James Kirke Paulding

George and Evert Duyckinck, in Cyclopedia of American Literature (1856; 1875) 2:1-11.

JAMES KIRKE PAULDING is descended from one of the early pioneers of the State of New York, who appears in the ancient records of Ulster County, of which he was sheriff in the time of Governor Dongan, sometimes as Hendrick Pauldinck, sometimes as Heinrick Paulden, and at others Henry Pawling, which was probably his English name, being so written in a grant of four thousand acres of land in Dutchess County to his widow Eltje Pawling, by King William the Third. This confusion of names is to be partly traced to the struggle for ascendancy between the Dutch and English languages, and partly to the carelessness of the writers, who were not much practised in orthography; so that from these causes it remains doubtful whether Henry Pawling was of English or Dutch extraction.

Subsequently to this grant of King William the family removed to Dutchess County, a township of which is still called after their name. The grandfather of the subject of this sketch, many years previous to the Revolution, settled in the county of Westchester, on a farm still in possession of his descendants. He always wrote his name Paulding, which has been ever since adopted by that branch of the family, though that of Pawling has been retained by the others. The residence of Paulding's father being "within the lines," that is in the district intervening between the British army at New York and the American forces in the Highlands, and he being a somewhat distinguished Whig of the good old revolutionary stamp, his family was exposed to the insults and depredations of the Jagars, the Tories, and the Cow Boys. He removed his family in consequence to Dutchess County, where he possessed some property. Here Paulding was born, August 22, 1779, at a place called Pleasant Valley. His father who, previous to the commencement of the Revolution, had acquired a competency, took a decided and active part in the preliminary struggles; was a leader of the Whig party in the county of Westchester; a member of the first Committee of Safety, and subsequently Commissary General of the New York Continental quota of troops. When, in consequence of the total extinction of the public credit, and the almost hopeless state of the good cause, it was sometimes impossible to procure the necessary supplies for the American army then occupying the highlands of the Hudson, he made use of his own credit with his neighbors, the farmers, and became responsible for large sums of money. At the conclusion of the war, on presenting his accounts to the Auditor-General, this portion of them was rejected on the ground that he was not authorized to make these pledges in behalf of government. He retired a ruined man, was thrown into a prison, which accidentally taking fire, he walked home and remained unmolested by his creditors. He could never be persuaded to renew his application to government; would never accept any office; and though he lived to a great age made no exertions whatever to retrieve his fortunes. His wife, who was the main stay of the family, and a woman of great energy, industry, and economy, survived him several years and died still more aged.

After the peace the family returned to their former abode in Westchester, where Paulding was educated at the village school, a log-house nearly two miles distant from his residence, in which he received all the learning he ever acquired from the tuition of others, so that he may be fairly considered a self-made man. Here he remained at home until he arrived at manhood, when he came to the city of New York. His first sojourn in the city was with the late Mr. William Irving, who had married his sister, a man of wit and genius, whose home was the familiar resort of a knot of young men of a similar stamp, who were members of the Calliopean Society, one of the first purely literary institutions established in the city. He also became intimate at this time with Washington Irving, whose elder brother William married Paulding's sister, and in connexion with whom he made his first literary venture in the publication of the series of periodical essays entitled Salmagundi; or the Whim-Whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff and others, which were issued by David Longworth, a respectable but whimsical bookseller of the times, who, in virtue of having a copy of Boydell's Shakespeare, the plates of which he exhibited in his second story, christened his shop the Shakespeare Gallery; sometimes, too, calling it on the title-pages of his publications the Sentimental Epicure's Ordinary. He was an extensive publisher of plays foreign and native, and became famous for his enterprise of the New York Directory.

The first number of Salmagundi appeared Saturday, January 24, 1807, in an eighteenmo. of twenty pages. It closed with the issue of number twenty, January 25, 1808. It was the joint work of Paulding and Irving, with the exception of the poetical epistles and three or four of the prose articles, which were from the pen of William Irving. The work was a brilliant success from the start. The humors of the town were hit off with a freshness which is still unexhausted to the readers of an entirely different generation. It disclosed, too, the literary faculties of the writers, both very young men, with a rich promise for the future, in delicate shades of observation, the more pungent traits of satire, and a happy vein of description which grew out of an unaffected love of nature, and was enlivened by studies in the best school of English poetry. When the work was concluded its two chief authors pursued their literary career apart; but it is noticeable as an exhibition of their kindly character, that the early partnership in Salmagundi has never been dissolved by a division of the joint stock between the owners of the separate articles. The whole is included in the incomplete stereotype edition of Paulding's works. In 1819 a second series of the work was published, which was entirely from his hand. Though not unsuccessful, it was not received by the public as its predecessor. The "town" interest had diminished. More than ten years had elapsed; the writer was then engaged in official duties at Washington; his mind had assumed a graver cast, and the second series of Salmagundi is deficient in that buoyant spirit of vivacity which is one of the distinguishing features of the first.

