Shy Washington Irving

BY TRACY HOFFMAN

September 17, 2018

It was 7 p.m. on a Friday night. February eighteenth, to be exact, in the year 1842. Hundreds of guests, were gathered at the Carlton House in New York City for a dinner honoring Charles Dickens, who had recently arrived in America.

Washington Irving was the obvious choice to introduce Dickens to the large audience. Native New Yorker, Father of American Literature, our first man of letters, who corresponded with Dickens and had encouraged him to travel to America. Irving was to give a big speech and make a grand toast to Charles Dickens.

However, Irving dreaded this moment. He was nervous. He was shy. He was overly anxious. He repeatedly told people beforehand, “I shall certainly break down.”

But he was prepared. Some scholars have suggested he had a twelve-page manuscript on hand when he stood before the assembly. But break down, he did.

After tremendous applause welcoming him to speak, Irving lost his composure. In a quandary, he forgot about his well-prepared speech. Traumatized, he blurted out a few sentences, skipped the speech, raised his glass, and finally managed a toast by saying: “Charles Dickens, the guest of the nation.”

The audience toasted and drank to Dickens. Irving no doubt took a big gulp. As he settled back into his chair, those in hearing range could hear him say: “there! I told you I should break down, and I’ve done it.”

The audience didn’t seem to mind the breakdown. More applause erupted as Charles Dickens took center stage. Fortunately, Dickens was eloquent and made up for Irving’s lack. He had very kind words to say about Irving, who had recently been named ambassador to Spain.

* * *
In April 2018, when I first stood up to give a talk, an update on my research, “Washington Irving Brouhaha: What’s Brewing in Irving Studies,” I began by telling this story about Irving bombing this one particular speech.

In the future, I might consider bombing the initial part of my speech, as well, just to get the point across about Irving’s embarrassment, but I resisted such an urge in April.

Irving didn’t enjoy being the center of attention, and he was very nervous when speaking before crowds. It’s important to keep his personality in mind when considering scholarly debates and considerations about his writing and biography. So I throw out the example of the big toast to remind us.

Published in: on September 15, 2018 at 12:55 pm  Leave a Comment  

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