Washington Irving

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How has Washington Irving influenced American Romanticism?

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Washington Irving was part of the first generation of post-Revolutionary American writers who helped established a distinctly American mythology about the new United States.

In doing this, Irving was a Romantic, if we understand romanticism as depicting the world the way we would like it to be rather than the way it is. As Irving himself stated, he

"looked at things poetically rather than politically.' . . . I have always had an opinion that much good might be done by keeping mankind in good humor with one another . . . When I discover the world to be all that it has been represented by sneering cynics and whining poets, I will turn to and abuse it also."

Irving could sometimes critique America, but on the whole he was an enthusiast for the democratic experiment and showed that enthusiasm in his writing. He wrote a five-volume admiring biography of George Washington, an admiring biography of Christopher Columbus, and in his short stories often pitted an effete, backward-looking, and passive "Europeanism" against the vigor and energy of the new American republic. For example, Irving's Ichabod Crane is a thin, effeminate, bookish, and superstitious schoolmaster who is bested by the manly all-American Brom Bones. Brom is handsome, pragmatic, strong as an ox, and represents what is good about the American way of life. He is an early prototype for Paul Bunyan, the mythically strong American hero. Likewise, Rip Van Winkle represents the apathy and sleepiness of the American colonies under British rule. He awakens to find a new level of energy and involvement as he finds his peers have won the Revolutionary War and become citizens of a republic rather than subjects of a Crown.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and other American writers followed in the footsteps of Irving by continuing to communicate an idealized version of the young new country.

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When we think of Washington Irving, what stands out most of all is what he accomplished in his short stories. Above all what he did was help America develop a distinctive and unique literary voice of its own by writing his fiction. Romantic elements that we see are the way that Irving takes European based legends and archetypes and re-writes them, planting them firmly in America, and thus satirising and ridiculing various aspects of American History. A key aspect of Romantic literature is the importance of myths and supernatural elements, and these can all be seen in his most famous stories, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," "Rip van Winkle" and "The Devil and Tom Walker." Although his fiction is the result of lots of borrowing from European sources, Irving made his storytelling unique by incorporating his sardonic voice to his work, making it distinctive and also transforming himself into a literary celebrity.

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