Author Societies: Watchdog Groups?

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Photo by Viktoria B. on


Wednesday, February 20, 2019

If journalists have been traditionally viewed as “the watchdog of government,” should an author society consider itself the protector of truth about its writer? Should society members be the barking dogs to point out “untruths” we see being spread on social media?

As often is the case, yesterday, Washington Irving made the “quote of the day” on various feeds, which is a good thing. It’s nice to see the world abuzz about “an old, dead white guy” I study. But tweeters failed to give the textual source for the quote.

I was reminded of my “lecture series” which students get on rudeness in writing. Whenever I talk about plagiarism with entry-level writing classes, I often make a forceful comment, which goes something like this: “It may not be plagiarism, but it might be rude.”

For instance, mechanical engineers may consider something common knowledge in their sphere, but if they’re trying to write a document for a general audience, not providing additional information and/or some citation could be very rude.

I remind students to be kind to their readers. Let them know where they can go for further information. If you didn’t “borrow” the information, then it’s not plagiarism, but please tell readers where they can go to find out more.

If I can’t easily figure out the source of a quote, it drives me batty! And if I don’t readily recognize an Irving quote, then certainly a general audience, the recipient for such “quotes of the day,” would have no idea.

Here’s the quote which ran all over the place yesterday, Tuesday, February 19, 2019:

“Little minds are tamed and subdued by misfortune, but great minds rise above it.”

As you might imagine, all kinds of self-help, business-minded folks used the quote as motivational material, and I suppose that’s why the quote made the cut.

After some digging around, I found the source of the quote: “Philip of Pokanoket” from The Sketch Book. The passage sets up the death of the Wampanoag chief. Though Irving paints the Native-American leader as “a patriot attached to his native soil—a prince true to his subjects and indignant of their wrongs,” in the “quote of the day,” Philip arouses his “great mind” to kill.

Here are the lines which follow “the quote of the day”:

“The very idea of submission awakened the fury of Philip, and he smote to death one of his followers who proposed an expedient of peace. The brother of the victim made his escape, and in revenge betrayed the retreat of his chieftain. A body of white men and Indians were immediately despatched to the swamp where Philip lay crouched, glaring with fury and despair. Before he was aware of their approach, they had begun to surround him. In a little while he saw five of his trustiest followers laid dead at his feet; all resistance was vain; he rushed forth from his covert and made a headlong attempt to escape, but was shot through the heart by a renegade Indian of his own nation.”

Typically, I try not to correct people on Twitter, Facebook, or anywhere else. People generally don’t want to be corrected. The context for this quote, though, seemed worthwhile enough to share. I also thought it might introduce some people to Irving’s concerns about Native-Americans in the early republic.

I posted the following:

“ ‘Little minds are tamed and subdued by misfortune, but great minds rise above it’ deals with Native-American conflict and comes from Irving’s ‘Philip of Pokanoket.’ Context is important. Full text at”

In scholarly publications, we attempt to straighten out the facts, context, and more about texts and writers, but should we feel at all obligated to correct misinformation spread about our writers in social media?

People will probably always use “Romeo and Juliet” references to describe couples in love, even though the pair committed suicide. Edgar Allan Poe fans will probably continue to circulate all sorts of nonsense about his death, though no autopsy was performed.

Instead of being bothered by lack of context or “fake news,” should I instead be content knowing countless people are still quoting from The Sketch Book in 2019—200 years after it was published?

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 I try to respond to all correspondence on Wednesdays, and also update the WIS page.

By the way, I haven’t forgotten about Tales of a Traveller. I’ll get back to it, but wanted to address this issue while it’s still fresh on my mind.



Published in: on February 21, 2019 at 2:17 am  Leave a Comment  

Valentine’s Week Musings: Broken-Hearted Washington Irving

February 2019 Heritage Tea

The City of Irving’s Heritage Society 2019 Valentine Tea. Photo by Tracy Hoffman



Wednesday, February 13, 2019

On this Valentine’s Eve, I’m thinking about Irving’s young, innocent female characters and also his heart-broken widows in The Sketch Book and Tales of a Traveller. These female characters contrast greatly with nagging Dame Van Winkle and miserly Mrs. Tom Walker.

