Washington Irving

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Washington Irving American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2623

Although best known today as an American humorist, Irving’s literary career also encompassed historical works and biographies. He was a prolific writer who took great delight in describing whatever interested his curious intellect. The author was a superb and influential prose stylist who influenced other writers, and he became America’s first successful man of letters.

Irving’s work can be categorized by the changes in his temperament, which also followed a chronological pattern. Beginning in 1802, this first period was marked by a certain recklessness of attitude. Irving assumed the persona of “Jonathan Oldstyle,” and he reflected his own and the United States’ exuberance following the overthrow of British tyranny. Serving out his literary apprenticeship, Irving’s merry and vulgar Oldstyle looked at the citizens of New York City and found something to say about their culture, society, and politics.

By the time Irving penned his burlesque A History of New York in the second period, he had settled down and developed into a stylish and confident amateur. The work is one of the great comic masterpieces of American literature, and “Diedrich Knickerbocker” was an original, almost mythical character. “Father Knickerbocker,” in his recognizable tricorn hat, is still New York’s official symbol. In the third and most creative phase, a mature Irving found his greatest literary expression in The Sketch Book.

His histories of Spain and the American West are marred by an unscientific approach and are filled with romantic overtones. The biographies on Goldsmith, Mahomet, and Washington that appeared when the author was in his sixties are tired efforts and are marred by sentimentality. These works from the last period of his life have not stood up well over time and are rarely read.

Irving penned most of his best work under a pseudonym, beginning with the Oldstyle pieces. He did so initially while he searched for an authentic voice, a practice that would take a lifetime. Irving always remained unsure of himself as a writer and undertook elaborate steps to disguise his own identity. A publisher once provoked Irving’s fury by appending the author’s real name under the pseudonym to a published work (A Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada by “Fray Antonio Agapida”).

Irving suffered from paralyzing bouts of melancholy during his life, usually following the death of a loved one. The depressed state would then be followed by a creative burst of energy that pushed aside the gloom. His work characteristically contained a certain morbidity and fascination with cemeteries and death that seemed inappropriate in his lighter work. Even in his delightful Sketch Book, there are some lachrymose pieces—“The Broken Heart,” “The Widow and Her Son,” and “Rural Funerals”—that underscore a subconscious preoccupation with death.

The course of Irving’s literary career was not a smooth one. Throughout his life, he endured fallow periods when he wrote absolutely nothing. The dry spell could range anywhere from five to ten years, after which he would become productive again. Overall, his six decades of interrupted writing activity produced a voluminous amount of literature.

Irving’s influence on American society during and after his lifetime was great. A complete set of his works in a private library was once considered the hallmark of an educated individual. Numerous writers, including nineteenth century Americans Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allan Poe, owe Irving a great literary debt, and his reputation, although dimmed by time, remains secure as America’s first important writer. He is especially revered for his stories of native American humor, which found its best expression in The Sketch Book, particularly in the tales of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.

First published: 1819-1820

Type of work: Short stories and essays

This disparate collection of short pieces reflects the author’s catholic tastes and includes two classic tales of American literature.

Irving’s The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. was first published in 1819 and 1820 in the United States in seven paperbound installments and then in two volumes in England. It became an immediate best seller in both countries and started a line of other “sketch books” as imitative writers sought to capitalize on its success. The Sketch Book remains Irving’s most important, influential, and popular work.

Irving became an overnight literary sensation and the first American writer to be lionized in England and Europe. The author, living in England at the time of publication, took the unusual step of publishing his work on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean because he feared that a pirated edition of his work would make its way to Britain. It was a well-founded fear, because there was no international copyright law to protect literary property, and pirating of popular material was a common practice. Irving’s stratagem, therefore, was a clever move and protected his material from unscrupulous publishers. It also established a practice that other writers would emulate.

The Sketch Book is actually a literary potpourri designed to appeal to a variety of tastes, both American and English. It is made up of some thirty pieces. Each one marks a deliberate shift in tone and mood. About half of them are based on specific observations of life in England. There are also six literary essays, four traveling reminiscences, three short stories, and two pieces on the American Indian; three pieces defy easy classification. Only four parts contain specifically American content; however, two of those four—“Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”—have become legendary.

