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Pierre M. Irving) is an account of John Jacob Astor's commercial enterprise in the Northwest. Irving was amused when an English review pronounced the book his masterpiece. He had really taken a deeper interest in the work than he supposed possible when Astor urged it upon him. . Bonneville in a manner supplements Astoria, and was written from notes and journals furnished by the hardy explorer whose name the book bears.
It was fitting that Irving should crown the literary labors of forty years with a life of Washington. He had a deep veneration for the memory of the great American. The theme was peculiarly grateful to him. He seems to have regarded the work as something more than a self-imposed and pleasant literary task — it was a duty to which he was in the highest degree committed, a duty at once pious and patriotic. Though he had begun early to ponder his subject, Irving was nearly seventy when he commenced the actual writing ; and notwithstanding the book far outgrew the original plan, he was able to bring it to a successful conclusion.
Three quarters of the first volume are devoted to Washington's history up to his thirty-second year. It is a graphic account of the young student, , the surveyor, the envoy to the Indians, the captain of militia. Irving shows how it is possible to present the 'real' Washington without recourse to exaggerated realism. The remainder of the
volume is given to an outline of the causes leading to the Revolution, to the affair of Lexington and Concord, the Battle of Bunker Hill, Washington's election to the post of commander-inchief, and the beginning of military operations around Boston. The next three volumes are a history of the Revolutionary War, with Washington always the central figure. The fifth volume covers Washington's political life, and his last years at Mount Vernon.
Of two notable characteristics of this book, the first is its extraordinary readableness. To be sure the Revolution was a great event, and Irving was a gifted writer. Nevertheless for a historian who delights in movement, color, variety, the Revolutionary War must often seem no better than a desert of tedious fact relieved now and then by an oasis of brilliant exploit. Irving complained of the dulness of many parts of the theme. Notwithstanding this he brought to the work so much of his peculiar winsomeness that the Washington is a book always to be taken up with pleasure and laid down with regret.
The second notable characteristic is the freedom from extravagance either of praise or of blame. The crime and the disgrace of Arnold do not color adversely the historian's view of what Arnold was and did in 1776. No indignant partisan has told with greater pathos the story of André. Nothing could be more temperate than Irving's attitude
towards the Tories, or, as it is now fashionable to call them, the Loyalists of the American Revolution. He could not deny sympathy to these unfortunates who found themselves caught between the
upper and lower millstones, a people who in many cases were unable to go over heart and soul to the cause of the King, and who found it even more difficult to espouse the cause of their own countrymen. Even the enemies of Washington, that is to say, the enemies of his own political and military household, are treated with utmost fairness.
For Washington himself, Irving has only admiration, which, however, he is able to express without fulsome panegyric. He dwells on the great leader's magnanimity, on his evenness of temper, his infinite patience, his freedom from trace of vanity, self-interest, or sectional prejudice, his confidence in the justness of the cause, and his trust in Providence, a trust which faltered least when circumstances were most adverse. Irving admired unstintedly the warrior who could hold in check trained and seasoned European soldiers with an ‘apparently undisciplined rabble,' the 'American
Fabius' who, when the time was ripe, was found to possess 'enterprise as well as circumspection, energy as well as endurance.'
The personal side of the biography is not neglected, but no emphasis is laid on particulars of costume, manners, speech, what Washington ate and drank, and said about his neighbors. Irving could have had little sympathy with the modern rage for knowing the size of a great man's collar and the number of his footgear. The passion for such details is legitimate, but it is a passion which needs to be firmly controlled. In brief, throughout the work emphasis is laid where emphasis belongs, on the character of Washington, who was the soul of the Revolutionary War, and then on the moral grandeur of that great struggle for human rights.
A historian of American literature says: 'Ir'ving had no message. He was not indeed enslaved by a theory literary or political; neither was he passionate for some reform and convinced that his particular reform was paramount. But he who gave to the world a series of writings which, in addition to being exquisite examples of literary art, are instinct with humor, brotherly kindness, and patriotism, can hardly be said not to have had a message.
Irving rendered an immense service to the biographical study of history. Columbus, Mahomet, the princes and warriors of the Holy War, are made real to us. Nor is this all. His books help to counteract that tendency of the times to make history a recondite science. History cannot be confined to the historians and erudite readers alone. Said Freeman to his Oxford audience one day: ‘Has anybody read the essay on Race and
* Language in the third series of my Historical Essays? It is very stiff reading, so perhaps nobody 'has. And one suspects that Freeman rejoiced a little to think it was 'stiff reading.'
Nevertheless the public insists on its right to know the main facts. And as Leslie Stephen says, 'the main facts are pretty well ascertained. Darn' ley was blown up, whoever supplied the powder, ' and the Spanish Armada certainly came somehow 'to grief.' That man of letters is a benefactor who, like Irving, can give his audience the main facts, expressed in terms which make history more readable even than romance.
Irving perfected the short story. His genius was fecundative. Many a writer of gift and taste, and at least one writer of genius, owes Irving a debt which can be acknowledged but which cannot be paid. Deriving much from his literary predecessors, and gladly acknowledging the measure of his obligation, Irving by the originality of his work placed fresh obligations on those who came after him.
With his stories of Dutch life he conquered a new domain. That these stories remain in their first and untarnished beauty is due to Irving's rich humor and ‘golden style,' and to that indescribable quality of genius by which it lifts its creations out of the local and provincial, and endows them with a charm which all can understand