Stories of innocent love, in particular, are fresh on my mind because my American Lit classes are reading some of these sappy stories this week. On Monday, I also briefly lectured about Irving’s love interests: Matilda Hoffman, Emily Foster, Mary Shelley.

Though I sometimes teach A Tour on the Prairies and the full Sketch Book, I typically spend three classes on a handful of Irving sketches: one day on “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” one day on the Christmas stories, and the last day, I experiment with other sketches. Because I also teach Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, Irving’s romantic depictions of Native Americans, namely “Philip of Pokanoket” and “Traits of Indian Character” from The Sketch Book, offset Rowlandson’s depictions of Amerindians.

Since our Irving readings this semester fall on Valentine’s week, I opted to assign “The Wife,” “The Broken Heart” and “The Specter Bridegroom” in place of “Philip of Pokanoket” and “Traits of Indian Character.”

Believe it or not, many of the men in my class told me “The Wife” and “The Broken Heart” were their favorite reads thus far this semester.  Students also distinguished Leslie’s wife and the remarried widow from “The Broken Heart” with our previously discussed coquette Katrina Van Tassel and nag Dame Van Winkle.

Ironically, this morning, as I scrolled the Irving Society Twitter feed in honor of “Washington Irving Wednesday,” I was reminded of Irving’s most quoted passages, many of which come from these sentimental tales. We scholars sometimes forget: what we consider kitschy is often loved by the masses. Sadly, most Twitter posts don’t cite the texts, so I’ll throw out a few with the sources.

From “The Wife,” we get: “There is in every true woman’s heart a spark of heavenly fire, which lies dormant in the broad daylight of prosperity, but which kindles up, and beams and blazes in the dark hour of adversity.”

In “The Widow and Her Son,” Irving writes: “Oh! There is an enduring tenderness in the love of a mother to her son that transcends all other affections of the heart. It is neither to be chilled by selfishness, nor daunted by danger, nor weakened by worthlessness, nor stifled by ingratitude. She will sacrifice every comfort to his convenience, she will surrender every pleasure to his enjoyment, she will glory in his fame and exult in his prosperity; and, if misfortune overtake him, he will be the dearer to her from misfortune; and if disgrace settle upon his name, she will still love and cherish him in spite of his disgrace; and if all the world beside cast him off, she will be all the world to him.”

Because I’ve been blogging about “The Devil and Tom Walker,” which comes from Tales of a Traveller, I’ve also been thinking about the innocent young woman, wearing white, who is raped in the section about the Italian banditti. We sometimes say killing off Dame Van Winkle is like killing off the mother land of England. I can’t help but think Irving might be killing off the innocent female, much like his beloved Matilda Hoffman, as a way of killing off his past, of healing his broken heart.

At the time of its publication, reviewers thought Tales of a Traveller obscene because of this rape episode, among other troubling stories, but maybe Irving needed to write such a scene, whether conscious of it or not. Something to consider…

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 I try to respond to all correspondence on Wednesdays, and also update the WIS page.

By the way, this past Sunday, February 10, the Irving Heritage Society of Irving, Texas, hosted yet another wonderful Valentine’s Tea. If you’re ever in the Dallas-Fort Worth area on Valentine’s Sunday, be sure to drop by, as the tea is an annual event. Here’s a link:

Published in: on February 14, 2019 at 12:41 am  Leave a Comment  

“The Devil and Tom Walker” in Paris


Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Last time, I left the blog pondering why Irving purchased celery and cabbage seeds while working on The Sketch Book. I haven’t solved the mystery yet, but I have checked out more journal entries, specifically ones he completed while writing “The Devil and Tom Walker.”

On Thursday, May 6, 1824, while in Paris, Irving records the following in his journal: “This morning wrote story of the Devil & Tom Walker.” On Friday, May 7, he writes: “Wrote all the morning at Tom Walker.” And on Saturday, May 8, he notes: “Wrote this morng at Story of Tom Walker” (Reichart, Journals and Notebooks III, 327-28).

