Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5102
SOURCE: Introduction to Salmagundi; or, The Whim-whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq., and Others …, L. M. Richardson, 1811, pp. v-liv.
[In the following essay, Lambert explains the nature of the essays in Salmagundi and the particular qualities of American culture.]
So little is really known of the United States of America, on this side of the Atlantic, that it is not a matter of much surprise to find the most absurd and ridiculous prejudices existing with regard to every thing belonging to that country. The unfortunate revolution, which terminated in the emancipation of our colonies, is certainly the ostensible cause of the jealousy which exists between the two nations; and, of the two, I think our prejudices against the Americans are stronger than their animosity towards us.—I believe it is more difficult for a parent to pardon the undutiful behaviour of a child than for a child to forget the ill-treatment of a parent. The same reasoning may, perhaps, apply to nations as well as to individuals; for the conduct of men, in their public capacity, is guided very often by the same feelings and passions as influence them in private life.
From what source, however, such antipathy may flow, it is, at all events, to be regretted, for it not only tends to prevent that friendship and cordiality which ought ever to exist between England and America, but will, if not timely checked, burst into a flame that may hereafter be difficult to quench. I do not here mean to cast any reflection on our government, who, it must be confessed, have exhibited, in repeated instances, a considerable degree of conciliation and forbearance. The Americans themselves are, in many respects, equally culpable; for, by their open encouragement of European traitors and emissaries, they have occasioned much of that rancour which has contributed both to retard the settlement of the differences between the two nations and to sow discord and enmity among themselves.
The animosity, however, of the Americans is chiefly of a political nature, whereas our prejudices extend to every thing American, whether it be the politics of the democrats, the manners of the people, or the ladies' teeth!—it is thus the Americans have the advantage of us. They are intemperate in politics, but their intemperance extends no farther; they are noisy and blustering, like ourselves, in their complaints of other nations; they are jealous of all encroachments on their liberties, and tenacious of their political opinions even to a fault.—But view them in private life; in their hours of relaxation; in the circle of friendship; and it will be found that they do not deserve the opprobrium that has been cast on their character. …
In introducing to the patronage of the British public a literary production of the United States, it is my first care to remove those prejudices which exist in the minds of too many of my countrymen against every thing of American origin; many, I dare say, already begin to prick up their ears at the very name of American literature, and, perhaps, suspect that I have an intention of palming upon them, for American genius, the sterling wit of some English author, driven to that country by his grinding creditors. Now, though I will not undertake to deny that many a poor author may really have made his escape to that land of freedom, yet I positively assure my gentle, as well as genteel, readers, that the Salmagundi is, bona fide, a dish of real American cookery; and, if they will only allow me first to disperse those little acrimonious crudities that prevent digestion, I will present them with such an excellent ragout of wit, humour, and genius, that they may feast on for ever without the least apprehension of a surfeit. A Salmagundi is, indeed, a dish that may at first alarm some of delicate appetites, especially those who have no great partiality to the country in which it was cooked; but if they can only be prevailed on to taste it, I promise them it will act like the stimulating curry of India, without which the poor half-stewed nabob would die for want of an appetite! But, metaphor apart, I am confident that, if these essays are favoured with an attentive perusal, and the mind of the reader divested of the prejudices in favour of our own eminent writers in that department, they will not only find considerable amusement and instruction, but also be convinced that the contempt in which American literature is generally held in this country is both unjust and groundless. As it is my intention, in this introductory essay, to notice the most striking passages and characters in the Salmagundi, I shall, in order to prepare the reader for such observations, preface them with a hasty review of the origin of the American union, and of the present state of the manners, customs, and dispositions, of the people in that country. This will, I hope, serve both to elucidate a considerable portion of the work in question, and to remove many of those false impressions which now prejudice the minds of Englishmen; if I am instrumental, even in the smallest degree, to the removal of one such impression, I shall feel myself amply compensated for any feeble aid which I may have lent towards the attainment of so desirable an object. …
The distinguishing feature of the Salmagundian Essays is humourous satire, which runs through the whole work like veins of rich ore in the bowels of the earth. These essays partake more of the broad humour and satirical wit of Rabelais and Swift than the refined morality of Addison and Johnson; their chief aim is to raise a laugh at the expense of folly and absurdity, and to lash the vices of society with the rod of satire:—they do not pretend to improve mankind by a code of ethics and morals, and, therefore, should not be tried by the same critical laws as the British Essays. The American Salmagundi bears much the same relation to the Spectator and Rambler as Roderic Random does to Sir Charles Grandison and Pamela.—The authors, however, have, in several instances, proved that they can speak to the heart as well as the mind; it is only to be regretted that they have not oftener written in a style that seems by no means a stranger to their pen, and which might have contributed to give their work a more classical and instructive tone than it at present bears; nevertheless, it possesses a rich fund of information for those who are desirous of becoming acquainted with the manners of the American people; for, though it naturally partakes of caricature, yet the features of society are rather heightened than distorted. A very favourable trait in the character of this work, and of which few humourous productions can boast, is the chastity of idea as well as diction which pervades the whole. Though wit, humour, and satire, are its principal ingredients, yet the thoughts and language are clothed in the most chaste and modest habiliments. It is also as free from dulness, pedantry, and affectation, as it is from indecency and immorality; and the best proof of the good sense and abilities of its authors is, that they have avoided that quaint and ridiculous phraseology, so common among the generality of writers in their country. The Salmagundi has afforded much entertainment to the Americans, who have bestowed on it the utmost applause; and, as the whole of the Essays abound in applications to the manners, customs, and constitution, of England, it will therefore, I think, be read with almost as much interest by us as if it had been written expressly for this country. The characters are, for the most part, “representatives of their species,” and apply equally to an Englishman as an American. It is thus that they become interesting to us in a double capacity;—First, in their general application to society at large, and, secondly, in the picture they present of American manners, hitherto so imperfectly known on this side of the Atlantic.
From an observation in No. 1, on the character of Anthony Evergreen, it appears that the hours for meals must have undergone as great a change in America as in Europe. “When the ladies paid tea visits at three in the afternoon”—they must have dined at eleven or twelve, breakfasted at six, and rose at four or five. It was then that that glorious luminary, the sun, was more honoured than the tallow-chandler: Now, the reverse is the case; and the votaries of pleasure and dissipation seem to dread the light of day, with as much horror as they dread the examination of their own hearts. How little we estimate the benefits we possess, and covet those beyond our reach, is strikingly exemplified in our disregard of one of the greatest enjoyments of this life,—day-light. …
Our dramatic authors and performers will, no doubt, agree with Launcelot Langstaff, that the critics, who so often unmercifully castigate their labours, “frequently create the fault they find, in order to yield an opening for their criticisms, and censure an actor for a gesture he never made, or an emphasis he never gave.”—From the ire of Launcelot, against “neighbour Town,” it would appear that New York can boast of as sound newspaper critics on the drama as London. As theatrical performances on the other side of the Atlantic are but of modern date, the Americans of course are acquainted only by name with the old English practice of pit-criticism, in vogue a century ago, consequently they cannot estimate the loss we have sustained, and the miserable exchange we have made from that open and manly decision on dramatic merits, to the anonymous criticism of concealed friends or foes. …
When we complain that the taste of the age, for dramatic spectacles, is vitiated and depraved, we may, in a great measure, attribute it to the change which has taken place in the mode of criticism, by which bad comedies, miserable farces, and despicable pantomimes, are puffed up, much oftener than good plays are written down. We are, now-a-days, so attentive to costume and propriety, that the more important parts of the drama are neglected; and the attention of the people diverted from the instructive lessons and delightful sentiments elicited in the many admirable dramatic pieces, of which our country can boast, to the gaudy display of pantomimical pageantry, and the exhibition of real dogs and horses. If former times were marked by errors in theatrical costume, they were, however, distinguished by a greater attention to the real worth and intrinsic merits of the drama. The sight of the critic in the pit was sufficient to check the least impropriety in the actor, and to rouse him to all the exertion of which he was master. The performer, a century ago, had the dread before him of having his talents investigated at “Button's,” and other coffee-houses, by the first wits of the age;—and, if he regarded his credit, he always took care how he passed through such an ordeal.
The observation of Will Wizard, that because he had “never seen Kemble in Macbeth, he was utterly at a loss to say whether Mr. Cooper performed well or ill,” is an excellent piece of satire on those critics, whose only criterion of judgement is comparison; and who, being completely at a loss what to say respecting an actor's powers, are compelled to drag forward another, in order to measure the talents or defects of the one by the other. The suggestion that, if Lady Macbeth had stuck the candle in her night-cap, it would have had a greater effect than the setting it down on the table, or holding it in her hand, (as censured by other critics,) inasmuch as it would have marked more strongly the derangement of her mind, is highly ludicrous, as well as severe on those who are so apt to carp at trifles. So likewise are the observations on errors of costume, and not dipping the daggers so deep in blood by an inch or two, as formerly. The new reading of “Sorry Sight,” is no bad hint to the commentators on Shakespeare, and not inapplicable to Mr. Kemble's “Aitches.”
Frequent mention is made in these Essays of the word Cockney. This phrase is not meant merely for a Londoner, but is intended to designate those consequential gentlemen from England, who cross the Atlantic on the strength of a consignment from Birmingham or Liverpool. These gentry are too apt to estimate the genius of the Americans by the standard of their own intellects, and flatter themselves how much they will “astonish the natives” on their arrival. Disappointed, however, at not attracting that notice, and causing that degree of astonishment which they fondly expected, they speak with contempt of every thing that is American. The men are brutes;—the women have bad teeth;—the towns are paltry;—the plays are wretched;—the performers miserable;—in short, there is nothing in America as there is in England: and comparisons are hourly drawn between things which bear not the slightest resemblance to each other. Thus it is that the vender of hardware, and broad cloth becomes a critic out of mere spite: He dashes away while his consignment lasts, (too often indeed at the cost of his employers;) and, though he may fail to attract the notice of the natives by his merits, he generally contrives to appropriate to himself a tolerable share of their contempt. A most admirable portrait of a Birmingham hero is given in these Essays in the character of Tom Straddle: It abounds with comic touches, and displays a wit and humour, that would do honour to the productions of any of our essayists.
The allusions to the French people, in various passages of the Salmagundian Essays, prove that the writers entertained no very favourable opinion of those who have settled in the United States; and that they thought a little wholesome castigation from their pens might be of service to them. The numerous bands of Frenchmen, who have flocked to that country since the French revolution, have, by no means, tended to the improvement of American manners or morals, or the removal of any of those prejudices which existed between England and America; on the contrary, both domestic dissipation and foreign rancour have considerably increased. The lightness and frivolity of the French character is neatly touched off in several of the Essays; and the deleterious influence of their example on the grave disposition of the Americans successfully exposed. They have inundated America, as they have this country, and may well be said to “hop about the town in swarms, like little toads after a shower.” It would have been happy for both parties, had their conduct been as exemplary as the reception they met with was liberal; but many are the melancholy instances to the contrary, both in the privacy of domestic retirement as well as in the public walk of politics. They have debauched the wives and daughters of their benefactors,—corrupted the manners of society,—and sowed dissention and rebellion throughout the country. Even their own countryman, the Duke de Rochefoucault Liancourt, in his travels through the United States, can find no excuse for them; and, unreservedly, consigns them to the merited execrations of the Americans. It would, however, be uncharitable to include all Frenchmen in this accusation; it is the dregs of the revolution only who have acted in this manner. There are many who have deserved the hospitality they met with; yet, I fear their number is not equal to those who have abused it.
In contrast to this feeling, with regard to the French, it must afford Englishmen much satisfaction to find the sentiments of a great portion of the American people highly favourable towards them, from a variety of causes. In various parts of these Essays, these favourable sentiments are repeatedly displayed,—particularly in the character of Christopher Cockloft—and the rest of his family. Their antipathy to the French,—partiality to every thing English,—Christopher's voyage to Halifax, to hear our king prayed for in church as he was before the revolution,—giving a dinner on the king's birth-day,—and a variety of other traits, which, though they may be nothing more than the eccentric features of a fictitious character, are, I think, intended as delineations of real traits existing among a considerable portion of the people. Several instances are also mentioned in these Essays of the attention and partiality displayed towards our countrymen arriving in the United States: even an insignificant fellow is represented as having worked himself into the good graces of the citizens, merely because he was an Englishman. The claim of consanguinity as well as individual interest is, no doubt, a strong motive of their attachment to Great Britain, which they often denominate home, especially those who once lived under the British government, and whose sentiments have been but little changed since the revolution. Others who were children when that event took place, have imbibed from their cradle, as it were, the true republican spirit. Hence though they may prefer British to French interests, are yet tenacious of their independence almost to a fault, and equally jealous of British usurpation as of French intrigue. As to those who are styled Democrats, Jacobins, and Tories, I look upon the violent among them more as a mixture of factious Europeans than real Americans. They have unfortunately from the nature of the government too much influence in political matters; but I think it extremely unfair to judge of the character of the Americans by the scum of the country.
The writers of Salmagundi have happily enough availed themselves of the opportunity which the Tripolitan prisoners gave them, to introduce a very humourous character into their work. Mustapha Rub-a-dub Keli Khan is one of the most diverting personages in the whole groupe; and his opinion of the Americans, formed on the prejudices of his own nation, open an extensive field for satire. This character has also the merit of being well supported, for he seldom exceeds the bounds of his supposed knowledge of American manners; and, where he has occasion to go farther, the information is generally conveyed to him through the medium of some acquaintance or bystander, by which means he is not a mere American observer, tricked out in a shawl and turban. He really possesses as much the semblance of a Mahomedan as it is possible for fiction to give. The Citizen of the World is more of an Englishman in a Chinese dress than Mustapha an American in masquerade. When a foreign character is brought forward for our amusement, he ought to reason as well as speak agreeable to his own ideas, formed on the manners, customs, and prejudices, of his nation; unless indeed we are to consider him as gifted with a cosmopolitan spirit, and general knowledge of the world,—a foundation on which Goldsmith most likely formed his Chinese Letters. …
A considerable portion of Salmagundi is appropriated to the exposure and ridicule of certain travellers who have visited the United States; and whose illiberal aspersions and ridiculous prejudices have drawn upon them the censure of every candid and impartial person. Nor have others, who never crossed the Atlantic, altogether escaped the satirical lash of these witty writers, as the names of Carr and Kotzebue evidently prove. That the Irish knight should be so unfortunate as to excite the ridicule of the Americans as well as his own countrymen is rather singular; and if it had not been satisfactorily proved to the contrary, I should have condemned the “Stranger in New Jersey,” as a plagiarism on “My Pocket Book!” That this was also the opinion of those American critics who endeavoured to write down the Salmagundi may be seen from the note attached to No. 13. From that declaration it however appears, that the “Stranger in New Jersey” is an original production, and made its appearance in these Essays at New York one month before “My Pocket Book” was published in London. This circumstance is peculiarly unfortunate for the knight's literary reputation, as it tends to confirm the opinion which the author of “My Pocket Book” had formed of his “Stranger in Ireland.” He has also unluckily the double misfortune of suffering under American and English satire, as it were, of one accord, without the possibility of any previous understanding between the writers to that effect. Weld, Moore, Parkinson, and Priest, who have been particularly severe in their strictures on the American character, also come in for their share of the rod.—Indeed they merit it much more than poor Sir John, who was hardly a fair object of correction: but it might perhaps be done with a view to prevent his visiting the country, though from the general style of his writings I should conceive they would have found him perfectly harmless.
The Essay on Style may put in its claim for as large a portion of merit as any one in the whole work. The portrait which is there drawn of the manners of fashionable upstarts is an admirable picture from life, not only as it exists in New York, but also in London. How many families of “Giblets” have we seen in this metropolis, whose sudden elevation from the counter to the chariot has astonished the vulgar and alarmed the great. Never was style, as it is understood in fashionable language, better defined, nor its ridiculous absurdities better pourtrayed, than in that Essay. The humourous contrast of style as it is found in different countries, and the innovations which it occasions in domestic families, are agreeably depicted. But the preposterous whim of Bellbrazen, the Haytian beauty, and the sudden elevation of the Giblets, from the manners of their grub-worm father to the dashing career of fashionable folly, are most happily hit off, and display a rich fund of satirical wit and humour. Who is there that will not immediately recognize in the following passage the manners of our vulgar fashionables, and of those ci-devant citizens, who in their migration from Pudding-lane to Portman-square, have bewildered themselves with style?—
Then commenced the hurry and bustle and mighty nothingness of fashionable life;—such rattling in coaches! such flaunting in the streets! such slamming of box-doors at the theatre! such a tempest of bustle and unmeaning noise wherever they appeared! the Giblets were seen here, there, and every where;—they visited every body they knew, and every body they did not know; and there was no getting along for the Giblets. Their plan at length succeeded: by dint of dinners, of feeding and frolicking the town, the Giblet family worked themselves into notice, and enjoyed the ineffable pleasure of being for ever pestered by visitors, who cared nothing about them; of being squeezed, and smothered, and par-boiled, at nightly balls and evening tea-parties. They were allowed the privilege of forgetting the few old friends they once possessed; they turned their noses up in the wind at every thing that was not genteel; and their superb manners and sublime affectation at length left it no longer a matter of doubt that the Giblets were perfectly in style.
Another admirable picture from life is presented to us in the character of “My good aunt Charity,”—a simple, curious, old maid, who unfortunately “died of a Frenchman!” This portrait is drawn with all that warmth of colouring which heightens without disfiguring the features; and though highly ludicrous, is yet a true delineation of human nature. Hogarth never painted with more animation and satirical truth than the authors of Salmagundi have written. Many an antiquated old maid, and many a female gossip, may contemplate the several features of their dispositions in that mirror of formality and curiosity. The buckram delicacy of “My aunt” in the hey-dey of youth,—and the religious turn she took when that period was past, are highly humorous; the latter is also an excellent satire on those who in their old age make up at “love-feasts” for the disappointments they have sustained in real love. The other peculiarities of aunt Charity's character are equally appropriate; and even that one, viz. curiosity, which unluckily caused her “to die of a Frenchman” was an innocent foible with her. It would be happy for society were it always so with others; but the invincible desire which some females at a certain age,—married as well as single,—widows as well as old maids,—have of knowing every body's character,—business,—and mode of living, and looking after every one's affairs but their own, is too frequently the offspring of pride, envy, and jealousy. There cannot be a more dangerous character in a small society than the envious gossip, who makes it her business to “get at the bottom of a thing,” be it good or bad.—Under the specious mask of friendship and kindness a woman of this description will work herself into the favour of her unsuspecting acquaintance, and, when possessed of the information she sought for, will never fail to sow discord among them;—like poor aunt Charity, but with less innocent motives, “she will not sleep a wink all night” for fear another Mrs. Sipkins should get the start of her in the morning, and tell her story first. This endeavour “to give currency to the good-natured things said about every body” is not the only peculiarity of the envious gossip, for, so anxious does she pretend to be for the truth of what she asserts (as is the case with all notorious liars), that, if her word is doubted, her neighbours must be brought face to face; away, then, she hobbles from house to house, and never closes her eyes until she has set her little community together by the ears.
Women of this description are the pests of small towns and villages, and will, over their tea and cards, consign more reputations to infamy than even their tongues can repeat; for a shrug and a sneer are, if possible, more dangerous. By such arts married people have been made miserable, and friends and acquaintance been rendered implacable enemies. But what makes a character of this description the more detestable is, that every thing is done out of pure loving kindness; for instance, she shall be so mightily afraid lest you, or any of your family, should be contaminated, by acquainting with such and such a character, that she immediately discharges her whole budget of lies, scandal, and malignity, to the utter annihilation, perhaps, of the reputation of some worthy family or innocent girl; this is what she terms friendly advice, and a proof of the interest she takes in your welfare! Such is the true character of an envious gossip, whose impertinent interference in her neighbours' affairs, while it destroys their happiness, does but render herself miserable, and, sooner or later, makes her the object of universal hatred and disgust:—“Take warning, therefore, my fair country-women, and you, oh, ye excellent ladies! whether married or single, who pry into other people's affairs, and neglect those of your own household, who are so busily employed in observing the faults of others that you have no time to correct your own, remember the fate of my dear aunt Charity, and eschew the evil spirit of curiosity.”
A considerable part of these essays are appropriated to the fair sex, and a tolerable portion of satirical correction and wholesome advice dealt out to them; their injurious experiments of tight-lacing, to render themselves fine figures, are frequently noticed, and some humourous animadversions passed thereon, which cannot, I should think, be unpalatable to them, even if they are not inclined to alter their proceedings. It is a pity that the American ladies, who are by nature elegantly made, should resort to experiments which injure their constitutions and put them in torture. The practice of tight-lacing, the eating of pickles and chalk, and the smoaking of tobacco, are, I believe, no strangers to European females; but, whatever necessity the daughter of a Dutch burgomaster, or English farmer, might have for such arts to reduce their size, I do not think those who are naturally slim have any occasion to adopt them. …
Another subject of animadversion, on which the writers of Salmagundi have dwelt in some of their essays, is the folly of what is called style, and the present fashionable mode of “murdering time.” Modern life is admirably displayed in the essay on style, and in some of the passages of Mustapha's letter on the assembly. After contemplating such scenes of folly, bustle, and dissipation, one cannot help being struck with the insensibility of the people who live in the vortex of fashionable life, and who pursue their career of daring extravagance and vapid nothingness to the very grave, without resting on their journey for one moment to contemplate the awfulness of their situation.—The old and the young are alike engaged in the same senseless routine of folly and absurdity. What man of sense, wishing to marry, would chuse a woman whose days and nights are engrossed with the preparations for, and participations in, continual routs, balls, and card-parties? What satisfaction can be derived from a woman thus educated? Surely such an incessant exposure of female youth and beauty to the gaiety and dissipation of public parties must be as detrimental to the morals as to the health. …
The observations which I have made in the course of these essays have arisen out of the various subjects contained therein, and if I have not done my authors all the justice they merit, it is because they have not had an editor of equal talent with themselves. I cannot do better than conclude this Introductory Essay in their own language, and hope my fair countrywomen will be as ready to comply with their request as the American ladies were:—“We recommend to all mothers to purchase our essays for their daughters, who will be taught the true line of propriety, and the most adviseable method of managing their beaux. We advise all daughters to purchase them for the sake of their mothers, who shall be initiated into the arcana of the bon ton, and cured of all those rusty old notions which they acquired during the last century.—Parents shall be taught how to govern their children; girls how to get husbands; and old maids how to do without them.”
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1976
Washington Irving 1783–-1859
(Also wrote under the pseudonyms of Geoffrey Crayon, Diedrich Knickerbocker, Jonathan Oldstyle, and Launcelot Langstaff) American short story writer, essayist, historian, biographer, journalist, and editor.
Irving is considered both the first American man of letters and the creator of the American short story. Though best known for such tales of rural Americana as “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Irving later became a prolific and accomplished biographer as well as a distinguished statesman.
Born in New York in 1783, Irving was the youngest of eleven children. Though he studied the law and eventually worked at a law office, his legal studies were halfhearted; he much preferred writing for his brother Peter's journal, The Morning Chronicle. In 1802 Irving wrote a series of letters to the Chronicle under the pseudonym of Jonathan Oldstyle. These letters gently mocked New York society and brought Irving his first recognition as a writer. Failing health forced him to seek a change of climate, and he traveled to Europe. In 1806 he returned home and was admitted to the bar; however, his legal interest waned. Irving, his brother William, and brother-in-law James Kirke Paulding, along with some other friends, were known as the “Nine Worthies of Cockloft Hall,” named after their favorite place for “conscientious drinking and good fun.” They collaborated on the satirical journal Salmagundi; or, The Whim-whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq., and Others (1807-1808), which included many essays by Irving that reflected his Federalist political attitudes and social stance. The venture proved unprofitable, however, and the young men were forced to abandon the publication. In 1809 Irving enjoyed a second literary success with the publication and favorable reception of the satirical A History of New York, from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty. His success, however, was overshadowed by the death of his fiancee, Matilda Hoffman, in 1809. Grief consumed Irving and his works were never again to be light-spirited. In an effort to forget his sorrow, Irving entered a period of fervid activity. He acted as his brother's law partner, helped in the family hardware business, and edited a magazine, the Analectic. Irving eventually returned to England and worked in the Liverpool branch of his family's import-export firm for three years until it went bankrupt. After years of wavering indecisively between a legal, editorial, and mercantile career, he finally decided to make writing his livelihood. He began recording impressions, thoughts, and descriptions in a small notebook. These, polished and repolished in Irving's meticulous manner, eventually became The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-20). Irving's most enduring work, the collection ensured his reputation as a man of letters. Its timing proved opportune, as no one had yet produced a universally appealing piece of American literature. In 1826 Irving traveled as a member of the American diplomatic corps to Spain, where he wrote A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828). A subsequent tour of Spain produced A Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada (1829) and The Alhambra (1832). During the 1830s, Irving returned to America, taking part in a tour of the Oklahoma territory. His travels in the West were fodder for several of his subsequent books, including The Crayon Miscellany (1835), A Tour on the Prairies (1835), Astoria, or Anecdotes of an Enterprise Beyond the Rocky Mountains (1836), and The Adventures of Captain Bonneville (1837). In 1842 Irving became minister to Spain. Though he enjoyed his role as a diplomat, he returned to the United States to further his career as a biographical writer. His biography of Oliver Goldsmith is considered a particularly fine example of Irving's concise, balanced style. His last years were spent at work on a biography of George Washington; though overly elaborate and lacking his former naturalness of tone, the work expresses Irving's belief in a glorious American past. Irving's funeral was attended by thousands of admirers who mourned the death of an author they loved.
Irving's initial forays into writing were essays that satirized the political, social, and cultural life of his native New York City. A number of these were published in the short-lived journal Salmagundi. Irving continued in this satirical vein with his first book, A History of New York. Narrated by the fictional Diedrich Knickerbocker, a fusty, colorful Dutch-American, the work provided a comical, deliberately inaccurate account of New York's past. Considered his most consistently optimistic work, Irving was able to expound on native themes with affection and candor; indeed, the name “Knickerbocker” has become synonymous with a period of early American culture. The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., Irving's subsequent effort, is considered a landmark work in American fiction. The book not only introduced the modern short story form in the United States but was also the first work by an American author to gain recognition abroad. Noted chiefly today for the stories “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” the collection was widely popular in both England and the United States. Purportedly the work of Geoffrey Crayon, a genteel, good-natured American wandering through Britain on his first trip abroad, The Sketch Book consists largely of his travel impressions. These sketches are picturesque, elegant, and lightly humorous in the tradition of the eighteenth-century essayists Richard Addison and Oliver Goldsmith, Irving's literary models. The most enduring pieces, however, are those in which Irving wove elements of legend, folklore, and drama into narratives of the New World. “Rip Van Winkle,” the story of a lackadaisical Dutch-American who slumbers for twenty years, and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” which recounts Ichabod Crane's meeting with a headless horseman, have long been considered classics. Critics generally agree that these were the models for the modern American short story and that both tales introduced imagery and archetypes that enriched the national literature. Irving's later career is marked by his shift towards biography writing. While traveling through Europe in the 1820s, Irving was asked to translate some documents on Christopher Columbus. Instead, Irving decided to write a biography on the man central to the American identity. Critics praised A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus as one of the greatest biographies ever written; the book earned Irving distinction both as a scholar and as a biographer. Irving employed his skills as a researcher again in his biographies on Oliver Goldsmith and George Washington. In addition, Irving's keen interest in the American character and identity led him to write several books about the American West. In his works A Tour on the Prairies, Astoria, and Captain Bonneville, Irving recounted the adventurous and sometimes brutal life of the frontiersman. He is credited with realistically portraying the pioneers' cruel treatment of Native Americans. However, he championed American enterprise and the courage of American men forging a future for the country.
Contemporaneous reviews illustrate the level of approval Irving won in the nineteenth century. While many of these reviewers were aware of deficiencies in Irving's work, their praise is generally overwhelming. Not all subsequent critics have been so enthusiastic; critical reception of the author's work has been mixed over the past two centuries. However, most modern critics classify Irving as one of the greatest American writers, responsible for establishing an American style of writing, especially in the short story genre. He is well respected as a biographer and as a chronicler of American culture. His short stories “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle” are considered American masterpieces, their legacy so great that they have been infused into popular culture.
A handful of issues have dominated modern literary scholarship on Irving: questions about the author's views on gender, the relationship between his personal identity and the burgeoning national identity, and the fluctuations in the quality of his writing. One of the biggest debates to rage in Irving scholarship is over the issue of anti-feminism in his writing. In her 1997 essay, Marjorie Pryse explains the historical context for Irving's writing. She states that the United States underwent an identity crisis in the early 19th century, attempting to establish its own culture in the years following national independence. The need to maintain patriarchal power and concerns over the role of women in the new society were paramount. Against that backdrop, Pryse argues, Irving wrote stories that restored men's power. Jenifer S. Banks concurs, stating that The Sketch Book and Bracebridge Hall (1822) reflect Irving's personal conflict between responsibility, as represented by women characters such as Dame Van Winkle, and independence, which is reified in men like Rip Van Winkle. Banks posits that the tension is best seen in Irving's short stories “The Widow and Her Son” and “The Wife.” Laura Plummer and Michael Nelson argue that, while gender ideology has been studied in “Rip Van Winkle,” little attention has been focused upon “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” They state that the story “reveals Irving's characteristic misogyny and the male fear of disempowerment played out again and again throughout the tale.” Hugh J. Dawson disagrees; he argues that 19th century popular interpretations of “Rip Van Winkle” have confused and misled scholars into categorizing the tale anti-feminist. Redressing arguments made by critics Philip Young, Judith Fetterley, and Leslie A. Fiedler, Dawson writes that the story is a gothic tale which reaffirms the importance of marriage over the dark, destructive power of the forest in which Rip Van Winkle grows old.
