Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle

Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle

Infobox Book |
name = The Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent.
title_orig =
translator =

image_caption =
author = Washington Irving
illustrator =
cover_artist =
country = United States
language = English
series =
genre = Observational letters & Essays
publisher = "Morning Chronicle" (New York)
release_date = 1802-1803
english_release_date =
media_type = Print (Newspaper)
pages =
isbn = ISBN 978-0-94045014-1 (reprint)
preceded_by =
followed_by = "Salmagundi"

"The Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent." (1802) is a collection of nine observational letters written by American writer Washington Irving under the pseudonym Jonathan Oldstyle. The letters first appeared in the November 15, 1802, edition of the New York "Morning Chronicle", a political-leaning newspaper partially owned by New Yorker Aaron Burr, and edited by Irving's brother, Peter. The letters were printed at irregular intervals until April 23, 1803. The letters lampoon marriage, manners, dress, and culture of early 19th century New York. They are Irving's debut in print.

Letters to the "Morning Chronicle"

Letters 1 and 2: Marriage and manners

Irving's first Oldstyle letter appeared in the November 15, 1802, edition of the "Morning Chronicle." In his first letter, Irving mocked the current trends in dress and fashion, training most of his criticism on young men and their "most studied carelessness, and almost slovenliness of dress," who are more interested in themselves than in the unfortunate "belle who has to undergo the fatigue of dragging along this sluggish animal." [Irving, "Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle", 3-4] The signature in all capital letters at the end of the piece was not Irving's own, but rather the first of many pseudonyms Irving would adopt throughout his literary life, Jonathan Oldstyle. ["Ibid."]

A second letter followed on November 20, this time poking fun at the "strange and preposterous … manner in which modern marriages are conducted." ["Ibid", 5-7.] Describing the marriage between Oldstyle’s aunt Barbara and an ironically-named Squire Stylish, Irving juxtaposed modern manners against old etiquette, concluding that no one could read such a comparison of old versus new, "and not lament, with me, the degeneracy of the present times — what husband is there but will look back with regret, to the happy days of female subjugation [?] " ["Ibid."]

Letters 3, 4 and 5: The theater

For his third letter, in the December 1 issue, Irving discarded discussions of fashion and marriage to ridicule the theater, mocking a recent play as so poorly written and acted that Oldstyle eventually becomes more interested in the peanuts he’s eating than the action on stage. Another scene is so disjointed that all he can do is scratch his head in confusion: "What this scene had to do with the rest of the piece, I could not comprehend," Oldstyle says. "I suspect it was a part of some other play thrust in here "by accident"." ["Ibid", 8]

On December 4, Irving turned his attention from the performance on stage to the audience, "who, I assure you," Oldstyle says, "furnish no inconsiderable part of the entertainment." This letter was the longest and, to many, the funniest piece Irving had written so far, as Oldstyle grumbles about being pelted by the fruit and nuts from the rowdy theater gallery above:

Irving also poked fun at the critics, wondering how they had the nerve to tell the public what to think of a play when they themselves spent the entire time at the theater playing cards or intentionally sitting with their backs to the stage – “They even strive to appear inattentive”, Oldstyle splutters. ["Ibid", 13]

By the fifth letter on December 11, all the flustered Oldstyle can do is offer a number of suggestions for improving the theater, finally washing his hands of the entire matter: "To the whole house — inside and out, a total reformation," Oldstyle says. "–And so much for the theatre." ["Ibid", 18]

Letters 6, 7 and 8: Theatrical controversy

Oldstyle’s commentary on the theater riled some in the New York theater district, but when Irving trained Oldstyle’s fire on local critics — specifically William Coleman at the "Evening Post" and James Cheetham at the "American Citizen" — tempers finally flared. [Jones, 21-22]

The ruckus began with Irving’s January 17, 1803, letter, his sixth, in which "Quoz", a new character introduced by Irving as a friend of Oldstyle’s, took a backhanded shot at critics for taking all the fun out of the theater: "The critics, my dear Jonathan, are the very pests of society … they reduce our feelings to a state of miserable refinement, and destroy entirely all the enjoyments in which our coarser sensations delighted." [Irving, "Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle", 20]

Five days later, in his seventh letter, Irving had Oldstyle complain about the play "The Wheel of Truth," knowing it would provoke a response from Coleman and Cheetham, who had been feuding publicly about the authorship of the play. [Explanatory Notes, "Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, 47] Irving’s letter had the desired effect, as Cheetham and Coleman elevated their attacks on the play’s author, its actors, and each other. ["Ibid"]

