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After this memorable autumn drive amongst the hills, I met with Mr. Irving frequently at his own home; and shall I be thought impertinent and indiscreet if I say that at times—rare times, it is true, I have seen this most amiable gentleman manifest a little of that restive choler which sometimes flamed up in William the Testy--not long-lived, not deliberate—but a little human blaze, of impatience at something gone awry in the dressing of a garden border, in the care of some stable pet--that was all gone with the first blaze, but marked and indicated the sources of that wrathy and pious zest (with which he is not commonly credited) with which he loved to put a contemptuous thrust of his sharper language into the bloat of upstart pride, and of conceit, and of insolent pretension.
The boy-mischief in him, which led him out from his old home in William street, after hours, over the shedroof, lingered in him for a good while, I think, and lent not a little point to some of the keener pictures of the Knickerbocker history; and, if I do not mistake, there was now and then a quiet chuckle as he told me of the foolish indignation with which some descendants of the old Dutch worthies had seen their ancestors put to a tender broil over the playful blaze of his humor.
Indeed there was a spontaneity and heartiness about that Knickerbocker history, which I think he carried a strong liking for, all his life.
The “Sketch Book," written years later, and when necessity enforced writing, was done with a great audience in his eye; and he won it, and keeps it bravely. I know there is a disposition to speak of it rather patronizingly and apologetically—as if it were reminiscent-Anglicanconventional—as if he would have done better if he had possessed our modern critical bias--or if he had been born in Boston-or born a philosopher outright. Well, perhaps so—perhaps so! But I love to think and believe that our dear old Mr. Irving was born just where he should have been born, and wrote in a way that it is hardly worth our while to try and mend for him.
I understand that a great many promising young people, without the fear of the critics before their eyes, keep on, persistently reading that old “Sketch Book," with its “Broken Hearts," and "Wife” twining like a vine, and
"Spectre Bridegroom," and all the rest. And there are old people I know-one I am sure of—who never visit St. Paul's Churchyard without wanting to peep over Irving's shoulders into Mr. Newbury's shop, full of dear old toybooks;—who never go to Stratford-on-Avon but there is a hunt—first of all—for the Red Horse Tavern and the poker which was Irving's sceptre;-never sail on summer afternoons past the wall of the blue Catskills, but there is a longing lookout for the stray cloud-caps, and an eager listening for the rumbling of the balls which thundered in the ears of poor Rip Van Winkle.
What, pray, if the hero of “Bracebridge Hall” be own cousin to Sir Roger de Coverley? Is that a relationship to be discarded? And could any other than the writer we honor carry on more wisely the record of the cousinship, or with so sure a hand and so deft a touch declare and establish our inheritance in the rural beatitudes of England?
It may be true that as we read some of those earlier books of his we shall come upon some truisms which in these fast-paced times may chafe us—some rhetorical furbelows or broidery that belong to the wardrobes of the past—some tears that flow too easily,—but scarcely ever a page anywhere but, on a sudden, some shimmer of buoyant humor breaks through all the crevices of a sentence, a humor not born of rhetoric or measurable by critics' rules, but coming as the winds come, and playing up and down with a frolicsome, mischievous blaze, that warms, and piques, and delights us.
In the summer of 1852 I chanced to be quartered at the same hotel with him in Saratoga for a fortnight or more. He was then in his seventieth year, but still carrying himself easily up and down upon the corridors, and along the street, and through the grove at the spring. I recall vividly the tremulous pride with which, in those far-off days, I was permitted to join in many of these walks. He in his dark suit, of such cut and fit as to make one forget utterly its fashion and remember only the figure of the quiet gentleman, looking hardly middle-aged, with head thrown slightly to one side, and an eye always alert; not a fair young face dashing past us in its drapery of muslin but his eye drank in all its freshness and beauty
with the keen appetite and the grateful admiration of a boy; not a dowager brushed us, bedizened with finery, but he fastened the apparition in my memory with some piquant remark, as the pin of an entomologist fastens a gaudy fly. Other times there was a playful nudge of the elbow, and a curious, meaning list of the brow, to call attention to something of droll aspect—perhaps some threatened scrimmage amongst schoolboys—may be, only a passing encounter between street dogs—for he had all the quick responsiveness to canine language which belonged to the author of “Rab and His Friends"; and I have known him to stay his walk for five minutes together in a boyish, eager intentness upon those premonitions of a dog encounter, watching the first inquisitive sniff—the reminiscent lift of the head-then the derogatory growl—the growl apprehensive—the renewed sniff—the pauses for reflection, then the milder and discursive growls—as if either dog could, if he would—until one or the other, thinking more wisely of the matter, should turn tail, and trot quietly away.
