Sunday, November 8, 2020

The Poor Devil Author

Washington Irving (1783–1859)
From Washington Irving: Bracebridge Hall, Tales of a Traveller, The Alhambra

The Poor Author and the Rich Bookseller, 1811, oil on canvas by American painter Washington Allston (1779–1843). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Click on image to see full painting.
         Allston was Washington Irving’s closest American friend in London from 1815 to 1818 (when Allston returned to the United States). Although an episode in “The Poor Devil Author” seems to evoke the above scene, it is not known if Irving had ever seen the painting or if perhaps Allston had described it to him.
After the extraordinary success of The Sketch Book, with its world-famous stories “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Washington Irving struggled to write a follow-up. In 1821 the Irish poet Thomas Moore suggested that he might bring back the resident bachelor of Bracebridge Hall featured in the first volume and expand upon his “remarks and sketches of human manners and feelings.” Ten days later, Irving had dashed off 130 manuscript pages and, as biographer Stanley T. Williams puts it, “Moore’s penalty for his ingenuity was to hear Irving read these aloud. This the author did, sitting on the grass at La Butte,” an estate outside Paris where Moore and his family were living and where Irving was wearing out his welcome as a guest. Moore noted in his journal that he found the material “amusing,” but that it would “I fear, much disappoint the expectations his Sketches have raised.”

Moore especially liked one of the new pieces, titled “Buckthorne,” which was an autobiographical tale of literary life. The descriptions were so faithful to his and Irving’s social circle, however, that he wrote, “I very much fear my friends in Paternoster Row will know themselves in the picture.” Moore and his associates were spared the infamy when Charles Robert Leslie, an English artist who had befriended Irving (and had painted a well-known portrait of him), convinced the author to remove the piece from Bracebridge Hall and instead turn it into a novel. During the next two years, as Irving moved variously among London, Paris, Vienna, Dresden, Prague, and other spots in Europe, he would occasionally remove the excised selection from his trunk, with the goal of turning it into the debut novel that he very much wanted to write and that he tentatively named “History of an Author.”

The debut-to-be was a fictionalized portrait of a young writer whose social circle had given up careers to live in the service of art—much as Irving had done. In a letter to his brother sent in March 1819, Irving defended his decision to turn down the offer of a steady-paying job as a clerk in the Navy Department and instead dedicate himself to writing:
. . . I find my declining the situation at Washington has given you chagrin. The fact is, that situation would have given me barely a genteel subsistence. It would have led to no higher situations, for I am quite unfitted for political life. My talents are merely literary, and all my habits of thinking, reading, etc., have been in a different direction from that required for the active politician. It is a mistake also to suppose I would fill an office there, and devote myself at the same time to literature. I require much leisure and a mind entirely abstracted from other cares and occupations, if I would write much or write well. . . . If I ever get any solid credit with the public, it must be in the quiet and assiduous operations of my pen, under the mere guidance of fancy or feeling.
As he added to his fictional portrait of Buckthorne, he worked in revised passages from journals and letters written during the initial years of his career, but his earlier defensive attitude concerning literary life increasingly became one of satire and gentle mockery.

After the publication of Bracebridge Hall, Irving collected materials for a third “sketch book,” this one primarily containing tales adapted from old Germanic legends. Writer’s block, a dashed love affair with his 18-year-old French tutor, the distraction of theater productions, and a recurring illness conspired to keep him from finishing either the new collection or the Buckthorne novel. Finally, financial necessity broke through all obstacles and he finished assembling his next book by binge-writing a number of tales and then simply combining the two projects. The first, third, and fourth parts of Tales of a Traveller were devoted to stories about (respectively) ghosts, “banditti,” and pirates while the second part contained, incongruously, the comic material he had written for his now-abandoned novel, which he retitled “Buckthorne and His Friends.” Irving would, in fact, never publish a novel.

In its final form, the “Buckthorne” section portrays a group of young artists living in London. In one of the sketches, the narrator and Buckthorne visit the Club of Queer Fellows (“a great resort of the small wits, third-rate actors, and newspaper critics of the theatres”) and encounter a patron whose quips have the assemblage repeatedly bursting out in laughter. The man turns out to be Thomas Dribble, who “had been the prime wit and great wag of the school in their boyish days, and one of those unlucky urchins denominated bright geniuses.” A few days later, they visit Dribble in his lodgings and a hear “a brief outline of his literary career,” which Irving presents as a separate tale.

Dribble begins by recalling when he wrote his first supposed masterpiece. He had been inspired by the “Pleasure poems” of the seventeenth century, a series of works by multiple authors launched by Mark Akenside’s “Pleasures of Imagination” that became all the rage with the reading public. Dribble abandons a legal career to write his own version, “Pleasures of Melancholy.” Convinced by his friends of its brilliance, he heads for London in search of a publisher—and the subsequent humiliations are detailed in “The Poor Devil Author.”

Notes: The term blues is short for bluestockings. The first pages of the story mention numerous eighteenth-century British literary figures of varying fame. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was a noted letter writer. Bernard Lintot was a prominent printer whose uncouth appearance was mocked by Alexander Pope in The Dunciad. Richard Steele was an Irish writer and the co-founder, with Joseph Addison, of the magazine The Spectator. Cockney pastorals were poems by Leigh Hunt and others, who were derided as the “Cockney School of Poetry,” largely because they were writers of “low birth.” 

Jack Straw’s Castle was a pub on Hampstead Heath, named for a leader of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, although Straw’s “council of war” recalled by Dribble was not held there. Allan a’Dale (Alan-a-Dale) was one of Robin Hood’s legendary band of outlaws. The son of a Hampstead innkeeper, Dick Turpin was a notorious criminal who was hanged for his crimes in 1739. Knights of the Post are perjurers, so-called because their “knighthood” often involves the whipping post. The term yellow boys refers to gold pieces. The original Newgate Calendar, named for the famous London prison, is a record of notorious crimes from 1700 to 1774; continuations were published through 1826. Lalla Rookh: An Oriental Romance was a book of four tales in verse by Irving’s friend Thomas Moore. The Bow Street Office was the principal London police court and headquarters of the Bow Street Runners, a police force organized in 1753 by magistrate and novelist Henry Fielding and his half-brother John.

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I began life unluckily by being the wag and bright fellow at school; and I had the further misfortune of becoming the great genius of my native village. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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