Interwoven within these debates about gender ideology are the prevailing theories of the importance of national identity in Irving's writings. Pryse discusses Irving's need to establish an American hero, separate and unique from those in British literature. Walter Sondey contends that Irving was the first American writer to recognize the potential of American literature to form the identity of Americans. Brian Harding maintains that the connection between Irving's writings and his views on national identity are not so straightforward. Discussing the author's journey to the West, Harding states that while Irving did not attempt to repatriate himself with Americans after a long absence in Europe, A Tour on the Prairies is written in a European style, using stereotypes and foreign analogies. In his analysis of Astoria and Captain Bonneville, Harding posits that they demonstrate Irving's reservations about the American system as much as they celebrate the industry and skills of American frontiersmen. Laura J. Murray is skeptical of predominant arguments about American literary history; she questions the arguments of such critics as Jeffrey Rubin Dorsky, a noted Irving scholar, about the link between Irving's anxiety as a writer and the formation of a national character. In her analysis of The Sketch Book she dismisses the concept of anxiety, stating that Irving fashioned a book that would appeal both to the English with its exotic portrayals of “savages” and to Americans with reassuring depictions of England.
A third strain of arguments questions the overall quality of Irving's corpus. While most scholars agree that Irving was an exceptional writer, not all agree that all his works deserve praise. Alice Hiller states that while Irving's first works were promising, his conscious decision to appeal to the British in his writing of The Sketch Book lowered his quality in subsequent works. She maintains that, while he did reestablish himself with American writers with the publication of A Tour on the Prairies, he did not live up to the potential obvious in his first American works. Writing more than one hundred years earlier, critic Alexander Hill Everett concedes that Irving's work suffers from irregular language and concurs that in The Sketch Book Irving lost some of the “vivacity, freshness and power” that characterized his earlier works. However, Hill maintains that Irving was a master at history, praising A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus as one of the greatest works of literature. The anonymous reviewer for the Ladies' Repository in 1848 echoes Hill, praising Irving's skill as an observer and researcher.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8875
SOURCE: Review of Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, in North American Review, Vol. 28, January, 1829, pp. 103-34.
[In the following review, Everett compares A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus to Irving's earlier works, describing his skill as a writer of humor, satire, and history.]
This is one of those works, which are at the same time the delight of readers and the despair of critics. It is as nearly perfect in its kind, as any work well can be; and there is therefore little or nothing left for the reviewer, but to write at the bottom of every page, as Voltaire said he should be obliged to do, if he published a commentary on Racine, Pulchrè! bene! optimè! And as the reputation of the author is so well established, that he does not stand in need of our recommendation as a passport to the public favor, it may appear, and in fact is, almost superfluous to pretend to give a formal review of his book. Nevertheless, we cannot refuse ourselves the satisfaction of adding the mite of our poor applause to the ample and well deserved harvest of fame, that has already rewarded the labors of our ingenious, excellent, and amiable fellow citizen; nor would it, as we conceive, be proper to omit noticing in this journal a work, however well known to the public, which we consider as being, on the whole, more honorable to the literature of the country, than any one that has hitherto appeared among us. Before we proceed to give our opinion in detail of the History of the Life and Voyages of Columbus we shall offer a few remarks on the character and merit of Mr. Irving's other works, premising that we write under the influence of the feelings that naturally result from a good deal of friendly personal intercourse with this gentleman. If any reader shall suspect, that we judge Mr. Irving too favorably because we know him too well, he is quite at liberty to make any deductions from the sum total of our commendation, that he may on this account deem in candor to be necessary.
Mr. Irving shares, in some degree, the merit and the glory that belong to the illustrious hero of his present work, that of leading the way in a previously unexplored and untrodden path of intellectual labor. He is the first writer of purely Cisatlantic origin and education, who succeeded in establishing a high and undisputed reputation, founded entirely on literary talent and success. This was the opinion expressed by a very judicious and discerning writer in the Edinburgh Review, upon the first publication of the Sketch Book; and it is, as we conceive, a substantially correct one. In saying this, we are perfectly aware that there have been found among us, at every period during the two centuries of our history, individuals highly distinguished, both at home and abroad, by important and useful labors in various branches of art and science. We mean not to detract, in the least, from their well-earned fame, which we cherish, on the contrary, as the richest treasure that belongs to their posterity, and would do everything in our power to establish and enlarge. We say not that Mr. Irving is the first or the greatest man that ever handled a pen in the United States. …
In the rapid progress of our population, wealth, and literary advantages, the period arrived, when the calls of business no longer absorbed all the cultivated intellect existing in the country; when, after these were fully satisfied, there remained a portion of taste, zeal, and talent to be employed in purely literary and scientific pursuits; when the public mind was prepared to acknowledge and appreciate any really superior merit, that might present itself, in those departments; when in fact the nation, having been somewhat galled by the continual sneers of a set of heartless and senseless foreigners upon our want of literary talent, was rather anxious to possess some positive facts, which could be offered as evidence to the contrary, and was prepared of course to hail the appearance of a writer of undoubted talent, with a kind of patriotic enthusiasm; when finally, for all these reasons, the first example of success, that should be given in this way, would naturally be followed by an extensive development of the same sort of activity, throughout the country, in the persons of a host of literary aspirants, sometimes directly imitating their prototype, and always inspired and encouraged by his good fortune, who would make up together the front rank of what is commonly called a school of polite literature. To set this example was the brilliant part reserved, in the course of our literary history, for Mr. Washington Irving. His universal popularity among readers of all classes, on both sides of the Atlantic, resting exclusively on the purely literary merit of his productions, wholly independent of extraneous or interested motives, attested by repeated successes, in various forms of composition, and stamped by the concurrence and approbation of the most acute, judicious, and unsparing critics, justifies, beyond a shadow of doubt, his pretension to be viewed as the valorous knight, who was called, in the order of destiny, to break the spell, which appeared, at least to our good natured European brethren, to be thrown over us in this respect; to achieve the great and hitherto unaccomplished adventure of establishing a purely American literary reputation of the first order; and demonstrate the capacity of his countrymen to excel in the elegant, as they had before done in all the useful and solid branches of learning. To have done this is a singular title of honor, and will always remain such, whatever laurels of a different kind may hereafter be won by other pretenders. Thoroughly labored and highly finished as they all are, Mr. Irving's works will hardly be surpassed in their way. … it can never be disputed that the mild and beautiful genius of Mr. Irving was the Morning-Star, that led up the march of our heavenly host; and that he has a fair right, much fairer certainly than the great Mantuan, to assume the proud device, Primus ego in patriam. To have done this, we repeat, is a singular triumph, far higher than that of merely adding another name to a long list of illustrious predecessors, who flourished in the same country. It implies not merely taste and talent, but originality, the quality which forms the real distinction, if there be one, between what we call genius and every other degree of intellectual power; the quality, in comparison with which, as Sir Walter Scott justly observes, all other literary accomplishments are as dust in the balance. It implies moreover the possession of high and honorable moral qualities; the bold and daring resolution, that plans with vigor and decision; the unyielding firmness of purpose, that never tires or falters in the task of execution. These qualities, which are obviously necessary to such success as that of Mr. Irving, have also, as exemplified in his writings, been carefully kept within bounds, and have not only been prevented from running into their kindred excesses, but, on the contrary, have been judiciously and gracefully veiled from the public eye, by the outward forms that rather belong to a character of an opposite cast; a modesty, that has never deserted him under all his popularity, and a scrupulous regard for decorum and propriety as well as the higher principles of morals, from which the dazzling success, that has unfortunately attended a different line of conduct in some contemporary writers, has never for a moment induced him to deviate. This combination of estimable and in some respects almost contradictory moral qualities, with a high intellectual power and fine taste, tends to render the influence of Mr. Irving's example not less favorable to the country, in a moral point of view, than it is in a purely literary one.
The great effect which it has produced, in this latter respect, is sufficiently evident already, in the number of good writers, in various forms of elegant literature, who have sprung up among us within the few years which have elapsed since the appearance of Mr. Irving, and who justify our preceding remark, that he may fairly be considered as the founder of a school. … We only intend to intimate, that he has the peculiar merit and fortune of having taken the lead, under the influence of these causes, in a course, in which he could not but be followed and sustained by numerous successors, who would of necessity be more or less affected by the form and character of his productions. The fact that several of the more distinguished writers, who have since appeared, are from his own state,—while it is partly accounted for by the vast extent, population, wealth, and generally thriving situation of that “empire in embryo,” New York; circumstances which all tend very strongly to stimulate every form of intellectual activity,—must nevertheless be regarded in part, as a proof of the direct operation of the success of Mr. Irving.
Having thus noticed the circumstances, that attended the appearance of this writer in the literary career, we shall now offer a few observations on the character and value of his works. We trust that, in treating this subject somewhat fully, we shall not be considered, by our readers, as giving it a disproportionate importance. …
If we examine the works of Mr. Irving, with reference to the usual division of manner and substance, we may remark, in the first place, that his style is undoubtedly one of the most finished and agreeable forms, in which the English language has ever been presented. Lord Byron has somewhere spoken of him, as the second prose writer of the day, considering Sir Walter Scott as the first; but with due deference to his lordship's judgment, which was far from being infallible in criticism or anything else, we cannot but consider Mr. Irving, as respects mere style, decidedly superior to Sir Walter. The latter, no doubt, has exhibited a greater vigor and fertility of imagination, which, with his talent for versification, entitle him to a higher rank in the world of letters; but viewing him merely as a prose writer, his style, when not sustained by the interest of a connected narrative, will be found to possess no particular merit, and in some of his later writings is negligent and incorrect to an extent, that places it below mediocrity. That of Mr. Irving, on the contrary, is, in all his works, uniformly of the first order. Its peculiar characteristic is a continual and sustained elegance, the result of the union of a naturally fine taste, with conscientious and unwearied industry. His language is not remarkable for energy, nor have we often noticed in it any extraordinary happiness or brilliancy of mere expression. Though generally pure and correct, it is not uniformly so; and there are one or two unauthorized forms, which will be found by a nice observer to recur pretty often. Its attraction lies, as we have said, in the charm of finished elegance, which it never loses. The most harmonious and poetical words are carefully selected. Every period is measured and harmonized with nice precision. The length of the sentences is judiciously varied; and the tout ensemble produces on the ear an effect very little, if at all, inferior to that of the finest versification. Indeed such prose, while it is from the nature of the topics substantially poetry, does not appear to us, when viewed merely as a form of language, to differ essentially from verse. …
If the elegant prose of Mr. Irving be, as we think it is, but little inferior in beauty to the finest verse, and at all events one of the most finished forms of the English language, the character and the substance of his writings is also entirely and exclusively poetical. It is evident enough that “divine Philosophy” has no part nor lot in his affections. Shakespeare, though he was willing to “hang up philosophy,” out of compliment to the charming Juliet, when he chose to take it down again, could put the Seven Sages of Greece to the blush. But such is not the taste of Mr. Irving. His aim is always to please; and never to instruct, at least by general truths. If he ever teaches, he confines himself to plain matter of fact. He even goes farther, and with the partiality of a true lover, who can see no beauty except in the eyes of his own mistress, he at times deals rather rudely with philosophy, and more than insinuates that she is a sort of prosing mad-cap, who babbles eternally without ever knowing what she is talking of. … But though we think Mr. Irving heretical on this head, we can hardly say that we like him the less for it, being always pleased to see a man put his heart and soul into his business, whatever it may be, even though he may, by so doing, (as often happens) generate in himself a sort of hatred and contempt for every other. Within the domain of poetry, taking this word in its large sense, to which he religiously confines himself, Mr. Irving's range is somewhat extensive. He does not attempt the sublime, but he is often successful in the tender, and disports himself, at his ease, in the comic. Humor is obviously his forte, and his best touches of pathos are those, which are thrown in casually, to break the continuity of a train of melancholy thoughts, when they sparkle in part by the effect of contrast, like diamonds on a black mantle. But it is when employed on humorous subjects, that he puts forth the vigor of a really inventive genius, and proves himself substantially a poet. “Knickerbocker,” for example, is a true original creation. His purely pathetic essays, though occasionally pleasing, are more generally somewhat tame and spiritless. As a writer of serious biography and history he possesses the merit of plain and elegant narrative, but does not aspire to the higher palm of just and deep thought in the investigation of causes and effects, that constitutes the distinction of the real historian, and supposes the taste for philosophical research, which, as we have said before, is foreign to the temper of our author.
Such, as we conceive, are the general characteristics of the style and substance of the works of Mr. Irving. We notice their deficiencies and beauties with equal freedom, for such is our duty as public critics, and we have too much respect for our friend to suppose, that his appetite for fame requires to be gratified by unqualified praise. This can never, in any case, be merited, and is therefore always worthless; while the favorable effect of just and candid criticism is heightened, by a discriminating notice of the weak points, that are of course to be found in all productions. We shall now proceed to offer a few more particular observations upon the separate works, dividing them, for this purpose, into the two classes of those that were written before and after the author's departure for Europe. Although the general characteristics, which we have pointed out, are common to both these classes, there are some differences of manner between them, that are worth attention. The Life of Columbus, again, varies materially from any of the preceding publications, and will naturally be considered by itself, as the immediate subject of this article.
The former class comprehends Salmagundi and the History of New York, besides some smaller and less important productions. These exhibit the talent of the author, in the full perfection of its power, developing itself with a freshness and freedom, that have not perhaps been surpassed, or even equalled, in any of his subsequent writings, but directed, on the other hand, by a somewhat less sure and cultivated taste. There is a good deal of inequality in Salmagundi, owing probably in part to a mixture of contributions by other hands; but the better pieces are written in Mr. Irving's best manner. Take it altogether, it was certainly a production of extraordinary merit, and was instantaneously and universally recognised as such by the public. It wants of course the graver merits of the modern British collections of Essays; but for spirit, effect, and actual literary value, we doubt whether any publication of the class since The Spectator, upon which it is directly modelled, can fairly be put in competition with it. We well remember the eagerness, with which the periodical return of the merry little yellow dwarf was anticipated by all classes of readers, and the hearty good will, with which he was welcomed. “Sport that wrinkled care derides, / And Laughter holding both his sides,” uniformly followed in his train. So irresistibly attractive and amusing were the quips and cranks of the odd group of mummers that moved under his management, that our grave, business-loving, and somewhat disputatious citizens were taken, like Silence in the play, ere they were aware; and when the show was over, were surprised, and in some cases rather chagrined, to find that they had been diverted from their habitual meditations on the Orders in Council and the New England Platform, by the unprofitable fooleries of the Cockloft family and the Little Man in Black, the state of the Tunisian Ambassador's wardrobe, and the tragical fate of poor Aunt Charity, who died of a Frenchman. Mr. Irving appears to have had no other object in view, but that of making a sprightly book and laughing at everything laughable; but the work necessarily assumed, to a certain extent, the shape of a satire on the abuses of popular government; since the administration of the public affairs is the great scene of action, upon which the attention of the community is always fixed, and which must be treated, in jest or earnest, by all who mean to have an audience. The vices and follies, that most easily beset our practical statesmen, their endless prolixity in debate, their rage for the bloodless glory of heading the militia in a sham fight, their habitual waste of dollars in attempting to economize cents, are hit off in a very happy manner; but as the satire is always general, and the malice at bottom good-natured and harmless, nobody took offence and we all laughed honestly and heartily; each, as he supposed, at the expense of his neighbor. Nor are we to conclude that because Mr. Irving has made the abuses of popular government, and the weaknesses incident to those who administer such a system, the objects of his satire, that he is a political heretic and a secret foe to liberty. The best human institutions are of course imperfect, and there is quite as much advantage to be derived from a just and good-humored exposition of the weak points of our own government, as from a continued fulsome and exaggerated panegyric on its merits. Mr. Irving, we may add, was probably directed in the choice of the subjects on which to exercise his pleasantry, by the mere force of the circumstances under which he wrote, and not by any general views of the theory of government.
The decided success and universal popularity of his first attempt naturally encouraged him to repeat it, and Salmagundi was pretty soon followed by the History of New York. This we consider as equal to the best, and in some respects perhaps superior to any other of our author's productions. It is the one, which exhibits most distinctly the stamp of real inventive power, the true test, as we have hinted, of genius. The plan, though simple enough, and when hit upon sufficiently obvious, is entirely original. In most other works of the same general class of political satire, such as those of Rabelais and Swift, the object of the work is effected by presenting real events and characters of dignity and importance in low and ludicrous shapes. Knickerbocker reverses this plan, and produces effect by dressing up a mean and trifling fund of real history, in a garb of fictitious and burlesque gravity. The conception is akin, no doubt, to the general notion of the mock heroic, as exemplified, for instance, in Pope's Rape of the Lock, but the particular form, in which it is applied by the learned and ingenious Diedrich, is not only unusually happy, but wholly new; and the work possesses of course a character of complete originality, which does not belong to any of the others. The Stout Gentleman is a second application of the same principle, still more exquisitely wrought up and only inferior in the comparative smallness of the canvass. The execution of Knickerbocker corresponds in felicity with the merit of the plan. The graphic distinctness, with which the three Dutch governors, whom nobody ever heard of before, are made to pass before us, each endowed with his appropriate intellectual, moral, and personal habits and qualities, is quite admirable; and the political satire is conveyed with great effect, and at the same time in a very fine and delicate manner, through the medium of these remote characters of the old world. There are some ineffectual attempts at wit in particular passages, and here and there a little indelicacy, which is the more objectionable, as it is inconsistent with the plan of the mock heroic, and in place, if admitted at all, only in the travestie. There is also a somewhat uncouth display of commonplace historical learning in the first book, where the author, while in the act of ridiculing pedantry, as he supposes it to be exemplified in the person of the worthy “Diedrich,” betrays, we fear, a slight shade of the same quality in himself. But notwithstanding these blemishes, which are indeed so trifling, that we are almost ashamed to have mentioned them, the execution of the History of New York is in the main completely successful. If we were called on to give a preference to any one of our author's productions over all the rest, we should with little hesitation assign the palm to this.
These, with some smaller pieces to which we shall briefly advert hereafter, are all the works, which were published by Mr. Irving before his departure for Europe, and which belong to what may be called his first manner. Soon after their appearance, he visited England, where, and in other parts of Europe, he has resided ever since; and we heard nothing of him for several years, until at length he brought out the Sketch Book, which first made him known to the literary world abroad. In the long interval which had elapsed, since the appearance of his former productions, a “change had come over the spirit of his dream.” Advancing years had probably a little moderated the exuberant flow of his youthful spirits, and the natural effect of time had, we fear, been increased by other causes; if it be true, as we have reason to suppose, that our amiable countryman had in the interim taken some lessons in the school of that “rugged nurse of virtue,” so beautifully celebrated by Gray, who has in all ages been but too much accustomed to extend the benefit of her tuition to the votaries of polite learning. Whether under the influence of these causes, aided perhaps by the wholesome terror, which an American candidate for European favor might be expected to feel of the iron rod of the ruling critics, or for whatever other reason, certain it is, that the genius of Mr. Irving appeared to be a little rebuked at this his second apparition, and spoke in a partially subdued tone. The characteristics of the Sketch Book are essentially the same with those of the preceding works; but, with somewhat more polish and elegance, it has somewhat less vivacity, freshness, and power. This difference constitutes the distinction between Mr. Irving's first and second manner, the latter of which is preserved in all his subsequent publications, excepting the one now immediately before us. Of these two manners the one or the other may perhaps be preferred by different readers, according to their different tastes. We incline ourselves to the former, conceiving that spirit and vigor are the highest qualities of style, and that the loss of any merit of this description is but poorly compensated by a little additional finish. The change would have been however of less importance, had it appeared only in the language, but it is also displayed in the substance of the second series of publications; and it is here particularly, that we discover what we deem the unpropitious influence of a residence abroad on our author's talent. Not only is his language less free and sparkling, but the reach of his inventive power seems to be reduced. The Crayons and Bracebridges, including Master Simon, are Sketches indeed, and in water colors, compared with the living roaring group of Cockloft Hall; and although we find occasional returns of the author's best manner in “The Stout Gentleman,” “Rip Van Winkle,” “Sleepy Hollow,” “The Money-diggers,” and so forth, the rich material employed in these pieces is not, as before, the staple of the work, but a passing refreshment, that serves excellently well to remind us of what we wanted, but from the smallness of its quantity rather awakens than satisfies the appetite.
As it is difficult or rather impossible to suppose any actual diminution of power in the author, we must take for granted, that the difference in question is owing to the change in the general character of his subject. Humor and satire are, as we said before, evidently his forte and these compose the substance of the preceding works. There is but little attempt at the pathos in Salmagundi, and none in Knickerbocker. The subjects of satire are principally the abuses of government and the follies of leading characters and classes; and hence these works, though light in form, have an elevated object, which gives them dignity and solid value. Looking at them in a literary point of view, the circumstance of writing upon subjects actually before his eyes gives his pictures the truth to nature, which is the chief element of all excellence in art. Had the author proceeded on the same plan in his latter publications, he would have taken for his subject the abuses of government and the follies of leading classes and characters, as exemplified in the old countries. This again would have opened a field for the exercise of his peculiar talent, still more rich and various than the former one. Into this, however, whether from a terror of criticism, a wish to conciliate all parties alike, a natural modesty, a want of acquaintance with foreign manners and institutions, or for whatever reason, he did not choose to enter. Indeed the task of satirizing the manners and institutions of a country, in which one is at the time residing as a guest, is so ungracious, that we can neither wonder nor regret, that Mr. Irving should have shrunk from it with instinctive disgust. It is nevertheless certain, that the subjects alluded to are the best, indeed almost the only good ones, for lively and pungent satire; and that in voluntarily resigning them, our author was compelled to deprive himself almost wholly of the use of his favorite and most efficient instrument. He still, it is true, exercises it with no little skill and success, upon subjects afforded by the fund of vice and folly common to all nations, as in the story of the Lambs and the Trotters, but we think with less effect, than when following his original instinct, and laughing con amore at the peculiar foibles of his own dear countrymen. Conscious probably that the field for satire, which he felt himself at liberty to explore, was less rich and productive than he could have wished, he calls in the aid of the pathetic and sentimental; in which departments, though, as we have said before, occasionally successful, he is seldom eminently so,—seldom exhibits the bright, sharp, true expression of nature, which we see in his best comic pictures. In other portions of these works, such as the whole description of Bracebridge Hall, as it appears in the Sketch Book, and the work of that name, the tone wavers between the sentimental and the comic, and we hardly know whether the author meant to ridicule or eulogize the manners he describes; which, however, are in either case evidently manners of his own creation, having no prototype in this or any other period of English history. Bracebridge Hall with its Christmas sports and its Rookery, its antiquarian Squire, and its Master Simon, is as much a castle of fairy land, as the one in which the Fata Morgana held entranced for six hundred years the redoubtable champion of Denmark. The British country squire is now, as he ever was, and probably ever will be, either a fox-hunter or a politician. Western and Allworthy are the only two varieties of the species; and the squire of Mr. Irving, with his indifference to politics, and his taste for black-letter lore, is as completely a fancy-piece, as the Centaurs and Harpies of the ancient poets. These castles in Spain occupy a considerable portion of the second series of works; and we really cannot but wonder how Mr. Irving, generally so just and acute an observer of nature, should have failed so completely in seizing the true aspect of rural life in England, or why, if he saw it as it is, he should have given us an unreal mockery of it instead of a correct picture. It is refreshing and delightful to find how, under all the disadvantages of writing on domestic subjects in a foreign land, he recovers his wonted power, and disports himself with his pristine grace and sprightliness, the moment that he lays the scene of his fable at home. No sooner does he catch a glimpse of the venerable Kaatskill, lifting his shaggy head over his white ruff of ambient clouds, and frowning on the glorious Hudson as it rolls below; no sooner do the antique gable-roofed domes of the Manhattoes, and Albany, and the classic shades of Communipaw rise upon his fancy, than “his foot is on his native heath and his name is M'Gregor.” When we think of this, although we rejoice that Mr. Irving has been able, as he might not otherwise have been, to levy a large and liberal golden contribution from the superfluity of the mother country, this being, as it were, a spoiling of the Egyptians, we sometimes regret, for his own fame, that he ever left America. There was a fund of truth, as well as ill nature, in the remark of one of the paltry, scandal-mongering novelists of the day, that Mr. Irving would have done better to stay at home, and pass his life among the beavers.
We have stated above, that the sentiment, which probably induced Mr. Irving to refrain from exercising his satirical talent upon the institutions and public characters of Great Britain, was a natural and highly laudable one; but we cannot conscientiously speak with the same approbation of his apparent disposition to represent the British aristocracy under a favorable point of view, as compared with the other classes of the people. If this representation were true, we should not object to it, although the sort of complacency, with which it is put forward, would still, in a foreigner and a republican, be somewhat ungraceful. But the worst of it is, that it is obviously and notoriously the reverse of the truth. Let us take as an example the account given in the Sketch Book of the author's attendance on public worship at a village church, where he met with the family of a nobleman and that of a wealthy merchant. The former, especially the young men and women, were all attention, candor, simplicity, and true moral dignity; the latter all bad taste, affectation, and vulgarity. Now every one, who has seen anything of Europe, knows perfectly well, and Mr. Irving certainly by this time, whatever he may have done when he wrote the Sketch Book, better than any body, that if there be a class of persons in that part of the world, who as a class may be said to be more deficient than any other in simplicity, candor, and a correct notion of true moral dignity, it is precisely this very British aristocracy, especially in its younger branches, to which our author attributes these virtues. …
While we have felt it a duty to point out this error in the tone and spirit of Mr. Irving's later works, we must add, that we do not, as some have done, attribute it to any hankering in him after the aristocratic institutions and habits of Europe. We acquit him entirely, as we have said before, of political heresy; and without supposing him to be deeply versed in the theory of government, we have no doubt that he is strongly and sincerely attached to the republican institutions and forms established in his country. Neither do we believe, that he was influenced in making this representation, by an interested wish to conciliate the British aristocracy, for the purpose of obtaining their patronage as a writer, or admission into their circles as a gentleman. We have too high an opinion of Mr. Irving's independence, delicacy, and elevation of mind, to suspect him for a moment of such baseness. We think it probable, that he wrote the parts of his work to which we now allude, under the influence of an illusion, resulting naturally from his former situation and literary habits. Without having studied the subject of government very deeply in the abstract, or possessing probably any very precise general notions respecting it, he was led by the original bent of his mind and his local and social position, to employ himself, for several years, in ridiculing the abuses of popular institutions, and the peculiar follies and weaknesses of republican statesman. Thus far he kept himself within the line of truth and nature; for popular governments, however valuable, certainly have their defects, and republican statesmen, like all other mortals, their besetting sins and characteristic foibles. Now, although it does by no means follow from this, that monarchy is a perfect system, or an established aristocracy ex officio a corps of Lord Orvilles and Sir Charles Grandisons, it was perhaps not unnatural, that Mr. Irving, habitually gathering his impressions more from impulse and feeling than argument, should, by constantly looking at the ridiculous features of one form, be led to take up a too flattering idea of the other. Some such mental operation as this appears to have been the source of the illusion under which, as we conceive, he was at one time laboring; and when he wrote the Sketch Book, where the error in question is most apparent, he probably had not had much opportunity to bring his ideal picture to the test of comparison with real life, for it was not, we believe, until he had acquired a high reputation in England, by the publication of this work, that he frequented very intimately the circles of the British aristocracy. We have reason to suppose that he has since reformed his theory on this subject, and we mention the fact with pleasure, as a proof that the opportunities he has had for actual observation, have not been lost upon his naturally acute and sagacious, as well as sensitive mind.
Having thus cleared our consciences (we trust without doing injustice to our author) by pointing out certain particulars, in which we consider his European manner inferior to his American one, we return with pleasure to the remark we made before, that the former has somewhat more of elegance and polish than the latter; that the characteristics of both are (with the deductions we have specified) substantially the same; that all his productions are among the most agreeable and attractive, as they certainly have been among the most popular of the time; that they do the highest honor to himself and through him to his country; and that he has already secured and will permanently maintain, in our literary annals, the brilliant position of the harbinger and founder of the American school of polite learning.
We come now to the History of the Life and Voyages of Columbus, which has furnished the immediate subject and occasion of the present article. This work differs essentially in manner, as we have already said, from any of the preceding. It exemplifies on a larger scale, and in a more complete and finished way, the plan of the short biographical sketches, which the author published before his departure for Europe, principally of contemporary officers of the navy. We shall first endeavor to ascertain the class of historical writing to which it belongs, and then make a few remarks upon the merit of the execution and the general value of the work.