About the period of the commencement of the second war with England, his feelings being strongly excited by the position of affairs of the times, he published The Diverting History of John Bull and Brother Jonathan, in the style of Arbuthnot, in which the United States and England are represented as private individuals, father and son engaged in a domestic feud. In this work the policy and conduct of England towards the United States is keenly but good-humoredly satirized, so much so that the whole was republished in numbers in one of the British journals. It passed through several editions, one of which is embellished with several capital illustrations by Jarvis, and was among the most successful of the author's productions. In the volume of Harpers' edition of this tale it is followed by another in the same vein called the History of Uncle Sam and his Boys.

The Diverting History was followed by a poem entitled The Lay of the Scottish Fiddle, a free parody of the Lay of the Last Minstrel, which appeared anonymously, like most of Paulding's earlier writings. This production is principally devoted to satirizing the predatory warfare of the British on Chesapeake Bay, and, what is somewhat remarkable, was published in a very handsome style in London with a preface highly complimentary to the author. The hero is Admiral Cockburn, and the principal incident the burning and sacking the little town of Havre de Grace on the coast of Maryland. It had at that time what might be called the distinction of provoking a fierce review from the London Quarterly. It is clever as a parody, and contains many passages entirely original and of no inconsiderable beauty.

Paulding soon after published a pamphlet in prose, The United States and England, taking up the defence of the country against the attack of the London Quarterly in its famous review of Ingersoll's Inchiquin Letters. The sale of the work was interrupted by the failure of the publisher about the time of its publication. It however attracted the notice of President Madison, and paved the way for the subsequent political career of the author. The design of the work was to expose the unwarrantable course of the Quarterly in drawing general conclusions from solitary examples, and for this purpose the author cites instances from the newspapers of England and other sources to show that if these are to be assumed as the standard of national morality or manners the English are far in advance of the Americans in vulgarity, vice, and depravity.

This was followed up, in 1822, by A Sketch of Old England by a New England Man, purporting to be a narrative of a tour in that country. It commences with an account of various travelling incidents humorously narrated; but the writer soon passes to a discussion of the social, religious, and political points of difference between the two nations, which occupies the chief portion of the volumes. In 1824 he returned to this subject in a new satire on the English travellers, John Bull in America; or the New Munchausen, purporting to be a tour of a cockney English traveller in the United States. It exhibits a broad caricature of the ignorant blunders and homebred prejudices of this class of national libellers, equally provocative of laughter and contempt. The hero, through various chances, frequently encounters a shrewd little Frenchman wearing a white hat, draped in white dimity, with gold ear-rings, who, from meeting so continually, he is at length convinced is seeking an opportunity to rob, if not to murder him.

In 1815, after a tour through Virginia, he wrote Letters from the South, by a Northern Man, principally occupied with sketching the beauties of the scenery and the manners of the people of the "Ancient Dominion." The author digresses to various subjects, on which he delivers his opinions with his usual straightforward frankness.

In 1818 appeared his principal poetical production, The Backwoodsman, an American poem in sentiment, scenery, and incidents. It is in six books of some five hundred lines each, written in the heroic measure. Basil, the hero, appears at the opening as a rural laborer on the banks of the Hudson, reduced to poverty by being confined a whole winter by sickness. On the approach of spring he is attracted by reports of the fertility of the West, the cheapness of the land, and the prospect of improving his condition, and resolves to seek his fortune in that far distant paradise. He abandons his home, and proceeds on his adventure accompanied by his wife and family. The wanderer's farewell, as he turns a last look on the course of the Hudson through the Highlands, is a pleasant passage of description; and the journey through Jersey and Pennsylvania to the Ohio, presents various little incidents, as well as sketches of scenery evidently drawn from the life by a true lover of nature. Arrived at Pittsburg, he proceeds with a company of emigrants he finds collected there to his destination in one of those primitive vessels called Broadhorns, which have become almost obsolete since the introduction of steamers. Here the progress of an infant settlement is sketched, and the author, after seeing Basil comfortably homed, leaves him somewhat abruptly to plunge into the desert wild, and introduce his readers to the Indian prophet, who, in conjunction with some renegade whites, was at that time employed in stirring up the savages to take part in the approaching hostilities between the United States and England, and by whom the little settlement of Basil and his companions is subsequently ravaged and destroyed. War ensues; the backwoodsmen with Basil at their head pursue the savages, and finally overtake them; a bloody fight follows; the prophet falls by the hand of Basil, and the savages are completely routed. Basil returns home; peace is restored, and he passes the remainder of his life in prosperity and honor. The poem closes with a glowing apostrophe to the native land of the author.

