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  Leave a Comment  

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  

“Is That Kind of Like a Pot Pie?”: Imagining Peacock Pie at Bracebridge Hall

peacock image


Friday, September 14, 2018

After reading Irving’s Christmas sketches this week, students were curious about peacock pie. “Is that kind of like a pot pie?” one young man asked.

Comparing Washington Irving’s extravagant Christmas dinner with a Mrs. Cavender’s pot pie wasn’t exactly what I had anticipated.

These are the same people who’ve never tried mincemeat pie, also mentioned in the Christmas stories. After Thanksgiving, I need to make some mincemeat pies for my classes.

I’m guessing we can’t legally bake peacock pies, not that I would want to even if HEB grocery stores sold it. However, I did learn last Christmas that we could rent a live peacock to traverse the Baylor campus. Of course, we already have a feral cat versus fearful squirrel problem. I can’t imagine how a peacock running about campus might affect the delicate ecosystem.

We may need some wassailing, too. It’s Baylor, so it will have to be apple juice with some holiday spices, not spiked cider with wine like the Squire’s special concoction. Let’s talk about mincemeat and wassail in another blog, as we get closer to Christmas. Much to consider in the Christmas stories!

So my students have reason to question what exactly the peacock pie was like at Bracebridge Hall. Here’s what Geoffrey Crayon, Irving’s narrator, had to say about the pie:

“I could not however, but notice a pie, magnificently decorated with peacock’s feathers, in imitation of the tail of that bird, which overshadowed a considerable tract of the table. This the Squire confessed, with some little hesitation, was a pheasant pie, though a peacock pie was certainly the most authentical; but there had been such a mortality among the peacocks this season, that he could not prevail upon himself to have one killed” (“The Christmas Dinner,” par. 8).

Irving also includes the following footnotes about the peacock pie:

Footnote one: “The peacock was anciently in great demand for stately entertainments. Sometimes it was made into a pie, at one end of which the head appeared above the crust in all its plumage, with the beak richly gilt; at the other end the tail was displayed. Such pies were served up at the solemn banquets of chivalry, when Knights errant pledged themselves to undertake any perilous enterprize, whence came the ancient oath, used by Justice Shallow, ‘by cock and pye.’ ”

Footnote two: “The peacock was also an important dish for the Christmas feast, and Massinger in his City Madam gives some idea of the extravagance with which this, as well as other dishes, was prepared for the gorgeous revels of the olden times: —

“Men may talk of Country-Christmases
Their thirty pound butter’d eggs, their pies of carps’ tongues;
Their pheasants drench’d with ambergris; the carcasses of three fat wethers bruised for gravy to make sauce for a single peacock!

Squire Bracebridge didn’t actually serve a peacock. It was a pheasant pie. But the concerns student have, and the concern I suppose I have, too, is whether or not the whole bird was in the Bracebridge pie.

The extravagant peacock pie display at the Yosemite Bracebridge pageant dinner uses a fake peacock as merely display atop a large pie. Perhaps the feathers decorating Squire Bracebridge’s pie were for the same purpose.

Beyond Yosemite’s dinner, people once held Bracebridge dinners elsewhere back in the day, the Irving Heritage Society in Irving, Texas, being one of them. I would be curious to know how these other Christmas meals translated the peacock pie.

Published in: on September 14, 2018 at 7:53 pm  Leave a Comment  

Tweeting Out Irving


Thursday, September 13, 2018

Back before I had an Iphone, certainly before we had apps, I tested Twitter with my classes. They were required to tweet closed, argumentative thesis statements for each reading.

They hated it. The consensus: “This Twitter will never work.”

Fast forward to 2016. Most of my students on the first day of class declared Twitter to be their number one social media outlet, their most used app.

I haven’t polled my classes in the past few years with regard to their favorite apps or social media outlets. I’m guessing Twitter may be down in the polls since seventy-year-old politicians are on Twitter. Clearly, though, my students and I could not have predicted the rise of Twitter. The IPhone and apps changed the game.

So I’m posting this tweeting business on the Irving page to talk about our Twitter considerations, in brief. The author society joined Twitter in 2013. In those first few years, I checked Twitter once a year, usually around Christmas when I had time off. It would take me less than an hour to check messages, like things of interest, deal with follower requests, etc.

Christmas time 2017, I spent an entire day going through the same process, and I threw up my hands! I couldn’t do it all in a day. I’m not sure if Twitter has exploded, or if Washington Irving has exploded, or both. I smile and like to think it’s a bit of both.

So now I’m checking the Twitter feed more often. In fact, we could use a vice-president in charge of Twitter. Anyone interested in the job?

You’ll find us as the Irving Society on Twitter, a.k.a. @irvingsociety1.

Published in: on September 13, 2018 at 5:23 pm  Leave a Comment  

Down to Business with Washington Irving

An accounting major recently told me he loved Washington Irving.

Perhaps English Departments should consider fiercer marketing toward reaching business majors to take literature classes.

Ironically, I’ve given up teaching Ben Franklin in entry-level American Lit because other departments readily teach him. Students are already versed in Franklin’s autobiography. They usually tell me they’ve read him in business classes. Therefore, I find myself wanting to introduce them to someone else.

