A vast, tapestry-like biography, richly colored, elaborate, formal, stiff, of Washington Irving and some of his contemporaries (notably John Brown, Aaron Burr, Sir Walter Scott, Mary Shelley, and John Jacob Astor), weaving together letters, journals, and scholarly sources in a stylistically and structurally old-fashioned tableau of 19th-century America. McFarland teaches English at Concord Academy (Lexington, Mass.), and he takes an extremely literary approach to history. His leisurely, mellifluous prose (the book has only one tempo--andante) will charm some readers and irritate others. He seems to be imitating Van Wyck Brooks or, still more, Irving himself, for whom he has an obvious temperamental affinity. Like Irving he neglects the crude realities of economic and social life in favor of the ""timeless"" drama of picturesque individuals. But Irving, in fact, wasn't all that picturesque: his 76 years were uneventful, in some ways even bloodless. So McFarland brings in a dynamic cast of supporting actors to liven things up--and the tortured, demonic figure of John Brown never looked more electrifying than he does here, contrasted with Irving, the genteel, bookish bachelor. But the links between Irving and the others are too often casual (he and Brown died within four clays of each other) or superficial (he was a fan of Scott's, and Mary Shelley was a fan of his), and so the whole story has no organic unity--it's one handsome, static set piece after another. Brown the visionary terrorist, Burr the imperialist adventurer, and Astor the insatiable multinational entrepreneur all have some relevance to today's world, but McFarland, with his narrow aesthetic viewpoint, largely ignores it. His scholarship is solid, if unoriginal; his mastery of detail is admirable (e.g., in his vivid account of the founding of Astoria); but the final result of his labors is disappointingly trivial.