I trust I do not seem to vulgarize the occasion in bringing to view these little traits which set before us the man: as I have already said, we cannot honor him more than by recalling him in his full personality.
Over and over in his shrugs, in a twinkle of his eye, in that arching of his brow, which was curiously full of meaning, did I see, as I thought, the germ of some new chapter, such as crept into his sketch-books. Did I intimate as much: "Ah,” he would say, “that is game for youngsters; we old fellows are not nimble enough to give chase to sentiment."
He was engaged at that time upon his “ Life of Washington,” going out, as I remember, on one of these Saratoga days, for a careful inspection of the field of Burgoyne's surrender.
I asked after the system of his note-making for history. “Ah,” he said, “don't talk to me of system; I never had any; you must go to Bancroft for that: I have, it is true, my little budgets of notes—some tied one way, some another-and which, when I need, I think I come upon in my pigeon-holes by a sort of instinct. That is all there is of it,"
There were some two or three beautiful dark-eyed women that summer at Saratoga, who were his special admiration, and of whose charm of feature he loved to discourse eloquently. Those dark eyes led him back, doubtless, to the glad young days when he had known the beauties of Seville and Cordova. Indeed, there was no episode in his life of which he was more prone to talk, than of that which carried him in his Spanish studies to the delightful regions which lie south of the Guadalquiver. Granada–the Alhambra—those names made the touchstone of his most gushing and eloquent talk. Much as he loved and well as he painted the green fields of Warwickshire, and the hedges and the ivy-clad towers and the embowered lanes and the primroses and the hawthorn which set off the stories of “Bracebridge Hall,” yet, I think, he was never stirred by these memories so much as by the sunny valleys which lay in Andalusia, and by the tinkling fountains and rosy walls that caught the sunshine in the palace courts of Granada.
I should say that the crowning literary enthusiasms of his life were those which grouped themselves—first about those early Dutch foregatherings amongst the Van Twillers and the Stuyvesants and the Van Tassels—and next and stronger, those others which grouped about the great Moorish captains of Granada.
In the first—that is to say, his Knickerbocker studiesthe historic sense was active but not dominant, and his humor in its first lusty wantonness went careering through the files of the old magnates, like a boy at play; and the memory of the play abode with him, and had its keen awakenings all through his life; there was never a year, I suspect, when the wooden leg of the doughty Peter Stuyvesant did not come clattering spunkily, and bringing its own boisterous welcome to his pleased recollection.
In the Spanish studies and amongst the Moors the historic sense was more dominant, the humor more in hand, and the magnificent ruins of this wrecked nation, which had brought its trail of light across Southern Europe from the far East, piqued all his sympathies, appealed to all his livelier fancies, and the splendors of court and camp lent a lustre to his pages which he greatly relished.
No English-speaking visitor can go to the Alhambra now, or
henceforth ever will go thither, but the name of the author we honor to-night will come to his lip, and will lend, by some subtle magic, the master's silvery utterance to the dash of the fountains, to the soughing of the winds, to the chanting of the birds who sing in the ruinous courts of the Alhambra.
But I keep you too long [Cries of "No! no!-go on!”], and yet I have said no word of that quality in him which will, I think, most of all, make Centenary like this follow upon Centenary.
'Tis the kindness in him: 'Tis the simple good-heartedness of the man. Did he ever wrong a neighbor? Did he ever say an unkind thing of you, or me, or any one? Can you cull me a sneer that has hate in it anywhere in his books? Can you tell me of a thrust of either words or silence, which has malignity in it?
Fashions of books may change-do change; a studious realism may put in disorder the quaint dressing of his thought; an elegant philosophy of indifference may pluck out the bowels from his books. But the fashion of his heart and of his abiding good-will toward men will lastwill last while the hills last.
And when you and I, sir, and all of us are beyond the reach of the centennial calls, I think that old Anthony Van Corlear's trumpet will still boom along the banks of the Hudson, heralding a man and a master, who to exquisite graces of speech added purity of life, and to the most buoyant and playful of humors added a love for all mankind.