Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Washington Irving, Rebecca Gratz & an Unwanted Suitor

Rebecca Gratz's romance with Samuel Ewing, a Presbyterian, ended with her refusal to marry him because of the difference of religion. This is the stuff of legend. Yet, if Rebecca was so charming and lovely, you might think that she would have had at least one other suitor, and you would be correct.

Isaac and Reyna Moses of New York City, old friends of Rebecca's parents, had three sons just the right age (five to ten years older) for the three Gratz sisters still at home at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The young men looked great on paper, scions of a wealthy Jewish family well-known to the Gratz's and already active in the family business. But somehow they did not please the Gratz girls.

Rebecca had spent the winter of 1805-06 in low spirits, having broken with Ewing the previous August, and in April of 1806 her family eagerly sent her off to visit her best friend Maria Fenno Hoffman in New York for a change of scene. About three weeks after she arrived, Rebecca received a letter from her younger sister Rachel who had urgent news from a friend: M.L. (short for Moses Levy), the middle Moses son, was upset because several evenings before at Maria's house, Washington Irving had come in just as he was about to propose to Rebecca. Rachel knew that Rebecca had no interest in this proposal and worried that M.L. would interfere with the her sister's enjoyment of New York. Her advice to Rebecca for avoiding another attempt: "Keep Washington with you as you have done before" [my emphasis].

When Maria Fenno had married Josiah Ogden Hoffman in 1802, Washington Irving was desultorily studying law in Hoffman's office, and although he had little talent for legal matters, he had other gifts -- conversation, charm, good humor--which made him a welcome guest at the Hoffman home. In the spring of 1806, Irving had just returned from eighteen months in Europe and it was at this time that he was introduced to Rebecca.

For her part, Rebecca was delighted with Irving, calling him "the most pleasant young man I have met" in New York. Elsewhere she gave an expanded description of him at a social gathering: Mr. Irving, she wrote, "made puns -- told stories -- wrote poetry... he became quite agreeable to the whole party." Washington provided the liveliness and fun which Rebecca needed. There is no hint of romance on either side. As Maria Fenno Hoffman's close friend, Irving would have been informed about Rebecca's recent romantic history. Besides, he was two years younger than Rebecca and without a profession. In this situation the two could quickly settle into a relaxed relationship, unimpeded by the uncertainties which could blight budding friendships between men and women.

All this must have happened quickly if they were already partners in deception against M.L. (and possibly other unwanted suitors). Irving was too socially adept not to realize that Rebecca was sometimes using him as a shield and was gallant enough to spare a kind young woman from unwanted attentions she could not politely avoid by herself. In years to come their friendship would continue in New York and also at the Gratz house in Philadelphia. It was a very real relationship, better characterized as cordial than as intimate. The legend of Rebecca Gratz as the inspiration for the character of Rebecca in Scott's Ivanhoe rests on the undocumented story that Irving vividly described her to Walter Scott whom he visited in 1817. He was certainly capable of doing that -- whether he did or not is another question.

As for poor M.L., he never married. In a letter from 1802 Rebecca gives us a strong hint as to why she was not interested in him when she tactfully describes his enthusiasms: [M.L] "is certainly the most romantic young man in the boro. He constantly keeps sacking his imagination for omens and wonders--where other people would see nothing extraordinary." "Romantic" here is not "flowers and candy" romantic. This was the Romantic Age, and one of the earliest emanations of the romantic sensibility was an interest in the supernatural (omens, ghosts, etc.). Rebecca was more comfortable in the Age of Reason. Her highest compliment about Samuel Ewing was that he was a "sensible, agreeable companion" although she also added that he was "rather romantic." Rebecca found a little romanticism acceptable in an essentially rational man, but the thought of spending one's life with a man whose major interests in were omens and ghost stories must have been most unappealing to her.

(Rebecca's letters from 1806 are from the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, at the American Philosophical Society. Her letters from 1802 are from the Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection at the Library of Congress.)

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