The descriptive parts of this poem are perhaps the best portions of the work. The versification is in general vigorous and glowing, though there are not a few occasional exceptions, together with some inaccuracies of expression, which the author would probably have corrected in a new edition. The Backwoodsman belongs to the old school of poetry, and met with but ordinary success at home, though translations of a portion were published and praised in a literary periodical of the time at Paris.

The scene of Paulding's first novel is laid among the early Swedish settlers on the Delaware. It was originally called Konigsmark, or the Long Finne, a name that occurs in our early records, but the title was changed in a subsequent edition to Old Times in the New World, for reasons set forth in the publisher's notice. It was divided into separate books, each preceded by an introductory chapter after the manner of Fielding's Tom Jones, and having little connexion with the story. They are for the most part satirical, and in the progress of the narrative the author parodies Norna of the Fitful Head in the person of Bombie of the Frizzled Head, an ancient colored virago.

In 1826 he wrote Merry Tales of the Three Wise Men of Gotham, prefaced by a grave dissertation on the existence and locality of that renowned city. This was a satire on Mr. Owen's system of Socialism, which then first began to attract attention in the United States, on Phrenology, and the legal maxim of Caveat Emptor, each exemplified in a separate story. The Three Wise Men are introduced at sea in the famous Bowl, relating in turn their experience with a view of dissipating the ennui of the voyage.

This was followed by The Traveller's Guide, which was mistaken for an actual itinerary, in consequence of which it was christened somewhat irreverently The New Pilgrim's Progress. It is a burlesque on the grandiloquence of the current Guide Books, and the works of English travellers in America. It exhibits many satirical sketches of fashionable life and manners, and will be a treasure to future antiquaries for its allusions to scenes and persons who flourished at the time when, as the writer avers, the dandy must never, under any temptation, extend his morning promenade westwardly, and step beyond the northwest corner of Chambers street, all beyond being vulgar terra incognita to the fashionable world. Union Square was then a diminutive Dismal Swamp, and Thirteenth street a lamentable resort of cockney sportsmen. This was in 1828, when to be mistress of a three-story brick house, with mahogany folding doors, and marble mantels, was the highest ambition of a fashionable belle. After exhausting New York, the tourist recommends one of those "sumptuous aquatic palaces," the safety barges, which it grieves him to see are almost deserted for the swifter steamers, most especially by those whose time being worth nothing, they are anxious to save as much of it as possible. In one of these he proceeds leisurely up the river to Albany, loitering by the way, noticing the various towns and other objects of interest, indulging in a variety of philosophical abstractions and opinions, now altogether consigned to the dark ages. Finally he arrives at Balston and Saratoga by stage-coach, where he makes himself merry with foibles of the elite, the manoeuvres of discreet mothers, the innocent arts of their unsophisticated daughters, and the deplorable fate of all grey-whiskered bachelors, who seek their helpmates at fashionable watering-places. The remainder of the volume is occupied with rules for the behavior of young ladies, married people, and bachelors young and old, at the time-renowned springs. A number of short stories and sketches are interspersed through the volume, which is highly characteristic of the author's peculiar humors.

Tales of the Good Woman, by a Doubful Gentleman, followed in sequence, and soon after appeared The Book of St. Nicholas, purporting to be a translation from some curious old Dutch legends of New Amsterdam, but emanating exclusively from the fertile imagination of the author. He commemorates most especially the few quaint old Dutch buildings, with the gableends to the streets, and steep roofs edged like the teeth of a saw, the last of which maintained its station in New street until within a few years past as a bakery famous for New Year Cakes, but at length fell a victim to the spirit of "progress."