The great division of this department of literature, is into the two classes of philosophical and purely narrative history. They are not, it is true, separated by a very strict line, but on the contrary run into each other, each possessing to a certain extent the peculiar characteristics of both; but the distinction is nevertheless real, and whenever a writer has talent enough to give his work a marked character, it is evident at once, to which of the two classes it belongs. The object of philosophical history is to set forth by a record of real events, the general principles, which regulate the march of political affairs; that of purely narrative history, to give a correct and lively picture of the same events, as they pass before the eye of the world, but with little or no reference to their causes or effects. …
Mr. Irving's present work, if technically classed according to the general principles just stated, belongs to the lower species of history, and is so described by himself in his preface. “In the execution of this work,” he remarks, “I have avoided indulging in mere speculations or general reflections, excepting such as naturally arose out of the subject, preferring to give a minute and circumstantial narrative, omitting no particular that appeared characteristic of the persons, the events, or the times; and endeavoring to place every fact under such a point of view, that the reader might perceive its merits, and draw his own maxims and conclusions.” The omission of all general speculation is indeed a good deal more complete than this preliminary declaration would have necessarily led us to suppose it, since the exception of “such reflections as naturally arise out of the subject” would admit almost any degree of latitude in this respect. In point of fact, there is no political speculation whatever, the very few reflections that are interspersed being on matters of ordinary private morality. In giving this color to his work, Mr. Irving doubtless followed instinctively the natural bent of his genius, which does not incline him, as we have repeatedly observed, to philosophical researches; but he has thereby produced a much more valuable literary monument, than with his peculiar taste and talent, he could have done in a different way. In estimating the positive worth of particular works, we must take into view the merit of the execution, as well as the dignity of the class to which they belong; and if the latter be, in the present instance, of a secondary order (though still secondary only as compared with the very highest and most glorious exercises of intellect), yet such have been the good taste and felicity of our author, in the selection of his subject; such his diligence, research, and perseverance in collecting and employing his materials; and such his care in giving the highest finish and perfection to the style; that he has been able to bring out a work, which will rank with the very best histories of any age or nation, which will take a permanent place in the classical literature of the language, which is, in fact, one of the most agreeable, instructive, and really valuable productions to be met with any where, and one that, as we remarked above, does, on the whole, more honor to the learning of our country, than any previous work written on this side of the Atlantic.
For the particular kind of historical writing, in which Mr. Irving is fitted to labor and to excel, the Life of Columbus is undoubtedly one of the best, perhaps we might say without the fear of mistake, the very best subject afforded by the annals of the world. While his discoveries possess the importance belonging to political events of the first magnitude, the generous elevation of his mind, the various fortunes that chequered his course, and the singularity, the uniquity rather, if we may be allowed to coin a word, of his achievements, throw a sort of poetical and romantic coloring over his adventures, and render him of all others the fittest hero for a work of this description; which, as we have shown above, is essentially a poem. The only objection, that could possibly be made to the choice of the subject, would be, that it was before exhausted; and this has in fact been said, by some of the newspaper critics of the mother country. The assertion is however quite groundless. Before the publication of the work before us, there was no satisfactory account of Columbus in any language. The one given by his son is, as is well known, merely a brief and imperfect sketch; and the portion of Robertson's America which is devoted to him, though as large as it could be with propriety, considering the author's plan, did not allow a detailed and accurate investigation of the events of his life. Into this and other general histories, Columbus enters partially as one of the leading personages of the age, and is treated in connexion with the rest; but the singular splendor and prodigious permanent importance of his actions, as well as the moral grandeur and sublimity of his character, entitled him fully to the honor of a separate and detailed biography. How much finer and loftier a subject is he, than his contemporary Charles the Fifth, who has yet furnished a theme for one of the best histories in the language! The materials, printed and manuscript, were ample, but not accessible in their full extent, excepting to a person resident, for the time, in the capital of Spain. We consider it therefore as a singularly fortunate circumstance, that Mr. Irving should have been led, in the course of his pilgrimage abroad, to visit this, on some accounts, unattractive part of Europe. Thus favorably situated, and possessed of all the talent and industry necessary for the purpose, he has at length filled up the void, that before existed, in this respect, in the literature of the world, and produced a work, which will fully satisfy the public, and supersede the necessity of any future labors in the same field. While we venture to predict that the adventures of Columbus will hereafter be read only in the work of Mr. Irving, we cannot but think it a beautiful coincidence, that the task of duly celebrating the achievements of the discoverer of our continent, should have been reserved for one of its inhabitants; and that the earliest professed author of first-rate talent, who appeared among us, should have devoted one of his most important and finished works to this pious purpose. “Such honor Ilion to her hero paid, / And peaceful slept the mighty Hector's shade.”
In treating this happy and splendid subject, Mr. Irving has brought out the full force of his genius as far as a just regard for the principles of historical writing would admit. This kind of history, although it belongs essentially to the department of poetry, does not of course afford any room for the display of the creative power in the invention of facts or characters; but, in this case, the real facts and characters far surpass in brilliancy any possible creation of mere fancy, and in the other requisites of fine poetry, a judicious selection and disposition of the materials, a correct, striking, and discriminating picture of the different personages, a just and elevated tone of moral feeling, and above all, the charm of an elegant, perspicuous, and flowing style, Mr. Irving leaves us nothing to desire, and with all, who can look beyond mere forms and names into the substance of things, sustains his right, which he had before established, to the fame of a real poet. To say that this work is superior to any professed poem, that has yet been published, on the life of Columbus, would be giving it but poor praise; since the subject, although attempted by bards of no slight pretensions, has not yet been treated in verse with eminent success. We would go farther than this, and express the opinion, that Mr. Irving's production may be justly ranked with the fine narrative or epic poems of the highest reputation. A polished and civilized age may well be supposed to prefer, especially in a long composition, the delicate melody of flowing prose, setting forth a spirited and elegant picture of actual life, to the “specious wonders” of Olympus or fairy land, expressed in artificial measures, strains and subjects that seem more naturally adapted to a yet unformed, than to a mature and perfect taste. Hence a fine history and a fine novel may perhaps with propriety be viewed as the greater and lesser epic (to use the technical terms) of a cultivated period, when verse is better reserved for short poems accompanied by music. But however this may be, and with whatever class of compositions we may rank the work before us, its execution entirely corresponds, as we have said before, with the beauty of the subject, and leaves of course but little room for the labor of the critic. The interest of the narrative is completely sustained from the beginning to the conclusion, and is equal throughout, for any mature mind, to that of the best romance. Instinctively pursuing the bent of his genius, the author has everywhere brought out into full relief the most poetical features of the story. He dwells, for instance, with peculiar pleasure on the golden age of innocence and happiness, that reigned among the natives of Haiti before the arrival of the Spaniards. The careless and luxurious indulgence, in which they passed their peaceful hours beneath “the odorous shade of their boundless forests,” under the amiable sway of a beautiful Queen, who is represented as charming their leisure with her own sweet poetry, seems to realize the notion of an earthly elysium; and if there be, as there probably is, some little exaggeration in the coloring of the picture, it must be viewed as a natural effect of the just indignation and horror, with which we contemplate the devilish malice which afterwards carried death and destruction through these bowers of simple bliss. The two leading personages are happily contrasted, not by labored parallels, but indirectly by the mere progress of the story. The towering sublimity and bold creative genius of the Admiral; the sagacity, activity, and dauntless courage of the Adelantado; the faithful and tender attachment with which they stood by each other, through a long life of labor, danger, and suffering; these are moral traits, that furnish out another picture, not less beautiful and even more edifying, than that of the Indian Paradise.
We are grateful to Mr. Irving, for bringing particularly into view the high religious feeling, which uniformly governed the mind of Columbus, which led him to consider himself as an agent, expressly selected by Providence for the accomplishment of great and glorious objects,—and how, but by a poor quibble upon words, can we refuse him that character?—which induced him finally to look forward to the recovery of the Holy Sepulchre, as the last labor of his life, to be undertaken after the complete accomplishment of all his projects in the New World. If there be any error in the passages, which treat of this particular, it consists in underrating the merit of this conception of Columbus, which appears to be viewed by Mr. Irving as the effect of an amiable, but somewhat visionary and mistaken enthusiasm. …
It would give us pleasure to expatiate at greater length upon the merit of the beautiful and valuable work before us; but we perceive that we have reached the proper limit of an article, and must here close our remarks. We cannot however refrain from expressing our satisfaction, at the very favorable manner with which Mr. Irving's Life of Columbus compares with one or two works of a similar kind, that were published about the same time by the best writers of the mother country. The Life of Napoleon by Sir Walter Scott, and the Life of Sheridan by Moore, particularly the former, resemble it so nearly in plan and form, that, coming out, as they all did, about the same time, they exhibit in a manner a trial of skill between three of the most elegant writers of the day. We feel a good deal of pride as Americans in adding, that our countryman appears to have retired from this dangerous contest with a very decided advantage, we think we might say a complete victory, over both his competitors. We mean not to deprive these illustrious transatlantic bards of any fame, to which they may be justly entitled, by the productions in question; nor do we mean to represent Mr. Irving's general reputation as at present superior or equal to theirs. We simply state the fact as it is, considering it to be one highly honorable to our countryman and our country. We shall even go farther, being in a patriotic vein, and while we freely admit that Mr. Irving's fame is and ought to be at present inferior to that of the two British poets abovementioned, we shall take the liberty of adding, that we are not quite sure whether it will always remain so. Moore and Scott have already done their best, and from the character of their productions for some years past, as compared with those of earlier date, it is evident that they will not hereafter excel or perhaps equal their past efforts. Mr. Irving's talent seems to us, on the contrary, to be in a state of progress; for although his second manner be, as we think, inferior, on the whole, to his first, the difference is not, as we have already expressly stated, owing to any decay of genius, but to an unfavorable change of scene and subject; and in this first specimen of a third series of publications, we recognise, though under a somewhat grayer form, a development of power superior to that which is displayed by any of the preceding ones, even should the History of New York as a bold original creation, be considered as belonging to a higher class of writings. We also recognise in the selection of the subject, the persevering industry with which the work has been executed, and the high tone of moral feeling that runs through the whole of it, the symptoms of a noble spirit, on which the intoxicating cup of public applause acts as a stimulant rather than an opiate. Mr. Irving is still in the vigor of life and health; and when we see him advancing in his course in this way, with renovated courage and redoubled talent at an age when too many hearts begin to wax prematurely faint, we are induced to anticipate the happiest results from his future labors; and are far from being certain, as we said above, that he may not in the end eclipse the most illustrious of his present contemporaries and rivals. We rejoice to find, from the selection of the subject of the work now before us, that though long a wanderer, his thoughts are still bent on the land of his birth. Although we wish not to hasten his return before the period when he shall himself deem it expedient, we indulge the hope that he will sooner or later fix his residence among us, and can assure him that whenever he may think proper to do so, he will be welcomed by his countrymen as a well deserving citizen and a public benefactor. When he shall be seated again upon his native soil, among his beavers, if Mr. D'Israeli pleases, when he shall again apply to those subjects of strictly native origin, in which his genius seems to take most delight, the force of his mature talent, and the lights of his long and varied experience, we think we may expect with reason a fourth series of publications, that shall surpass in value all the preceding ones, including even that, which he has now so honorably opened with the work before us.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 141
Salmagundi; or, The Whim-whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq., and Others [with William Irving and James Kirke Paulding] (satirical essays) 1807-1808
A History of New York, from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty [As Diedrich Knickerbocker] (historical parody) 1809
The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. [as Geoffrey Crayon] (short stories) 1819-20
Bracebridge Hall [as Geoffrey Crayon] (sketches) 1822
Tales of a Traveller [as Geoffrey Crayon] (travel sketches) 1824
A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (biography) 1828
A Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada (history) 1829
The Alhambra [as Geoffrey Crayon] (travel sketches) 1832
The Crayon Miscellany [as Geoffrey Crayon] (travel sketches) 1835
A Tour on the Prairies (travel sketches) 1835
Astoria, or Anecdotes of an Enterprize Beyond the Rocky Mountains (biography) 1836
The Adventures of Captain Bonneville (biography) 1837
Oliver Goldsmith (biography) 1849
The Life of George Washington (biography) 1855-59
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SOURCE: “Irving as a Writer,” Ladies' Repository, Vol. 8, July, 1848, pp. 217-20.
[In the following essay, the critic praises Irving as a writer of the highest quality, forever to be remembered and revered.]
The name of Washington Irving will be for ever associated with American literature. He has attained the very highest eminence as a writer. Both in England and the United States his works have been universally read with pleasure. Perhaps they have been more generally admired, than the production of any living author on this side of the Atlantic. They are not confined to any class of readers. To nearly every mental condition, they have proved equally acceptable. Though dealing somewhat in fiction, it is evident that he employs it only as the garb in which he arrays real characters. He gives us lively sketches of human nature, concealing only dates, names, and places. But all these he doubtless has, with more or less distinctness, in his own view while writing. It is for this reason, principally, that the most serious minds have ever been in the habit of perusing even his more playful compositions.
Mr. Irving is not a novelist, as he is regarded by those not personally acquainted with his writings. He has not written a single novel. In this direction, he is merely a writer of stories, the facts for which are taken either from history, or from occurrences within the range of his own experience and observation. His first works were more nearly allied to fiction than his later ones. As his mind became more mature, and his moral feelings more settled, he turned his attention more exclusively to topics of serious import; and his success in sober composition is, after all, his best pledge of immortality.
Washington Irving is one of our very best historians. His Life of Christopher Columbus is equal to any thing of its kind ever written. It was never surpassed by the ablest writers of the classic ages. The celebrated Lives of Plutarch are worthy of no comparison, in my humble judgment, with this luminous biography. The Agricola of Tacitus, perhaps the most finished specimen of the species of composition, which we have received from antiquity, is, in many respects, meagre by the side of it. Large as is the work of Irving, few persons have ever taken it up, and laid it by again, for want of interest in its style and subject. No tasteful reader can lay it down, if he has leisure, without reading every page of it. So admirable is the tact, and so charming the style of the biographer, that, though at about midway of the work you perceive every thing that is coming, you read on with unabated pleasure. It is the only work I have ever seen, in which the notes, even to the last one of them, are equally captivating with the text they illustrate. In every respect, the Life of Columbus is a classical production, and, unless accidentally destroyed, will last as long as the English language.
Had Mr. Irving turned his attention more to historical subjects, he might have made himself a fame perhaps superior to that of Hume and Gibbon. Though not now so learned as the latter, nor so profound as the former, of these historians, in what he has attempted he has manifested equal capacity in every variety of talent. His Conquest of Granada, though evidently the work of his idle hours, and not more than a romantic history at best, exhibits fully enough his diligence in searching records and authorities, and his wonderful powers of historical description. His battle scenes are even more vivid than those of Julius Caesar. Let him have studied as laboriously as the author of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and he would probably have excelled him in any great work which he might have undertaken. His discrimination was not surpassed by that of the great infidel. His knowledge of human nature is decidedly more perfect. The simplicity of his diction forms a striking contrast to the grandiloquence of Gibbon. But more than all, his heart fits him, in every way, to excel that author in every species of composition. There is something peculiarly impressive in the moral character of Irving. No one need inquire what it is. It is found on almost every one of his pages. The great law of his being is human kindness. His large benevolence is ever conspicuous. He must be one of the most amiable men living. His very satire is merciful. He only shows you what he could do, were he not so unboundedly benevolent. He draws his bow upon you, and you acknowledge him a skillful archer; but when the arrow hits you, you find he was only playing. The point and the barb are nothing but a feather. But the mercy of the satire makes you feel the more humble. If you are really guilty, you have the uncomfortable consciousness of owing your life to his clemency.
Mr. Irving is said to be a very quiet, contemplative man. He spends much of his time in reading and meditation. It is also reported of him, that he makes long rambles through town and country, or did make them in his younger days, for the only purpose of observing men and things, and repeating his thoughts by himself and at his leisure. This love of solitude has given him a fine vein of sentiment. His humanity is one of the most apparent of his mental qualities; and it is derived from the same practice of reflection. Had he been exclusively a historian, he never could have passed over, as others do, the bloody horrors of a battle-field, by simply giving us a description of the carnage. As the finishing stroke to every such bloody picture, he would have made you feel most sensibly “Man's inhumanity to man.” He would have forced conviction to the most obdurate mind, that war is the foulest work of mortals.
In his Life of Columbus he shows himself everywhere the poor Indians' friend. When they are mercilessly butchered by the Spaniard, with what pathos he pleads their cause! When the reparminientos, or slavery system, was about to be adopted, and the defenseless native turned loose to the goading ambition of wicked men, with what sincerity and spirit he rebukes the oppressors, though the heroes of his work! But his humanity is equally evident in smaller things. What reader of his can have forgotten the sensibility he manifested in the famous prairie hunting scene? His company had been all day pursuing buffaloes on one of the immense prairies of the west. The real sportsmen had killed several in different parts of the field, while he had been riding more to witness the sport of others, than to derive any for himself. But in the latter part of the day, when, probably, his sensibilities had become rather blunted by fatigue, he resolved to join in earnest in the chase. He singled him out an object worthy of his aim. It was a prime, large buffalo, and of the most perfect form. He put spurs to his horse, and soon came within shooting distance of his game. The fatal ball was fired, and lo! the noble animal, in all his pride and glory, fell a dying victim at his feet. Does the sportsman now swell, and bluster, and call his companions to help him enjoy the glory of his deed? Nay; but, standing there alone, he looks on him—he pities him; and from his own account we might believe that he suffers more pain, than the bleeding animal by his side. When he had seen him breathe his last, he would have given the whole prairies, had it been his property, could he have revived the fallen monarch, and sent him bounding in joyous life and liberty over his native plains.
They mistake the character of Mr. Irving as a writer, who suppose him writing merely for the amusement of his readers. This is not true of him even in his lighter articles. His most comical pieces have always a serious end in view. In these you will find him holding up to ridicule some hurtful or good-for-nothing prejudice in the public mind; he is weeding out the noxious plants, which have been growing for centuries in the human heart. And he has certainly been very successful in this business. But he stops not there. He also sows good seed to supply the place of what he has rooted out; and I must believe that he sometimes, perhaps I should say frequently, feels a warm delight, in the consciousness of having done much to implant the principles of morality and virtue in a soil not so likely to be cultivated by other hands. Where the mere philosopher would not be welcome, where the moralist, or even the devout Christian, would scarcely find entrance, his fascinating style gives him joyful admittance; and he rarely departs without leaving a good influence behind him.
There are two peculiar effects of Mr. Irving's writings, which ought to be particularly stated. The first is the pure philanthropy he breathes into your feelings. His benevolence is really contagious. Wherever you read him, he perfectly imbues you with it. Sit down and read his productions a single hour, especially his pathetic pieces, and you will not only rise up a better man, but think better of your fellow creatures. You will compassionate the weak, sympathize with the oppressed, and pity the sorrows of the poor. The other trait in his works is not less happy in its effects. It is the good tone he imparts to the domestic affections. Whenever he treats upon these subjects, he touches, with almost a magic power, the family ties. Need I name those inimitable pieces in the Sketch Book, “the Wife,” and “the Widow's Son”? For the last fifteen years I have never been able to read either of them, without shedding such tears as do one good. It is hardly possible for any person to peruse him frequently, without being a more affectionate member of the domestic circle. Whether a father, or mother, or brother, or sister, the reader acquires a stronger, a purer, a holier attachment to family friends. In this particular, Mr. Irving has spread the sweet influences of his good heart over all the families of the land.
The generosity of Mr. Irving is quite equal to his benevolence. Daily instances of this virtue are seen in his private associations; but there are many, also, related of him in his more public capacity. For a long time he had been intending to write a work on a topic connected with American history. He had spent time and labor, and, doubtless, money, in collecting books, manuscripts, and other sources of information. Subsequently, learning that another gentleman—an unfortunate but gifted American author—had chosen the same subject, Mr. Irving not only relinquished his designs entirely to his competitor, but actually sent him all the books and authorities he himself had collected as a free-will offering of a good and noble heart to one who needed and deserved the kindness.
So far as mere style is concerned, though comparatively a minor consideration, Mr. Irving undeniably occupies the very highest place. It has ever been a dispute among critics, whether he is not the best model of a writer now living. Some have placed him high above every writer in the English language. But it is difficult to compare him, in this respect, with most of his competitors. His diction is peculiar to himself, but only, perhaps, because other persons do not generally write quite so well. There is certainly nothing eccentric or affected in his compositions. He writes naturally, easily, smoothly along, as if it were no effort at all for him to compose. He is not so pompous as Gibbon, and writes less as if it were a trade. Burke is more pithy and sententious, but infinitely less beautiful and flowing. Burke sometimes fatigues his reader by gaudy and superfluous imagery. The sentences of Robert Hall are equally smooth and well turned; they are even more elevated and grand; but also more difficult, or rather less easy, to read. Mr. Hall's sentences are in general very lengthy, and slightly elaborate and complex, but never tangled or obscure. Mr. Irving writes with an easy, though not a readier, pen; and in his longest periods, you flow insensibly and without labor along the current of his thoughts, till he gives you liberty to pause.
Perhaps the best analogy lies between him and Mr. Addison as to style. They resemble each other more than any two writers in our language. Indeed, the question of superiority is, by many, reduced, in the final issue, to these two. It would be difficult for any person to decide which author, taken in all respects, he would prefer. So far as fancy, imagination, good taste, and graphic power are concerned, it would require a nice balance to determine which has the greater merit. There is one quality of a good writer, however, in which Mr. Irving, I think, clearly surpasses his great rival—a profound and critical knowledge of the etymology and definition of words. Mr. Addison has been accused, though I think unjustly, of writing as if he were doubtful precisely what word to employ. This is never so much as suspected in Mr. Irving. He always has the very word, generally the only word, capable of giving full expression to his thoughts, and yet glides along apparently without effort. There is another defect which critics have discovered in Mr. Addison's best works. He is said to have frequently added high-sounding but feeble expletives to his sentences, after the sense had been made complete, merely to give his period a round full close. If this be true, Mr. Irving is decidedly his superior, for I will venture to affirm that no such sentence can be found in the whole compass of his productions. Perhaps this may seem a bold expression of opinion; but I will offer no other amendment to it, than that I have, at different times, sought whole hours for an instance without success.
Thus far I have compared Mr. Irving as a writer only with those of the English school. It would be hazardous to attempt to find a man, on this side of the Atlantic, whose best friends would not readily acknowledge his inferior in the use of a beautiful and graphic pen. Dr. Channing surpassed him in the power of multiplying himself, if I may say so, in his readers; but it was evidently not so natural and easy for that distinguished author to compose. Daniel Webster has no superior in the purity, strength, and transparency of his style; his thoughts are sometimes perfect thunderbolts, and scathe and blast every thing opposed to them, by the mere majesty of their power; but as a writer, the great defender of the Constitution must yield the palm to him, whose amiable humility has perhaps never cast a wish, or carried a reverie, to the height occupied by the statesman. What elevation Mr. Prescott would have reached, had Providence spared the continued use of his sight, no one can tell; but the Conquest of Mexico, notwithstanding it was composed by a man, who could not see well enough to correct his own proof, is, after all, the only American work worthy of contending with theLife of Columbus for the prize.
One of the chief sources of Mr. Irving's superiority is his perfect self-possession while he is writing. Unpracticed writers, and even men who have written much without having improved by their experience, frequently, perhaps I should say generally, manifest an uneasiness of spirit, as if they were not satisfied unless they were doing wonders all the while. They come to their task in a perfect frenzy. They continue to work themselves up to a most unnatural and disgusting excitement, and then pounce upon their paper, as if they would snatch it, like an eagle, to the clouds. They leap through their sentences, like the live thunder, from crag to crag. They gleam, and hiss, and roar, as if an Alpine tempest were about to break over your head. If they happen to think of any Greek or Latin author, while they are suffering under this chaos of passion, they will crowd a dozen classical allusions into a single paragraph, and quote twenty verses of Pagan poetry to a page. Fearful lest they have not done much in what they have already written, in order to redeem themselves in what remains, they dash, and foam, and thunder, more extravagantly as they proceed. Like ungifted speakers, from the beginning to the end of their performance, they never get fair possession of themselves; and, when all is over, they have only added another specimen to that already too numerous class of productions, whose single quality is their sound.
How differently from all this does Mr. Irving undertake his work! Without any effort, he writes his leading sentence. From this he proceeds naturally and smoothly along, as if it were the easiest thing in the world to write. As his subject grows in his own mind, he gives fuller and bolder expression to his thoughts. He seems to be in no hurry to strike his reader with any thing wonderful or new. He allows his theme to go on and make the development of itself. If it happen to touch on classical ground, it finds the writer perfectly at home. Without stopping to deluge you with quotations, he gives you one—but that one is a gem. If, in the progress of his work, an emotion is excited by any thing which his subject makes it necessary to say, he gives it a single stroke of his gifted pen, and it thrills to your very soul. He never quotes for the sake of quoting, nor to show off the extent and variety of his reading. Nor does he attempt to cover you up with roses; if a few flowers chance to be growing near his path, he weaves you a modest chaplet—but that blooms on your heart for ever. Nor is he incessantly making pictures, and pressing every ancient and modern dialect into service, in order to decorate them with all the gorgeousness of language. Dealing considerably in description, a variety of scenes must necessarily be crowded upon him on every page of his composition. But of these he is far from being prodigal. Instead of drawing out every one that occurs to him, he makes a choice selection. When one is chosen, wrought out, and finished, it throws its lustre all around him. His reader marks it with his pencil, or transfers it to his own imagination, to which it adds a splendor ever after.
But, on the other hand, Mr. Irving is not a timid, bashful, fastidious writer. He wears no straight-jacket on his intellectual faculties. With all his severity of taste, he is always free and easy. You see in him none of that finical nervousness, which trammels a writer's genius, and forbids his saying just what he thinks, and precisely as he thinks it. This is the natural consequence of his modesty. An ambitious writer, all the while goaded by the impulse of his ruling passion, is apt to be too careful—perhaps I should have said anxious—of the mere manner of his writing. As each sentence is written down, he looks back upon it to criticize its structure, when he ought to be pushing onward under the full and unchecked inspiration of his subject. Ambition, at least in a writer, is always weak and timid. The man loses his thoughts while he is looking after his periods. He ought to be himself lost, or nearly so, in the matter of which he is treating. His taste should be the only restraint upon him; and that should be reduced to such a habit, as to leave him quite unconscious of its influence. If, writing in this natural way, errors creep into his composition, they may be left for a future and critical recension.
There is a sort of sentimentalism, also, to which Mr. Irving is never subject. This consists, I suppose, in a writer's putting on more feeling than his ideas demand. To feel less than the truths advanced would justify, argues obduracy of mind; to feel more, whether in writing or in speaking, fanaticism, the concomitants of which are generally rant and bombast. When thought and feeling are exactly commensurate, when the one precisely tallies with the other, then you have words spoken fitly; and they are indeed “like apples of gold in pictures of silver.” You rise from the perusal of a work thus written, neither hardened by contemplating great truths without emotion, nor softened to effeminacy by a continual conflict of boisterous and unmeaning passion. Sound thoughts have been passing down upon your soul, and they have left their own impression. You are a sounder, wiser, better, truer man yourself, by the influence of what you have been reading.
If the present age has produced the exact counterpart of our author, it is in the example of Mr. Dickens. In all this gentleman's productions, there is a constant tendency to over-drawing. His thoughts and feelings seem to be in a perpetual state of insurrection. Like a rake on the high road, he uses the lash too much; and his animal is in a continual perspiration. If his course happen to lie on a clean path, all goes merrily and smoothly onward; but whenever he falls into a rough passage, the dirt flies all around you. You are knocked, and thumped, and jerked, in this direction and in that, without the slightest mercy; and when the race is over, you need all the water he complained the want of in our taverns, not only to cleanse your person, but to cool your fever.
Such writers, to change the figure, seem to be somewhat suspicious of the bill of fare provided by them; and they are only shaking up their readers a little to favor their digestion. But it would be unjust to deny, that Mr. Dickens has written many pages which will forever form a part of the standard literature of our language; and, what is very much for any man's reputation as a writer, he has received the approbation—at least the qualified approbation—of Dr. Channing. But his style is generally too headlong to be commended.
In all respects Mr. Irving seems to stand first in this country as a writer. He has the singular merit of pleasing all classes equally. Those not prepared to admire the skill manifested in the select order of his language, and in the molding and turning of his periods, read him for the amusement gathered from the story. The fine flow of his sentences, his frequent and beautiful alliteration, the rich simplicity of his pictures, and the delightful splendor and genuineness of his emotions, charm other persons less captivated by his subjects. It seems to me that he surpasses all writers in one quality. His style evinces more real science, with less apparent labor, than that of any modern or ancient author.
Having given much merited praise, I will state almost my only objection to Mr. Irving. In nearly all that he has done, he has shown merely what he could do, had his subjects been better chosen. His Sketch Book and his Columbus are almost the only exceptions to this remark. In nearly all his other works, beautiful, charming, captivating as they are, a serious man feels all the while that he might have selected topics more worthy of his genius. It is true, there is next to nothing in all his writings to find fault with; his style is ever like its fountain, pure and splendid; he nowhere descends to vulgarity, even for a moment; and his morality is such as would become a minister at the altar. But, then, when we read such a man, the soul longs to see him soaring higher. We want to see him ranging in majesty through those fields, where such a spirit might meet with angels. We become almost anxious to witness the power of such a style as his on those sublime topics, which, in all ages, have formed the themes of those gifted minds, who have ever stood nearest to the bright purlieus of heaven. O, could the heart of Mr. Irving be touched by that live coal, which sanctified and hallowed the lips of the evangelical Isaiah, in what sweet and captivating splendor would Christianity appear on his classical and immortal pages!
But Mr. Irving is now advanced in years. The gray of age is sprinkled on the crown of his glory. He must soon descend from his lofty summit, and be buried in the dust with his fathers. Such a mind as his, so characterized by sense, so ripe in reflection, so just in perceptions on all other topics, has, undoubtedly, long since settled life's great question. When he goes, he will go with the blessings of his country upon him. Though his body may perish, and lie low in the sepulchre raised by his friends, his fame will survive; his sweet spirit, we trust, will ascend to its Author; and the sorrow of a nation, or rather of an age, will mingle its laments with the wail of the winds that sweep over his grave.
