The “Tales of a Traveller” appeared in 1824. In the author’s opinion, with which the best critics agreed, it contained some of his best writing. He himself said in a letter to Brevoort, “There was more of an artistic touch about it, though this is not a thing to be appreciated by the many.” It was rapidly written. The movement has a delightful spontaneity, and it is wanting in none of the charms of his style, unless, perhaps, the style is over-refined; but it was not a novelty, and the public began to criticise and demand a new note. This may have been one reason why he turned to a fresh field and to graver themes. For a time he busied himself on some American essays of a semi-political nature, which were never finished, and he seriously contemplated a Life of Washington; but all these projects were thrown aside for one that kindled his imagination,—the Life of Columbus; and in February, 1826, he was domiciled at Madrid, and settled down to a long period of unremitting and intense labor.
Irving’s residence in Spain, which was prolonged till September, 1829, was the most fruitful period in his life, and of considerable consequence to literature. It is not easy to overestimate the debt of Americans to the man who first opened to them the fascinating domain of early Spanish history and romance. We can conceive of it by reflecting upon the blank that would exist without “The Alhambra,” “The Conquest of Granada,” “The Legends of the Conquest of Spain,” and I may add the popular loss if we had not “The Lives of Columbus and his Companions.” Irving had the creative touch, or at least the magic of the pen, to give a definite, universal, and romantic interest to whatever he described. We cannot deny him that. A few lines about the inn of the Red Horse at Stratford-on-Avon created a new object of pilgrimage right in the presence of the house and tomb of the poet. And how much of the romantic interest of all the English-reading world in the Alhambra is due to him; the name invariably recalls his own, and every visitor there is conscious of his presence. He has again and again been criticised almost out of court, and written down to the rank of the mere idle humorist; but as often as I take up “The Conquest of Granada” or “The Alhambra” I am aware of something that has eluded the critical analysis, and I conclude that if one cannot write for the few it may be worth while to write for the many.
It was Irving’s intention, when he went to Madrid, merely to make a translation of some historical documents which were then appearing, edited by M. Navarrete, from the papers of Bishop Las Casas and the journals of Columbus, entitled “The Voyages of Columbus.” But when he found that this publication, although it contained many documents, hitherto unknown, that threw much light on the discovery of the New World, was rather a rich mass of materials for a history than