The Dutchman's Fireside, a story founded on the manners of the old Dutch settlers, so charmingly sketched by Mrs. Grant in the Memoirs of an American Lady, next made its appearance. It is written in the author's happiest vein, and was the most popular of all his productions. It went through six editions within the year; was republished in London, and translated into the French and Dutch languages. This work was succeeded by Westward Ho! the scene of which is principally laid in Kentucky, though the story is commenced in Virginia. The Dutchman's Fireside was published in Paris under the title of Le Coin du Feu d'un Hollandais. For each of these novels the author, as we are assured, received the then and still important sum of fifteen hundred dollars from the publishers on delivery of the manuscript.

A Life of Washington, principally prepared for the use of the more youthful class of readers, succeeded these works of imagination. It was originally published in two small volumes, and afterwards incorporated with Harpers' Family Library. Five thousand copies were contracted for with the publishers for distribution in the public schools. It is an admirable production, and shows conclusively that the author is equally qualified for a different sphere of literature from that to which he has principally devoted himself. Though written with a steady glow of patriotism, and a full perception of the exalted character and services of the Father of his country, it is pure from all approaches to inflation, exaggeration, and bombast. The style is characterized by simplicity combined with vigor; the narrative is clear and sufficiently copious without redundancy, comprising all the important events of the life of the hero, interspersed with various characteristic, anecdotes which give additional interest to the work, without degrading it to mere gossip, and is strongly imbued with the nationality of the author. Being addressed to the youthful reader, he frequently pauses in his narrative to inculcate the example of Washington's private and public virtues on his readers. The character of Washington, as summed up at the conclusion, is one of the most complete we have ever met with.

In 1836, about the period that what is known as the Missouri Question was greatly agitating the country, both North and South, he published a review of the institution, under the title of Slavery in the United States, in which he regards the subject with strong southern sympathies. He considers slavery as the offspring of war; as an expedient of humanity to prevent the massacre of prisoners by savage and barbarous tribes and nations, who having no system for the exchange of prisoners, and no means of securing them, have in all time past been accustomed to put to death those whose services they did not require as slaves. He treats the subject with reference both to divine and human laws, and passing from theory to the practical question as applicable to the United States, places before his readers the consequences, first of universal emancipation, next of political and social equality, and lastly of amalgamation.

The last of Paulding's avowed publications are The Old Continental, or the Price of Liberty, a Revolutionary story, The Puritan and his Daughter, the scene of which is partly in England, partly in the United States, and a volume of American Plays, in conjunction with his youngest son William Irving Paulding, then a youth under age. The plots of these pieces are defective, and the incidents not sufficiently dramatic, but the dialogue exhibits no inconsiderable degree of the "vis comica."

This closes our catalogue of the chief productions of the author, which appeared at different intervals during a period of nearly half a century. Most of them were republished in a uniform stereotyped edition by Harper and Brothers in 1835. They constitute, however, only a portion of his writings, while many of them appeared anonymously, and are dispersed through various periodicals and newspapers, among which are the New York Mirror, the Analectic, the Knickerbocker, and Graham's Magazine, Godey's Lady's Book, the Democratic Review, the United States Review, the Literary World, Wheaton's National Advocate, the National Intelligencer, the Southern Press, the Washington Union, &c., &c. He also contributed two articles to a volume by different hands edited by the late Robert C. Sands, whimsically entitled Tales of the Glauber Spa. These contributions were, Childe Roeliff's Pilgrimage, and Selim the Friend of Mankind. The former is a burlesque on fashionable tours, the latter exposes the indiscreet attempts of overzealous philanthropists to benefit mankind. Most of these contributions were anonymous, and many of them gratuitous; to others he affixed his name, on the requisition of the publishers. The collection would form many volumes, comprising a great variety of subjects, and exhibiting almost every diversity of style "from grave to gay, from lively to severe."

A favorite mode of our author is that of embodying and exemplifying some sagacious moral in a brief story or allegory, either verse or prose, specimens of which may be seen in the Literary World under the caption of Odds and Ends, by an Obsolete Author, in the New York Mirror, Graham's Magazine, and other periodicals.

He has also occasionally amused himself with the composition of Fairy Tales, and is the author of an anonymous volume published in 1838 by Appleton, called A Gift from Fairy Land, beautifully illustrated by designs from Chapman. We are informed that only one thousand copies of this work were contracted for by its publisher, five hundred of which were taken by a London bookseller. It appeared subsequently to the stereotyped edition of Harper and Brothers, and is not included in the series, which has never been completed, owing, we are informed, to some difficulties between the author and his publishers, in consequence of which it is now extremely difficult to procure a complete set of his works.