His notations about writing the story continue on Monday, May 10: “Awoke early — Birds Singing — beautiful weather. breakfasted in my room Between 7 & 8. Wrote a little at the Story of Tom Walker, introducing dialogue between him & D[evil] – on subject of the bargain…” (Reichart 329).

Then later on Friday, May 21, Irving says, “This morning rewrote parts of Tom Walker & latter part of Wolfert Webber” (334).

He includes other tidbits in his 1824 journal entries from France, and I’ll point out a few highlights.

Though he mentions some purchases, he doesn’t seem overly concerned about financial matters even though he’s writing fiction with financial themes.

On Saturday, May 1, he writes: “A rainy day – Arranged & burnt papers, letters &c” (Reichart 326). How nice of him to burn letters and papers, which twenty-first century scholars might have found useful. (I’m sure many of them had to do with his tawdry love affair with Mary Shelley!)

Irving leaves Paris on Monday, May 24, for England. It is clear, then, that he writes “The Devil and Tom Walker” while in France.

On Tuesday, May 25, Irving jots down: “Anniversary of my departure from America” (335). He sets “The Devil and Tom Walker” in America though other stories in the collection are set in England, Italy, and even Paris.

Irving’s decision to stay abroad until he could prove himself financially as a writer combined with thoughts of America while in France confirm that the short story has some connections to Irving’s biography.

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 I try to respond to all correspondence on Wednesdays and also update the WIS page.

Published in: on February 7, 2019 at 5:25 am  Leave a Comment  

Cabbages and Cash: Irving’s Accounts Surrounding “The Devil and Tom Walker”


Wednesday, January 30, 2019

This Friday, February 1, I’m taking a class called “Accounting and Decision Making for Nonprofits” to help me with Washington Irving Society efforts.

Yesterday, I also had a lively conversation with some accounting majors about entry-level accounting, my toughest class in undergrad. I kept dropping the class every semester until senior year when I figured out I could take the class at a community college and transfer in the credit. Desperate times call for desperate measures!

This week, I’ve also been diving into the Twayne publication of Irving’s Journals and Notebooks Volume II, 1807-1822, which would be the time leading up to Tales of a Traveller. I was looking for something unrelated to “The Devil and Tom Walker,” but noticed some of Irving’s financial commentary.

This rabbit trail was bound to happen.

We know that Irving’s family hardware business in New York City and Liverpool went bankrupt prior to “The Devil and Tom Walker.” We also know Irving was out to prove himself financially as a writer and managed to achieve his goal. I’m wondering, though, how some curious financial details noted in his journals might enlarge our understanding of Irving and this story.

When Irving visits Stratford, England, the home of William Shakespeare, he records spending money on a coach, a play, a housekeeper, a butler, and the Shakespeare house (Reichart 59-60).

While in England in 1817, Irving jots down expenses for steam boat fares, breakfast, the mending of coats, gloves, celery and cabbage seed (166-67). Celery and cabbage seed! Why would Irving, a man of letters, need celery and cabbage seed while traveling through Europe?

We see cabbages pop up in his writing, most notably in “Wolfert Webber, or Golden Dreams,” the story following “The Devil and Tom Walker.”

In fact, Irving seems to make a huge deal about cabbages, kind of how my mother does on New Year’s Day. She says you need some black-eyed peas for good luck and some cabbage for cash. Is Irving making a similar statement here? Cabbage is code for cash.

Irving writes: “”The field in which Cobus Webber first planted himself and his cabbages had remained ever since in the family, who continued in the same line of husbandry, with that praiseworthy perseverance for which our Dutch burghers are noted. The whole family genius, during several generations, was devoted to the study and development of this one noble vegetable; and to this concentration of intellect may doubtless be ascribed the prodigious size and renown to which the Webber cabbages attained.”

In 1817, Irving  also jotted down some financial records while working on The Sketch Book. He keeps track of how many pounds he has in his possession, jotting down, “Half of money remaining in purse” (192).

Irving makes some miscellaneous entries, and the editors suggest these could be purchases he’s considering: “hat, trunk, watch, shoes” (284).

As noted previously, the study of debits and credits doesn’t fall under my areas of high expertise. Many Irving scholars write about economic considerations. I’ll be looking more into this cabbage business between now and next Wednesday, and I’ll let you know what the financial experts have to say.