Might the School of Business borrow Irving, too? Founding Father? Father of American Literature? Ben Franklin made a decent living at the newspaper business, and Irving did the same with his books.

I explained to this future accountant the bankruptcy of Irving’s family hardware business, an event sparking his seventeen-year stay in Europe. Though Irving was teased as being a gentlemanly man about town, he struggled to prove himself financially as a writer.

Some of Irving’s bookkeeping records can be found in his published letters/journals. I’ve studied them somewhat, but an accountant would definitely have more insight.

Sam Houston had issues with New York investors. When connecting him to Irving, I often consider whether he and Irving chatted about such investments.

I encouraged the student to check out the pirate stories in Tales of a Traveller. I’m not sure if he’s ready for the longer histories. I don’t want to scare away a new fan.

As my classes finish up Washington Irving, the accounting majors will be looking for financial dealings. I’ll also watch out for more texts which could appeal to the business element in my classes.

Published in: on September 12, 2018 at 4:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

Teaching Irving on Nine Eleven


September 11, 2018

Today, September 11, happens to be the one day per semester when I unload the full Washington Irving.

This afternoon, I’ll be teaching sophomore-level, American Literature. My youngest students were born in 1999. They don’t remember 9/11. For those of us who were adults in 2001, that’s tough to fathom.

Before I share my Irving stories, I first tell my students they will be given a very detailed review sheet for the test. I want them to listen and play along with my “day of fun.” The discussion could go anywhere, so I want them to relax and not worry about note taking.

Secondly, I encourage the audience to stop me at any point. This is the one day I let loose, but I’m happy to chat about anything they find entertaining. So long as we talk about Irving and they’re happy, I’m good.

In years past on the big Irving day, students have stopped to ask more about the Mary Shelley connection.

I’ve had students in class from Irving, Texas, who want to talk about their city.

Students who have recently studied abroad in Spain often want to spend more time on the Alhambra.

They love comparing the Kaplan daguerreotypes with the Brady one. We’ve spent quality time comparing wrinkles, ears, and eyebrows.

After talking about Matilda, we’ve laughed about giving a locket of hair to your beloved–since they couldn’t send selfies back in 1808.

If I’ve assigned the Christmas sketches, they sometimes ask me about Charles Dickens. We often wander into chats about Yosemite’s Bracebridge dinner.

I have a handout called “Irving and the Arabesque.” I’ve used it before when Irving Day lands on the week of 9/11, and students ask me more about Irving’s ties to Islam. The handout provides a chronology of Irving’s writing alongside the life of Muhammad and American altercations with Muslim countries. I wonder if students in Fall 2018 want an Arabesque discussion. We shall see.

September 11 calls us to remembrance. In essence, Washington Irving’s work calls for the same. He wants us to remember the past, to recall “the good old days.”

As a Romantic and Gothic, Irving reminds me to see both the heroic beauty of America’s past as well as the downright ugliness. However, as an unassuming diplomat and peacemaker, Irving also nudges me to use the knowledge of America’s past to encourage healing and reconciliation.

We must remember the good and bad. Let’s pray the wise ones among us, Americanists in particular, will organize the past in such a way to bring positive change, not divisiveness. If all goes well, I’ll deliver the package of Washington Irving today, in a well-organized, meaningful way.

Published in: on September 11, 2018 at 4:48 pm  Leave a Comment  

Matilda Hoffman and Tracy Hoffman


Monday, September 10, 2018

When I mention Washington Irving’s fiancé, who passed while they were engaged, people always ask if I’m related to Matilda Hoffman.

My response is typically something like: “No, but I keep telling my dad to get busy finding some genealogical records. It would improve my stories.”

One of my colleagues says I should roll with the connection. “Yes, we are related. We go way back.”

I’m sure we really are related way back, somehow. However, Matilda’s father, Judge Hoffman, and other New York Hoffmans have no connection with my people, best we can tell.

Some German who called himself Hoffman arrived in Texas in the late 1800s. Our best guesstimate is that my great ancestor immediately went west when he arrived in America. No layover in New York, assuming he passed through New York. I sometimes imagine Galveston welcomed him since Galveston often calls to me.

One of my German grandfathers ended up in Oklahoma for a bit, and married a Native-American woman. Dad has visited the graves in Oklahoma.

Irving traveled through Oklahoma Territory before statehood, so he would have missed my relatives in Oklahoma, too. That would have been another intriguing story to add to my repertoire. “Irving had tea in a wigwam with my ancestors.”

So close, yet so far!

Published in: on September 10, 2018 at 4:07 pm  Leave a Comment  

Rip van Wafels: Sweet Reminder of Irving’s Rip


September 6, 2018

My students sometimes comment about this sweet treat available on campus, at our various Starbucks locations. It’s always a friendly reminder of Rip Van Winkle.

Yesterday, I had a quick conversation with a colleague in passing. She had just finished teaching “Rip Van Winkle.” She was impressed with a student who had brought up the Dutch influence in Irving’s writing and had quite a bit of commentary to share with the class. She told the student that he must have done some serious research on the Dutch prior to class.

