Sunday, June 2, 2024

The Adventure of the Popkins Family

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

Italian Brigands Surprised by Papal Troops, 1831, oil on canvas by French artist Horace Vernet (1789–1863). In this scene, papal troops intercept brigands who are looting a coach and carrying off its passengers. During the nineteenth century, banditti posed a real threat to travelers in rural areas of the Italian states, but they were also idealized as daring outlaws. Image and caption courtesy of The Walters Art Museum.
His finances dwindling, Washington Irving was increasingly anxious during the opening weeks of 1824. In December he had promised his English publisher that the manuscript of his next book would arrive by the spring. Yet on February 12 he confided to his journal, “Feel intolerably triste — cannot bring myself to write on my work — tho’ near six weeks have elapsed without writing.” Two days later he was still “very much out of spirits.”

He had finished very little of the book. “I have a Dutch Story written,” Irving wrote to a friend, the English painter Charles Robert Leslie. “I think you would like it — I have determined also to introduce my history of an author — breaking it into parts, and distributing it through the two volumes. . . . I have a few other articles sketched out of minor importance.” The “Dutch story” concerns Wolfert Webber, a burgher of old New York who obsesses over buried treasure; the “history of an author” features Buckthorne, a semi-autobiographical and satirical account of a young writer originally conceived as a standalone novel. The items he had finished to date lacked the necessary coherence, much less the page count, for the book-length collection that would succeed his two previous best sellers, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon and Bracebridge Hall.

In search of inspiration, Irving visited his good friend Thomas Medwin, a cousin of Percy Bysshe Shelley and a friend of Lord Byron. Irving recorded in his notebook that Medwin read to Irving from the “journal of a painter while prisoner of the robbers near Rome.” He woke early the next morning, “full of uneasy thoughts,” and at breakfast began to talk about “the Italian story.” He met up with another painter, William Foy, who had just traveled through Italy, to “converse with him on the subject — he relates an anecdote or two which excite me.” Finally, on February 17, he reports: “resume my pen and write all day at the Italian story — finish the introduction & commence the tale — write 28 pages this day.”

During the following weeks, Irving imagined a new design for his next book: some thirty tales divided into four parts. For the second and fourth sections he expanded and revised material from his abandoned novel about Buckthorne and a series of tales about pirates and buried treasure, including the “Dutch story.” For the book’s opening section, “the stout gentleman,” a character from Bracebridge Hall many readers believed was the novelist Sir Walter Scott, would initiate a series of ghost stories, concluding with the “Italian story” about a young man’s crime of passion. For the third section, Irving assembled various stories he heard from friends about the banditti plaguing the roads between Naples and Rome. Set in four different locations—an English country house, a London literary club, an inn in the Italian seaside town of Terracina, a boat anchored off the coast of eighteenth-century Manhattan—the selections were linked by their framework: groups of men sharing stories they had heard, each tale leading to (or interrupted by) yet another story. Tales of a Traveler was not only a collection of stories but also a book about storytelling.

Irving drafted and assembled the third part, “The Italian Banditti,” last. It opens with a courier riding into Terracina wearing nothing but his underwear—having been robbed of his “bran new” leather breeches by highwaymen. The brazen act appalls and excites a group of travelers, and they launch into a series of stories they’ve heard about the attacks and crimes conducted by such robbers—encounters that progress from the farcical to the horrifying.

The European reputation of highwaymen had been largely shaped by Friedrich Schiller’s 1781 play The Robbers (Die Räuber), in which a young man disinherited because of his brother’s duplicity becomes the leader of a band of outlaws with a sense of honor and nobility. This melodramatic work inspired other plays and numerous novels that added a romantic veneer to criminal life. Twenty years earlier, while traveling through Italy, 21-year-old Washington Irving had seen for himself how these outlaws had captured the public imagination when he witnessed the execution of the popular thief Joseph Musso in Genoa.

“Most of the travelers depicted in Part III prefer to wrap the possibility of an encounter with [the outlaws] in some sort of illusion,” wrote William L. Hedges in his study of Irving’s fiction. “They see ‘banditti’ instead of bandits, the Italian word carrying delicious romantic connotations. The sentimental view is that bandits are noblemen in disguise, noble at least in spirit if not by title.” The satiric and comic tone of Irving’s highwaymen adventures is shattered, however, by the concluding tale, “The Story of the Young Robber.” The romantic veneer is stripped away, and the bandits are shown for what they are: rapists and murderers.

“The Italian Banditti” proved to be the section of the book that faced objections from Irving’s publisher and vitriolic criticism from reviewers. His publisher insisted that he tone down the mockery of aristocratic British society and characters—particularly of the “English Nobleman” staying at the inn in Terracina. Although Irving objected at length to the censorship, he ended up capitulating, and the nobleman became simply “the Englishman.” More serious was the post-publication reaction to “The Story of the Young Robber,” in which “a scene the most revolting to humanity is twice unnecessarily forced on the reader’s imagination,” as one contemporary reviewer complained. The influential critic John Neal, in Blackwood’s Magazine, objected that women and children would be exposed to the material: “He knew this. He knew that any book with his name to it, would be permitted by fathers, husbands, brothers, to pass without examination: that it would be read aloud in family circles, all over our country.”

Despite the objections of critics, Tales of a Traveller has remained in print, and its stories frequently anthologized, during most of the two hundred years since it was published. Of the tales comprising the “Italian Banditti” section, “The Adventure of the Popkins Family” is perhaps most effective at mocking the many novels and plays glamorizing the banditti—while also poking fun at the readers in England naïve enough to believe them—and we present it below as our Story of the Week selection.

Notes: Twenty years after the publication of Tales of a Traveller, Irving wrote “Popkins was a name which I chose without remembering that a lady was then residing in Paris with the euphonious epithet, at whose hospitable house I had once been presented.” He cannot have been entirely truthful here. His first visit to the Popkins home occurred less than a month before he wrote the story, and he encountered members of the family at least twice during the following year; it is unlikely he had forgotten their name. Irving added that when Mrs. Popkins met him again in 1831, she told him that “it had been an unlucky hour for her when first I crossed her threshold and that her late husband besides had never been an alderman.”

Throgmorton Street bordered the block that housed the London Stock Exchange at Capel Court. The Popkins daughters are familiar with the romances of Mrs. Radcliffe—the English novelist Ann Radcliffe, a writer of Gothic novels and, and most relevantly here, The Italian, which Irving read around the time of his visit to Terracina in 1804. Thomas Moore’s “Love of the Angels” (1823) is a poem about three fallen angels who fall in love with mortal women; Moore, a close friend of Irving’s, offered considerable advice during the writing of Tales of a Traveler.

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It would be tedious to follow the devious course of the conversation as it wound through a maze of stories of the kind. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.