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 I try to respond to all correspondence on Wednesdays and also update the WIS page.









Published in: on January 30, 2019 at 8:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

It’s Washington Irving Wednesday! Continuing with “The Devil and Tom Walker”



Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Last Wednesday, I discussed biographical context which might be of interest when teaching “The Devil and Tom Walker.” Today, I want to look at Diedrich Knickerbocker, the fictitious narrator of the story, and where the story falls contextually in the book, Tales of a Traveller (1824).

“The Devil and Tom Walker” appears in “Part IV: The Money Diggers,” the final section of Tales of a Traveller, and Irving credits this section to the late Diedrich Knickerbocker, the Dutch narrator from A History of New York (1809), as well as the narrator of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in The Sketch Book (1819-1820).

Talking about Diedrich Knickerbocker’s connection to the New York Knicks might grab students’ attention. The term knickerbocker as a synonym for New Yorker started with Washington Irving’s narrator. Going over the entry from the Oxford English Dictionary with students might be worthwhile. They would quickly see the Irving connection as he’s credited for its first use. I’ve done this with my classes on occasion, especially if they will be doing research later in the semester. It lets them see how a definition can be useful in a literary analysis and why a quick Webster’s definition pales in comparison.

Diedrich Knickerbocker repeats the story “A Devil and Tom Walker,” but the story is technically told by “an iron faced Cape Cod whaler” when he and his buddies are out fishing on a boat with Diedrich. At the end of the sketch “Kidd the Pirate,” the whaler sets up the story thus: “By the way, I recollect a story about a fellow who once dug up Kidd’s buried money, which was written by a neighbour of mine, and which I learnt by heart. As the fish don’t bite just now, I’ll tell it to you, by way of passing away the time.”

We have a fishing story, told by a whaler, written by his neighbor, repeated by the late Diedrich Knickerbocker. As with many Irving stories, he gives us layers of narrators. Teaching students about framed narratives would certainly lend itself to “The Devil and Tom Walker.” Like digging for pirates’ treasure, we have to dig deep to figure out where the story originates, and even then, the truth is still fuzzy since each narrator adapts the story to his liking.

At the sketch’s conclusion, Knickerbocker explains his storytelling technique: “Such, as nearly I can recollect, was the purport of the tale told by the Cape Cod whaler. There were divers trivial particulars which I have omitted, and which whiled away the morning very pleasantly, until the time of tide favourable for fishing being passed, it was proposed to land, and refresh ourselves under the trees, until the noontide heat should have abated.”

To sum up, it looks like we have some enticing details for sports fans who may be sitting in our classrooms: fishing and the New York Nicks. And then we have pirate stories.

Next Wednesday, I’d like to talk about the story which follows this sketch. While the fishermen are at rest, Knickerbocker reminisces about his childhood haunts, and the group continues to swap stories. The one following “The Devil and Tom Walker” is called “Wolfert Webber, or Golden Dreams,” and this sketch is told by John Josse Vandermoere. The section is called “The Money Diggers,” so dealing with greed and the love of money as one’s downfall is a major thread in the Tom Walker story and also in “Golden Dreams.”

Until next week, please feel free to add to the conversation. Comments are welcomed. Also feel free to message me at I respond to WIS correspondence on Wednesdays and also update the WIS page then


Published in: on January 23, 2019 at 6:54 pm  Leave a Comment  

Welcome to Washington Irving Wednesdays!


Wednesday, January 16, 2019

I’m back to blogging on the Washington Irving Society page. As you might have noticed, I was very active in September, writing often, but then” fell off the face of the earth.” Sometimes, that’s how it goes during a semester. We start strong, but then other priorities in academia take over our lives.

Feedback about the blog and other improvements we’ve made to the WIS page has been very positive, so we will keep up the good work. But rather than attempting to post every day, the goal is to blog and update the website on Wednesdays: Washington Irving Wednesdays! If you want to stay updated on what’s happening, then you might consider having a Check the Washington Irving Page Thursday! (since it might be 11:59 p,m. on Wednesday, on occasion, to put things in order).