This colleague and I joked about how little most people, including us, actually know about the Dutch and the Dutch influence in New York and in America overall.

Windmill cookies, chocolate milk, and doughnuts come to my mind for some reason. When you mention Amsterdam, of course, students have a whole new set of ideas about the Dutch. And I also think about my visits to twenty-first century Amsterdam.

When I teach “Rip Van Winkle,” I remind students that the Dutch originally settled New York. I jokingly say something like, “I know we Texans don’t concern ourselves too much with New York, but we should note that the Dutch originally settled New York.”

Indeed, the Dutch don’t get much attention in American Literature, and I’m guessing we don’t tend to them much in American history or political science either.

Yet another reason to appreciate Washington Irving! He and his Diedrich Knickerbocker, the narrator of “Rip” and other Irving stories, remind us of the Dutch influence in America.

Published in: on September 6, 2018 at 6:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

Why Does Spain Love Washington Irving?


Wednesday, September 5, 2018

After traveling to Spain, particularly after visiting Granada, students often report back to me that Spanish people love Washington Irving. “But why?”–they sometimes ask.

First of all, the apparent love for Irving, in part, can be traced back to his role as ambassador to Spain from 1842-1846. In fact, Madrid was under siege when Irving was living there.

Secondly, Irving was fluent in Spanish, and even did some translation work from Spanish to English. His writing has been readily translated into Spanish. I’m often reminded of Rip Van Winkle being called “Rip Rip” in the Spanish translation.

My sister is making plans to visit the country of Chile this Christmas, so I did some preliminary research on Chile, and bingo! Irving did some translation work about the country. Another blog and/or another article to come on that topic!

Thirdly, after publishing The Sketch Book, Irving spent some quality time in Spain in the 1830s. He published various texts based on his experiences there–The Alhambra, The Conquest of Granada, and a biography of Christopher Columbus. Years later, he would also publish the biography of the prophet Muhammad, from research he had gathered in Spain during the 1830s.

It’s easy to see why President Tyler in 1842 would send Irving as ambassador. He was loved by the English and the Spanish, and was a celebrity abroad.

Published in: on September 5, 2018 at 5:21 pm  Leave a Comment  

Washington Irving’s Brush with Sam Houston


Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Though Washington Irving never made it down to Texas, his encounter–or brush if you will–with Sam Houston on October 9, 1832, gives the writer an interesting connection with the Lone Star State.

Irving met Sam Houston, then former governor of Tennessee, now living in Indian territory, the future president of the soon-to-be Republic of Texas. Irving had already published A History of New York (1809), and had spent many years on his sketchbook trilogy, The Sketch Book (1819-1820), Bracebridge Hall (1822), and Tales of a Traveller (1824). Irving’s three western narratives were still to be written. Biographies of the prophet Muhammad and George Washington were also in the future.

In the little time they spent together, the grand figure of Sam Houston could have easily inspired Irving’s depictions of other bigger-than-life characters such as George Washington, a persona who would fill five lengthy volumes. And who knows? Maybe Washington Irving inspired Sam Houston in some way as well. As I sometimes jokingly say, Texas seemed to straighten out Sam Houston. Maybe Washington Irving played a part in that, too.

What precipitated the meeting was Irving’s decision to travel westward and then to embark on a buffalo hunt. He had recently returned from seventeen years in Europe. Because Irving was a celebrity at this point, a famous writer, Houston would have been familiar with him. Certainly, Irving was aware of Houston as well.

Historians and literary scholars believe that Washington Irving and Sam Houston spent an evening telling stories around the campfire, though it was probably at “casa de Houston,” or Wigwam Neosho as it was called, swapping stories with lots of people the night before Irving headed out on his buffalo hunt and before Houston left for Texas.

Irving evidently shared a tortoise story that Houston loved, but I have yet to find this story. Fort Gibson was called “a hell hole,” with nightly poker games and heavy drinking. Certainly, Irving and Houston could have easily been involved in such business that night, too. But I’ve never encountered any such evidence about this particular evening.

Famous for “sketching” the scenery of European landmarks and the countryside, as well as scenes from New York, Irving gives us scant words to describe Sam Houston. He records the following in his journal: “Gov. Houston, tall, large, well formed, fascinating man—low-crowned large brimmed white beaver—boots with brass eagle spurs—given to grandiloquence. A large and military mode of expressing himself. Old General Nix used to say God made him two drinks scant” (Day and Ullom 76-77).

I could make some comments here about Houston’s drinking, but I’ll segway into the state bar instead. Sam Houston passed the bar after six months of study (Day and Ullom 20). I’m guessing Irving passed the bar after a similar study period. Perhaps many other connections exists for these two.

Washington Irving died on November 28, 1859, and Sam Houston died on July 26, 1863. So far as I know, we don’t have any letters between them, and I’m not aware of any further meetings. However, Irving did spend time as ambassador to Spain when the Texas Question was at play. He would have kept an eye on what was happening in Texas and what happened to Sam Houston in subsequent years.

Published in: on September 4, 2018 at 5:54 pm  Leave a Comment  
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