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Aderman, Ralph M. “Washington Irving as a Purveyor of Old and New World Romanticism.” In The Old and New World Romanticism of Washington Irving, edited by Stanley Brodwin, pp. 13-25. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.
Considers the influence of European romanticism on Irving's writings, particularly in his later works.
Antelyes, Peter. Tales of Adventurous Enterprise: Washington Irving and the Poetics of Western Expansion. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990, 246p.
Considers issues of Western expansion, literary imagination, and Irving's influence on the development of the “tale of adventurous enterprise” as a literary form.
Christensen, Peter. “Washington Irving and the Denial of the Fantastic.” In The Old and New World Romanticism of Washington Irving, edited by Stanley Brodwin, pp. 51-60. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.
Provides an overview of Irving's treatment of the supernatural in his writings from 1819 to 1832.
Hagensick, Donna. “Irving: A Littérateur in Politics.” In Critical Essays on Washington Irving, edited by Ralph M. Aderman, pp. 178-91. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co.
Defends Irving's skills as a diplomat.
Haig, Judith G. “Washington Irving and the Romance of Travel: Is There an Itinerary in Tales of a Traveler?” In The Old and New World Romanticism of Washington Irving, edited by Stanley Brodwin, pp. 61-8. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.
Argues that the relationship between imagination and travel provides the key to interpreting Tales of a Traveler.
McElroy, John Harmon. “The Integrity of Irving's Columbus” In Washington Irving: The Critical Reaction, edited by James W. Tuttleton, pp. 126-36. New York: AMS Press, 1993.
Examines the merit and critical reception of Irving's History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus.
McLamore, Richard V. “Postcolonial Columbus: Washington Irving and The Conquest of Granada.” In Nineteenth-Century Literature 48, No. 1 (June 1993): 26-43.
Discusses the mocking tone of The Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada.
Pinsker, Sanford. “Uneasy Laughter: Sut Lovingood—Between Rip Van Winkle and Andrew Dice Clay.” In Sut Lovingood's Nat'ral Born Yarnspinner: Essays on George Washington Harris, edited by James E. Caron and M. Thomas Inge, pp. 299-313. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996.
Comparison of the politically incorrect humor found in Irving's “Rip Van Winkle,” George Washington Harris's Sut Lovingood stories, and the work of twentieth-century American comic Andrew Dice Clay.
Rubin-Dorsky, Jeffrey. “The Crisis Resolved(?): ‘Rip Van Winkle’ and ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.’” In Adrift in the Old World: The Psychological Pilgrimage of Washington Irving, pp. 100-22. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.
Analyzes “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in the context of the collection The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.
West, Elsie Lee. “Washington Irving: Biographer.” In Washington Irving: The Critical Reaction, edited by James W. Tuttleton, pp. 197-206. New York: AMS Press, 1993.
Traces Irving's significance as a biographer.
Additional coverage of Irving's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 3, 11, 30, 59, 73, 74, and 186; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-Studied Authors; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 2 and 37; World Literature Criticism, 1500 to the Present; and Yesterday's Authors of Books for Children.
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SOURCE: “Washington Irving, the Nineteenth-Century American Bachelor” in Critical Essays on Washington Irving, edited by Ralph M. Aderman, G. K. Hall & Co., 1990, pp. 253-65.
[In the following essay, Banks analyzes Irving's conflict between individual freedom and social responsibility as evidenced in his writings about women and his life.]
The theme of growing up and accepting adult responsibility is central to a study of American literature; and relationships between men and women are a central element in this maturing, as such different critics as Leslie Fiedler and Judith Fetterley have shown. Washington Irving's “Rip Van Winkle” is often cited as a peculiarly American example of flight from this responsibility. Fetterley has noted that in fact Irving borrowed this story from German folklore and set it in an American scene; but among his most significant additions is the character of Dame Van Winkle, whom he presents as the cause of Rip Van Winkle's flight into the Catskill Mountains. She is an “obstacle to the achievement of the dream of pleasure. … Significantly, Irving's tale connects the image of woman with the birth of America as a nation and with the theme of growing up.”1 As the voice of duty and obligation, she most clearly exemplifies Irving's imaginative use of women as a focus of those elements in society he wished to escape. This image of the oppressive power of women and of men's flight from them—both literally and imaginatively—is just one manifestation of a larger and more pervasive issue concerning commitment present throughout Irving's life. Whether writing for publication or more personally in his correspondence, he reveals himself as a prototype of the American male struggling to reconcile the conflict between freedom and adult responsibility, independence and social obligation, fantasy and reality. Irving was clearly attracted to women; but whatever their surface appearance, most of his imaginative projections of women reflect some aspect of the repressiveness associated with Dame Van Winkle. Similarly, in real life, Irving's circumscribed relationships with women reflect his flight from commitment and adult responsibility. But if Irving was singularly ambivalent about women, his reactions to them also reflect many of the contradictions inherent in the attitudes dominating American society in the early nineteenth century. Through his images of women and his relationships with them, he reflects the contemporary struggle between the appeal of the old ordered and hierarchical society and the call of the new republican egalitarianism, between the security of established institutions and the independence of the new American Adam.
Irving's lifelong ambivalence toward women is manifested in both his personal letters and his published writings in an unresolved tension between fantasy and reality. There can be no doubt that Irving was a lady's man. Whether at nineteen boasting to his friend Amos Eaton that he could “never be in company with a fine girl half an hour without falling in love,”2 or some forty years later in Madrid playing “the old beau to a young belle [Cuban singer Leocadia Zamora],” (6 December 1844, 3:843), or relishing the memory of how beautiful a certain lovely widow, Mrs. Ellis, had once appeared at a New York ball (10 February 1844, 2:679), he clearly enjoyed this concept of himself. He preferred, however, to remain an uncommitted observer, maintaining carefully circumscribed relationships with women—usually considerably younger than he or “safely” married. Irving's lifelong struggle between the appeal and the threat of women, between fantasy and his sense of reality, is reflected in his confidence to his close friend, Prince Dmitri Ivanovitch Dolgorouki, “Heavens! what power women would have over us if they knew how to Sustain the attractions which nature had bestowed upon them, and which we are so ready to assist by our imaginations” (22 January 1828, 2:265). The same ambivalence is implicit in his persona Geoffrey Crayon's observation in “Wives”: “It is appalling to those who have not adventured into the holy state, to see how soon the flame of romantic love burns out … in matrimony. … Men are always doomed to be duped, not so much by the arts of the sex, as by their own imaginations. They are always wooing goddesses, and marrying mortals.”3 Even as he grew fearful of being lonely in his old age, Irving's observations often included a wistfulness tinged with a certain cynicism. Reviewing his life in his late fifties, Irving confided to his niece Sarah Storrow, “God knows I have no great idea of bachelor hood, and am not one of the fraternity through choice—but providence has some how or other thwarted the warm wishes of my heart and the tendencies of my nature in those earlier seasons of life when tender and happy unions are made; and has protected me in those more advanced periods when matrimonial unions are apt to be unsuited or ungenial. …” (12 December 1842, 3:437).
Some have argued that at twenty-five he was permanently scarred by the tragic death of his first real love, Matilda Hoffman, and then kept running away from that pain. But, in a fifteen-year retrospective letter to Mrs. Amelia Foster, Irving revealed that his flight was based on more complex motives than grief alone. His relationship with her epitomizes the conflict between the ideals of social responsibility and individual freedom that influenced his relationships throughout his life. He described his possible child-bride, who was only seventeen when she died, as “a timid, shy, silent little being” with a “mantling modesty … intuitive rectitude of mind … native delicacy … exquisite propriety in thought, word & action” which he idolized. “I felt at times rebuked by her superior delicacy & purity and as if I were a coarse unworthy being in comparison” (April-May 1823, 1:738-39). However, if the idealized Matilda seemed unattainable as a paragon of virtue, the real-life Matilda forced him to face the harsh reality of the financial liability of a wife. In the same letter he explained that on his return from his European Grand Tour he had tried to devote himself to the study of law under Josiah Ogden Hoffman, who had promised him a partnership in his firm and his daughter in marriage if he could succeed in the profession. Irving had recognized that law “in America is the path to honour and preferment—to every thing that is distinguished in public life” (1:739), but he confessed that he had been unable to surmount his “insuperable repugnance” to it. “I had gone on blindly, like a boy in Love, but now I began to open my eyes and be miserable. I had nothing in purse nor in expectation. … I was in a wretched state of doubt and self distrust … [and] was secretly writing, hoping it would give me reputation and gain me Some public appointment” (1:739-40). Thus he faced apparently irreconcilable choices: marriage and the financial responsibilities of a dutiful husband, or freedom to write. Before he could “qualify” as a husband, Matilda died, and Irving described himself as drifting through New York society “without aim or object, at the mercy of every breeze; my heart wanted anchorage” (1:741). Because he could not escape from his own sense of unworthiness and inadequacy nor from the social pressure to succeed in some “useful and honourable application,” Irving fled to England and Europe (1:742).
Irving spent almost half of his adult life in England and Europe, and his correspondence reveals that his long absences from home reflect his particular accommodations to the conflicting ideals in America of his day. His expatriation was determined in part by his pursuit of the middle-class dream of social advancement and financial security, in part by his more idiosyncratic pursuit of freedom, in part by his desire to serve as a literary and a political ambassador for America, and in part to avoid routine jobs. His decision to become a professional writer rather than to commit himself to a respected profession was a compromise he made with his society's materialistic definition of the self-made man and success.
Both the evolution and the content of The Sketch Book represent the coming together of fact and fiction in Irving's life, and they reflect his struggle with the conflicts among financial security, social status, and freedom. Irving initially submitted to family pressure and tried to help his brother Peter with the family business in Liverpool. He hated it; but because he was not immune to the value system that accorded a certain status to wealth and business acumen, he was devastated when they had to declare bankruptcy. “This was vile and sordid and humiliated me to the dust. … I felt cast down—abased—I had lost my cast— … I shut myself up from society—and would See no one.” Feeling totally bereft of any social status, he then determined to avoid all financially secure but restrictive jobs by trying to “reinstate [himself] in the world's thoughts” through his writing. He therefore rejected both a lucrative clerkship in the navy that his brother William secured for him in America and an editorship that Walter Scott offered him in Edinburgh. In this way he produced The Sketch Book (April-May 1823, 1:742-43).
The popularity of both The Sketch Book and Bracebridge Hall confirms how successfully Irving catered to the dominant taste of his day. Through the persona of Crayon, a self-described wanderer and explorer since childhood, he appealed both to the American ideal of the individual who makes his own way alone and to the current interest in the romance of the past. But, even though Irving was writing for the market, the biographical facts reveal he was also pursuing his own conflicting ideals—a certain status in and freedom from society. Perhaps unintentionally Irving drew attention to the strong escapist dimension behind his apparently heroic decision to commit himself to being an author. In the “Preface” to the revised edition of The Sketch Book he recalled his real-life letter rejecting Scott's offer of the editorship: “My whole course of life has been desultory and I am unfitted for any periodically recurring task, or any stipulated labour of body or mind. … I shall occasionally shift my residence, and trust to the excitement of various scenes & objects to furnish me with materials” (20 November 1819, 1:570). In fiction he celebrated this free spirit in “The Author's Account of Himself” by immersing Crayon in the romance of the past and in “the charms of storied and poetical association” of Europe. He longed “to escape … from the commonplace realities of the present, and lose [himself] among the shadowy grandeurs of the past.”4 The autobiographical parallel with Rip Van Winkle becomes clearer.
In many ways Irving's life reflected that of the American male whom Fiedler described as “on the run—anywhere—to avoid ‘civilization’ which is to say the confrontation of a man and a woman which leads to the fall to sex, marriage and responsibility.”5 Irving's desire to escape civilization was based on a complex of related motives that incorporated but were larger than the fear of “confronting” a woman. She was an important part but only a part of the whole “civilization” that threatened him. He was often “on the run,” ironically not like Huck Finn “lightin' out for the territory” but rather retreating into British and European society, and into history and myth. He thus avoided sustained involvement not only with American, British, and European women, but with American “civilization” and indeed with each “civilization” he visited. As Fetterley has argued, “‘Rip Van Winkle’ is the … inevitable consequence of the massive suppressions required by Franklin's code of success.” Each work represents a different kind of American success story. “If Franklin's book is a testament to how lucky it is to be an American, ‘Rip Van Winkle’ is perhaps the first registering of a disillusionment with America as idea and fact. …” (2).
But even thousands of miles away from home the free spirit is not totally free, and Irving, unlike Rip Van Winkle, was not able thus to “lose himself” in the past and slough off the influence of contemporary American thought and attitudes. His resistance to changes taking place in American thought is reflected in his conservative reaction to the contemporary reconsiderations of women's role in society. It is well-known that as a result of both the political and industrial revolutions in America, the role and status of women in the new republic came under considerable scrutiny in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. As Linda Kerber has argued, theoretically the republic depended on the virtue, intelligence, and responsibility of all of its citizens. Theoretically this was a step toward greater equality as the model republican woman became a figure of competence and independence, of self-confidence and rationality.6 Irving seemed threatened by this movement toward women's independence and equality and the changes in the status quo that this philosophy implied. In his fiction as in his life, he reduced women to two basic and essentially adolescent classes: his positive category included figures of nurturing, sustaining supporters of men or figures of passive innocence and virtue; his negative category included the aggressor, the seductress and the albatross threatening or draining men. Despite their English subjects and their surface of sentimental fantasy, his essays on women in The Sketch Book and Bracebridge Hall reflect Irving's particular reactions to the changes and confusions in contemporary American thought and the cautionary tone of much contemporary American popular literature. Through Crayon, Irving explored several variations on the theme of women's latent power, and below the reassuring surface his images reveal his sense of inadequacy when faced with women's superior strength and powers of endurance.
The tension between Irving's idealized image of women and his sense of the reality of their power is evident in The Sketch Book. “The Widow and Her Son” presented an idealized version of the enduring strength of the republican mother. Since her husband died of grief at the young man's fate, only she survived to nurse her dying son. Crayon argued that she was sustained by a mother's love for her son which “transcends all other affections of the heart. It is neither to be chilled by selfishness—nor daunted by danger—nor weakened by worthlessness—nor stifled by ingratitude. … And if misfortune overtake him [her son] will be the dearer to her from misfortune” (87). Indeed, she was the only survivor since her husband had died of grief at their son's fatal illness. Ironically, in real life Irving dared not test his fantasy. When the family business in Liverpool went bankrupt, he expressed relief that his mother had died without learning of the financial disaster.
Similarly, “The Wife” reflects Irving's ambivalent feelings about the idealized republican wife. On the surface it romanticized the comfort a man can take from his supportive wife. Crayon assured Leslie, “Those disasters which break down the spirits of a man, and prostrate him in the dust, seem to call forth all the energies of the softer sex, and give such intrepidity and elevation to their character, that at times it approaches to sublimity” (22). The dominant images, however, are of Leslie's feelings of inadequacy as a provider and of Mary's towering resilience as she fulfills Crayon's promise. Their happiness depends on her strength of will. In real life Irving explained to Mrs. Foster that after the bankruptcy of the family business in Liverpool he felt he could not marry because he was “involved in ruin. It was not for a man broken down in the world to drag down any woman to his paltry circumstances, and I was too proud to tolerate the idea of ever mending my circumstances by matrimony” (April-May 1823, 1:737). But his motivation may have been influenced by more than financial concerns. If the idealized portraits of mothers and wives seem to offer appealing images of acceptance and support, they also project an awesome and inherently claustrophobic power. As Rip Van Winkle learned, to succumb to them is to submit to an ultimately stifling society.
Kerber has shown that to counter this threat of women's domination both radicals and conservatives used popular literature to warn women against trusting their own emotions and instinct (206, 235). Similarly, Joyce Warren has illustrated that whatever the theoretical base for the new republican society, the rising “cult of the individual” was male-dominated as women's sense of independence was subverted by pressure to establish their social status through marriage and their virtuous reputation through devotion to the well-being of the male. Despite the efforts of women's rights advocates such as Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the “cult of the lady” emphasized “submissiveness, piety, purity and domesticity.”7
Irving also imitated current didactic literature as he appealed to domestic responsibility, religion, and even nature to shore up the status quo. On the issue of women the tone of Bracebridge Hall is rather more dogmatic than the more sentimental The Sketch Book. The ultra-conservative Crayon presented his ideal couched in terms of female submission and self-control precluding any maturing or self-development. In “Wives” he argued that it is the woman's responsibility to sustain romantic love in a marriage by maintaining the girlish charms that originally made her so attractive—“the chariness of herself and her conduct,” “the same niceness and reserve in her person and habits,” “a freshness and virgin delicacy”; she must “protect herself from that dangerous familiarity, that thorough acquaintance with every weakness and imperfection incident to matrimony” (46-47). Just as Irving had seriously considered marriage only with Matilda Hoffman and Emily Foster, both considerably younger than he, so Crayon's image of marriage is far from a union of equals. The distinct roles of husband and wife are clear, sanctioned not only by tradition but also by the church. He closed his “musings” by citing Jeremy Taylor's sermon on the wedding ring: for the man love and duty, for the woman reverence and obedience. “He provides, and she dispenses; he gives commandments, and she rules by them; he rules her by authority, and she rules him by love; she ought by all means to please him, and he must by no means displease her” (47).
Conservatives were particularly opposed to romantic fiction which offered models of women who dared to trust their own feelings and instincts to break out of the traditional boundaries. Irving supported his advocacy of women's social submissiveness by focusing on the laws of nature to justify their present position. Through Crayon he countered his fear of women's hidden superior strength with more sentimental but evocative images of their vulnerability. In “The Broken Heart” he emphasized that while the conventions of society kept them economically dependent on men, the laws of nature held them emotionally dependent on men. A woman's raison d'être is the love of a man. This was her basic attraction. “Man is the creature of interest and ambition. His nature leads him forth into the struggle and bustle of the world. … But a woman's whole life is a history of the affections. The heart is her world … and if unhappy in her love, her heart is like some fortress that has been captured, and sacked, and abandoned, and left desolate.” Without love “the great charm of existence is at an end” (56-57).
Irving wrote for a living, so his appeal to the majority through popular themes is to be expected, but his private life and correspondence reveal that he held to the conservative position for years after the publication of The Sketch Book and Bracebridge Hall. This is reflected within his own immediately personal circle in his reaction to Mary Shelley, the poet's widow. During the period 1823 to 1830 she showed sustained interest in Irving; he responded with disgust and determined evasion. This may have been because in general he resisted aggressive women or, as Ralph Aderman has suggested, “because he was unwilling to associate with someone whose unconventional behavior had provoked scandal and gossip.”8 Several years later Irving drew on the ladies of the Spanish court to vividly emphasize real-life warnings to the women of his family of the price women paid when they dared to venture beyond the natural, if proscriptive, roles of dutiful mother and wife. He particularly condemned the Infanta Luisa Carlota, the young queen's aunt, for participating in the public arena. Irving saw her as a woman of “strong passions and restless ambition” whose scheming nature and disappointment at her failure to marry her son to the queen first “mortified her pride and exasperated her temper” so that her looks began to fade and she suffered “a kind of fever of the mind” which “acting upon an extremely full, plethoric habit, hurried her out of existence” at thirty-nine. From Irving's perspective her arrogance was duly punished as she lay in state, “in a Gala dress, … the face livid and bloated with disease,” reduced to the gaze and contempt of the “unmannered populace” (9 February 1844, 3:675). He had also condemned the Queen Regent for violating all natural laws because as a widow of the King she had abused her regal position and her woman's role by plotting both in Spain and in France to undermine the Spanish constitution. As a mother she indulged in even more unnatural behavior by establishing a “scandalous connexion” with one of the royal bodyguards and thus neglecting “her sacred duties to her legitimate children” (2 September 1842, 3:309). On her return Irving interpreted her aging physical appearance and her subdued spirit as signs of decline due to her unnatural behavior. While he explicitly used these women to moralize on royal grandeur and morality, he also exploited them to warn his women readers against any show of independence they might be contemplating.
Irving was often attacked as unpatriotic because of his lengthy absences abroad, and throughout his life he confessed that he longed for the “storied and poetical association” found in Britain and Europe but missing from America. However, as an expatriate author and politician he served his country as it strove to distinguish itself from its European and British heritage. His ambivalent reactions to the seduction of the old established European cultures and the appeal of the fresh young Republic are most often and vividly reflected in his contrasting portraits of European and American women. As a young man he responded most obviously to their sensuality and sexuality. At twenty-one Irving was clearly fascinated and repelled by the various forms of “immodesty” he saw in European women. In a representative letter to his friend Beebee his fascination emerges in his long and detailed descriptions, and his revulsion in the extravagance of his language. Every elaboration to his contemporaries on the sensual attractions in Europe is accompanied by refrain-like assurances of superior American morality and his attempts to keep his American morals “as untainted as possible from foreign profligacy.” Delighted by the performance of French female dancers, he indulged in a detailed description of their “flesh colored habit that is fitted exactly to the shape and looks like the skin … their figures are perfectly visible” through the muslin dresses which, flying up, “discovers their whole person. …” But he assured Beebee, “my american notions of delicacy & propriety are not sufficiently conquerd for me to view this shameless exposure of their persons without sentiments bordering on disgust.” His particular contempt was held for the married women who were “often themselves the assailants, … [throwing] out a lure with the most consummate address” (18 September 1804, 1:78-80).
As the more mature Irving recognized the conflict between his fantasies and the realities of Europe, he recorded the immorality he saw with resigned disappointment. He had once been deeply enough moved by a young bride in a tableau of Murillo's Virgin of the Assumption to describe it as “more like a vision of Something Spiritual and celestial than a representation of any thing merely mortal; or rather it was woman … approaching to the Angelic nature” (22 January 1828, 2:265). Fourteen years later he saw the same lady with her daughters, flaunting her younger lover at the theatre. Disappointed, he mused, “Time dispells charms and illusions. … She may have the customs of a depraved country and licentious state of society to excuse her; but I can never think of her again in the halo of feminine purity and loveliness that surrounded the Virgin of Murillo” (18 October 1842, 3:357).
While Irving was threatened by the open intrigue of the Europeans, he felt secure, if bored, with the unworldly American ladies who, in their apparent simplicity, seemed harmless. Social bias, which ridiculed the “Learned Lady,” and social practice, which limited female education, discouraged women from much public display of independent thought. As a petulant twenty-four-year-old, Irving wrote from Richmond, Virginia, to Mary Fairlie mocking the fashion for reading romances and complaining about the “novel-read damsels … [,] the tender hearted fair ones [who] think you absolutely at their command—they conclude that you must of course be fond of moonlight walks—and rides at day break and red hot strolls in the middle of the day … and ‘Melting hot—hissing hot’ tea parties—and what is worse they expect you to talk sentiment. …” He had gone to Richmond to observe the trial of Aaron Burr, and he praised the ladies for their support of Burr, for their “compassion” which “results from that merciful—that heavenly disposition implanted in the female bosom, which ever inclines in favour of the accused & the unfortunate” (7 July 1807, 1:244-45). Even while he joked that their unworldliness “exalted” them ever higher in his estimation, he celebrated the laws of nature that had made women all feeling and very little thought and thus powerless.
Even in his maturity Irving rarely recognized women for their intellect. In his descriptions of the American and European women he met in the social scene in Madrid, he repeated the same accolades, reflecting admiration for only the most superficial qualities: affable, engaging, sensitive, graceful, and conversable. His references to women's intellect were always brief, almost asides. He valued one of his closest friends, Mrs. O'Shea, because she was “of good understanding and the kindest and most amiable manners” (12 March 1844, 3:692). When he first met Madame Calderón, he barely acknowledged her “lively” book, Life in Mexico, emphasizing rather William H. Prescott's Conquest of Mexico, in which he had been “deeply interested and highly pleased” (7 January 1844, 3:645). He subsequently came to appreciate her as much for her “very good humor” and “good spirits” as for her intelligence (13 April 1844, 3:720). In his letters to his sister and nieces describing Spanish politics, he was equally condescending, assuming their interests were restricted to the romance and excitement of the events. He promised to pursue themes from Spanish history for his sister Catharine Paris “as it will be carrying on a living historical romance for her gratification. …” (26 November 1842, 3:414). He was patronizing even to his beloved niece, Sarah Storrow: “I do not wonder that you are … disposed to think hardly of Espartero for the measures he has taken to suppress the insurrection: you would not have a womans feelings if you did not. But you must not believe all that you read in the newspapers. … I will endeavor in some future letter to give you a key to the mysteries of Spanish politics. …” (5 January 1843, 3:446). His highest praise went to those women who exercised their abilities to maintain their homes, their families, or Irving himself. He respected the Duchess of Berwick primarily because she had been able to restore her husband's “immense wealth” after his estates had been ruined by poor management (16 March 1844, 3:695). His dearest friend in Spain was his “fair neighbor and countrywoman,” Madame Albuquerque, whose strongest appeal for him was that she acted “the part of a niece towards” him (19 January 1844, 3:649). She helped him organize his apartments, arrange official dinner parties, and let him accompany her with her children on rides to the country.
Jeffrey Rubin-Dorsky has noted that during his earlier stay in Spain the idea of an earthly paradise had become central in Irving's thinking and writing, but such an Eden had eluded him until he found the Alhambra. Irving rejoiced, “Behold for once a day-dream realized.”9 Never again did he find what Rubin-Dorsky defined as a paradise “commensurate with his capacity for wonder,” an ideal retreat in a timeless place like this where historical fact, mystery, and myth are accepted as equally valid and essentially interchangeable by its inhabitants.10 It was the ideal retreat that demanded nothing from him. From the balcony of the Hall of Ambassadors he used a pocket telescope to observe both nature and an alameda, or public walk, immediately below. Irving recalled, “It was a moving picture of Spanish life and character, which I delighted to study. … I was thus in a manner, an invisible observer, and, without quitting my solitude, could throw myself in an instant into the midst of society,—a rare advantage to one of somewhat shy and quiet habits, and fond, like myself, of observing the drama of life without becoming an actor in the scene” (Alhambra, 71). Significantly, this is a paradise with virtually no women, certainly none making any demands on him. He could fantasize about “the white arm of some mysterious princess beckoning from the gallery, or some dark eye sparkling through the lattice” (Alhambra, 32-33), or he could observe the colorful squatters like the little old Cockle-queen. Mostly he allowed himself to be attended by Tia Antonia, the custodian of the Alhambra, and plump Dolores, his particular servant.
Only at Sunnyside did he reach anything like this domestic security. Having voluntarily undertaken the support of several family members there, he had created a home for himself and accepted the responsibilities of a family man without the inconvenience of a wife. Sometimes he chafed under the financial obligation of this arrangement, but mostly he relished the idea of himself as père de famille. Just as Rip Van Winkle returned from his dream, so did Irving. Although he could never fully escape the social and political pressures of the day, he could retreat to his “little paradise on earth” (5 November 1842, 3:370). While in Madrid, chafing to be at Sunnyside, he had come to appreciate that he had maintained a distanced posture which had influenced most aspects of his life. He confided in Sarah Storrow, “Indeed I have been for so much of my life a mere looker on in the game of society that it has become habitual to me. …” He acknowledged that in his youth his “imagination was always in the advance, picturing out the future and building castles in the air, now memory comes in the place of imagination” to cast a soft light over the past (28 March 1845, 3:924). He ended his life at Sunnyside, absorbed by the past of his and America's mythic hero, George Washington, and “spoiled … by living continually in the bosom of a family surrounded by affectionate beings who cherished” him (29 May 1842, 3:303). Surely this was what he had been preparing himself for all of his life: surrounded by women, unwilling to let go totally of the public world and free to escape into the past whenever he chose.
Judith Fetterley, The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978), 3.
Washington Irving, Letters, ed. Ralph M. Aderman, Herbert L. Kleinfield, and Jenifer S. Banks (Boston: Twayne Publishers, vol. 1, 1978; vol. 2, 1979; vols. 3 and 4, 1982), 15 December 1802, 1:6. Subsequent references are given in the text with the date of each letter followed by the volume and page number.
Washington Irving, Bracebridge Hall, or The Humourists: A Medley by Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., ed. Herbert F. Smith (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977), 43-44, 46.
Washington Irving, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., ed. Haskell Springer (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978), 9.
Leslie A. Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1960), xx-xxi.
Linda K. Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980), 189, 231.
Joyce M. Warren, The American Narcissus (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1984), 6-11.
Ralph M. Aderman, “Mary Shelley and Washington Irving Once More,” Keats-Shelley Journal, 31 (1982), 24-28.
Washington Irving, The Alhambra, ed. William T. Lenehan and Andrew B. Myers (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983), 7.
Jeffrey Rubin-Dorsky, “The Alhambra: Washington Irving's House of Fiction,” Studies in American Fiction, 2 (Autumn 1983), 179.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4155
SOURCE: ‘Girls can take care of themselves’: Gender and Storytelling in Washington Irving's ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’” Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 30, No. 2, Spring, 1993, pp. 175-84.
[In the following essay, Plummer and Nelson explore gender ideology in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” arguing that the story reflects Irving's misogynist beliefs.]
Discussions of Washington Irving often concern gender and the artistic imagination, but these topics are usually mutually exclusive when associated with the two most enduring stories from the Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-20): “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Many readings of the former focus on gender, while discussions of the latter most often explore its conception of the artist's role in American society.1 “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” does indeed address this second theme, but also complicates it by making art an issue of gender. Ichabod Crane is not only a representative of bustling, practical New England who threatens imaginatively fertile rural America with his prosaic acquisitiveness; he is also an intrusive male who threatens the stability of a decidedly female place. For Irving, the issue of art is sexually charged; in Sleepy Hollow, this tension finally becomes a conflict between male and female storytelling. A close look at the stories that circulate through the Dutch community shows that Ichabod's expulsion follows directly from women's cultivation of local folklore. Female-centered Sleepy Hollow, by means of tales revolving around the emasculated, headless “dominant spirit” of the region, figuratively neuters threatening masculine interlopers like Ichabod to ensure the continuance of the old Dutch domesticity, the Dutch wives' hearths, and their old wives' tales.
