Washington Irving’s masterpiece, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., has a historical importance few American books can match. No previous American book achieved a really significant popular and critical success in England, the only arena of opinion which then mattered; but Irving demonstrated that an American could write not only well but also brilliantly even by British standards. In fact, throughout the century English as well as American schoolboys studied Irving’s book as a model of graceful prose.
Irving had achieved some popularity in his own country well before the British triumphs. In 1807-1808, Irving, his brother William, and James Kirke Paulding collaborated on the independently published periodical series, Salmagundi. Since the project was a true collaboration, scholars are in doubt as to precisely who deserves credit for precisely what, but two pieces deserve particular notice. “Sketches from Nature” sentimentally sketches two old bachelors, one of whom restores the spirits of the other by leading him through scenes reminiscent of their youth. “The Little Man in Black” is supposedly a traditional story passed through generations of a single family. Irving here introduces another old bachelor, who wanders into the village a stranger to all and sets up housekeeping in a decrepit house rumored to be haunted. First ostracized by the adults, then tormented by the local children, ultimately he dies by starvation, in his last moments forgiving all, a true but misunderstood Christian.
Both pieces display Irving’s graceful style, his prevalent sentimentality, and his wholehearted commitment to charming, pleasing, and entertaining his audience. Both feature an old bachelor stereotype which he inherited from the Addisonian tradition and continued to exploit in later works. The pieces differ in their formal focus, however, and aptly illustrate the two poles of Irving’s fictional nature. The second shows his fondness for the tale tradition: He cites a source in family folklore; the narrative hangs on striking incident; and he flavors the atmosphere with a suggestion of the supernatural. The first features virtues of the periodical essay: evocation of character divorced from dramatic incident; a style dominated by smoothness (Edgar Allan Poe’s term was “repose”) and by descriptions strong on concrete detail; and an essentially realistic atmosphere. Irving’s unique genius led him to combine the best of both traditions in his finest fiction and thereby to create the modern short story in America.
Irving’s early career coincided with the rise of Romanticism, and the movement strongly influenced his greatest book, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Here he capitalized on the element which strongly marks his most successful stories: imagination. Consistently, Irving’s most successful characters, and stories, are those which most successfully exploit the imagination.
“The Spectre Bridegroom”
In “The Spectre Bridegroom,” the title character triumphs not through strength, physical skills, or intelligence, but rather through manipulating the imaginations of those who would oppose his aims. The story’s first section humorously describes a bellicose old widower, the Baron Von Landshort, who has gathered a vast audience, consisting mostly of poor relatives properly cognizant of his high status, to celebrate his only daughter’s marriage to a young count whom none of them has ever seen. In the story’s second part, the reader learns that as the count and his friend Herman Von Starkenfaust journey to the castle, they are beset by bandits; the outlaws mortally wound the count who, with his last breath, begs Von Starkenfaust to relay his excuses to the wedding party. The story’s third part returns to the castle where the long-delayed wedding party finally welcomes a pale, melancholy young man. The silent stranger hears the garrulous Baron speak on, among other matters, his family’s longstanding feud with the Von Starkenfaust family; meanwhile the young man wins the daughter’s heart. He shortly leaves, declaring he must be buried at the cathedral. The next night the daughter’s two guardian aunts tell ghost stories until they are terrified by spying the Spectre Bridegroom outside the window; the daughter sleeps apart from her aunts for three nights, encouraging their fears the while, and finally absconds. When she returns with her husband, Von Starkenfaust, who had pretended to be the Spectre, they both are reconciled with the Baron and live happily ever after.
By becoming in one sense artists themselves, Herman and his bride both manipulate the imaginations of the Baron, the aunts, and the entire wedding party to make their courtship and elopement possible; here, happily, the dupees lose nothing and share the ultimate happiness of the dupers. There are at least three dimensions to “The Spectre Bridegroom”: As it is read, one can imaginatively identify with the duped family and believe the Spectre genuine, or alternately identify with the young couple...
(The entire section is 2086 words.)