Here’s what I’m considering for the next handful of blogs. Irving Independent School District in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex has included “The Devil and Tom Walker” in its curriculum. The story has been highly anthologized, so the plan is to think about and blog about this story to develop ideas and resources which might be useful to teachers there and elsewhere.

Though my undergraduate classes have read portions of the story as a teaser into Irving’s writing, I have not spent quality time with “The Devil” in the classroom. I tend to use the Norton Anthology, and it doesn’t include the story.

Unless it were a graduate seminar or a one-author class, I can’t imagine teaching all of the stories from Tales of a Traveller, the collection from which “The Devil and Tom Walker” appears. Providing background information about the collection, however, might be of interest to students.

The book was the third in what I would call Irving’s sketchbook trilogy, with The Sketch Book and Bracerbridge Hall as the first two installments. Both books were well-received, but Tales of a Traveller was not. Critics claimed the book was obscene, and even by twenty-first century standards, portions of the book are disturbing. How much an instructor would want to delve into the obscenities would, of course, depend on age bracket, school culture, your personal comfort level, etc.

Because the book didn’t go well, Irving left England to spend quality time in Spain: a decision which changed the trajectory of his writing. Talk about a really bad situation working into something really, really interesting! The book, therefore, marks a pivotal change in his writing career. Tales of the Alhambra, The Conquest of Granada, and Mahomet and His Successors came from his time in Spain, and we wouldn’t have the wonderful assortment had it not been for “The Devil and Tom Walker” and Tales of a Traveller.

Another “fun fact” about the short story collection has to do with Mary Shelley. Irving remained single his entire life, and Mary Shelley remained single after the death of her husband Percy. While Irving was working on Tales of a Traveller, we know that Mary Shelley had a crush on Washington Irving. They spent time together at the theater, Mary threw tea parties and invited Irving, and we have letters from Mary Shelley and others revealing her feelings for him.

During the time that these two were potentially “an item” Mary Shelley had published Frankenstein, and Washington Irving had published “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “The Specter Bridegroom,” both from The Sketch Book. What a gothic connection! He was already experimenting with creepy topics before he entered Mary Shelley’s world, but I think their “dark encounter,” and other factors, took Irving’s writing to a more disturbing space.

I’ll cut the blogging off for now, but would like to come back next week to continue the conversation about reception history, context, and more–involving “The Devil and Tom Walker.”

Published in: on January 16, 2019 at 6:57 pm  Leave a Comment  

Irving Types: Romanticized Natives, Potentially Offensive Stock Characters



Tuesday, September 25, 2018

In 1832, after being abroad for seventeen years, Irving embarked on a buffalo hunting trip through Oklahoma Territory.

He kept a journal during the adventure, and even though he claimed a book was not his intent, Irving nevertheless published A Tour on the Prairies (1835) based on the journey.

My thoughts today take me to Irving’s sketches about Native-Americans in The Sketch Book (1819-1820). I’m also reminded of his travels with the Hoffman family into Canada among natives there, where he was evidently given an Indian name–“Good to All.”

In recent class discussions, my students and I have compared Irving’s romanticized views of natives with perspectives from earlier writers such as Mary Rowlandson, particularly with regard to King Philip.

Some scholars have dismissed Irving as a racist simply based on his stereotypical handling of an African-American servant in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” I’m thinking of the decades-old article by Kenneth T. Reed.

When you consider other types in “Sleepy Hollow” such as the coquette and the Connecticut Yankee, and also understand what a huge impact the theater had on Irving’s writing, it’s unfair to say he’s only singling out a race or gender or culture. He presented men, women, all races and cultures in unflattering ways, depending on the stock character and/or scene he was explaining.

Irving’s sympathy and perhaps empathy for the plight of natives can also be translated into his views about other people groups, too, it seems to me.

Stories and descriptions about Native-Americans in The Sketch Book, A Tour on the Prairies, and his next two histories/biographies, Astoria and Captain Bonneville, give us a better assessment of Irving’s picture of the American landscape and contribute to the rich texture of Irving studies.

Published in: on September 25, 2018 at 4:51 pm  Comments (1)  

Encounters with Some Sketchy Pirates


Thursday, September 20, 2018

So much can be said, and should be studied more rigorously, about Washington Irving’s connections with pirates.

