(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

While he has achieved admirably his goal of presenting the events of Washington Irving’s life and his career as a man of letters, Philip McFarland has done more than that in this unconventional biography. In one sense this is a biography which some decades ago might have been titled “The Life and Times of Washington Irving,” for it re-creates the worlds in which Irving was a participant, living as he did in Britain, France, Germany, and Spain, as well as the United States. The title of the volume is an apt one, for Washington Irving was a sojourner, living temporarily in many places during his eventful life and associating with others who also spent much of their lives as sojourners. McFarland, who lives in Lexington, Massachusetts, and teaches at Concord Academy, offers not only a study of Irving, but also glimpses of those eminent persons with whom his subject came in contact, including Aaron Burr, John Brown, Sir Walter Scott, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and John Jacob Astor.

Irving lived at a time when there were many changes taking place in the world; his native country was in its earliest years. Irving was born in 1783, at the end of the American Revolution, in the same year that the Treaty of Paris was signed. He died in 1859, the year that a force commanded by Robert E. Lee subdued the small group led by John Brown which sought to free Negro slaves, and just months before the election of President Abraham Lincoln. In the intervening years, Irving played a part in his nation’s affairs, serving as an able diplomat both in England and in Spain. During the years 1830-1832, he was with the American legation in London; later he served as the United States’s envoy to Spain, during the years 1842-1845. That Irving was called to serve his country as a diplomat seemed more natural to his contemporaries than it does to people today, who think of Irving as a writer of tales, the author particularly of two classic tales, “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” In his own time, however, Irving was known for a much broader range of writings, as an essayist and as a historian, as well as a writer of charming fiction. His study of the life and voyages of Christopher Columbus, published in 1828, and his book on the reconquest of Granada by Christian forces, published in 1829, were viewed as solid historical works, not only by the general public, but by historians as well. His study of Columbus won him election to the Spanish Royal Academy of History as well as a medal from the British Royal Society of Literature. In America, the historian George Bancroft had great praise for Irving’s work; and in Spain itself the Spanish historian Navarrete wrote that Irving had produced a volume superior to any previous study of the subject.

A second reason for Irving’s being chosen to serve his nation as a diplomat was his international reputation. He had lived abroad a great deal; some of his fellow Americans grumbled that he stayed abroad too long. An important consequence of his travels was that he was acquainted with many of the important Europeans of the time; his recognition as a great man of letters gave him access to many circles beyond those that were purely literary. Throughout his life, everywhere he went, Washington Irving earned a reputation for being a charming person, one who wore...

(The entire section is 1359 words.)