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Irving himself shared this opinion. He hoped, in the composition of his “Columbus ” and his “Washington,” to produce works which should justify the good opinion his countrymen had formed of him, should reasonably satisfy the expectations excited by his lighter books, and lay for him the basis of enduring reputation. All that he had done before was the play of careless genius, the exercise of frolicsome fancy, which might amuse and perhaps win an affectionate regard for the author, but could not justify a high respect or secure a permanent place in literature. For this, some work of scholarship and industry was needed.
And yet everybody would probably have admitted that there was but one man then living who could have created and peopled the vast and humorous world of the Knickerbockers; that all the learning of Oxford and Cambridge together would not enable a man to draw the whimsical portrait of Ichabod Crane, or to outline the fascinating legend of Rip Van Winkle; while Europe was full of scholars of more learning than Irving, and writers of equal skill in narrative, who might have told the story of Columbus as well as he told it and perhaps better. The under-graduates of Oxford who hooted their admiration of the shy author when he appeared in the theatre to receive his complimentary degree perhaps understood this, and expressed it in their shouts of “Diedrich Knickerbocker,” “Ichabod Crane,” “Rip Van Winkle.” Irving’s “gift” was humor; and allied to this was sentiment. These qualities modified and restrained each other; and it was by these that he touched the heart. He acquired other powers which he himself may have valued more highly, and which brought him more substantial honors; but the historical compositions, which he and his contemporaries regarded as a solid basis of fame, could be spared without serious loss, while the works of humor, the first fruits of his genius, are possessions in English literature the loss of which would be irreparable. The world may never openly allow to humor a position “above the salt,” but it clings to its fresh and original productions, generation after generation, finding room for them in its accumulating literary
baggage, while more “important" tomes of scholarship and industry strew the line of its march.
I feel that this study of Irving as a man of letters would be incomplete, especially for the young readers of this generation, if it did not contain some more extended citations from those works upon which we have formed our estimate of his quality. Wo will take first a few passages from the “History of New York.”
It has been said that Irving lacked imagination. That, while he had humor and feeling and fancy, he was wanting in the higher quality, which is the last test of genius. We have come to attach to the word “imagination ” a larger meaning than the mere reproduction in the mind of certain absent objects of sense that have been perceived ; there must be a suggestion of something beyond these, and an ennobling suggestion, if not a combination, that amounts to a new creation. Now, it seems to me that the transmutation of the crude and theretofore unpoetical materials, which he
found in the New World, into what is as
absolute a creation as exists in literature, was a distinct work of the imagination. Its humorous quality does not interfere with its largeness of outline, nor with its essential poetic coloring. For, whimsical and comical as is the “ Knickerbocker’’ creation, it is enlarged to the proportion of a realm, and over that new country of the imagination is always the rosy light of sentiment. This largeness of modified conception cannot be made apparent in such brief extracts as we can make, but they will show its quality and the author's humor. The Low-Dutch settlers of the Nieuw Nederlandts are supposed to have sailed from Amsterdam in a ship called the Goede Vrouw, built by the carpenters of that city, who always model their ships on the fair forms of their countrywomen. This vessel, whose beauteous model was declared to be the greatest belle in Amsterdam, had one hundred feet in the beam, one hundred feet in the keel, and one hundred feet from the bottom of the stern-post to the taffrail. Those illustrious adventurers who sailed in her landed on the Jersey flats, preferring a marshy ground, where they could drive
piles and construct dykes. They made a settlement at the Indian village of Communipaw, the egg from which was hatched the mighty city of New York. In the author's time this place had lost its importance: —
“Communipaw is at present but a small village, pleasantly situated, among rural scenery, on that beauteous part of the Jersey shore which was known in ancient legends by the name of Pavonia,' and commands a grand prospect of the superb bay of New York. It is within but half an hour's sail of the latter place, provided you have a fair wind, and may be distinctly seen from the city. Nay, it is a well-known fact, which I can testify from my own experience, that on a clear still summer evening, you may hear, from the Battery of New York, the obstreperous peals of broad-mouthed laughter of the Dutch negroes at Communipaw, who, like most other negroes, are famous for their risible powers. This is peculiarly the case on Sunday evenings, when, it is remarked by an ingenious and observant philosopher, who has made great discoveries in the neighborhood of this city, that they always laugh loudest, which he attributes to the circumstance of their having their holiday clothes on.
1 Pavonia in the ancient maps, is given to a tract of country extending from about Hoboken to Amboy.