Irving’s use of the character Geoffrey Crayon was a masterstroke. He fashioned an admirable figure by which to bring together his diverse collection of short pieces. Common themes run throughout The Sketch Book that tie the various stories together. The most prominent includes imprisonment, shipwreck, sterility, financial loss, and the function of the storyteller. The book brims with Jeffersonian idealism. Crayon is quick to point out America’s vitality and growing importance even in his English pieces. In one essay, “English Writers on America,” he condemns their temerity and suggests that England is a pygmy when compared to the United States. In the fifth part of The Sketch Book, Irving wrote a quintet on impressions of Christmas that is sometimes printed and lavishly illustrated separately as Old Christmas.

“Rip Van Winkle”

First published: 1819 (collected in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., 1819-1820)

Type of work: Short story

A henpecked village loafer wanders into the Catskill Mountains, sleeps twenty years at a single stretch, and returns to find that his familiar world has changed.

“Rip Van Winkle” is an American masterpiece of the short story. It is based on local history but is rooted in European myth and legend. Irving reportedly wrote it one night in England, in June, 1818, after having spent the whole day talking with relatives about the happy times spent in Sleepy Hollow. The author drew on his memories and experiences of the Hudson River Valley and blended them with Old World contributions.

“Rip Van Winkle” is such a well-known tale that almost every child in the United States has read it or heard it narrated at one time or another. Rip is a simple-minded soul who lives in a village by the Catskill Mountains. Beloved by the village, Rip is an easygoing, henpecked husband whose one cross to bear is a shrewish wife who nags him day and night.

One day he wanders into the mountains to go hunting, meets and drinks with English explorer Henry Hudson’s legendary crew, and falls into a deep sleep. He awakens twenty years later and returns to his village to discover that everything has changed. The disturbing news of the dislocation is offset by the discovery that his wife is dead. In time, Rip’s daughter, son, and several villagers identify him, and he is accepted by the others.

One of Irving’s major points is the tumultuous change occurring over the twenty years that the story encompasses. Rip’s little Dutch village had remained the same for generations and symbolized rural peace and prosperity. On his return, everything has drastically changed. The village has grown much larger, new houses stand in place of old ones, and a Yankee hotel occupies the spot where the old Dutch inn once stood. The people are different, too. Gone are the phlegmatic burghers, replaced by active, concerned citizens. Rip returns as an alien to a place that once considered him important; he discovers that life has passed on without his presence.

Irving makes clear that change is inevitable and that one pays a huge price by trying to evade it. He also makes it clear in “Rip Van Winkle” that certain fundamental values may be lost when people prefer change to stability and are willing to sacrifice everything for material prosperity. Rip’s return shows him to be completely disoriented by the march of time.

Irving takes pity on his comical creation, however, and does not punish him. Instead, Rip is allowed back into the new society and tolerated for his eccentricities, almost as if he were a curiosity. Rip has slept through vital political, social, and economic changes, including the Revolutionary War, and he returns ignorant but harmless. Irving’s suggestion, then, is that Rip is a perfect image of America—immature, careless, and above all, innocent—and that may be why he has become a universal figure.

The recurring theme of financial failure evident in two pieces preceding “Rip Van Winkle” is also found here, as is the concept of sterility. Rip awakens twenty years later and discovers that his gun and his faithful dog are gone. He notes the changes in the village and sees another Rip Van Winkle character there, has a sudden loss of identity when he returns, and realizes that there has occurred the birth of a new nation, with the replacement of King George by George Washington. Irving emphasizes the comic rather than the tragic, because Rip turns all the above into a positive affirmation of himself. He acquires a new identity and has a wondrous tale to tell of irresponsibility which counterpoints the stress of puritan ethics.

