Our book today is Washington Irving’s 1832 international best-seller, Tales of the Alhambra, a hodge-podge of vivid sketches, retailed folklore, and picaresque travel vignettes – exactly the same formula, in other words, that had done so much to cement Irving’s reputation as the most famous writer of his day (he wrote almost all of Tales of the Alhambra while living in England, where he’d earlier composed Bracebridge Hall along very similar lines). In the 1820s, with an almost unbroken string of best-sellers behind him, Irving was a genial and thorough-going hack, searching always for a new paying venture, dreaming always of a regular, reliable berth for his writing. Along the way, he almost single-handedly raised the nascent field of American letters out of the provincial and onto the world stage – much to the astonishment (an often unwilling astonishment) of the world. He achieved this through murderously hard work, and by inventing his own lingua franca in order to make it possible, this glittering, irresponsible, utterly irresistible slush of fact, fancy, and fiction that had never quite existed at this refined, athletic pitch before Irving came along. Two things we can say about it beyond doubt: it gave rise to the entire genre of historical fiction for which later writer (and Irving devotee) Walter Scott typically gets the credit … and the reading public couldn’t get enough of it. Irving mastered the art of not only conveying enthusiasm in print but (the much harder thing, then and now) conveying merriment, and gave readers a nearly perfect blend of carefully-researched fact and gently inviting narrative. It’s not only the Hilary Mantels of our world who are his direct descendants – it’s the David McCulloughs too.
In 1826, Irving got a letter from that great and gentle Boston scholar (and career dilettante diplomat) Alexander Hill Everett inviting him to Madrid and enticing him in one of the only ways guaranteed to work: the promise of fresh library archives. Irving went and spent a good deal of time industriously reading and researching – and travelling everywhere, always in the company of his “self-imposed cicerone,” Mateo Ximenes.
It was from this stay in Spain that the bulk of Irving’s great writings on Christopher Columbus derived, and it was during this time that Irving fell under the “witching charms” of the legendary Alhambra palace itself:
To the traveller imbued with a feeling for the historical and the poetical, so inseparately intertwined in the annals of romantic Spain, the Alhambra is as much an object of devotion as is the Caaba to all true Moslems. How many legends and traditions, true and fabulous, – how may songs and ballads, Arabian and Spanish, of love and war and chivalry, are associated with this Oriental pile! It was the royal abode of the Moorish kings, where, surrounded with the splendours and refinements of Asiatic luxury, they held dominion over what they vaunted as a terrestrial paradise, and made their last stand for the empire of Spain. The royal palace forms but a part of a fortress, the walls of which, studded with towers, stretch irregularly round the whole crest of a hill, a spur of the Sierra Nevada or Snowy Mountains, and overlook the city; externally, it is a rude congregation of towers and battlements, with no regularity of plan nor grace of architecture, and giving little promise of the grace and beauty which prevail within.
That combination – the historical and the poetical – defined Irving’s own sensibilities, as he himself knew well, and it guaranteed he would always be sensitive to the good stories amidst all the local folklore. When he travelled, he was the perfect traveller: always alert, always attentive, always ready to be interested in something new. Tales of the Alhambra owes a good deal of its charm to Irving’s uncanny ability to be always encountering things for the first time, right alongside his readers. When he sees the improbable sight of men carrying fishing poles along the high battlements of the palace, for instance, he goes straight to Mateo Ximenes for an explanation, which he happily shares:
It seems the the pure and airy situation of this fortress has rendered it, like the castle of Macbeth, a prolific breeding-place for swallows and martlets, who sport about its towards in myriads, with the holiday glee of urchins just let loose from school. To entrap these birds in their giddy circlings, with hooks baited with flies, is one of the favourite amusements of the ragged “sons of the Alhambra,” who, with the good-for-nothing ingenuity of the arrant idlers, have thus inverted the art of angling in the sky.
Tales of the Alhambra sold very well in Irving’s day, and I’ve lost count of how many copies I’ve given to people over the decades. It’s still a living book, even after two centuries – no small feat for a hustler from the provinces. Go to the second-hand book shop, pick your favorite of the dozens and dozens of beautifully-illustrated editions that have been made throughout the years, and join your own self-imposed guide for a wonderful tour.