Washington Irving in Paris, Part II


Washington Irving and Islam, edited by Zubeda Jalalzai, is now available. Irving’s 1821 journal from Paris gives us more to consider about his early interest in writing about Islam.



April 24, 2019

I decided to look through Washington Irving journal entries written in April. I was hoping to find something on this exact day, April 24, two-hundred years ago. I’ve done this sort of activity with classes in which we look to see what was happening in the newspapers on this day: 10 years ago, 50 years ago, 100 years ago, etc.

In the process of looking through Irving’s April journal entries, I came across journal pages from April of 1821. Irving writes of Paris and his first conversation with actor François Joseph Talma.

In the second volume of journals, 1807-1822, edited by Walter A. Reichart and Lillian Schlissel, we are given this note: “Irving’s meeting with the great actor, François Joseph Talma (1763-1826), occurred on April 25, 1821. Irving had first seen him on the stage on May 29, 1805, and saw him repeatedly in the theater and socially in 1823, as indicated by his journal entries. Irving utilized these notes almost verbatim in his ‘Conversations with Talma,’ first published in The Knickerbocker Gallery: A Testimonial to the Editor of the Knickerbocker Magazine from its Contributors…” (386).

Reichart and Schlissel correctly state that the journal entries are very close to the article (https://archive.org/details/knickerbocker00newyrich/page/n8).

Irving makes some insightful comments about Paris in 1821. For instance, he writes: “He [Talma] received me in a very cordial manner, and asked if this was my first visit to Paris. I told him I had been here once before, about fourteen years since” (archive.org).

The bulk of Irving’s Knickerbocker Gallery article deals with Hamlet and the French theater since Irving had seen Talma perform in a French version of the play in Paris.

But what I found fascinating was another connection Irving must have had with Talma: the Arabesque and the Prophet Muhammad (once spelled Mahomet).

In a preliminary dig into Talma’s biography, we find “his professional debut…on Nov. 21, 1787, as Seide in Voltaire’s Mahomet (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Francois-Joseph-Talma).

Evidently, in 2005, readings of Voltaire’s Mahomet, which is a very anti-Mahomet play, created a small riot in France (https://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/blame-it-voltaire-muslims-ask-french-cancel-1741-play).

In 1821 upon meeting Talma, Irving had not published his own biography of the Prophet, nor had he traveled to Spain where he would have access to the Spanish archives.

I have often wondered why both Mary Shelley and Washington Irving wanted to publish a biography about Muhammad, and why their publisher rejected them both initially. François Joseph Talma’s performance in the 1787 Mahomet adds yet another layer to Irving’s fascination with the subject.

The influence of the theater in Irving’s writing cannot be overstated. In fact, we could use some scholarly work which delves into this subject. I have yet to find a list of all plays Irving attended. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t exist. We need to change that.

Until next week, please feel free to add to the conversation wherever you like: Twitter, Facebook, on this page. Comments are very much welcomed. Also feel free to message me at Tracy_Hoffman@baylor.edu. I try my best on Wednesdays to blog on the WIS website, to respond to all correspondence, and to update the WIS page.

Published in: on April 24, 2019 at 11:34 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Hello Tracy,

    I’m conducting a bit of research into Washington Irving and his St. Nicholas stories along with some of his close Knickerbocker friends at the time and was wondering if you were free to chat a bit about it and perhaps point me in the right direction. I may be reached on my cell phone at 908 – five seven eight – three seven nine six. I look forward to hearing from you.

    kind regards,

    Jonathan O’Hea


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