The tale of “Rip Van Winkle” has found expression in other artistic media. Five stage plays have been made of the story, beginning in 1829. There have been three operas, several children’s shows, and a television film by Francis Ford Coppola in 1985. Perhaps the most famous adaptation was made by noted nineteenth century American actor Joseph Jefferson III, who played the role of Rip for forty-five years in a very popular and much-beloved interpretation. Jefferson’s vehicle proved to be one of America’s most successful plays of the period. In the theater, it far surpassed in popularity Irving’s other masterpiece, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”

First published: 1819-1820 (collected in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., 1819-1820)

Type of work: Short story

A lanky, calculating schoolteacher is bested in romantic rivalry and driven away by a “demon” who preys on his deep-seated fear of the supernatural.

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” represents Irving’s second comic masterpiece, a ghostly tale about things that go bump in the night. The specter in question here is the mysterious Headless Horseman, said to be a Hessian trooper who lost his head in a nearby battle. Each night he roams the countryside in search of it. The unlikely hero in this tale is Ichabod Crane, an itinerant schoolmaster, whose name suits him perfectly: “He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together.”

Irving opens his tale with a marvelous and evocative description of the lush, charming Hudson Valley region of Sleepy Hollow near Tarry Town, the delightful and dreamy atmosphere pervading the place, and the tale of the Hessian trooper’s ghost that supposedly roams near the churchyard. He then introduces the reader to Ichabod, a poor Connecticut Yankee who is very interested in marrying the wealthy, lovely, and flirtatious Katrina Van Tassel, daughter of the richest man in the area.

Ichabod’s plan is to ingratiate himself into her life, winning her hand in marriage. He arranges to teach her psalmody and is therefore permitted to visit Katrina on a regular basis at her family’s prosperous farm. His interest in Katrina, however, is less than honorable. Ichabod wants to acquire her hereditary wealth and sell it off. His chief rival is a brawny local named Brom Bones, who loves Katrina for herself. The two men despise each other; Irving adroitly contrasts Yankee opportunism with Dutch diligence. Ichabod attends a party given by Katrina’s father one night and later, on his way home, meets the terrifying Headless Horseman (Brom Bones in disguise), who drives the superstitious victim out of Sleepy Hollow forever.

Unlike “Rip Van Winkle,” which appears among the first pieces in The Sketch Book, Irving placed “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” last and followed it in a brief piece summarizing his final thoughts on the book. It, too, is set in the Hudson Valley, but Irving’s point in this tale is markedly different. In “Rip Van Winkle” the old order gives way to the new, but the reverse is true here.

The hypocritical Yankee Ichabod is defeated by the stalwart Dutch Brom, who represents the old order. The contrast between both men could not be greater. Ichabod is a skinny, shrewd, calculating, sterile (and comic) individual, devoid of human affections, who relies on wit in his attempt to defeat his erstwhile rival. He is also a very gullible individual who believes in the supernatural, thus providing his opponent with the weapon that will destroy him. Brom, on the other hand, is a swaggering, athletic type inclined to mischievous pranks, but he does have deep romantic feelings for the beauteous Katrina. Brom is desperate to win her love, but he realizes that he cannot physically challenge his rival to a fight; hence, he devises a stratagem to prey on the schoolmaster’s fear and drive him away from Sleepy Hollow.

Although “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is as familiar a tale as “Rip Van Winkle” to generations of schoolchildren, it has not had much success on the stage because of the difficulty of staging the thrilling chase scene at the end between Ichabod and the Headless Horseman. It has, however, been turned into at least three motion pictures. In 1922 the great cowboy humorist Will Rogers starred in a silent-screen version retitled The Headless Horseman. For the second, in 1949, Walt Disney created a full-length animated feature with Bing Crosby as narrator. In 1999 Tim Burton’s version, Sleepy Hollow, made Ichabod Crane into a constable sent to investigate a number of murders attributed to the Headless Horseman. The tale was also made into a television film in 1980.

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is an endearing and charming tale full of good humor, yet it has serious social implications. It questions whether change and progress are better than stability and order. The old virtues of the settlers are more important than those of the destroyers. Irving sides with Katrina, who has rejected Ichabod’s advances, and Brom Bones, who defeats his rival by playing on the hero’s irrational fears. Irving implies that the practical man always will defeat the dreamer. With the creation of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” even if Irving had written nothing else, he would be elevated to literary greatness, because he fashioned two great American myths that perfectly symbolized American ideals and aspirations.

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