Washington Irving: A “poor scholar, fond of roguery” with a penchant for irresistible ridicule

 “Hell must be exactly like this,” wrote Randall Jarrell about New York City. I guess a city can be as divisive as anything. Jarrell clearly hated it. Washington Irving loved it. In fact, he loved it so much he wrote a whole book about it. What’s more, he made me fall in love with it although I think I fell for Irving rather more quickly. “The world in which we dwell is a huge, opaque, reflecting, inanimate mass,” he writes in the opening of A History of New York, “floating in the vast ethereal ocean of infinite space.” There is something distinctly Kierkegaardian about Irving’s voice, which shifts from numinous to witty, from pessimistic to ebullient, seamlessly and in perfect turn with each varying topic.  The book, initially conceived as a parody of another called Picture of New York by Dr Samuel Mitchell, was a combined effort on behalf of Washington and his brother Peter. Originally intended ridicule pedantic historians and their inkhornism it gradually evolved into something quite different; a kind of kaleidoscopic and prosaic synthesis of witty and light-hearted contemplation upon philosophy and history. There are many interesting aspects to this book, one of them being the cunning and crafty advertising campaign that preceded its publication. When A History of New York was completed, on 6th December 1809, classified ads were circulated in local New York newspapers announcing the disappearance of a Dutch historian, Diedrich Knickerbocker, “a small, elderly gentle-man, dressed in an old black coat and cocked hat”. Each week, news about his disappearance would appear in the papers stating that the historian absconded owing his landlord money and that a manuscript he had left behind would be sold to pay his bill.  The whole of New York soon fell prey to the campaign and sought to get their hands on a copy, making A History of New York an almost immediate hit. Relayed entirely from Knickerbocker’s point of view, A History of New York documents the city’s 50 years under the Dutch Dynasty in the 1600s.

A History of New York is a robust literary work of subtle language, loaded with epigrammatic wit and wry mockery. Irving condensed the mass of mock-affected learning, written with his brother, into the first five chapters and wrote the rest with a new slant. Speaking about it once, however, he said that the book would have been greatly improved had he reduced the collaborative work fourfold, into a single chapter and then dispensed of it altogether. It is a book of considerable length, and can be tiresome but is often rescued by its writers humour. “I shall not occupy my time by discussing the huge mass of additional suppositions, conjectures and probabilities respecting the first discovery of this country [US], with which unhappy historians overload themselves, in their endeavours to satisfy the doubts of an incredulous world,” writes Irving in the opening,  “I shall take for granted, the vulgar opinion that America was discovered on 12th of October, 1492, by Christovallo Colon, a Genoese, who has been clumsily nick-named Columbus, but for what reason I cannot discern.” The book’s spontaneity, breadth of conception and joyous vigour give it an enduring quality that hasn’t paled with time. This is in part because Irving’s vision is ingenious in many ways, such as when, for example, he uses a metaphor comparing the greed of early American colonists with that of hypothetical inhabitants of the Moon. “Let us suppose a roving crew of these soaring philosophers, in the course of an ærial voyage of discovery among the stars, should chance to alight upon this outlandish planet,” Irving writes, and having done so then “taken possession…and that whereas it is inhabited by none but a race of two legged animals, that carry their heads on their shoulders instead of under their arms; cannot talk the lunatic language; have two eyes instead of one; are destitute of tails, and of a horrible whiteness, instead of pea green – therefore and for a variety of other excellent reasons -they are considered incapable of possessing any property in the planet they infest, and the right and title to it are confirmed to its original discoverers. And furthermore, the colonists who are now about to depart to the aforesaid planet, are authorised and commanded to use every means to convert these infidel savages from the darkness of Christianity, and make them thorough and absolute lunatics.” A brave and imaginative man to convey a serious point with inspired jocularity.

Washington Irving was born in New York City at the end of the Revolutionary War on April 3rd 1783. Although he trained as a lawyer, and was active in the field of diplomacy, Irving was unable to remain faithful to any prescribed profession that demanded set hours and duties. He travelled a lot, fleeing from one place to another, from one country to the next, taking up work as chance presented itself. In his student years, he preferred to spend his time north of Warren Street in Manhattan, describing himself as a “poor scholar – fond of roguery”. Irving had begun writing while he was still at school, contributing literary letters of eccentric and humorous inclination under the sobriquet of Jonathan Oldstyle to his brother Peter’s publication, the Morning Chronicle. It was after the journal had folded that Irving thought up the idea of a historic pasquinade. Sadly, while he wrote with great enthusiasm and alacrity, much of his literary passion ceased before he had completed A History of New York. The last chapters of the book were composed while Irving was grieving the loss of Matilda Hoffman. The two were set to marry, but after a short illness at the age of 18 Hoffman died leaving Irving grievously bereaved.The loss changed Irving’s entire life and after his own death, in 1859, in a private repository which he kept under lock and key, was found a miniature of Hoffman, a braid of her hair and a slip of paper with her name. In a journal, written years after her passing, Irving recorded his state of mind following Hoffman’s death by saying: “I seemed to care for nothing: the world was a blank to me. I abandoned all thoughts of the law. I went into the country, but could not bear solitude, yet could not endure society. There was dismal horror continually in my mind that made me fear to be alone… the anguish that attended its catastrophe, seemed to give a turn to my whole character, and throw some clouds into my disposition, which ever since hung about.”  He also mentioned A History of New York, saying it had become a thing which reminded him most of the loss, and thus he was never able to “look upon it with satisfaction.” 

A History of New York can be a little dense at times, veiled in gauzy layers of hypothesis and made obtuse by grandiloquent use of the English language, but it is also a book brimming with brilliant wisdoms and observations. At one point and in a somewhat self-mocking fashion, Irving posits that: “To let my readers into a great literary secret, your experienced writers, who wish to instil peculiar tenets, either in religion, politics or morals, do often resort to this expedient – illustrating their favourite doctrines by pleasing fictions on established facts -and so mingling historic truth, and subtle speculation together, that the unwary million never perceive the medley; but, running with open mouth, after an interesting story, are often made to swallow the most heterodox opinions, ridiculous theories, and abominable heresies. This is particularly the case with the industrious advocates of the modern philosophy, and many an honest un-suspicious reader, who devours their works under an idea of acquiring solid knowledge, must not be surprised if, to use a pious quotation, he finds ‘his belly filled with the east wind.'” Irving’s spoof is even self-ridiculing. His work, however, shaped the reading habits of his day, beyond its leather-bound confines.

Whatever Plato, Aristotle, Grotius, Puffendorf, Sydney, Thomas Jefferson or Tom Paine may say to the contrary, I insist that, as to nations, the old maxim that ‘honesty is the best policy,’ is a sheer and ruinous mistake,” Irving writes toward the end, “It might have answered well enough in the honest times when it was made; but in these degenerate days, if a nation pretends to rely merely upon the justice of its dealings, it will fare something like an honest man among thieves, who unless he has something more than his honesty to depend upon, stands but a poor chance of profiting by his company.” And there is also something of a wonderful storyteller that comes through in A History of New York, which later emerged in all its refulgent splendour in the wonderfully macabre The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Irving earned a reputation as the father of the American story and came to be admired in Europe as much as in his own homeland. Toasting in his honour during a dinner party, Charles Dickens once reportedly said that he wouldn’t dream of going to bed without taking Irving “under my arm” and that’s perhaps the best compliment.