a good wife, and her shrewishness is justified by Rip’s shiftlessness. Ichabod Crane is greedy and absurdly superstitious and conceited, but his very absurdity prevents him from doing any real harm. The several Dutch governors of old New York are stupid, inefficient, foolish, and incompetent, yet they live in a fairyland where no real evil can happen. True, Dutch government is supplanted by English, the comfortable old era must yield to the bustling new, but neither nostalgic Irving nor his reader resents the inevitable change.

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.”


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