Although Irving often places the feminine in a pejorative light—the “feminine” in Ichabod is his unmanly, superstitious, trembling, and gullible side—he himself seems, in this tale, begrudgingly to acquiesce to the female sphere of Sleepy Hollow. And this sphere has none of the abrasiveness so blatant in “Rip Van Winkle.” We have no shrewish wife, whose death in a “fit of passion” allows for Rip's carefree dotage upon his return to the village. Rather, we are left with a sense of relief at Ichabod's removal, at this snake's relegation to the mythology of the Hollow. Thus the tale presents a stark contrast to “Rip Van Winkle.” In that story, women attempt and fail to confront men openly; in Sleepy Hollow, female behavior is much more subversive, and effective.
In “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Irving's conservatism subverts itself, since conservation of the existing power structure means the continuance of a female (though certainly not feminist) hierarchy. Irving's tale is one of preservation, then, of maintenance of the feminine, and the landscape is the predominant female. Sleepy Hollow lies “in the bosom” of a cove lining the Hudson (Sketch Book 272), the valley is “embosomed in the great state of New York” (274), and the vegetating families of Sleepy Hollow are rooted in its “sheltered bosom” (274). Clearly the repose and security of the place rest in the maternal landscape—an assumption so pervasive that even our male narrator attests to it.2 For as he observes, in this tale of a Dutch Eden even the adamic act of naming falls to women. “The good house-wives of the adjacent country, from the inveterate propensity of their husbands to linger about the village tavern on market days,” have named the nearby “rural port” “Tarry Town” (272); the name and the power of naming thus operate as a gently sardonic means of reproaching unruly husbands and of preserving female dominance over the valley.
The narrator is not simply an idle observer, however. He comes to the Hollow to hunt:
I recollect that when a stripling, my first exploit in squirrel shooting was in a grove of tall walnut trees that shades one side of the valley. I had wandered into it at noon time, when all nature is peculiarly quiet, and was startled by the roar of my own gun, as it broke the sabbath stillness around, and was prolonged and reverberated by the angry echoes. If ever I should wish for a retreat, whither I might steal from the world and its distractions, and dream quietly away the remnant of a troubled life, I know none more promising than this little valley.
The tale thus begins with a paradigm of masculine experience in the maternal bosom of Sleepy Hollow: an acquisitive, intrusive male both perpetuates female influence over the region and also acquiesces to constraints on male behavior. As the narrator remarks, the Hollow is his choice for “retreat” and security. But although the return to Sleepy Hollow is therefore a return to the womb, unfortunately, he is no longer welcome there.3
For as he praises the soporific atmosphere of the Dutch valley, the narrator also admits it has repulsed him. It is clear that Mother Nature here produces a bower not to be disturbed by the masculine aggression of hunting, regardless of its tameness in the case of this “stripling.” Hunting is not permitted, and trespassers will be startled into submission. Our gun-toting narrator is surprised not only by the roar of his own gun, his own masculine explosion into the place, but also by the sense that his behavior is inappropriate. This womb-like grove is for nurturing dream, not bloodsport; to be treated with respect due the sabbath, not rent asunder by blunderbuss ejaculations. Indeed, the “angry echoes” from the landscape suggest a rebellious reaction to such flagrant poaching. Indolent as the epigraph may make the place seem,4 Sleepy Hollow does not take kindly to intruders; hence the narrator is properly awed into acquiescence.
The youthful exploit of this opening scene is echoed by the actions of Ichabod and the Headless Horseman. For like the narrator, both Ichabod and “the dominant spirit” of Sleepy Hollow—“the apparition of a figure on horseback without a head” (273)—are masculine, mercenary interlopers in this feminine place. The bony schoolmaster's desire to liquidate heiress Katrina Van Tassel's wealth, invest it “in immense tracts of wild land” (280), and take Katrina from the Hollow mirrors both the narrator's childhood intrusion and the former Hessian trooper's attempt to win Sleepy Hollow for Royalist forces “in some nameless battle during the revolutionary war” (273).5 They embody the essence of masculine imperialism: war, fortune hunting, and even squirrel hunting are all expressions of the same will to conquer. Gun, Hessian sword, or birch in hand, the narrator, the Horseman, and Ichabod all bear authority; and all three seek the spoils—political, material or sexual—of invading Sleepy Hollow.
Irving's bawdy imagery strongly suggests that all male intrusions in this female place are ultimately sexual.6 Ichabod, for example, is described in insistently phallic terms:
He had, however, a happy mixture of pliability and perseverance in his nature; he was in form and spirit like a supple jack—yielding, but tough; though he bent, he never broke; and though he bowed beneath the slightest pressure, yet, the moment it was away—jerk!—he was as erect, and carried his head as high as ever.
The pedagogue's “pliability and perseverance”—Ichabod is elsewhere accredited with possessing “the dilating powers of an Anaconda” (275)—suggest that he will not be as easily scared or awed as the narrator. It will take more than just the roar of his gun to frighten this persistent “jack.”
Storytelling is also a part of male imperialism. Of the numerous tales that circulate through Sleepy Hollow, those told by men concern their own fictionalized exploits. “The sager folks” at Van Tassel's farm sit “gossiping over former times, and drawling out long stories about the war”; “just sufficient time had elapsed to enable each storyteller to dress up his tale with a little becoming fiction, and in the indistinctness of his recollection, to make himself the hero of every exploit” (288). These stories are designed to increase the teller's status in the minds of his listeners by linking him to the heroic, historic, and masculine past.
True to this male practice of self-aggrandizing storytelling, Ichabod regales his female companions with scientific “speculations upon comets and shooting stars, and with the alarming fact that the world did absolutely turn round, and that they were half the time topsy-turvy!” (277). Though fantastic in themselves, these stories are to Ichabod the height of learning and scholarly achievement. Even his tales of the supernatural show him as “a perfect master of Cotton Mather's History of New England Witchcraft” (276). Ichabod's familiarity with the subject attests to his book learning and his reliance on the great masters of American thought, not to his understanding of folklore. Boastfully displaying his knowledge of worldly matters, this “travelling gazette” brings word of the “restless country” of “incessant change” outside Sleepy Hollow (276, 274). Part of the pioneer's repertoire, carried from town to town, his stories are meant to recommend him to each new audience by proving his erudition.
While male storytelling is a part of the will to compete and conquer, storytelling for the women of Sleepy Hollow moves beyond self-image to counter that male will. The “witching power” the narrator fails to define fully is a female influence that gently molds the inhabitants of Sleepy Hollow through the folklore that emanates from that exclusively female, domestic province, the hearth (273):
Another of [Ichabod's] sources of fearful pleasure was, to pass long winter evenings with the old Dutch wives, as they sat spinning by the fire, with a row of apples roasting and sputtering along the hearth, and listen to their marvellous tales of ghosts and goblins, and haunted fields and haunted brooks, and haunted bridges and haunted houses, and particularly of the headless horseman, or galloping Hessian of the Hollow, as they sometimes called him.
Spinning, cooking, and spinning tales are simultaneous acts; the convergence of folklore and the domestic imbues everyday events with the supernatural.
The effectiveness of this domestication of the supernatural is clear from the extent to which folklore affects local inhabitants' behavior. At the tale's close, the bridge where the Horseman confronted Ichabod is no longer used, the schoolhouse is abandoned, and Ichabod's “magic books” have been burned in Hans Van Ripper's censorial flames (295); the community has accepted that the spirit world is larger than themselves, that despite their boasts and challenges, the lore of the place is still supreme and affects nearly every facet of their lives.
Perhaps the most convincing proof of the pervasiveness of female influence in Sleepy Hollow is that all the men have set themselves to challenging it. Accordingly, the narrator not only concedes the connection between women and spirits, but he also establishes women as the greatest source of fear for men:
[Ichabod] would have passed a pleasant life of it, in despite of the Devil and all his works, if his path had not been crossed by a being that causes more perplexity to mortal man, than ghosts, goblins, and the whole race of witches put together, and that was—a woman.
Although this passage is supposed to be humorous, it nonetheless reveals Irving's characteristic misogyny and the male fear of disempowerment played out again and again throughout the tale. In contrast to Rip Van Winkle, however, the Hollow men displace this fear from women to characters of folklore. It is a misunderstanding that, as in the case of Ichabod, ensures men's continued thraldom.
Given the misogynistic bent of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” it is not surprising that despite the tale's narrative complexity, Irving suppresses actual female speech; in fact, the only narratives directly or indirectly related are spoken by men. This conspicuous absence of female narration underscores the way in which males both fear and resist the feminine. Thus, the narrator is at a loss to relate what Katrina says to Ichabod in their tête-à-tête after the frolic: “What passed at this interview I will not pretend to say, for in fact I do not know” (290). The war stories told at the Van Tassel frolic, like the narrative as a whole, are told by men. And it is Sleepy Hollow men who tell ghost stories at the frolic. Tales from the female sphere must be validated by male retelling.7 That is, the story of the Headless Horseman originates in a tradition kept by women; storytelling sessions with women make Ichabod susceptible to local superstition; but men first reinforce, and then—as we shall see in the confrontation between Ichabod and Brom Bones—capitalize on the fears and superstitions engendered by women.
The ultimate irony concerning gender and storytelling, then, is that the very female stories males debunk influence their lives, often through their own telling of them. The men who continually joust fictionally with the Headless Horseman not only inflate their prowess, but also repeatedly confront in narrative the threatening world formed, unbeknownst to them, by the alliance of female and spirit. Fighting mock battles in which they defeat what they mistakenly consider their greatest adversary, men actually strengthen the female hold on the community by reinforcing and perpetuating the narratives through which women maintain order.
Indeed, Brom Bones and Ichabod provide an example of males literally enacting these stories. In his role as the Headless Horseman, by means of which he intends to humiliate his rival, Brom unwittingly serves as the means to achieve the goal of the female community: the removal of Ichabod and himself as threats to Sleepy Hollow's quietude. Posing as the Headless Horseman of legend, Brom plays upon Ichabod's superstition and credulity to eliminate his opponent. And it is Ichabod's association of legend and place, engendered in his mind by the female-controlled mythology, that proves his undoing. Riding home alone from the Van Tassel farm at “the very witching time of night,” “all the stories of ghosts and goblins that he had heard in the afternoon, now came crowding upon his recollection;” “he was, moreover, approaching the very place where many of the scenes of the ghost stories had been laid” (291). Thus Brom Bones has at his disposal a carefully scripted and blocked drama with which to exploit Ichabod's credulity and superstitious fear.
The phallic language of this passage reiterates Ichabod's sexual threat and clearly indicates that the gullible pedagogue is essentially neutralized or neutered by figurative castration. Bones, masquerading as the Headless Horseman, appears as “something huge, misshapen, black and towering” “like some gigantic monster” (292), while Ichabod flees in terror from the apparition “stretch[ing] his long lank body away over his horse's head, in the eagerness of his flight” (293). Indeed, in this drama of competing masculinity, Ichabod's fear is of dismemberment. Ichabod, “unskilful rider that he was!” has trouble staying on his mount, slipping and bouncing from one side to the other “with a violence that he verily feared would cleave him asunder.” Ichabod's fear is nearly realized when Brom hurls his pumpkin/head at the schoolmaster, “tumbl[ing him] headlong into the dust” (294).
Brom Bones triumphs in this phallic contest of horsemanship and sexual potency—Ichabod is never seen in Sleepy Hollow again—but ironically this ejaculatory coup de grâce effects his own emasculation. His impersonation of the Horseman prefigures his domestication: donning the garb of the dismembered spirit, and ultimately throwing away his head, Brom insures that his days as a “roaring, roystering blade” are numbered (281).8 The ultimate beneficiary of Brom's midnight prank is the Dutch community itself, the maintenance of whose dreamy repose and domestic harmony is the province of women.
The altercation between Brom and Ichabod and its inevitable outcome meet with tacit approval from the female sphere. Brom Bones, the “hero of the country round” with “more mischief than ill will in his composition” (281), appears not to share the schoolmaster's desire to take Katrina and her wealth out of the Dutch community. Since marriage is a most soporific state for the men of Sleepy Hollow, it is more than likely that Brom, who “had for some time singled out the blooming Katrina for the object of his uncouth gallantries” (282), will soon become as content and domesticated, and as plump and vegetable-like, as Katrina's father. Accordingly, there are no “angry echoes” to greet Brom's adventures; indeed, “the old dames” of the country, content with merely remarking “aye, there goes Brom Bones and his gang,” indulge him in his revels and pranks (281). For Brom Bones would be a threat to Sleepy Hollow only if Ichabod should succeed in his suit, thus extending Brom's bachelorhood indefinitely (and enabling Ichabod to make off with the Van Tassel fortune).
Ichabod's expulsion from Sleepy Hollow, then, results from subtle manipulation of local folklore by women. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” thus provides a foil to the open male-female confrontation of “Rip Van Winkle”; the story is a darker, more paranoid vision of female power. Indeed, the narrative frame shows the lengths to which men go to find plausible alternatives to the female version of Ichabod's disappearance, which relegates him to the cosmos:
The old country wives, however, who are the best judges of these matters, maintain to this day, that Ichabod was spirited away by supernatural means; and it is a favourite story often told about the neighborhood round the evening fire.
The male account asserts that Ichabod
had changed his quarters to a distant part of the country; had kept school and studied law at the same time; had been admitted to the bar, turned politician, electioneered, written for the newspapers, and finally had been made a Justice of the Ten Pound Court.
This version translates the jerky young man into the self-reliant American jack-of-all-trades and self-made success.9 Yet this story is also an import; it arrives via “an old farmer, who had been down to New York on a visit several years after” (295). The ending is brought into Sleepy Hollow from New York, and by a man; it dismisses the supernatural perspective with a very plausible account of Ichabod's fear and mortification as impetus for his speedy removal, and places Ichabod in a respected occupation.
In similar fashion, Diedrich Knickerbocker attempts in the tale's postscript to lend credibility—a factual backbone—to his story, by placing it within a masculine sphere:
The preceding Tale is given, almost in the precise words in which I heard it related at a corporation meeting of the ancient city of Manhattoes, at which were present many of its sagest and most illustrious burghers.
These wise old men are intended to lend credence and authority to a story that operates on a plane beyond that of burghers and business meetings. And, as Knickerbocker relies upon the authority of “precise words,” we are reminded of the narrator's having told us early in the narrative that his aim is to be “precise and authentic” (272). Something there is in these male storytellers that doesn't love a ghost.
The narrator's sardonic comment that “the old country wives … are the best judges of these matters” is clue enough to a rather disparaging attitude; resenting the authority of women is nothing new to Irving's fiction. Yet this remark does not alter the fact that the community listens to the women's stories. And this particular one is a favorite in Sleepy Hollow because it both warns and neutralizes threatening males. Ichabod becomes the community's most recent lesson by example, the shivering victim of his own acquisitive fantasies and proof positive of the truth of legend.
The postscript to the tale reiterates the gender conflict present in the story proper and the narrative frame. Diedrich Knickerbocker focuses on the confrontation between the narrator and a cynical listener that ends in the narrator's parodic syllogism and his ambiguous admission concerning his story that “I don't believe one half of it myself” (297). Their verbal jousting is reminiscent of Brom's and Ichabod's own rivalry. And Diedrich Knickerbocker's description of the narrator is most telling: he is “one whom I strongly suspected of being poor, he made such efforts to be entertaining” (296). This, too, allies the narrator with Ichabod and the men of the Dutch community; his performance stands as a final example of male self-aggrandizing storytelling. Indeed, the tale proper becomes the object of male desire and competition; it is the game our youthful narrator has waited the length of a “troubled life” to carry off. In turn, Diedrich Knickerbocker the antiquarian, and Geoffrey Crayon the sketch writer, extend this instance of storytelling as appropriation to fill the entire frame of the tale: its inclusion in The Sketch Book. The presence of gender as a central conflict is further buried under layers and layers of male acquisitiveness and competition.
But in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” stories, like wealth and game, are not exportable. It is the association of lore and place, of supernatural and practical, that gives the legend of the Headless Horseman its power and efficacy in controlling males within the Dutch community; the very title of the sketch reinforces the primacy of place in storytelling. Like the Horseman himself, the tale is powerless outside a circumscribed area. The ability to tell it in New York, where its supernatural elements are so easily debunked, attests not to the power of the male storyteller who does the debunking—as the postscript would have us believe—but to the element of female storytelling in Sleepy Hollow that insures the success of the female order: its subtle, self-effacing nature. Diffused throughout the folklore and the practical, everyday world of a particular place, the source of power in the Hollow—women—is disguised, making belief in the supernatural a matter of course, not compulsion. When the tale is told outside this female-controlled landscape of the naturalized supernatural, the effectiveness of the story dissolves, leaving only a Hollow husk.
Leslie Fiedler and Judith Fetterley have provided the most influential readings of “Rip Van Winkle” that concentrate on gender: both see the tale as an instance of male flight from female influence and control. Lloyd M. Daigrepont summarizes and contributes to the extensive discussion of conflict in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” interpreted “in terms of the special concerns of the man of letters or the artist versus those of a practical-minded, progressive society” (68).
Several narratives make up “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”: antiquarian Diedrich Knickerbocker's manuscript recording the tale proper, related by an unnamed narrator to Knickerbocker and others at a meeting of burghers in New York; a postscript written by Knickerbocker explaining the setting in which the preceding tale was told, as well as its reception; and, within the unnamed narrator's story, numerous yarns told by the inhabitants of Sleepy Hollow and adjacent areas.
Annette Kolodny, one writer who does discuss gender in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” assesses both male escapism and the presence of a maternal landscape in “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”: “in escaping the traumas of history and progress, Rip Van Winkle and Brom Bones demonstrated the alternative commitment to a psychological adolescence through which, only, the ambience of the Mother might be maintained” (68). Our narrator shares this impulse.
The epigraph to the story is from James Thomson's “Castle of Indolence”:
A pleasing land of drowsy head it was Of dreams that wave before the half-shut eye; And of gay castles in the clouds that pass, Forever flushing round a summer sky.
As John Seelye observes, the presence of “Andre's Tree,” and stories told by locals about this British major who conspired with Benedict Arnold to betray American forces, point to “still another alien intruder into the Hudson Valley” (420).
William P. Dawson notes that “In Irving's day, ‘squirrel’ was slang for harlot,” and discusses the sexual suggestiveness of guns and hunting imagery in “Rip Van Winkle” (201).
In keeping with this dynamic, the narrator punctuates his opening enumeration of the female characteristics of Sleepy Hollow with the suggestion that the region's dreamy nature is the result of male actions: “Some say that the place was bewitched by a high German doctor during the early days of the settlement; others, that an old Indian chief, the prophet or wizard of his tribe, held his powows there …” (273).
Having lost his head to become a harmless spirit inhabitant of the region now governed by his former enemies, and trapped geographically and temporally—since he cannot venture beyond the Hollow and must return to his grave by sunup—the Horseman is an apt symbol of emasculated male potency.
Daniel Hoffman discusses Irving's use of character types drawn from American folklore.
Daigrepont, Lloyd M. “Ichabod Crane: Inglorious Man of Letters.” Early American Literature 19 (1984): 68-81.
Dawson, William P. “‘Rip Van Winkle’ as Bawdy Satire.” ESQ 27 (1981): 198-206.
Fetterley, Judith. The Resisting Reader. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1978.
Fiedler, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel. Rev. ed. New York: Stein and Day, 1966.
Hoffman, Daniel. Form and Fable in American Fiction. New York: Oxford UP, 1961.
Irving, Washington. The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon. Ed. Haskell Springer. Boston: Twayne, 1978.
Kolodny, Annette. The Lay of the Land. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1975.
Seelye, John. “Root and Branch: Washington Irving and American Humor.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 38 (1984): 415-25.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7310
SOURCE: “Recovering ‘Rip Van Winkle’: A Corrective Reading,” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, Vol. 40, No. 3, 1994, pp. 251-73.
[In the following essay, Dawson contends that the forest scene in “Rip Van Winkle” is gothic rather than comic and that the story is not anti-feminist.]
While compiling a notebook of reminiscences during his term as American minister to Spain, Washington Irving reflected upon the history behind a tale he had written a quarter century earlier. “The idea,” he writes, “was taken from an old tradition” that he “picked up among the Harz Mountains.” By using the New York Catskills as the background for “Rip Van Winkle,” he furthered his project of providing the young nation with a measure of the folk tradition dear to romanticism. He was astonished at his success: “When I first wrote the ‘Legend of Rip van Winkle,’” he records in his notebook,
my thought had been for some time turned towards giving a colour of romance and tradition to interesting points of our national scenery which is so deficient generally in our country. My friends endeavored to dissuade me from it and I half doubted my own foresight when it was first published from the account of the small demand made for that number, but subsequent letters brought news of its success and of the lucky hit I had made.1
This essay attempts to advance understanding of “Rip Van Winkle,” first by revealing ways that Rip's experiences have been misunderstood and then by proceeding to find hitherto neglected meaning in the forest scene at the tale's center, arguing that, far from the comical interlude it is generally understood to be, the episode is pervasively gothic in character. The essay challenges ideological interpretations whereby Irving's story is read as a proof-text of American literary antifeminism and proposes that a proper appreciation of Irving's assignment of gender roles in the story requires consideration of its position in The Sketch Book and its meaning within that context.
Irving's story succeeded famously, possibly better than he expected. The fantasy of an individual's escape from time and social obligations that he appropriated from a German märchen was ages old,2 but its appeal hardly promised to win the widespread popularity finally enjoyed by his localized tale. The story that initially appeared in The Sketch Book, at first a staple of schoolroom readers, gained broad acceptance as an indigenous American folktale; however, it was freely altered in consequent retellings. Within a decade of its original publication in 1819, “Rip Van Winkle” was adapted for the stage in the first of an assortment of dramatic versions that made Rip's travails familiar to nineteenth-century American and English theatergoers. Later adaptations, like Edmund Clarence Stedman's Rip Van Winkle and His Wonderful Nap, further popularized the legend of Rip's mountain stay. Meanwhile, the tale's fanciful episodes recommended themselves to a long line of popular illustrators, such as John Quidor and Felix O. C. Darley, whose sentimentalized scenes, often very different from Irving's originals, made Rip's adventures known to an even wider audience.3 The tale remains one of the best known favorites of American popular culture, treasured even as it is unfailingly misremembered.
The influence of derivative versions may explain why the clear content of Irving's own telling is so regularly altered, as when The Oxford Companion to American Literature tells of Rip's encounter with a “dwarf-like stranger” as he pauses for rest in the forest.4 There is no warrant in Irving's text for the statement that Rip meets up with a deformed, gnome-like creature of the sort that Albert Gelpi takes to be “a little old man: an aged child, a homunculus of Rip, dwarfed and emasculated by his infantile regression.”5 In fact, the forest guide of The Sketch Book is very simply described as a figure of somewhat less than average height—“a short, square built old fellow, with thick bushy hair and a grizzled beard” (33).6 The tale's central episode, Rip's encounter with the crew of Henry Hudson's Half Moon, is just as commonly altered. The Cambridge Guide to English Literature, for example, reports that an “amiable Dutch-American meets a strange dwarflike person[.] … joins him at a silent party of similar dwarfs[, and] … is given drink.”7
Again and again the crew members are similarly misrepresented by various critics: they are described as “dwarfs,” “dwarfish people,” “little people,” “little old boys,” “little men,” “a group of little old men,” “aged children,” “little boys[,] … aged little men,” the “ghosts of certain jolly old Dutchmen[, and] … comic Netherlandish wraiths.”8 William L. Hedges finds Rip's low self-esteem reflected in what the critic characterizes as the lack of height and carefree mood of those in the group: “They are small and comical, one suspects, because they are in a sense mock-heroic images of Rip himself; they represent his unconscious recognition of his lack of stature, and his willingness to put up with himself as he is even though he sees how little he amounts to.”9 No such party of happy gnomes is found in the text. The single seaman met laboring beneath a keg of gin is simply described as “short,” and Rip finds nothing amusing in the conduct of the Half Moon's complement (33). The impression that dwarfs or otherwise undersized figures exist in the tale can be traced to early dramatizations of “Rip,” but no further. For instance, Rip meets a “grotesque dwarf” in Charles Burke's 1850 play, and well before Joseph Jefferson and Dion Boucicault's 1865 collaboration gave the theatricalized legend its classic form, the Dutch sailors' ghosts were fixed in a series of stage versions as “imps” and “demons,” characters in the fashion of nineteenth-century low comedy who were endowed by playwrights with such extravagant, laughter-provoking names as “Swaggrino,” “Gauderkin,” and “Icken.”10
The popularized accretions of Irving's tale repeatedly lead twentieth-century commentators into error. It is as mistaken to say that the bowlers Rip encounters “prove cordial, if silent,” or that “they ply [Rip] with ‘excellent Hollands’” as to speak of his warm reception into a “perfect communion of males.”11 In Irving's episode, not the slightest gesture of hospitality is made to welcome Rip. The Half Moon crew is, if not menacing, chillingly indifferent to this visitor from the world of the living. It is “with fear and trembling” that Rip submits to becoming their lackey, and only “when no eye [is] fixed upon him” does he dare steal a share of their beverage (34). One critic's error in describing this reunion of old sailors as an “eternal playtime in the hills” enjoyed in the “Happy Valley of natural ease and male camaraderie” is echoed in another's terming the morose Catskill glen “the ideal American territory,” which “Irving invokes as playground.”12
This tale of marital mismatch becomes for many critics an allegorical contest: “the conflict of Man and Woman,” a tale in which “the opposition of Rip and Dame Van Winkle is extended to women and men in general.”13 But that dichotomy is not sustained even within the fictional hamlet where Rip is “a great favourite among all the good wives of the village, who … [take] his part in all family squabbles, and … lay all the blame on Dame Van Winkle” (30). Even before Leslie A. Fiedler propounded his imaginative readings of the tale, Philip Young discovered in it an exercise in “whimsical anti-feminism.” Noting that the German legend from which the tale derives has no wife figure, Fiedler finds the sharp-tongued Dame Van Winkle symptomatic of Irving's double-barreled “attack on women and marriage,” and Judith Fetterley warns that the sensitive female reader will find herself “summarized, explained, and dismissed through the convention of stereotypes as a ‘termagant wife,’ a shrew, a virago.”14 Such treatment of the tale disregards the narrator's explicit characterization of women as “the amiable sex” (30).15
Fetterley also argues that the very figure who is said to be a summary of American male vices and a despiser of women is a would-be female, claiming that “Rip rejects the conventional image of masculinity and the behavior traditionally expected of an adult male and identifies himself with characteristics and behaviors assumed to be feminine and assigned to women. Thus, the figure who ‘presides over the birth of the American imagination’ is in effect a female-identified woman-hater.” In her reading, Rip the father proves as irresponsible as Rip the husband, so she employs critical sleight of hand to explain his offspring in terms of parthenogenetic fantasy: “Rip's children are difficult to account for; it would seem more likely that he sprung them magically from some part of himself in order to have playmates.” Despite finding “the role [Irving] gives to women” to be “[c]entral” to the tale, Fetterley (like Fiedler) refuses to credit him with having transformed Rip's daughter, whose German counterpart had only a minor role, into the very incarnation of generosity.16 Although Judith grows up without her father (but not without her mother's fierce denunciations of him), she is a paragon of filial love, welcoming to her hearth the old man she loyally memorialized by giving his name to her son. And she also accepts into her home her ne'er-do-well brother—the “urchin begotten in [Rip's] own likeness” who has grown to be his father's “ditto,” carrying the old man's shiftless habits of life into another generation (31, 40).
Indeed, indolence is presented as the common trait of the Dutch husbands of Rip's acquaintance. Irving, perhaps responding to his readers' growing commitment to the young country's work ethic, may have meant his story to mock the socially sanctioned lethargy of the village's male population more than he intended the unique fury of Dame Van Winkle to stand as an indictment of American womanhood. Indeed, by focusing on negative patterns of men's conduct across several generations, Irving shows sons' failures to meet their fathers' expectations and their disavowal of the linear family more than he plays on men's disregard of women. Rip repudiates the military example of his forebears, “who figured so gallantly in the chivalrous days of Peter Stuyvesant, and accompanied him to the siege of Fort Christina” (29). He chooses instead to spend his time as a squirrel- and pigeon-hunter; he neglects his patrimonial estate, allowing it to sink into decay; and his irresponsible son disregards the confused and enfeebled Rip in his moment of greatest need. Finally, those who find the roots of American literary antifeminism in the story disregard the fact that the offensive traits of the Van Winkles descend only to the male. The father's faults seem genetically transmitted to a son who is both physically and temperamentally his clone, “a precise counterpart of himself, … apparently as lazy and certainly as ragged” (38).17 Although the younger Rip has “an hereditary disposition to attend to any thing else but his business” (40), his sister Judith is conspicuously free of her mother's fierce temperament.