Firstly, Irving was robbed by pirates. As a frequent traveler, zooming to and fro from America to England, he not only weathered storms and sat quarantined in harbors for days, he also experienced being robbed by pirates off the coast of Sicily. His journals include the details.

Secondly, in Tales of a Traveller (1824), the third installment of the sketchbook trilogy, Irving tucked some pirate stories at the end. In fact, “Kidd the Pirate” and “The Devil and Tom Walker” should be studied collectively instead of “The Devil” being solely anthologized since the narrator for “The Devil” is set up at the conclusion of “Kidd.”

I rather see pirate stories concluding Irving’s career as a sketchbook storyteller. His career transitioned into more history and biography after Tales of a Traveller. If things had gone better with this set of stories, his career would have taken a different trajectory. The pirates completed a chapter in his life.

Thirdly, Irving wrote about Bermuda and had a few things to say about pirates in a grouping of sketches he called “The Bermudas.” I’m also reminded of stories in The Sketch Book (1819) such as “The Widow and Her Son” which deals with a mother whose son is lost at sea.

Finally, a pirate birthday party united me (the president of the Washington Irving Society) with the then president of the City of Irving’s Heritage Society. I was attending the children’s party along with my nephew, who was then about four, and she was attending because she knew the children whose birthday it was. The two of us collided amongst pirates, and the rest is history. I’ve had a great connection with the City of Irving, Texas–named after Washington Irving–ever since.

Published in: on September 20, 2018 at 5:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

Founding Fathers: George Washington and Washington Irving


Wednesday, September 19, 2018

As most people can guess, Washington Irving was named after George Washington. And biographies of Washington Irving always include one of the earliest major events in the writer’s life: the young boy being presented to George Washington when the president was settling into the capital of New York City.

The two-volume biography by Stanley T. Williams, first published in 1935 and still a classic in Irving studies, explains how well-known the story was to the American people: “The incident of Washington Irving’s meeting with the President has been repeated in story and sketch until it has the aroma of fable. The day and month are unknown, but the fact is demonstrable” (I: 10).

Pierre Irving, his uncle’s chief biographer and writing assistant, gives the following account:

“A young Scotch maid-servant of the family, struck with the enthusiasm which everywhere greeted [the president’s] arrival, determined to present the child to his distinguished namesake. Accordingly, she followed him one morning into a shop, and pointing to the lad who had scarcely outgrown his virgin trousers: ‘Please your honor,’ said she, ‘here’s a bairn was named after you.’ In the estimation of Lizzie, for so she was called, few claims of kindred could be stronger than this. Washington did not disdain the delicate affinity, and placing his hand on the head of her little charge, gave him his blessing.” (I: 30).

Stanley Williams further comments upon this scene: “Perhaps the sentiment of this conjunction, occurring in an age uncritical of Washington, found reëxpression in the idealized portrait of the general in the biography…At least it is certain that to write of George Washington became from earliest youth a dream of Irving’s” (I: 10).

The encounter clearly inspired his last work, the five-volume Life of George Washington (1855-1859), an appropriate bookend to the writer’s lengthy career which began with the idea that he was connected in a small way to the first president’s legacy.

The Father of America met the Father of American Literature. Of course, neither Washington nor Irving had children. George only had children when Martha brought them into the marriage. Irving never married, never had children, though he did help with many nieces and nephews.

* * *

Many years ago, perhaps a decade, I spent the entire summer reading through the five-volume set of the George Washington biography by Irving. I wrote a book chapter about Irving’s impressions of the president, but then I pulled the chapter from a collection that was taking way too long for my taste.

I’ve given many papers loosely based on the book chapter, but still ponder from time to time how to best shape what I gleaned from the reading into something useful and substantial about Irving’s final work.

My major takeaway from the reading: Irving romanticizes and rationalizes the president’s stance on many issues, most notably slavery, by delving into internal struggles the president may have entertained.

I would be curious to know which Irving scholars have read the five volumes. Perhaps we could put our heads together and find a worthwhile study of the important connection.

Published in: on September 19, 2018 at 5:50 pm  Comments (1)  

Shy Washington Irving


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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