Delighted with the reaction, Irving responded in mock innocence on February 8 that he was "perfectly at a loss" as to what all the fuss was about, and couldn’t resist giving Oldstyle the last word, concluding that all the bickering had "awakened doubt in my mind respecting the sincerity and justice of the Critics." [Irving, "Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, 27-31]

Letter 9: Dueling

Irving’s final letter appeared two months later, the gap between appearances likely an indication of Irving’s growing disinterest in the exercise. [Jones, 22] In his letter of April 23, 1803, Irving — writing again as Quoz — discussed the practice of dueling, which had recently been formally outlawed in New York. Declaring the practice of dueling with pistols "unceremonious," Quoz recommends instead that duelists draw lots to see who gets to have a brick dropped on his head from a window. "If he survives, well and good", Quoz says, "if he falls, why nobody is to blame, it was purely accidental." [Irving, "Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle", 34] Quoz even suggests that dueling be licensed by "the Blood and Thunder office" of the state as an official event, where the public can watch, as "this would be a valuable addition to the list of our refined amusements." ["Ibid", 35]

Public reaction

The Oldstyle letters were well-received in New York—and despite the use of the pseudonym, Irving’s identity as Oldstyle was not a secret. [Jones, 20] The public enjoyed them, and "Chronicle" co-publisher Aaron Burr was impressed enough to send copies of the first five letters to his daughter Theodosia, remarking that they "would not, perhaps, merit so high an honour as that of being perused by your eyes and touched by your fair hands, but that [they are] the production of a youth of about nineteen, the youngest brother of Dr. Peter Irving of New York." ["Memoirs of Aaron Burr, with Miscellaneous Selections of His Correspondence", ed M.L. Davis (New York, 1837); cited in "Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle", 40n5]

Irving also had an admirer in Charles Brockden Brown, who unsuccessfully tried to track down Oldstyle to ask his assistance with "The Literary Magazine, and American Register" that Brown would shortly be editing in Philadelphia. [Jones, 21]

William Dunlap, manager of New York's Park Theater, also thought highly of Oldstyle, later calling Irving’s letters "pleasant effusions," but noted politely at the time that the irritation Oldstyle was provoking in his actors was "excessive". Even William Coleman at the competing "Evening Post" thought Irving, for all his Oldstyle bluster, had talent as a critic. [Historical Note, "Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle", 41]

Publishing history

While Oldstyle marks Irving’s first foray into print, Irving would always look back on the nine letters as "crude and boyish." [Pierre M. Irving, "Life and Letters of Washington Irving", I,48] To Irving’s embarrassment, several letters were reprinted in pamphlet form in New York and London in 1824 following the success of "The Sketch Book". ["Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent. By the Author of The Sketch Book. With a Biographical Notice." New York and London, 1824,)] ["Washington Irving and the House of Murray", ed. Ben Harris McClary, (Knoxville, Tenn., 1969), 53] Irving would not include any of the Oldstyle letters in the Author’s Revised Edition he put together for publisher George Putnam in the 1850s.

The first five letters finally appeared in Putnam’s 1866 edition of "Spanish Papers and Other Miscellanies", and would be reprinted regularly through the end of the 19th century. All nine letters were eventually included in the sixth volume of the 30-volume "The Complete Works of Washington Irving", collecting Irving’s works, letters, and papers. The Oldstyle letters reprinted in the Library of America edition of Irving’s works are based on that text. [Textual Commentary, "Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle", 50-55]

Literary tradition

Observational letters, like Irving's Oldstyle letters, are a tradition that date in America as far back as the 1720s, when Benjamin Franklin wrote similar letters to the "New-England Courant" under the name of Silence Dogood. Franklin had borrowed the form from Joseph Addison, who Franklin admired, and who was known for the gentlemanly "Mr. Spectator" essays he wrote in the "Guardian", "Tatler" and "The Spectator" in London in the early 1700s. Such essays had been a staple of colonial newspapers, and usually featured an observer –- normally a bachelor, with a personality that differed from that of the writer –- who commented, either directly or indirectly, on public truths.


*Irving, Pierre M. "Life and Letters of Washington Irving." 4. vols. (Putnam, 1860)
* Irving, Washington. "Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent./Salmagundi." "The Complete Works of Washington Irving, Volume 6." Edited by Bruce Granger & Martha Hartzog. (Twayne, 1977) ISBN 0-8057-8509-4
* Jones, Brian Jay. "Washington Irving: An American Original" (Arcade, 2008) ISBN 978-1-55970-836-4
* Williams, Stanley T. "The Life of Washington Irving". 2 vols. (Oxford University Press, 1935)


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