August 29, 2012

Irving: useless and superficial

Upon hearing that his nephew Pierre Irving was about to visit Europe, Washington Irving wrote a letter urging him against the idea. Dated August 29, 1825, the elder Irving warned his nephew that "The knowledge to be gained by a mere ramble through Europe is of all things the most useless and superficial." Even if he anticipated it would polish his gentlemanly character, it still would be of no use to an American, who still "has to earn his mere bread by his talents and his industry."

Seeing this intention of traveling as mere idleness, Irving only offered this advice because, he wrote, of his high opinion of his nephew and his hope that the young man would set himself on something useful which might "strengthen his mind." By the time the letter reached New York, however, Pierre had already set sail for Europe.

Even if it had reached him, Pierre certainly would have considered his uncle a bit hypocritical. The letter was written from Paris, after all, and Washington Irving's own idleness and inability to "earn his mere bread by his talents and his industry" was infamous. By 1825, he had already given up on becoming a lawyer, and often relied on his brothers for financial bailouts (despite making some good business deals on his published works). He had been in Europe for ten continuous years already; it would be another seven before he returned to the United States.

Perhaps Irving saw more of himself in his nephew Pierre, and wanted to discourage him from a similar life of idleness, more focused on social advancements rather than intellectual ones. Eventually, Irving helped Pierre find steady work. After the elder Irving's death, Pierre became his first official biographer.

1 comment:

  1. I wrote this whole giant comment, hit "publish," and... POOF! It was gone.

    Ugh. If I have the wherewithal to redo it, I will. As a Spanish teacher, I get excited when 19th c American authors cross paths with the places and history I teach about.

    And it was good too! Clever Irving-bashing, a little Moorish history, some sarcasm, and a not-so-subtle reference to my own state of inebrietation when I myself toured the Alhambra.

    Damn it! This is why I don't write comments!

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