Critics who contend that Rip finds in the Half Moon crew's reunion every male's happy release from the imagined tyranny of womankind are again forced to rewrite Irving's text. Fetterley's explication of the tale's alleged bias includes an indictment of what she takes to be just such a celebration of masculine clannishness:
[Rip gains] access to life in an all-male world, a world without women, the ideal American territory. Like Melville a half-century later, Irving invokes as playground a world which is perforce exclusively male—the world of men on ships exploring new territories. Rip encounters in the mountains the classic elements of American male culture: sport invested with utter seriousness; highly ritualized nonverbal communication; liquor as communion; and the mystique of male companionship. In an act of camaraderie, based on a sure and shared instinct as to the life-expectancy of termagants, the little men provide Rip with the opportunity and instrument of escape.18
Fetterley's pleonastic insistence upon “an all-male world, a world without women,” is symptomatic of the misconstrued account that endows Hudson's crew with a gregariousness and an ability to intuit the years remaining to Dame Van Winkle that are without warrant in Irving's text. Clairvoyance and a gift for hexing, even at great distances, are frequently among the magical powers of elves met in fairy tales, but Irving's Dutch sailors are not to be confused with any such “little men.”
Richard J. Zlogar also mischaracterizes the events in the forest when he relates the story's central episode of male overindulgence in drink to the moral content of a Dutch painting tradition. He argues that the old sailors' dissipation is to be read with reference to both the earlier account of the patriarchs of the colonial village assembled at Nicholaus Vedder's inn and the later scene of the early American elders gathered before Doolittle's hotel, and that the sequence of Irving's narrative panels imitates the moralistic geselschapje or “Merry Party” convention made popular by the Old Country painters.19 However, this reading overlooks the unrelieved moroseness of Irving's old tars.
The events of the tale's central episode lack any carefree indulgence. Rip's experience is altogether different from the pattern of escape commonly set in the perpetual sunshine of the tropics rather than the nighttime of Catskill forest gloom, where the bacchanalian celebrants are lulled by sweet music rather than threatened by ominous thunder. In popular escapist fiction, the revelers' mood is brightened by the recovery of youth rather than burdened by the onset of old age. The fantasist imagines himself lord of all he surveys, not a lackey impressed into the duties of a scuttling taproom servant, and his dream world is peopled with compliant wahines rather than dominated by surly seadogs. In “Rip Van Winkle,” there is no Fayaway.
Rip's entry to the forest scene through a symbolic landscape that progressively darkens and his participation in a surreal scene that mingles ritual celebration and gothic terror more closely resembles the experiences of Hawthorne's Goodman Brown than those of male adventurers escaping to “new territories.”20 The narrator of “Young Goodman Brown” suggests (but does not verify) that Brown might have “fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream,” and Irving leaves the same mystery unsolved in Rip's own case.21 Beneath their shared gothic character, both stories possess a mythic quality in telling of nocturnal journeys that draw husbands away from the familiar reinforcements of society, initiate them into a threatening new awareness of life, and return them to their accustomed worlds transformed.22
Testimony to the scene's deeply disturbing psychological content is found in the sentimentalized theatrical versions of the ghostly confrontation, where the crew's profound alienation is transmuted into revelry and Rip's fear becomes the stuff of cheap comedy. Popular culture demanded that Rip's meeting with his mountain guide in the very beginning of the mountain episode be presented to theater audiences as a moment of comic surprise instead of heavy foreboding. In the tale, the Hudson River landscape, which Irving first describes in terms of an Arcadian locus amoenus, turns oddly ambiguous. “In this lonely and unfrequented place,” the sudden calling of Rip's name stirs premonitions of danger. Immediately his dog “bristle[s] up his back,” growls, “skulk[s] to his master's side,” and looks “fearfully down into the glen.” Rip feels a “vague apprehension stealing over him” as he looks “anxiously” to see who is summoning him. The sight of a “strange figure” in anachronistic dress clambering up the rocks is sufficiently unsettling to make the forest rambler “distrustful,” but he neither asks how his name is known nor inquires into the purposes of this curious “new acquaintance.” The stranger's command that Rip render him assistance is conveyed in a mysterious sign language, but one so compelling that Rip responds “with his usual alacrity” (33). Although he wonders about the “object of carrying a keg of liquor up [the] wild mountain,” he harbors no suspicions of smuggling; he asks no questions about the “stout keg that seem[s] full of liquor” (34, 33). Although Rip has arranged no forest rendezvous as did Goodman Brown, he shows the same lack of prudence in acceding to the stranger's insistence that he accompany him. Inevitably, like Salem's Puritan, he is drawn onward contrary to the dictates of good sense: for Rip as much as for Brown, “there [is] something strange and incomprehensible about the unknown, that inspire[s] awe and check[s] familiarity” (34).
When Rip and his guide arrive at the encampment of the ghost crew of the Half Moon, he discovers himself in the midst of a swarm of grotesques. Far from being attentive to any assigned duties or observing any command structure, the band of seamen, themselves oddly accoutred in two-centuries-old garb, have given themselves over to round after round of bowling and heavy drinking. Rip sees
a company of odd looking personages playing at ninepins. They were dressed in a quaint outlandish fashion—some wore short doublets, others jerkins with long knives in their belts and most of them had enormous breeches of similar style with that of the guide's. Their visages too were peculiar. One had a large head, broad face and small piggish eyes. The face of another seemed to consist entirely of nose, and was surmounted by a white sugarloaf hat, set off with a little red cock's tail. They all had beards of various shapes and colours. (34)
Rip concludes that he has not arrived at any blessed domain of carefree spirits but has entered the world of the carnivalesque, where everyday expectations are suspended and the familiar conduct of life gives way to ritual. Language is abandoned in favor of gesture. Discipline and decorum disappear. Costume replaces dress. Most disconcerting of all are the mien and conduct of the not so “Merry Party.” Their faces are grimly vacant and their inexplicable behavior, which at first seems reserved, turns vaguely threatening; “nothing interrupt[s] the stillness of the scene, but the noise of the balls,” echoing “along the mountains like rumbling peals of thunder” (34).
As Rip and Wolf draw near, the “most melancholy party of pleasure” stops bowling and stares “with such fixed statue like gaze, and such strange uncouth, lack lustre countenances” that Rip's heart “turns” and “his knees sm[i]te together.” When served their flagons of gin, the crewmen quaff them without a word and sullenly return to their dreary game. In such fantastic circumstances, the visitor finds it expedient to mask his terror with a becoming subservience, so when Rip is told to wait upon the party of morbid revelers, he obeys with “fear and trembling.” Far from discovering the ease he has sought, Rip is pressed into performing as a servant (34).
The vicennial reunion of the ancient crew is essentially a conclave of transmogrified spirits. Their game of ninepins is an unending round of joylessness that Rip is never invited to join. Denied even the merest show of cordiality, he is never asked to share in the abundant drink but patiently endures a kind of studied humiliation. He bears with the crew's sullen rejection and bides his time for the moment “when no eye [is] fixed upon him, to taste the beverage” that permits his escape. Rip is never more than an interloper, at first fascinated but finally revolted by what he witnesses. He is especially disturbed by the spectacle of “the Commander,” a “stout old gentleman, with a weatherbeaten countenance,” wearing a “laced doublet, broad belt and hanger, high crowned hat and feather, red stockings and high heel'd shoes with roses in them” (34). This figure, made a mockery in popular versions, deserves respect and pity.
The full implication of the scene emerges only when Rip learns the identity of those before him: In 1611, two years after exploring New York's great river, many of Hudson's crew mutinied while searching for the Northwest Passage. The captain was stubborn and misguided, and the men, instead of murdering him, abandoned Hudson and his young son in a small boat on the waters of what would be named Hudson Bay. Rebaptized by Irving with the Dutch name Hendrick Hudson, this “first discoverer of the river and country,” according to the legend as recounted by Peter Vanderdonk, returns every twenty years with his crew to “revisit the scenes of his enterprize and keep a guardian eye upon the river and the great city called by his name” (40). The fate of Hudson and his men recalls the curse of the Flying Dutchman. In the face of a heavy storm and against the protests of his passengers and crew, the Dutchman's stubborn captain vowed to sail his ship around Africa's Cape of Good Hope or be damned in the attempt. According to European legend, he was condemned to pilot a phantom vessel manned by a “crew of dead men, who stand to their tasks unmoving, and will not answer questioning.”23
In “Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey!” Fiedler proffers his conjecture that Americans' guilt concerning race and a repressive sexual history leads them to treat many classic romances as no more than “boys' books.” At least in some respects, Rip's story seems to have had a similar fate. The appeal of his escape from time and societal demands—the “implacable nostalgia for the infantile”24—has had its response in a readiness to repopulate the central scene with little men amusing themselves at children's play. Rip's oneiric retreat brings him into an implausible, all-male society whose ambiguous sexuality is thinly veiled. Clear intimations of the zombified crew members' sterility—their lifelessness and absence of physicality, their advanced age, their silent tongues and loss of voice—contrast strikingly with such conspicuous symbols of male genitalia as their prominently displayed knives, luxurious beards, and “peculiar” faces. One crewman is remarkable for his “piggish eyes” and another for his protruding nose and sugarloaf hat flamboyantly topped with a “little red cock's tail.” The Half Moon's demanding commander, Hudson, is impotent, reduced to posturing as a ridiculously caparisoned mannequin. His flaccid “hanger” contrasts with the “long knives” sported by his hostile crew (34).25 He is no more than an irrelevant bit of stage property in an amphitheater of the absurd, where beings who are only ambiguously alive strive to overcome their essential loneliness in conduct so bizarre as to beggar the credulity of the townspeople to whom Rip returns.
Rip's experience, however, proves very different from those of the trio of American fictional male runaways—Natty Bumppo, Ishmael, and Huck Finn—in whom Fiedler discovers a pattern of sexual shyness.26 None of the three are married, but Rip's marriage is the precipitant of his mountain adventure; he leaves behind a wife and at least two small children. The three “fugitives” discussed by Fiedler find boon companions whose masculine physicality, psychological integrity, and moral superiority are essential features of the liberation they incarnate. Rip's experience is quite the opposite. In a social setting of vexing sexual ambiguity, he meets not flesh-and-blood human beings but ghost-personages from the land of the living dead. These visitors display strangely discordant personalities, for even as they amuse themselves, they maintain “the gravest faces, the most mysterious silence.” Their conflicted psyche is encapsulated in a series of oxymoronic phrases: this “most melancholy party of pleasure” survives in Rip's memory as a “woe begone party” and “grave roysters of the mountain” (34, 35).
Rip does not find an abiding comradeship; he recoils from those he meets; his curiosity turns to fear, then to uncanny suspicion, and finally to rejection. His suspicion that the men have “put a trick upon him, and … dosed him with liquor” is an attempt at self-deception (35). The long afternoons at the village inn that enable him to judge “the flavour of excellent hollands” have also taught him the release to be found in “a quieting draught” (34, 41). He escapes the mountain encampment by anesthetizing himself. When he awakens, he is “determined to revisit the scene” of his “gambol,” but he has no desire to take up the ways of Hudson's men. His mood is confrontational: he wants to recover what he believes has been stolen from him; he resolves “to demand his dog and gun if he encounters them” (35). When he looks for the ravine that had given access to the mountain glen, his search has the character of an amateur topographer's land survey more than it seems an effort to regain access to a lost Shangri-la.
Popular dramatists mute the terrifying ambiguity of Rip's mountain visit with comedy, inverting the tale's testimony to the sad plight of growing old. It is to evade another bitter truth of Irving's story, its recognition that death forever diminishes one's familiar circle, that playwrights regularly arrange for Rip to have a tearful reunion with his still-living wife. Irving's grim recognition of the difficulty in coming to terms with an aging body, unreliable memory, and less adaptive personality is captured in the frenzy of Rip's identity crisis: “I'm not myself.—I'm somebody else—that's me yonder—no—that's somebody else got into my shoes—I was myself last night; but I fell asleep on the mountain—and they've changed my gun—and every thing's changed—and I'm changed—and I can't tell what's my name, or who I am!” (38-39). But in Rip's identity crisis, one recognizes an anxiety that runs deeper than do the worries of a person undergoing a social transition. There is a sense of existential loneliness, even of alienation from the self; it is as if Rip fears he is undergoing the same interior rupture he witnessed in those he met in the mountains. Rip is manifestly unequipped to understand the experience of entering his dotage overnight. He is, after all, “one of those happy mortals of foolish, well oiled dispositions, who take the world easy” and dismiss life's conflicts with a shrug (31).
Philip Young reads Rip's long sleep as symptomatic of the American need in the early national period to erase the traumatic memories either of complicity in the repudiation of a king or of an abstention from the movement for independence.27 But like other political readings of the story, this interpretation focuses on the contrast between the casual ways of earlier village life and the commercial mania of the society to which Rip returns, reducing the tale to a reflection of the accidents of a historical moment. These readings disregard the critic's obligation to relate the particulars of the mountain episode to what precedes and follows it. Irving's story would lack unity if the events of its gothic central scenes were unrelated to the framing story. However much “Rip Van Winkle” resonates with the revolutionary experience of the colonies and with the lives of the Hudson River Valley communities that swelled with the post-war influx of New Englanders, the tale transcends the fortuities of history and the happenstance of a given region.
Political readings of “Rip Van Winkle” note that Rip's belated discovery of American independence has its analogue in his even more welcome liberation when he learns of his wife's death: “[T]here was one species of despotism under which he had long groaned and that was petticoat government. Happily that was at an end—he had got his neck out of the yoke of matrimony, and could go in and out whenever he pleased without dreading the tyranny of Dame Van Winkle” (40-41). But in the mountains, Rip did not find a happier life without her. As individuals, the strange creatures Rip meets are but the simulacra of men, Adamic isolatoes deprived of the Eves with whom they might have found fulfillment; collectively, they are a legion of lost, lonely souls ignorant of the cultural imperatives contemporary Western society made woman's special concern, “the values of work, responsibility, [and] adulthood.”28 Worse still, they live without woman's incarnation of the hope of progeny and the symbolic immortality represented by children. “Rip Van Winkle” is a gothic tale of a journey into a night world without pleasure. The primal scene from which Rip recoils is that Edenic condition of which it is said, “It is not good that … man should be alone.”29
Loutish and drunk, caught up in a timeless round of repetition, Hudson's crew live in what Irving describes in “The Wife” as the perilous condition of the unmarried man, who is estranged even from himself, “apt to run to waste and self neglect[,] to fancy himself lonely and abandoned, and his heart to fall to ruin like some deserted mansion for want of an inhabitant.”30 Readers ready to laugh at the scene in which Rip recovers consciousness do not recognize that it is the remembrance of his wife's expectations that helps him regain his bearings. Without knowing his wife has died, he turns homeward expecting to resume married life.
Jeffrey Rubin-Dorsky notes that the cost of fame for “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” has been that because they “have taken on a life of their own[,] … relatively few people are aware of the fact that they are part[s] of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., and therefore fully resonate only when read in that context.”31 The same warning was sounded earlier by Perry Miller, who counsels that the parts of The Sketch Book should not be read without regard for their relatedness:
To excise is to spoil the unity of the work, a coherence which it does possess despite the piecemeal way in which Irving wrote and published the parts, despite the fact that “Rip” and “Sleepy Hollow” can stand by themselves and customarily are anthologized as “short stories.” We must peruse the whole as a unit, observing the conscious alternation of moods—for example, the jolt intended by the shift from “The Wife” to “Rip”—in order to comprehend that Irving had every right to call the result a book and not a collection of random “sketches.”32
The first lines of “The Wife,” which immediately precedes “Rip Van Winkle” in The Sketch Book, provide a sample of Irving's metaphoric celebration of women's contribution to marital happiness:
As the vine which has long twined its graceful foliage about the oak, and been lifted by it to sunshine, will, when the hardy plant is rifted by the thunderbolt, cling round it with its caressing tendrils and bind up its shattered boughs; so is it beautifully ordered by providence, that woman, who is the mere dependent and ornament of man in his happier hours, should be his stay and solace when smitten with sudden calamity, winding herself into the rugged recesses of his nature; tenderly supporting the dropping head, and binding up the broken heart.33
In working its own variation of the ancient marriage topos of the elm and the vine, Irving's oversweet paean to domestic bliss is “sucked down into seas of tears and noble axioms.”34 The succeeding paragraphs, Rubin-Dorsky notes, are a rehearsal of “nineteenth-century platitudes about the mysterious way a woman overcomes her natural timidity in a crisis.”35 Here one seems to overhear Irving, morose amidst an accumulation of midlife uncertainties and nursing his decade-old sense of loss in the death of Matilda Hoffman, searching for some promise of meaning in his remaining years.36 If a union based upon the assumed complementarity of husband and wife is not today's most widely shared vision of marriage, it was Irving's, and his paragraphs deserve to be read as an appreciation of marital fulfillment in the idiom of his day, when such indulgent prose was not considered tasteless. However cloying the manner Irving chooses to express his concept of wifely devotion, the position of “The Wife” immediately before the tale of “Rip Van Winkle” argues against reading the second tale as a categorical denigration of womankind.
Despite the differences between “Rip Van Winkle” and the story that precedes it, the similarity is significant. In “The Wife,” the fortunate husband, Charles Leslie, like Rip, makes the mistake of undervaluing the strengths of his devoted wife Mary. He learns his error in time to appreciate her for what she is. Rip, however, is beyond self-knowledge. He neglects his estate and ignores his wife. Unwilling to accept his lot and to acknowledge his own culpability, he flees to the forest, where he meets men who, eternally dispossessed of women, manifest a profound, inarticulate estrangement. He returns home unlikely to reform his ways even if his wife were not dead. He does not contemplate remarriage. Too dim to recognize a wife as helpmate or woman as social force, he lives out his days as a fond old man unable to come to terms with his encounter. He is content to be a small town celebrity endlessly revising his story for the happily uncomprehending young, auditors who are in many ways substitutes for Irving's many readers who are unable or unwilling to appreciate the deeper lessons of his text.
Nothing could be so wrong as to characterize Rip as a playboy of the Elysian fields reveling in a perpetual party, the envy of his layabout friends at the village tavern. Those in the company he meets linger on rather than live, serving out a Dantesque eternity. Alienated from one another, they experience only a parody of play in a realm beyond time where leisure loses its meaning. They wallow in swinishness, blankly staring at their visitor from beyond. They enjoy no satisfactions, knowing neither the rapport of friendship nor the cooperative achievement of crewing a ship. All that contemporary Western society had made the province of woman—the aspirations to higher culture, the moral formation of later generations, the maintenance of domestic order, the inculcation of such sanctioned folkways as the habit of saving, the deferral of gratifications, and the etiquette of common courtesies—all these are lost to them. Their commander is the epitome of sexual impotence. Customarily charged with maintaining discipline, he is instead a preening popinjay decked out in garb more appropriate for a transvestite masquerade party, a caricature of his former stern self whose claims to authority may now be ignored with impunity.
In exploring the sexual anxieties revealed in Irving's works, Rubin-Dorsky concentrates on those written after 1820. But this earlier story may be a revealing autobiographical reverie manifesting the same apprehension of marital inadequacy, since acceptance by his daughter provides Rip with a congenial substitute for remarriage. As a fiction about storytelling, it recalls the way Irving first related his tale in the warm family circle of his favorite sister, Sarah Van Wart.37 In the story's closing picture of an old man living out his days entertaining the town's children, one recognizes the author's mid-life representation of himself as Hudson River Valley storyteller.
Despite its debts to traditions of gothic fantasy and folktale, Irving's story also plays on the twin fears that continued to trouble generations of American males as the frontier receded—the life without women that had been their past and the life in which women would be dominant that seemed their future. Three-quarters of a century later, the same insecurities attending the termination of male society's sloth, dissipation, and game playing provided the premise of “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky.”38 The society that had not confidently accepted women—or racial minorities—oscillated between its polarized images of them. Rip's story and “The Wife” exemplify the frontier myth's simplism. If “Rip Van Winkle” does not portray marriage as the positive good enshrined in “The Wife,” it does acknowledge it as the cement of social conditions that is infinitely preferable to the communal breakdown and psychological ruin Rip experiences in the forest.
Washington Irving, first published by Barbara D. Simison as “Some Autobiographical Notes of Washington Irving,” Yale University Library Gazette 38 (1963): 11.
Irving's indebtedness to the German story “Peter Klaus” is the subject of several studies. Henry A. Pochmann sets out the principal points of similarity in “Irving's German Sources in The Sketch Book,” Studies in Philology 27 (1930): 477-94. The best summary of Irving's borrowings from German folktales is given by Walter A. Reichart, Washington Irving and Germany (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1957), 22-30.
For brief histories of early dramatizations of “Rip Van Winkle,” see William Winter, Life and Art of Joseph Jefferson (New York: Macmillan, 1894), 175-83, 305-9; and Montrose J. Moses, ed., Representative Plays by American Dramatists, 1856-1911 (New York: Dutton, 1921; New York: Benjamin Blom, 1964), 3:15-31. An extended treatment is found in Harold Brehm Obee's “A Prompt Script Study of Nineteenth-Century Legitimate Stage Versions of ‘Rip Van Winkle,’” (Ph.D. diss., Ohio State Univ., 1961). An illustrated edition of Edmund Clarence Stedman's Rip Van Winkle and His Wonderful Nap was published in 1870 as part of the Uncle Sam Series for American Children (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1870). For a history of painters' representations of the story, see George L. McKay, “Artists Who Have Illustrated Irving's Works,” American Collector 16 (October 1947): 38-40. On John Quidor, see Bryan Jay Wolf, Romantic Re-Vision: Culture and Consciousness in Nineteenth-Century American Painting and Literature (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1982), 152-73; and Christopher Kent Wilson, “John Quidor's The Return of Rip Van Winkle at the National Gallery of Art: The Interpretation of an American Myth,” American Art Journal 19 (fall 1987): 23-45.
James D. Hart, The Oxford Companion to American Literature, 5th ed. (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1983), 641-42. This account also mistakenly says that Rip “is greeted by his old dog” after his twenty-year sleep. In fact, the larger dog breeds almost never live so long, and Irving writes only of a “half starved dog that look[s] like Wolf” (Washington Irving, “Rip Van Winkle,” in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., ed. Haskell Springer, vol. 8 of The Complete Works of Washington Irving [Boston: Twayne, 1978], 36; hereafter cited parenthetically by page number).
Albert Gelpi, “White Light in the Wilderness: Landscape and Self in Nature's Nation,” in American Light: The Luminist Movement, 1850-1875, ed. John Wilmerding (New York: Harper and Row, 1980), 296.
That is, the guide possesses the characteristics of neither of the two most nearly applicable dictionary definitions of a dwarf; he is not “a person whose bodily proportions are abnormal,” nor is he “a small legendary manlike being who is … misshapen and ugly and skilled as an artificer” (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed., s.v. “dwarf”).
Michael Stapleton, The Cambridge Guide to English Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1983), 814-15.
Philip Young, “Fallen from Time: The Mythic Rip Van Winkle,” Kenyon Review 22 (1960): 556, 569; Jack Salzman, The Cambridge Handbook of American Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986), 209; Lewis Leary, Soundings: Some Early American Writers (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1975), 310; Judith Fetterley, The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1978), 7, 9, 191 n. 4; Mary Weatherspoon Bowden, Washington Irving (Boston: Twayne, 1981), 59; William L. Hedges, “Washington Irving: Nonsense, the Fat of the Land and the Dream of Indolence,” in The Chief Glory of Every People: Essays on Classic American Writers, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1973), 152; William L. Hedges, “Irving, Hawthorne, and the Image of the Wife,” in Washington Irving Reconsidered: A Symposium, ed. Ralph M. Aderman (Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1969), 25; Gelpi, “White Light,” 296; and Leslie A. Fiedler, The Return of the Vanishing American (New York: Stein and Day, 1968), 59.
William L. Hedges, Washington Irving: An American Study, 1802-1832 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1965), 138.
Charles Burke, Rip Van Winkle: A Legend of the Catskills, in Moses, Representative Plays by American Dramatists, 3:51; on the collaboration of Dion Boucicault and Joseph Jefferson, see Arthur Hobson Quinn, ed., “Rip Van Winkle from 1767 to the Present Day,” in Representative American Plays, 7th ed. (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1953), 399-431. These three characters were “Spirits of the Catskills” in a 1763 version of “Rip Van Winkle” (Burke, Rip Van Winkle, 3:31).
Hedges, Washington Irving, 139; Fetterley, Resisting Reader, 7.
Leslie A. Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (New York: Stein and Day, 1966), 341; Fetterley, Resisting Reader, 6.
Fiedler, Return of the Vanishing American, 52; Fetterley, Resisting Reader, 5. The same misreading is implicit in Jenifer S. Banks, “Washington Irving, the Nineteenth-Century Bachelor,” in Critical Essays on Washington Irving, ed. Ralph M. Aderman (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990), 253-65.
Leslie A. Fiedler, What Was Literature? Class Culture and Mass Society (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), 157; Young, “Fallen from Time,” 572 n. 1; Fiedler, Return of the Vanishing American, 58; Fetterley, Resisting Reader, 9, 3.
Nina Baym distances herself from the misplaced emphasis critics have placed upon Rip's wife, finding that “the preeminent Dame Van Winkle is a creation of twentieth-century misogynist paranoia, the post-Wylie fear of ‘mom’” (Letter, New York Review of Books, 13 May 1976, 48).
Fetterley, Resisting Reader, 5, 13, 3; quoting Fiedler's 1960 edition of Love and Death, xx.
Fetterley's treatment of the genetic transmission of personality traits is merely incest fantasy: “What is Judith really except her mother married to someone other than her father? Marry her to her brother and, sure enough, you would have a daughter as like the mother as the son is like the father.” Fetterley concludes that Rip is a “woman-hater” (Resisting Reader, 10, 5). Although he fears and flees from his wife, nothing in the story suggests that he hates her or any other woman.
Fetterley, Resisting Reader, 6-7.
Richard J. Zlogar, “Accessories that Covertly Explain: Irving's Use of Dutch Genre Painting in ‘Rip Van Winkle,’” American Literature 54 (1982): 44-62.
Fetterley, Resisting Reader, 6. Both Fetterley and Fiedler see similarities between Melville's sailors and Rip. Rip's puzzlement in the Catskills may have its true Melvillean analogue in the slow dawning awareness and mounting apprehension of Amasa Delano moving among the alienated men of the San Dominick in “Benito Cereno,” a crew like that of the Half Moon, who are sullen to the point of mutiny.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown,” in Mosses from an Old Manse, ed. William Charvat et al., vol. 10 of the Centenary Edition of The Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1974), 89. Fiedler notes that Hawthorne considered rewriting Irving's story (Return of the Vanishing American, 55) and directs special attention to “Wakefield” (Love and Death, 341).
Rip's hibernation—his withdrawal up the narrow mountain defile, womb-like period of dormancy, and rebirth—follows the pattern noted by myth critics. During this cycle in the story, the national bird is born: the “wild, lonely, and shagged” mountain glen and dry ravine of the autumn landscape, above which the crow of death has circled, are found rejuvenated by a springtime mountain torrent “tumbling in a sheet of feathery foam,” and while birds hop and twitter, “the eagle wheel[s] aloft and breast[s] the pure mountain breeze” (33, 35). Shortly thereafter, Rip learns of the Revolution, the birth of a new political society, the death of his wife, and the arrival of another generation.
Maria Leach, ed., Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, s.v. “Flying Dutchman.” Irving returns to the Flying Dutchman legend in Wolfert's Roost, where “Rumbout Van Dam of graceless memory” is known in local lore as the “Flying Dutchman of the Tappan Sea, doomed to ply between Kakiat and Spiting Devil until the day of judgment” (Wolfert's Roost, ed. Roberta Rosenberg, vol. 27 of The Complete Works of Washington Irving [Boston: Twayne, 1979], 12).
Leslie A. Fiedler, “Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey!” in The Collected Essays of Leslie Fiedler (New York: Stein and Day, 1971), 1:144.
See also William P. Dawson, “‘Rip Van Winkle’ as Bawdy Satire: The Rascal and the Revolution,” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 27 (1981): 198-206.
Fiedler, “Come Back,” 144.
Young, “Fallen from Time,” 547-73.
Fetterley, Resisting Reader, 3.
Gen. 2:8 Authorized Version.
Washington Irving, “The Wife,” in Sketch Book, 23.
Jeffrey Rubin-Dorsky, Adrift in the Old World: The Psychological Pilgrimage of Washington Irving (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1988), 100.
Perry Miller, afterword to The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., by Washington Irving (New York: New American Library, 1961), 374. See also Albert J. von Frank, The Sacred Game: Provincialism and Frontier Consciousness in American Literature, 1630-1860 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985), 74.
Irving, “The Wife,” 22.
Stanley T. Williams, The Life of Washington Irving (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1935), 1:139. See also Peter Demetz, “The Elm and the Vine: Notes toward the History of a Marriage Topos,” PMLA 73 (1958): 521-32.
Rubin-Dorsky, Adrift in the Old World, 50.
On the composition of “The Wife,” see Washington Irving, A Tour in Scotland, 1817, and Other Manuscript Notes, ed. Stanley T. Williams (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1927), 15-23.
Williams, Life of Washington Irving, 1:168-69.
Stephen Crane, “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” McClure's Magazine, February 1898, 377-84.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8952
SOURCE: “Washington Irving's Great Enterprise: Exploring American Values in the Western Writings” in Making America/Making American Literature: Franklin to Cooper, edited by A. Robert Lee and W. M. Verhoeven, Rodopi, 1996, pp. 199-220.
[In the following essay, Harding probes Irving's complex relationship with Western expansion as evident in A Tour on the Prairies, Astoria, and The Adventures of Captain Bonneville.]