In almost all the writings of Paulding there is occasionally infused a dash of his peculiar vein of humorous satire and keen sarcastic irony. To those not familiarized with his manner, such is the imposing gravity, that it is sometimes somewhat difficult to decide when he is jesting and when he is in earnest. This is on the whole a great disadvantage in an age when irony is seldom resorted to, and has occasionally subjected the author to censure for opinions which he does not sanction. His most prominent characteristic is, however, that of nationality. He found his inspiration at home at a time when American woods and fields and American traits of society, were generally supposed to furnish little if any materials for originality. He not merely drew his nourishment from his native soil, but whenever "that mother of a mighty race" was assailed from abroad by accumulated injuries and insults, stood up manfully in defence of her rights and her honor. He has never on any occasion bowed to the supremacy of European example or European criticism; he is a stern republican in all his writings.

Fortunately he has lived to see a new era dawning on his country. He has seen his country become intellectually, as well as politically, independent, and strong in the result he labored and helped to achieve, he may now look back with calm equanimity on objects which once called for serious opposition, and laugh where the satirist once raged.

Though a literary man by profession, he has, ever since the commencement of the second war with England, turned his mind occasionally towards politics, though never as an active politician. His writings on this subject have been devoted to the support of those great principles which lie at the root of the republican system, and to the maintenance of the rights of his country whenever assailed from any quarter. His progress in life has been upwards. In 1814 or '15 he was appointed Secretary to the Board of Navy Commissioners, then first established. After holding this position for a few years, he resigned to take the office of Navy Agent for the port of New York, which he held twelve years under different administrations, and finally resigned on being placed at the head of the Navy Department by President Van Buren. We have heard him state with some little pride, that all these offices were bestowed without any solicitation on his part, or that of his friends, so far as he knew.

After presiding over the Navy Department nearly the entire term of Mr. Van Buren's administration, he, according to custom, resigned his office on the inauguration of President Harrison, and soon afterwards retired to a pleasant country residence on the east bank of the Hudson, in the county of Dutchess, where he spent the last years of his life.

Here, in the midst of his grand-children, enjoying as much health as generally falls to the lot of threescore and fifteen, and still preserving in all their freshness those rural tastes acquired in his youth, nature rewarded her early votary in the calm pursuits of agriculture, lettered ease, and retirement. In a visit we paid him at Hyde Park in 1855, he stated he had visited the city but twice in the last ten years, and gave his daily routine in the following cheerful summary. "I smoke a little, read a little, write a little, ruminate a little, grumble a little, and sleep a great deal. I was once great at pulling up weeds, to which I have a mortal antipathy, especially bullseyes, wild carrots, and toad-flax — alias butter and eggs. But my working days are almost over. I find that carrying seventy-five years on my shoulders is pretty nearly equal to the same number of pounds, and instead of laboring myself, sit in the shade watching the labors of others, which I find quite sufficient exercise." . . .

Mr. Paulding did not long survive his old friend and early companion in literature. A few months after Washington Irving was carried to the tomb, he too passed away from his beautiful rural residence on the Hudson. He died at his family seat at Hyde Park, in Dutchess County, in the eighty-second year of his age, on the 6th of April, 1860, and, a few days after, his remains were interred in the cemetery at Greenwood, near the city of New York.

Mr. Paulding retained his mental faculties to the last, and the occasional productions of his pen were distinguished by his old ease and elegance of style. We are not aware of his having undertaken or contemplated any writings, of length after those recorded in our previous notice, nor have any new editions of his works appeared in the interim, with the exception of a reprint of "Salmagundi," in the composition of which he was associated with Washington and William Irving. This work was passing through the press at the time of his death. Its revival was received with favor. It carried the reader backward a period of more than fifty years, to the beginning of Mr. Paulding's literary career, when that first promise of humor, take, susceptibility, a genuine love of nature and of man, was given to the world, which was amply sustained through so many subsequent volumes.

The works of Mr. Paulding were once collected in a uniform edition; but it has been long out of print. When the publication shall be revived a new generation of readers will be enabled to appreciate the intelligence, the sympathy, the good humor, spite of occasional censure, with which, through a long life of letters, this sincere and ingenious author looked upon the world.