Back “The Adventure of the Popkins Family,” Washington Irving

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.

This year marks the bicentennial of Washington Irving’s story collection, Tales of a Traveller—one of a handful of American books from the era still in print.

In 1822, flush from the twin successes of The Sketch Book (which included both “Rip van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”) and its follow-up Bracebridge Hall, Washington Irving planned an excursion through the European continent, on the lookout for material for his next book. His enjoyment of the trip reached a pinnacle at the end of the year upon his arrival in Dresden, where he received the kind of reception usually reserved for an internationally famous dignitary.

As the new year dawned, however, he was confronted with an unexpected challenge: writer’s block. In addition, his productivity was hampered by several distractions. The 40-year-old author fell in love with 18-year-old Emily Foster, who was teaching him French and who would soon marry someone else. He also became enamored by the theater, working with little compensation on a series of stage productions and the translations of two German operas into English. And throughout the period he suffered from recurring inflammation of his legs and ankles. At the beginning of 1824, he wrote to friends and admitted that his increasingly dismal financial situation had forced the issue: “I shall run low in purse before I can get a work ready for publication.”

Finally, a chance conversation with a friend, who related a story he had heard about highway robbers near Rome, gave Irving the spark he needed. Unlike his previous two collections, which included a mix of stories and sketches with elements of travel writing and fictionalized memoir, the new book would contain more than thirty short stories divided into four sections on different topics set in different localities—and several of them would be linked stories about the Italian banditti, including the satirical tale, “The Adventure of the Popkins Family.”

You can read that selection at our Story of the Week site, along with an introduction detailing how Irving assembled his new collection—and how numerous critics accused him of vulgarity.

Read Washington Irving’s “The Adventure of the Popkins Family”

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