When Irving returned to the United States in 1832, after an absence of seventeen years, he may have been shocked by the vulgarity of the “commonplace civilization” he found there1 but he was certainly impressed by the immense vigor of the nation's economic life, particularly as that vigor manifested itself in westward expansion. To the man whose nightmare was of finding himself a lonely relic of a past age in his native city,2 the America to which he returned was a country where everyone spoke of the future “with growing and confident anticipation”3 and where the future lay in the West. The opportunity to make a tour on the prairies with Commissioner Henry Leavitt Ellsworth presented Irving with a chance to observe the process of growth in his country—to experience the future—though his own initial comments on the venture stressed the past. It would be, he wrote, an opportunity to see “those fine countries of the ‘far west’ while [they were] still in a state of pristine wilderness” and to see the remnants of the great Indian tribes that were, he believed, “about to disappear.”4
The expedition left Independence, Missouri for Fort Gibson, on the Arkansas River, on September 27, 1832. In letters written on the tour, Irving stressed the wildness of the country through which he traveled and his excitement at being “completely launched in savage life.”5 Clearly, he got emotional gratification in imaging himself leading “a complete hunter's life,”6 yet when Irving returned from Fort Gibson via Little Rock, Arkansas, the Arkansas Gazette claimed that the writer “acknowledges himself amazed at the fertility of the soil and the immense resources of the west.”7 Evidently, for public purposes at least, Irving was forward-looking; aware of the potential of the West. If we accept the theory that Irving was using the travel narrative as a means of repatriating himself intellectually after his long absence in Europe,8 it is hardly surprising that he would stress his positive reaction to the West, but the text of A Tour problematizes his commitment to the American future as he glimpsed it on his tour.
A Tour on the Prairies was published as part of A Crayon Miscellany in March 1835 in London and in the following month in Philadelphia. It was welcomed with rapture by the reviews, among them the Knickerbocker Review and the North American Review.9 Particular praise went to its depiction of western scenery. However, if A Tour is to be read as part of Irving's self-rehabilitation as an American writer, it is necessary to discount the obvious fact that he “dressed up” his material in literary trappings that belonged to European rather than American conventions. John Francis McDermott is not alone in believing that the journals Irving kept on the trip are more spontaneous and more powerful as literature than the published travelogue. In McDermott's view, Irving not only sacrificed realism by turning his fellow travelers into stock literary types; he also weakened the American significance of his scenes by importing European associations, imagining—for example—Moorish castles or the seats of country gentlemen in the wilderness.10 To see the “western” landscape through a Claude glass, as Irving sometimes did (see, for example, 73), was no more appropriate a way to catch the distinctive features of the American scene than was Irving's tendency to find classical associations in the Amerindians (see 15). The disparity between manner and matter has led more than one reader to believe that Irving saw and described only the picturesque surfaces of the frontier and lacked any genuine interest in the significance of the frontier in American life.11
Aesthetic conventions apart, A Tour can be read as an authentic historical record of westward expansion partly in what it does not bring to explicit statement. An allusion to “the settlement of the Indian tribes migrating from the East to the West of the Mississippi” is a euphemistic reference to Indian Removal.12 This reference is encoded in neutral terminology, but Irving's conscience was not always lulled to sleep by the mood of the times. In reporting a squatter's eagerness to whip a young Indian who brings him his lost horse on the suspicion of theft (20), Irving is unequivocal in his judgment on White injustice and cruelty. This is just one of many incidents that convince Irving that whites “are prone to treat the poor Indians as little better than brute animals” (27).13
A Tour does not engage directly with the theme of westward economic expansion because the expedition of which Irving was a member was not engaged in trade with the Indians. Yet—of course—Commissioner Ellsworth's mission was part of the process by which the wilderness was being tamed and opened up to economic exploitation. Though Everett Emerson, the reviewer in the North American Review for July 1835 treated the work as “a sort of sentimental journey, a romantic excursion,”14 it has also (and more recently) been read as “a kind of mock-heroic quest that quietly subverts the perennial American myth of westering.”15 In this reading, the West is seen waging a subtle war of attrition against the intruders and winning in its struggle against civilization. Certainly A Tour offers an eyewitness account of the destructive impact of White America on the wilderness as the young Americans who participate in the “adventure” lay waste to the land they traverse.
If we take A Tour seriously as a commentary on the frontier—if we reject the notion that Irving reacts as a literary tourist—then we may want to agree with Bruce Greenfield that the text explores “the basis upon which the individual American could assert a claim” to the Western lands, even though its author “appears disengaged from the ethos and institutions of American westering.”16 In other words, the Irving who wrote A Tour was genuinely concerned with the westering process as one of assimilating territory though he held aloof from it. More pointedly, Peter Antelyes argues that Irving used his “tourist's appraisal of the Western territories” as a means of expressing his doubts about the enterprise of economic expansion into those territories.17 This reading makes A Tour a satire in which the popular imaginative form of the Indian adventure tale is used as a means of examining “the illusory and self-serving values of capitalist expansion.” Whatever the motivation, A Tour remains a puzzling work. Perhaps one can account for the text's susceptibility to diverse and incompatible readings by recognizing that merely to write about his experience of the West was, for Irving, a step in the process of literary repatriation, even when his stance as a tourist allowed him to evade the semantic problems that were at the heart of national, as well as personal, self-definition. His next literary project would make the lexical detachment of A Tour impossible.
That project, a history of John Jacob Astor's fur trading venture in the Pacific Northwest, brought Irving into direct engagement with the dominant ideological values of his day. In undertaking to write the history of Astor's commercial enterprise, Irving was almost certainly not tempted, as Henry Rowe Schoolcraft supposed,18 by bribe money paid to him by Astor. A much more likely explanation is that Irving was motivated, at least in part, by his Jacksonism, which was a matter of confidence in the nation's future in the West rather than an attachment to political personalities. In this view, each of his Western works was to some degree an expression of that confidence.19 Recent commentary has put the case more forcefully. In Peter Antelyes' view Astoria is a celebration not only of Astor's commercial enterprise but of American business enterprise in general; it “does not question the identification of economic expansion with the American mission, nor does it locate the dangers to that mission in commercialism itself.”20 In this theory, Astor represented the entrepreneurial ideal for Irving. He seemed to fulfil the ideals of commercial culture and professional capitalism. Consequently, the aim of Astoria was the redefinition of American history as the history of the marketplace.
My own contention is that Astoria is an extremely important work precisely because, however strong Irving's identification of himself with entrepreneurial values, and with American national identity, the text problematizes those values. That is to say, there are in the narrative of the Astorians' adventures numerous sites of a semantic confusion and bewilderment at which the text deconstructs itself. By examining some of them closely, we can see that Irving was not able to carry out his avowed intention of celebrating Astor's—and his country's—values, in spite of the fact that he clearly identified his own literary “enterprise” with the merchant's commercial undertaking. Irving's statement—in August 1835—that he was “working away at the Astor enterprise”21 surely suggests a total commitment to the values of his patron as well as to the literary project in which he was engaged. Yet the book he actually produced puts “business enterprize” and “the American mission” into question.
The story of the loss of the Tonquin, with the murder of its captain and of all its crew by the “perfidious” natives of Vancouver's Island, is told in chapter eleven of Astoria. It is the most vividly reported and the most shocking episode in a narrative that contains more than one example of cruelty and brutality. Moreover the incident has been given added literary significance by Poe's use of it in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. In Arthur Gordon Pym's account, the savages on the island of Tsalal prove themselves to be “among the most barbarous, subtle, and bloodthirsty wretches that ever contaminated the face of the globe.” As Irving tells the story, the massacre of the white men is plotted by an Indian chief named Nookamis who is insulted by Captain Thorn, the commander of the Tonquin, as the two men are bargaining for an otter skin. The captain is described by Irving as “a plain, straight forward sailor, who never had two minds nor two prices in his dealings” and who was “deficient in patience and pliancy and totally wanting in the chicanery of traffic.”22 Thorn, we are told, “made what he considered a liberal offer for an otter skin” but Nookamis, who is described as a “wily old Indian” treated the white man with scorn and demanded more than double. Earlier we have been told that Captain Thorn had displayed his wares (blankets, cloths, knives, beads and fish hooks) to the natives, “expecting a prompt and profitable sale” (emphasis added). His expectations were disappointed because the Indians “were not so eager and simple as he had supposed.” This is partly because they are guided by the “shrewd old chief” Nookamis.
As the tension mounts in the episode, Irving's language becomes patently biased. Nookamis is a “cunning old Indian” as he rejects Thorn's offered price and still “pesters” him to trade, jeering at Thorn for the mean prices he has offered. When Thorn loses his temper and assaults Nookamis, rubbing the otter skin in his face and pushing or kicking him over the side of the ship, Irving treats the insult and the violence as comic: Thorn “dismissed him over the side of the ship with no very complimentary application to accelerate his exit” (74). Just before the violence occurs we learn that Thorn, who “had a vast deal of stern but honest pride in his nature” was not only short-tempered, and thus easily provoked, but “held the whole savage race in sovereign contempt” (73).
In summing up the disaster at the end of the account, Irving clearly holds Thorn responsible for it: “Had the deportment of Captain Thorn been properly regulated, the insult so wounding to Savage pride would never have been given” (78). Moreover, Thorn was guilty of ignoring Astor's repeated advice to treat “the Savages” courteously and kindly and to distrust them. But though the captain is blamed for lack of self-control, all the wickedness is clearly attributed to the natives. Irving intrudes into the narrative with a personal recollection of Thorn; “With all his faults and foibles we cannot but speak of him with esteem, and deplore his untimely fate,” because he was a “frank, manly, soundhearted sailor” when on shore and among friends. On ship, as Irving has had to admit, Captain Thorn was an unbending disciplinarian and a tyrant. The essential moral issue, then, is here presented as a contrast between the honest, manly—if irascible—white officer and the treacherous, bloodthirsty savages. Thorn is hopelessly unsuitable for the delicate job of working with Astor's chosen men of business (he quarrels with the partners as soon as the voyage from New York begins), yet it is his frankness that puts him in jeopardy when attempting to bargain with the savages.
Irving's vocabulary, style, and tone constitute a bluff endorsement of Thorn's racial prejudices and in so doing serve to conceal an important ideological pattern in the text. As Wayne R. Kime has shown, Irving based his account of the disaster in part on Alfred Seton's journal, or the version of it that appeared in the American Monthly Magazine in 1835.23 In Seton's version of the incident, Thorn's anger and violence (Seton specifies that Thorn rubbed the skin in the face of the chief) was caused by his frustration when unable to conclude a bargain. Another of Irving's sources—Ross Cox's Adventures on the Columbia River (1831)—states, in contrast, that Thorn had caught the chief pilfering.24 In structuring the story in terms of the contrast between the frank, honest white man and the cunning savage, Irving overlays (conceals) his own understanding of the situation. Though the incident is attributed to Nookamis's frustrated “cunning” in bargaining, at the same time the narrator tells his reader that “The Indians … were not so eager and simple as he [Mr McKay] had supposed, having learned the art of bargaining and the value of merchandize from the casual traders along the coast” (73; emphasis added). What is more, Nookamis “had grown gray in traffic with New England skippers and prided himself upon his acuteness” (emphasis added). Clearly, then, the chief's offended dignity at Thorn's contemptuous treatment depends on what he has learned from white traders who have brought commercial ethics to the previously untutored savages. Nookamis, far from being the “simple” savage Thorn (and McKay) expect to profit from, getting otter skins for trifles, is sophisticated in the white man's ways; he and his tribe have learned commercial ethics; they drive a hard bargain, or, in realistic terms, they pitch their price at the trader's needs.
The point is not a minor one, for the story of Astoria is, as the reviewer in the Westminster Review so clearly saw, a story of commerce—of business.25 Irving's history of Astor's enterprise in the Pacific Northwest is posited upon an orthodox estimate of the role played by commercial forces in “progress”—in the onward march of civilization. Consequently, Irving feels no need to apologize for the merchant's imperialistic motives. Astor's story is offered to the reader as essentially a tale of an attempt to advance civilized values into new areas. To recognise how orthodox this interpretation was we have only to turn to Alexander Ross's Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon Or Columbia River (1849). Ross, who had taken part in the adventures, announces in his first chapter that “the progress of discovery contributes not a little to the enlightenment of mankind.”26 To this true believer in “mercantile interests,” there is no doubt that the “spirit of enterprise developed in the service of commercial speculation” is instrumental in the spread of civilisation. Whatever Irving's private and personal attitude towards business, and that was at least changeable, as historian of his patron's “great enterprise” he clearly planned to justify it on a high moral plane.
In the first chapter of Astoria Irving acknowledges that “the rich peltries of the north”—like the “precious metals of the south”—had provided the motive for daring enterprise in the Americas from the beginning of European involvement. Though the object was “commercial gain,” the quests for furs and for gold “have thus in a manner been the pioneers and precursors of civilization” (5). Agriculture and colonization have followed in the paths opened by commerce, in Irving's formulation, but those paths have been discovered only because they are profitable. In the case of the fur trade, immense profits were made by the early French adventurers precisely because “the Indians, as yet unacquainted with the artificial value given to some descriptions of furs, in civilized life, brought quantities of the most precious kinds and bartered them away for European trinkets and cheap commodities.”
Irving's introduction is personal; it tells his readers of his own fascination with the men of the North West Fur Company whom he met on visits to Canada as a young and impressionable man. In his words, “I was at an age when the imagination lends its coloring to every thing, and the stories of these Sindbads of the wilderness made the life of a trapper and fur trader perfect romance to me” (3). As Irving develops his theme, he stresses the dangers and the adventurousness of the fur trade, explaining the “charmed interest” in these terms. He will tell the story of his friend John Jacob Astor's attempt to carry the American fur trade to the shores of the Pacific because that story has romantic appeal to an author who not only has youthful memories of encounters with men who had “perilous adventures and hairbreadth escapes among the Indians,” but has also recently returned from “a tour upon the prairies of the far west” and may be presumed, therefore, to be himself concerned to understand the experience of wilderness. Irving's obvious association of “adventure” and danger is a means of insisting that business enterprise is compatible with glamour, yet he insists equally on the dignity and cultural significance of Astor's attempt to make a success of his investment in the fur trade. This is done by repeatedly asserting that Astor's enterprise was patriotic—that he was motivated by a vision of American expansion into unsettled (by Whites) and disputed territories—and that Astor was indifferent to financial gain because he was already so rich that he could not seek to increase his fortune. In the explicit moral scheme of the narrative, John Jacob Astor is represented as the great man of vision who is able to transcend personal interests and consider the future greatness of his nation, as opposed to the politicians in Washington, who are stigmatized as petty and lacking in vision.27 In this respect, as in much else, Irving's Astor is a nineteenth-century inheritor of the great explorer and visionary Irving had created in his Columbus.28
From the beginning, however, the tale is necessarily concerned less with vision than with the details of Astor's business plans. We are told of the contacts he had with the Northwest Company before he set up his own Pacific Fur Company. As a shrewd businessman, Astor informed himself about the trade into which he entered. His venture was plainly not Quixotic; he calculated his chances carefully before venturing capital and he displayed the acumen of the successful businessman in the way he treated his rivals. Irving tells his readers that Astor deliberately employed men who had worked for the Northwest Company but were discontented, whether because of lack of advancement or dissatisfaction with the financial rewards.
In terms of the national theme, there are complications here, because the men in question were British nationals. In tempting them away from their fur company, Astor is recruiting foreigners to serve his “patriotic” purpose. Later, at the crisis caused by the War of 1812, Irving will accuse some of these men of treachery—of betraying Astor and selling out cheaply to the British. In doing so, Irving will take a high moral tone, by implication elevating his hero Astor above such baseness. Yet no reader can escape the impression that Astor has been hoist with his own petard. In subborning the Britons and attempting to use them to defeat his rival the North West Fur Company, Astor has made himself vulnerable to charges of cynicism. Put more bluntly, there is a suspicion of cant in Irving's moralising here. Having approved, or condoned, Astor's sharp practice in recruiting disaffected Northwesters to work against their fellow-countrymen, Irving sounds false when he takes the moral highground and judges those men when (or if) they are less than totally loyal to Astor's Pacific Fur Company.
This is not an isolated occurrence of the moral issue in the text; the ethics of business forms the constant subtext. Throughout, the reader is confronted with the central significance of trade. To trade successfully meant to persuade the Indians to exchange furs with a high value in white economic system for trinkets costing very little in that system. Ross Cox, for example, explains the Indians traded twenty beaver skins worth twenty-five pounds for guns which cost one pound, seven shillings wholesale. Two yards of cloth, worth twelve shillings, could purchase beaver skins worth eight to ten pounds. Cox adds, smugly, “but they were satisfied, and we had no cause to complain.”29 Rivalry became intense among the competing groups of white traders precisely because none expected to exchange goods of anything like equivalent value for the furs collected by the “children of nature” in the wilderness. In trade among “civilised” peoples, profit was always an ingredient and could be justified since, without it, there could hardly be adequate motivation for exchange, yet the standard moral justifications for commercial enterprise in the antebellum period included the caveat that profit should be moderate, that it should accumulate gradually, and that there should be no gambling. Irving would himself make an impressive application of these ideas in his 1840 Knickerbocker essay, “A Time of Unexampled Prosperity.” In it “speculation” would be denounced as a form of “magic” or “enchantment” that tempted men with the dream of easy gain and brought the sober realities of trade, and the steady accumulation of profit, into contempt.30 Yet the history of the fur trade was one of routine and ruthless exploitation of the native Americans by White traders intent on vast—and quick—profits.31 Though the story Irving has to tell is of failure and loss for Astor and the men working for him, the unstated corollary is that his rivals made money and made it quickly and in large amounts, just as Astor intended to do.
In contrast to Antelyes, who believes that Irving expressed an unqualified approval of the dominant Jacksonian ideology of commercial enterprise in Astoria, speaking for Astor and endorsing his supposed values, Hugh Egan gives prominence to the negative elements of the story Irving tells. Egan attributes the undermining to the plots themselves. In this schema, Irving intends to celebrate entrepreneurial and commercial values by telling the story of Astor's (and later Captain Bonneville's) enterprise, but is frustrated by the story stuff itself: by the fabula in each case. This is to say that the stories resist the discourse. My own view is that there are numerous places or sites in Irving's Western narratives where contradictory values confront each other and clash irreconcilably. To what extent Irving was aware of these contradictions is less important than the fact that the aporia are crucial for the cultural discourse of the age. In a culture that based itself on the assumption that America was the land of enterprise, and that business enterprise was a civilizing force, a story in which that enterprise could be seen to be morally corrupting would necessarily be subversive of official values. At issue here was nothing less than the justification for territorial expansion and for American identity. If Astoria is, as Wayne R. Kime believes, “historiographically orthodox,” if it “sets forth its wide-ranging subject matter in a manner calculated to emphasize its national significance,”32 then orthodoxy—I would submit—was compatible with confusion and significance was not always what was calculated. The incidental cruelties and brutalities practised by White Americans in the new lands at the expense of the children of nature could be assimilated into the grand narrative of the progress of civilization, but if the processes of commerce—if the market itself—appeared as morally deleterious (both on “civilized” Whites and on “savage” native Americans), then American national identity was put into question.
In his narratives, Irving more than once recounts incidents that feature conflicts between White traders and Indians who demand high prices for their furs, horses or whatever. Whereas the “simple” or “innocent” savage accepted gladly, or at least unresentfully, whatever the White man offered him in exchange for the desired possessions, some natives engaged in tough bargaining or even demanded “exorbitant” prices. Regularly, this behavior is attributed to their experience of White methods of trading—or their contamination by White values. Amerindians were not the only natives to learn from the Whites, of course. Before any contact is made with the native Americans, the Astorians under Thorn's captaincy encounter a native who is sharp in business: Tamaahmaah, King of Sandwich Islands. He drives a hard bargain, exploiting the needs of those who trade with him. In his encounter with the King, Captain Thorn starts to trade for hogs “in his plain, matter of fact way” but quickly learns that the native “had profited in more ways than one by his intercourse with white men. Above all other arts he had learnt the art of driving a bargain.” (48) In this instance, Captain Thorn obviously controls his temper but seems to learn nothing about the psychology of “savages” who have acquired some “civilized” arts.
Truly innocent, unsophisticated, natives—those who have not learned the ethics of trade from white men—have no tradition of thus exploiting others' needs. When destitute or hungry Whites first encounter members of Western tribes who have the means of relieving their suffering, they find that the savages give generously, without calculation. To share and to give without calculating profit is, it seems, the natural pattern of behavior. But this innocence gives way to experience of White values and White exploitation as the innocent natives fall into economic sophistication, or—in other words—as they learn the system of trading for profit. They thus become enterprising natives; they are making the first steps towards becoming civilized and to becoming “Americans.” Yet when they behave in this way they provoke the anger of the white Americans who have come to trade with (or exploit) them. The narrator, at such points, both acknowledges that the Indians' behavior is learned and—occasionally—represents their behavior as deplorable. Sometimes, indeed, the narrative condemns the “rascally” natives for their greed, seemingly unaware of the ironies implied in a text that indulges white sharp practice by normalising it.
The “savages” who murder Thorn and his crew are conforming to the prejudices that Thorn and other white traders bring with them when they engage in commercial transactions with the native Americans. When Indians fail to conform to another set of prejudices—those that portray them as “simple” children of nature with no sense of value in the white man's world—they are also condemned by the “civilized” whites who intend to take advantage of their supposed simplicity. A striking and parallel example comes late in the narrative (chap. 52), when one of the partners—Mr Clarke—encounters a village of Nez Perces on the confluence of the Lewis and Pavion rivers. Clarke intends to leave his boats here and travel the hundred and fifty miles to the Spokane tribe on horseback. When he tries to buy horses from the Nez Perces, however, “he had to contend with the sordid disposition of these people (311). The Indians are “sordid” in that “they asked high prices for their horses, and were so difficult to deal with that Mr. Clarke was detained seven days among them before he could procure a sufficient number.” The “sordid” nature of the Indians is also evident in the pilfering they practise while the Clarke party is with them, but there is no doubt that Irving's narrative endorses the white trader's moral judgment: “savages” are sordid if they ask prices higher than the whites want to pay because the savages are exploiting the evident need of the whites. In other words, it is “sordid” if a “savage” uses the trading skills (and employs the trading ethics) regularly used by White men.
A more dramatic example is provided in Irving's account of the village of Wish-ram, the fishing mart on the Columbia (chap. 38). Its inhabitants live by trade, which has “sharpened their wits, though … not improved their honesty” in the opinion of Wilson Price Hunt (229), relayed without any distancing comment by Irving. Hunt finds these natives “shrewder and more intelligent than any Indians he had met with.” Earlier, in chapter 10, Irving has described the village as “a solitary instance of an aboriginal trading mart, or emporium” (69). Since this is the market for fish from the mouth of the Columbia as well as horses and other commodities from the Rocky Mountains, there is a lively trade here before the fur traders make their entrance. Acting as middle men, the inhabitants of Wish-ram seem, to the first white explorers who meet them, “sleeker and fatter, but less hardy and active, than the tribes of the mountains and prairies.” Irving then quotes “an honest trader” who describes them as “worthless dogs” (70). He adds a curious moral: “The habits of trade and the avidity of gain have their corrupting effects even in the wilderness, as may be instanced in the members of this aboriginal emporium” who, to the “honest trader” quoted above, are “‘saucy, impudent rascals, who will, steal when they can, and pillage whenever a weak party falls in their power’” (70).
In contrast to these “sordid” savages, the members of a village of Arickaras visited by Hunt show him and his party “the hospitality of the Arab,” entertaining the whites with kindness and generosity and sharing with them their food and tobacco. Generalizing, Irving states that “the Indian in his native state, before he has mingled much with white men, and acquired their sordid habits” always offers food to any stranger who enters his doors, “and never is the food thus furnished made a matter of traffic.” (144) At this point in the text, “sordidness” is not only transferred from the savage to the civilized; it is also quite unambiguously associated with “trade” or “traffic.”
Irving's narrative reveals how sordid the fur trade could be when he tells of the rivalry between the various companies competing for control of the supplies of peltries. On his overland journey to Astoria, Hunt discovers that his party is being pursued by Manuel Lisa of the Missouri Fur Company. Long before Hunt encounters Lisa, the reader is given information about him. A Spaniard by birth, Lisa is a man “of bold and enterprizing character” (92), who has established trading posts in Sioux country and among the Arickara and Mandan tribes in 1808. We are told this in a chapter dealing with Hunt's arrival in St. Louis on the start of his mission to Astoria. The appearance of a new fur company produced “a strong sensation among the Indian traders of the place, and awakened keen jealousy and opposition” from the Missouri Company (93). When Hunt gets to the Great Bend of the Missouri River (chapter 19), he is warned that his party is in danger from Sioux war parties, out for revenge on the whites for the casual killing of one of their warriors by Kit Carson. He is also warned that Lisa is not far behind him on the Missouri. Since Hunt has tried to out-maneuver Lisa and get to the trading grounds ahead of him, he is not at all pleased to find himself overtaken. The members of Hunt's party consider Lisa “artful and slippery” and “secretly anxious for the failure of their expedition” (133, 133-34). One of Hunt's companions, a Mr McLellan, threatens to shoot Lisa on sight because of an earlier “outrage” committed, he supposes, by the enterprising fur trader. Lisa, so his rivals believe, is determined to keep his monopoly of trade with the Indians, even to the extent of encouraging the Sioux in their hostility to his competitors.33
In terms of Irving's story, the encounter with Lisa is important only for what it reveals about the difficulties Hunt has to face in his heroic overland journey. In terms of our understanding of the fur trade, however, it is one of the most important episodes in the narrative. The rivalry between the two parties of white men almost leads to murder, when the leaders come face to face and insult each other. Bloodshed is narrowly avoided, and the whites smoke the pipe of peace with each other, but mutual mistrust and hostility is clearly not to be removed by protestations of common interest.
Though Irving was committed by his great literary enterprise to the belief that commerce was morally and culturally elevating, as the historian of the Astorian venture he had to tell a story of greed, jealousy, and unscrupulous exploitation of the Indians by whites who cared nothing for their present wellbeing or their future survival.34 To be enterprising always meant to “drive a hard bargain” in the world of fur trading. Success was always measured by the disproportion between outlay and income.
While he was working on Astoria, Irving met Benjamin Bonneville, a friend of Astor's who had firsthand experience of the ferocious competition among fur traders in the Rocky Mountains and the Far West, having failed to break in to the trade dominated by the Hudson Bay Company.35 Bonneville had spent three years, from April 30, 1832 to April 22, 1835, in apparently aimless and profitless wanderings west of Independence, Missouri, and wrote an account of his travels in the autumn and winter of the year of his return. The two men met at Astor's Hell Gate in mid September 1835, when Bonneville probably told Irving something of his adventures.36 In a letter dated March 27, 1836, Irving tells of his agreement with Bonneville to work up the manuscript for publication. In fact, he paid Bonneville $1,000 for the manuscript and began working on it as soon as Astoria was published, that is in October 1836. Irving's enthusiasm for the project is clear from his comment that he had been interested and delighted with his materials “in their crude state” (in Bonneville's prose, presumably) and believed that they would “be very taking when properly dressed up.” The story, he decided, was “full of adventure, discription [sic], and stirring incident; with occasional passages of humor.”37
Irving wrote The Rocky Mountains; Or, Scenes, Incidents, and Adventures in the Far West (1837), later titled The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, rapidly. The English edition was published in May 1837; the American in June of that year. In his narrative Irving returns to his theme of “enterprise,” imagining the Captain's feelings as he first sets eyes on the Rockies. Bonneville feels the emotions appropriate to the sublime—“awe and admiration” (31)—as he faces the magnificent prospect which will be “the vast and mountainous scene of his adventurous enterprise.” Although Irving presents Bonneville as the inheritor of Astor's vision of American empire—the Captain plans to recapture the trade lost when Astoria collapsed (159)—the frequent emphasis on his romantic disposition makes Bonneville a man of sensibility rather than a businessman. American reviewers responded to Irving's emphasis on adventure and romance, contrasting the “heroic” nature of Bonneville's enterprise with the merely “commercial” connotations of “enterprise” as commonly understood (xxvi).
In his introduction Irving states that Bonneville inherited an excitable imagination from his unworldly and scholarly father. His interest in the West was stimulated by trappers' tales of the “vast and magnificent regions” through which they wandered (4). When he comes to such obvious opportunities for landscape description as the first sight of the Wind River Mountains (mentioned above), Irving decides that his hero “must have contemplated” them with awe and admiration (31). The implication clearly is that Irving has credited Bonneville with feelings not recorded in the manuscript the Captain sold him.
When Bonneville resolves to explore the Great Salt Lake (chapter 21), he does so because he intends to profit from it, but Irving puts the profit motive second to Bonneville's imagination, which clothed the lake “with vague and ideal charms” (114). The strategy seems to be to clothe Bonneville's apparently pointless and unprofitable wanderings in romantic trappings. This is achieved by more passages devoted to landscape description than were found in Astoria. Even when not attributed to Bonneville, these reflections give an impression of sensibility that may be credited to him.
Another emphasis in Bonneville is on the adventurousness of the expedition and of the participants. Though the “wild freedom” that is to be contrasted with the “tame” life of the cities is essentially that of the American trapper rather than the career soldier, by association Bonneville shares in that exhilarating escape from the restrictions of civilized life.
In his opening chapter Irving pays tribute to the “courage, fortitude, and perseverance” of the pioneers of the fur trade (8). The role of honor includes Smith, Fitzpatrick, Bridger, Campbell and Sublette. Their “adventures and exploits partake of the wildest spirit of romance” (9). Clearly, Irving wishes to make these men heroes, for he describes them as “hardy, lithe, vigorous, and active … heedless of hardship, daring of danger; prodigal of the present, and thoughtless of the future” (11). They form the “wild chivalry” of the mountains (12), leading a “Robin Hood” sort of existence, but the air of boyish recklessness with which Irving endows them contrasts with the vicious meanness they display in the struggle to defeat their rivals. As Irving admits: “next to his own advantage, the study of the Indian trader is the disadvantage of his competitor” (11).
Irving cites one of his heroes, Fitzpatrick, on the evils of competition. (52) This experienced and brave trapper wants to put an end to the excesses of rivalry by dividing the fur trapping areas into zones of interest, but his plan is rejected by his competitors. When Bonneville meets his own hunting parties on the Green River in July 1833, he hears tales of their losses and misfortunes caused by competition with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. These include broken traps, destroyed beaver lodges. Irving adds: “We forbear to detail these pitiful contentions” (108).
Irving's claim, in his first chapter, that the pioneers of the fur trade were men “whose adventures and exploits partake of the wildest spirit of romance” (9), clearly shows how he planned to give shape and significance to Bonneville's story. Essentially, Captain Bonneville was to be an adventure story celebrating the daring of the men who lived with boyish, uncalculating courage possible only beyond the bounds of civilization. We can observe this strategy most clearly in chapter 20, for in it Irving creates the life of the trappers at its most vividly carefree and picturesque. At the annual rendezvous, the trappers who have feuded with each other all through the hunting season mingle “on terms of perfect good fellowship” and engage in athletic and sporting contests—“running, jumping, wrestling, shooting with the rifle, and running horses” (111). Irving's prose captures the wild, saturnalian energies of the scene that, for him, demonstrates the uncalculating spirit of these wild men. In this scene of “wild prodigality” (112), men who have risked their lives collecting pelts in hazardous and severe circumstances squander their earnings in a few wild days of “revelry and extravagance.” For Irving's readers, this must surely have provided the thrill of vicarious excitement. The West, it seemed, could breed men who were indifferent to all prudential, tame, civilized considerations.
Yet Irving's strategies are not only blatant; they are also self-defeating, for the story he tells is either pointless or moral in ways that threaten his program. Bonneville's supposed romantic sensibility makes no counterweight to the account of vicious, and sordid, competition among the men who are opening the West to American civilization. Moreover, Irving's honesty as an historian obliged him to include episodes of appalling brutality and cruelty on the part of the white trappers. The story of the malice and bitterness that characterized the rivalry between the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and its rivals, in chapter 19, is preceded by a shocking example of white savagery, in which Arickara hostages are burned to death by the whites when horses stolen by other members of their tribe are not all returned. The Battle of Pierre's Hole (chapter 6) is not an heroic episode but a sordid affair caused by the treachery of the half-breed Antoine Godin, one of Milton Sublette's trappers. His murder of a Blackfoot chief as the latter extended his hand in friendship is the signal for a general onslaught on the Blackfeet by rival Indian tribes and by the whites gathered at the annual rendezvous.
To argue, as Peter Antelyes does, that Irving's faith in the redemptive possibilities of adventurous enterprise (expressed unequivocally in Astoria) had become tenuous by the time he wrote Bonneville, and that the methods of the fur trade described in the later work constituted a frightening example of Jacksonian economic expansion, is to overlook the continuities between the two works and between both of them and Irving's Columbus.38 The great visionary of the fifteen century imagined by Irving had a mind “elevated above selfish and mercenary views” (162; 434). Columbus was able to carry out his “grand enterprizes” in spite of all the difficulties presented by petty, jealous, avaricious rivals and patrons, because his ambition, unlike theirs, was “truly noble and lofty” and because in him the practical man of business was united with the spirit of poetry (565). The great benefit of his discovery of the New World was that it opened unbounded fields of “inquiry” and “enterprize” to Europeans (163). Columbus's imagination was always “sallying in advance and suggesting some splendid track of enterprize” (255). Yet his object in sailing west was to establish commercial relations with some opulent and civilized country of the east (111). When, instead, he arrived in Haiti, he found natives in an Edenic state, surrounded by natural blessings, living without toil in open undefended gardens, without laws, without artificial wants (119). On Hispaniola, when the Europeans arrived, the natives behaved “with remarkable frankness and generosity.” They “had no idea of traffic, but gave away everything with spontaneous liberality” (122). Irving later generalizes, noting that “the untutored savage, in almost every part of the world, scorns to make a traffic of hospitality” (218). Only when the white man has introduced the habits of trade, do the Indians learn “to profit by the necessities of the stranger” and demand a price for bread (348). The appalling transformation of an opulent and lovely island into a scene of desolation and misery is attributed by Irving to the “evil passions of the white men” (380). Regularly, the evil takes the form of that “avidity of gain” (540), that “avarice” and lust for gold regularly associated in Irving's text with the Spaniards and the Portuguese. Yet that text also—and unmistakably—presents the loss of innocence and the Fall from the golden age existence into the historical world of wickedness and exploitation as the introduction of artificial wants and the spirit of trade—of commercial enterprise in fact—into the Garden of Eden. If Irving's Astor is the nineteenth-century inheritor of the vision of Columbus, he is—in Irving's narrative of the West—also the businessman whose “great enterprise” put into question the very American values Astoria was meant to affirm.
Irving's words, in a letter to his niece, are quoted in Stanley T. Williams, The Life of Washington Irving, vol. 2 (New York: Oxford UP, 1935), 27.
Dahlia Kirby Terrell, ed., introduction, The Crayon Miscellany, by Washington Irving (Boston: Twayne, 1979), 7.
Irving's words, in a speech made on his return to New York city in April, 1832, are quoted in John Francis McDermott's introduction to his edition of The Western Journals of Washington Irving (Norman, OK: U of Oklahoma P, 1944), 4.
Irving, from a letter to Peter Irving (Dec. 12, 1832), quoted in McDermott, Western Journals, 10.
The Life and Letters of Washington Irving, ed. Pierre M. Irving, vol. 3 (London: Bentley, 1864), 23.
Ellsworth was more impressed by Irving's cultivation and refinement than by his “wild” qualities. He noted that the writer could not write unless washed and properly dressed. See Henry Leavitt Ellsworth, Washington Irving on the Prairies; Or, A Narrative of a Tour of the Southwest in the Year 1832, eds S. T. Williams and B. O. Simison (New York: American Book Company, 1937), 70.
Quoted in McDermott, The Western Journals, 38.
This is the thesis of Bruce Greenfield's Narrating Discovery: The Romantic Explorer in American Literature, 1790-1855 (New York: Columbia UP, 1992). See, particularly, 113-22.
References to A Tour will be to The Crayon Miscellany, ed. Dahlia Kirby Terrell (1979) and will be included in parenthesis in my text. For the reviews, see Andrew B. Myers, “Washington Irving, Fur Trade Chronicler: An Analysis of Astoria, with Notes for a Corrected Edition,” diss., Columbia U, 1964, 33. See also, Martha Dula, “Audience Response to A Tour on the Prairies in 1835,” Western American Literature 8 (1973), 67-74.
McDermott, The Western Journals, 43-44. See also Robert Edson Lee, From West to East: Studies in the Literature of the American West (Urbana and London: U of Illinois P, 1966) for an attack on Irving's literary methods in A Tour.
One of those who have judged A Tour in this way is Stanley T. Williams in his introduction to Henry Leavitt Ellsworth, Washington Irving on the Prairies, viii. In contrast, Wayne R. Kime argues persuasively that A Tour is the story of an Eastener's awakening to the significance of the West (“The Completeness of Washington Irving's A Tour on the Prairies,” Western American Literature 8 , 55-56).
See Terrell, ed., Crayon Miscellany, 10. As Dahlia Kirby Terrell's note points out, the Indian Removal Act was passed on June 30, 1830.
When he launched himself into his American themes, as Wayne R. Kime argues, Irving was at the height of his powers (“The Author As Professional: Washington Irving's ‘Rambling Anecdotes’ of the West,” Critical Essays on Washington Irving, ed. Ralph M. Aderman [Boston: Hall, 1990], 237-53). In Kime's judgment, Irving never wrote so much and so well as in the years 1832 to 1836. In this view, Irving was already a mature and respected man of letters and a moralist of considerable sophistication when he wrote A Tour. Irving's sympathy for the Amerindian had been evidenced in his “Traits of Indian Character” and “Philip of Pockanockett” pieces in The Sketch Book.
Everett Emerson's review is quoted in The Life and Letters, ed. Pierre M. Irving, vol. 3, 46. In turn, Peter Antelyes, who also quotes from the review, treats it as an endorsement of Irving's literary exploitation of the West (Tales of Adventurous Enterprise: Washington Irving and the Poetics of Western Expansion [New York: Columbia UP, 1990], 93-95).
William Bedford Clark, “How the West Won; Irving's Comic Inversion of the Westering Myth in A Tour on the Prairies,” American Literature 50.3 (1978), 335-47. See, especially, 336.
Greenfield, Narrating Discovery, 132-33.
Antelyes, Tales of Adventurous Enterprise, 95. According to Antelyes, the deeper motivation of all Irving's Western writings can be understood in terms of his need to explore the self-justifying shape of the American commercial imagination at a time when Americans were powerfully influenced by tales of economic expansion in the Westward movement. See below for further discussion of this thesis.
Schoolcraft's charge that Astor paid Irving a huge sum (five thousand dollars) to write Astoria was refuted by Irving. See Williams, Life of Washington Irving, vol. 2, 75. See also Myers, “Washington Irving, Fur Trade Chronicler,” 50.
The theory is that of Myers (see “Washington Irving, Fur Trade Chronicler,” in particular 57).
Antelyes, Tales of Adventurous Enterprise, 149. See also 150-52.
The Letters of Washington Irving, vol. 2 (1823-38), ed. Ralph M. Aderman (Boston: Twayne, 1979), 839. Compare Irving's reference, in a letter dated Apr. 17, 1835, to Astor's “grand commercial … colonial enterprise” (818).
Astoria; Or, Anecdotes of an Enterprize beyond the Rocky Mountains, ed. Richard Dilworth Rust (Boston: Twayne, 1976), 73. References to this edition will be included parenthetically in the text.
Wayne R. Kime, “Alfred Seton's Journal; A Source for Irving's Tonquin Disaster Account,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 71 (1970), 309-24. Kime states that Irving used Seton's anonymous account of the Astoria adventures in the May and July issues of the American Monthly Magazine and was familiar with Seton's journal. In Seton's words: “Captain Thorn could not agree with them [the natives] about the price” and, becoming enraged, rubbed the skin [about which they were haggling] in a chief's face” (Kime, “Alfred Seton's Journal,” 314-15). In his “Washington Irving's Revision of the Tonquin Episode in Astoria,” Kime lists Irving's sources for the incident (Western American Literature 4 , 51-59). In addition to Seton and Ross Cox (see below, note 24), these included Gabriel Franchère's Relation d'un voyage (Montreal, 1820). Franchère, like Seton, attributed the outbreak of violence to Thorn's frustration in bargaining for furs. Thorn struck a chief in the face with a fur, “having had trouble about the price” (see Adventure at Astoria, 1810-1814 [Relation d'un voyage], trans. Hoyt C. Franchère [1820; Norman, OK: U of Oklahoma P, 1967], 80).
Ross Cox had taken part in the Astorian venture, arriving on the Beaver in 1811 and staying until 1813 (see Myers, “Washington Irving, Fur Trade Chronicler,” 132). His account of the destruction of the Tonquin is given in chapter five. It includes a reference to Captain Thorn's detection of the chief's “petty theft.”
In The Westminster Review 26 (1836-37), Astoria is described as “not a romance, but a plain … description of a mercantile speculation” (320). The review is quoted in I. S. McLaren's useful article “Washington Irving's Problems with History and Romance in Astoria,” Canadian Review of American Studies 21.1 (1990), 1-14. The reviewer also states that in Astor the “plain merchant” almost becomes the “founder of an empire” and the “aggrandizer of a nation” (320).
Alexander Ross, Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River, Early Western Travels, 1748-1846, ed. Reuben Gold Thwaites, vol. 7 (1849; New York: AMS P, 1966), 34.
For a less flattering view of Astor's career, see Richard E. Oglesby, “John Jacob Astor … ‘a better businessman than the best of them,’” Journal of the West 25 (1986), 8-14. As Sigmund Diamond demonstrates, some of Astor's obituaries in the American press treated his career as anything but exemplary, stressing the exploitative nature of his business enterprises (The Reputation of the American Businessman [Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1955], chap. 2 (“John Jacob Astor”).
The importance of the parallels between Irving's Astor and his Columbus has been clearly recognized by Antelyes (Tales of Adventurous Enterprise, 7-9) and Greenfield (Narrating Discovery, 148).
Ross Cox, Adventures on the Columbia (1831; San Francisco: California State Library [WPA Program], 1941), 79.
“A Time of Unexampled Prosperity,” Knickerbocker 15 (1840), Wolfert's Roost, ed. Roberta Rosenberg (1855; Boston: Twayne, 1979), 95-119. See, especially, 96.
See Paul Chrisler Phillips, The Fur Trade, 2 vols (Norman, OK: U of Oklahoma P, 1961). In chapter 40, “The American Advance to the Pacific,” he gives the example of the advance of 125٪ above cost paid by the Osages for goods supplied from St. Louis. The Indians paid skins and robes valued at 30,000 dollars for goods that had cost the white traders 20,000 dollars (vol. 2, 247). As Harold Hickerson points out in his “Fur Trade Colonisation and the North American Indians,” from the beginning the Whites controlled supplies and set prices (Journal of Ethnic Studies 1 , 24). Indian trappers became locked into a system organized by trading companies that were utterly indifferent to their needs and circumstances.
Kime, “The Author as Professional: Washington Irving's ‘Rambling Anecdotes’ of the West,” Critical Essays on Washington Irving, ed. Aderman, 251.
For accounts of Lisa's trading enterprises, and his hopes of monopolising trade, see David J. Wishart, The Fur Trade of the American West, 1807-1840 (Lincoln, NE: U of Nebraska P, 1979), 42ff. See also William H. Goetzmann, New Lands, New Men: America and the Second Great Age of Discovery (New York: Viking, 1986), 133ff. Lisa—a very successful fur trade entrepreneur—was so hated by his men that he dared not turn his back on them.
While explaining the rivalries between white fur traders and their companies, Irving devotes one paragraph to an account of the motivation of the Teton Sioux, first telling us that they were considered “a sort of pirates of the Missouri,” who regarded the goods of American traders as fair game (116). These Indians trade with the British merchants, who are resolved to keep out all rivals. Moreover, the traders of the Northwest Company have supplied the Sioux with firearms and thus given them an immense superiority over tribes higher up the Missouri. Since the Teton Sioux had the only access to the white man's produce, they “made themselves also, in a manner, factors for the upper tribes, supplying them at second hand, and at greatly advanced prices, with goods derived from the white men” (116). If American traders were to reach the Upper Missouri, they would not only deprive the Teton Sioux of their lucrative role as middle men; they might also supply the other tribes with guns. Hence the determination of the Tetons to block the progress of the new traders, whether independent or belonging to new fur companies.
For an outline of Bonneville's career, see Edgeley W. Todd, “Benjamin L. E. Bonneville,” The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, ed. LeRoy Hafen, vol. 5 (Glendale, CA: Clark, 1968), 45-63.
See John F. McDermott, “Washington Irving and the Journal of Captain Bonneville,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 43 (1956), 459-66.
Washington Irving, The Adventures of Captain Bonville, eds Robert A. Rees and Alan Sandy (1837; Boston: Twayne, 1977), introduction, xxiii. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.
Washington Irving, History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, ed. John Harmon McElroy (1828; Boston: Twayne, 1981). Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11072
SOURCE: “The Aesthetic of Dispossession: Washington Irving and Ideologies of (De)Colonization in the Early Republic,” American Literary History, Vol. 8, No. 2, Summer, 1996, pp. 205-31.
[In the following essay, Murray discusses early American views on identity and nationality through an analysis of the works of Irving and William Apess.]
We see that recognition of your alienation leads many of you to be empowered into the remarking of your culture, while we are paralyzed into a state of displacement with no place to go.
María C. Lugones to Elizabeth V. Spelman, “Have We Got a Theory for You! Feminist Theory, Cultural Imperialism and the Demand for ‘The Woman's Voice.’”
Insisting on the different positions of white women and women of color within society and within feminism, María Lugones points out in her dialogue with Elizabeth Spelman that white women's growing awareness of their disempowerment has in fact produced an empowerment that many white women are not comfortable to acknowledge. Feminism, despite its rhetoric of universal sisterhood, has often excluded those women oppressed by not only gender but race, class, sexuality, or nationality; alternately, it has included them only at the expense of their particularity. Thus, increasingly, the limited nature of mainstream feminism's definition of the word woman has been questioned by women outside this definition, who have contributed to the theorization of new, plural, subjects of feminism. The world is not, as they have pointed out, divided only on gender lines, between men and women, but on many other material and ideological lines as well. White women, they assert, and women privileged in other ways, must be understood not only as victims of power, but also as agents possessing power.1
While the authors and issues I will discuss in this article are far removed from this late twentieth-century feminist debate, the thought generated by the (far from complete) renovation and complication of feminist practice and theory is, I think, methodologically suggestive for the work I will undertake. Let us consider the position of Americans of European descent, men and women, in the early years of American independence from Britain. Models that posit a binary relation of colonizer and colonized cannot be adequate to the multiplicities of this social and discursive context.2 For while European Americans were actively engaged in appropriating the land of Native Americans, by treaty, war, or ruse, they also found themselves still enmeshed in ties of trade, ideology, and diplomacy with Great Britain, their former colonial center. They remained as well very much a cultural province of Britain. British reviewers routinely laughed at American cultural efforts, and against this background Americans with increasing fervor proclaimed projects of creating a national American culture. Such projects often involved Native American imagery or characters. Carved into icons mouthing immortal sentiments, Native Americans were valued in the symbolic economy of emerging nationalist discourse, but they were not valued as speaking subjects in elections or town squares. Native Americans, at least those within settled areas, were being assimilated by force into economic and cultural formations of European America, and yet by force they were kept on the margins of those formations.
Both the culture of the early republic and twentieth-century liberal feminism have included or desired Others—political legitimacy may even have depended on such inclusion—but the parameters of inclusion have been dictated largely from within the dominant discourse. Degrees or kinds of powerlessness have not been recognized; rather, the tendency has been toward rhetorical equations between kinds of oppression and marginality. Liberal feminists have said, “we're all women, we're all enslaved”; white Americans during the revolution likened themselves to slaves and dressed as Mohawks. Such assertions of identity across lines of race and history are often strategically effective, but their power derives from gross oversimplification of different institutions of suffering and patterns of culture.
What is needed in both these cases—that is, in forwarding feminism and in understanding early American nationalism—is a multidimensional approach to power, attentive to numerous spheres of conflict and contestation, that recognizes and articulates various kinds of experienced oppression and empowering action. It is not productive to argue over who is “more” oppressed or “as” oppressed as someone else; this is far too quantitative a model for deployment of power, and it is more important in any case to try to determine the relations between institutions and ideologies of oppression. I consider this essay to be a contribution to such a project, albeit a contribution based on one literary example. It is in order to clarify the interactions between sectors of colonialism in British North America and the US that I will discuss here an ideological phenomenon that muddied these interactions. Through what I call an aesthetic of dispossession, Euro-Americans cultivated their sense of vulnerability with respect to Britain, and in so doing rhetorically exculpated themselves from their colonizing role with respect to Native Americans.
It has finally become a commonplace to observe that from its earliest years, the study of American literature has been predominantly oriented towards defining the national traits of a national literature, and that this orientation has distorted our understanding of the diverse forms and functions of representation in American history. The Moses Coit Tyler to Sacvan Bercovitch sweep of scholarship on foundational Puritan thought patterns has encountered serious challenges (even from Bercovitch himself), and the transhistorical nature of myths of “the American Adam” or “the machine in the garden” has also been questioned. Proclaiming a nonnationalist, unteleological approach to literature of the 13 colonies or the early republic, many critics now emphasize the contingency or constructedness of American identity, the breaks and changes in the role of literature in American society, and the particular literary traits of particular periods and social groups in American history.
With respect to the literature of the early republic, this new work tends to emphasize not postrevolutionary ebullience and uniqueness, but instead the fragility of the nascent American nation as represented in its literature. The phenomenon of the “new” new republic could certainly not be identified as a unified school of research; rather, scholars coming from diverse theoretical directions, from biographical criticism through postcolonial theory and poststructuralism, have emphasized similar traits. Thus Jeffrey Rubin-Dorsky observes the “mirroring effect” between Washington Irving's “profound sense of homelessness and his acute longing for stability” and “the conflicts, anxieties, and needs of the new republic” (xv-xvi). In Visionary Compacts, claiming that authors of the American Renaissance sought social and imaginative security in prerevolutionary history, Donald Pease takes Edgar Allan Poe as an exemplar: “[B]y inventing the literary persona of a dispossessed aristocrat,” he writes, “Poe found a way to experience life in the modern world as a terrifying loss” (159). Lawrence Buell brings the tools of postcolonial studies to American literature, discussing Herman Melville's Billy Budd as “an image of American postcolonial anxiety” (“Melville” 216), whereas Carroll Smith-Rosenberg's analysis of the divided European-American self in the writing of Charles Brockden Brown and Susanna Rowson evidently owes a great deal to poststructuralist theories of subjectivity. All of these projects, however diverse in methods and terminology, present an early republic fraught with anxiety, vulnerability, and fragmentation.
Such interpretations of the era often declare themselves to be critiques of previous overly monolithic portrayals of “the birth of the nation.” Pease, for example, contrasts his emphasis on postrevolutionary longing for prerevolutionary communitarian values with the central place often accorded to the revolutionary mythos of the individual against the wilderness (9). Smith-Rosenberg asserts that whereas previous critics have considered Edgar Huntly (Charles Brockden Brown, 1799) and Reuben and Rachel (Susanna Rowson, 1798) to be “failures,” critics aware of the “polyglot and socially fragmented world” of early America should hail these novels for their refusal to represent “closure and hierarchy” (504). Indeed, attention to the fitful and not-preordained transition from colonial culture to national culture is useful and timely—and it could be noted that I too have set up the opening of this section with the same polarized narrative of now and then, unified and fragmented, simple and complex. However, it would be wise to observe amidst the self-congratulation that there is a long-standing project within the nationalist tradition of American cultural history that attends to the development of national identity. Scholars such as Perry Miller, Fred Somkin, and many others have at times observed phenomena similar to those observed by more recent critics, even if they describe them as stages of development rather than moments of alternative possibility or textual rupture.
The recent work may not be straightforwardly distinct from earlier efforts; even accounts that fracture the notion of an instant or inherent American identity may be recuperated by the sheer narrative force that has accrued through and to the telling of American history over the years. Words like “young,” “adolescence,” “troubled,” and “threatened” continue to appear frequently in writing about the early republic. These terms, and the narrative whose presence they announce, anthropomorphize the nation within a model of child/nation development. The “young” US is imagined as a childlike version of the late twentieth-century “mature” US; history is posited as natural continuum. Through this narrative of maturation, any moments of conflict or alternate possibilities in American history can be interpreted as, to borrow from the language of parentage, “just a phase,” a temporary accident along the way of preordained development. Critics such as Smith-Rosenberg who eschew narrative models of subjectivity nonetheless may be slipped into them, with the caveat that they value as most telling or “natural” those moments of incoherence and confusion that to others may be best forgotten. This is not to say that there is not a profound difference between poststructuralist and developmental models of subjectivity, but rather that given the hegemony of the latter the former may have difficulty resisting narrativization.
Furthermore, I would claim that both the idea of the nation as anxious individual and the idea of the nation as decentered subject promote an exclusive or engulfing conception of American culture, always thought of as singular and continuous even if troubled within itself. Rubin-Dorsky and Smith-Rosenberg work from very different theoretical assumptions, but they both privilege texts manifesting anxiety and fragmentation as representative representations of early America. But if early America was so unstable and heteroglot, then surely it contained texts of bravado and clarity as well as texts of introspection and opacity. I would insist that anxiety is by no means the prominent trait in early American texts, especially if we consider women's writing, non-New England writing, writing by people of color, and non-canonical genres—and that when such writings are anxious, they are likely so for very different reasons. Smith-Rosenberg has pointed this out in her differentiation between Rowson's and Brown's social positions and representational strategies, although she ultimately identifies broadly identical traits in their writing, but Buell and Pease, among my examples, discuss only male canonical or elite writers. These writers, mostly middle-class and mostly from New England, had more to lose than many Americans and may have been correspondingly more concerned than others about America's turn away from the hierarchical society of England; furthermore, they tended to be more than commonly self-consciously involved in the nation-building project. Such caveats have to be made before their writing is held up as or implied to be representative.
Even within European-American writing, or more particularly within the canon, fracture and vulnerability are only one side of the story. It is certainly true that American leaders after the revolution found themselves unsure about what cultural and political models they should look to, and that this uncertainty is manifested in their writing. When Irving observed that American writers of his period were “exquisitely alive to the aspersions of England” (45), caught in a state of “mental vassalage” (47), he was not being disingenuous. However, to make a rather blunt historical point, anxiety existed alongside many other cultural characteristics and historical realities: the rise of industrial capitalism, territorial expansion, Indian removal and extermination, and republican ideals of true womanhood, individuality, and entrepreneurial spirit, for example. The US was hardly seriously incapacitated in its economic and cultural development; it would be a distortion to say so. This, I would suggest, poses a problem for Buell's grouping of Melville and late twentieth-century African writers Wole Soyinka and Ngugi wa Thiong'o: the “postcoloniality” in question in their respective cases is very different, however conscious they may all be about dual audiences and the inadequacies of language inherited from colonial powers. For one thing—to leave differences in historical moment aside—Euro-Americans were engaged in a colonizing project of their own at the same time as they disentangled themselves from their ties to England, and this second colonial relation in which European Americans had the position of cultural hegemony and military strength was equally defining for the new nation.3
As should be clear, then, I am not at all eager to make anxiety a foundational American characteristic. I am, however, interested in what it represents when it could be said to appear. Rather than dwelling on anxiety in isolation, I think it paramount that we examine the relations between symptoms of national insecurity and demands and actions for national security. That is, without denying that the early years of independence required complex political and ideological negotiation, we can examine how this negotiation worked, and in whose interests, identifying the US not only as an ex-colonized nation but as an expansionist and future imperial nation. This essay is an attempt to locate the “anxiety” identified with the early republic in a network of other traits and phenomena, beginning with examination of a work by the early republican writer most often described as anxious, Irving, and turning in closing to an author we might expect to be anxious but who simply is not, that is, William Apess, a Pequot Indian.
Although its style and charm have been admired on both sides of the Atlantic, Irving's The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-20) has long occupied the edges of the American national canon because of its preoccupation with England: during his seventeen years in Europe and since, Irving has been suspected of lack of devotion to his country or doubted as unrepresentative. His earlier writings, brash satires on American history, and his later writings, about the west, have been seen as more unequivocally American than The Sketch Book. On the grounds of subject matter, this judgment makes sense; The Sketch Book, like several other works of Irving's, is obsessed with the wonders of European history and culture. However, recent criticism of The Sketch Book defends its specifically American importance and literary value. Albert von Frank discusses Irving as an instance of the pervasive provincialism of antebellum American culture (61-78), and Joy Kasson compares Irving to other Europhilic Americans of his time (6-42). Rubin-Dorsky has recently authored a book-length study of Irving's writing between 1815 and 1832. He points out that The Sketch Book's English preoccupations are not uncharacteristic of cultural production of the young US, when Americans, unsure about whether they wanted to reject all things English or to follow in England's footsteps, were drawn to explore their relation to England one way or another.
As valid as is his emphasis on the instability of American national identity represented in The Sketch Book, Rubin-Dorsky undermines his own claims by simultaneously reintegrating Americanness in the person of Irving. From an observation that Irving was not atypical in his concerns, Rubin-Dorsky proceeds to make him into no less than an embodiment of the national spirit:
Irving's most compelling subject as a writer—the displaced self adrift in a mutable world— … coincided with the uneasiness and uncertainty of the American people as they contemplated the fate of the nation in the early decades of the nineteenth century. The conflicts, anxieties, and needs of the new republic were reflected in Irving's profound sense of homelessness and his acute longing for stability; and it was, above all, the operation of this mirroring effect that subliminally captivated his audience. … Personal trauma paralleled national crisis. …
According to Rubin-Dorsky, the lack of cohesion of American identity can be represented metaphorically by one particular man's “real emotion” of instability, which Rubin-Dorsky perceives filtered through the frail device of the narrator (60). Such a reading not only presumes a very simple model of expressive writing, but reads anxiety as a temporary aberration from two fundamental unities, national and authorial identity, both of which I take to be problematic on historical and theoretical grounds.
Despite my reservations about Rubin-Dorsky's approach, it is clear that some of the traits he identifies in Irving's writing are indeed prominent there.4 Seeking to contextualize Irving's much-noted anxiety, then, I will discuss here the workings of what I call the aesthetic of dispossession. I argue that this aesthetic, which operated through romanticization of the ideas of dispossession, homelessness, and loss, served to mask historical differences between settler colonialism and colonization of indigenous people. On the one hand, Irving nurtured a sense of dispossession from an English heritage, which became in his writing a poetic and poignant loss; on the other, he also dwelt with romantic fascination on the Native Americans' loss of land and life and lifeways, removing Native Americans from history and positioning them in the realm of romance. Romanticization of both England and of Native Americans is widespread in literature and art of this period, although they are rarely linked in critical discussions. But I would emphasize that the sense of loss so many critics attribute to the era actually gained those writers who emphasized it aesthetic value: writers preoccupied with their uncertain status produced poignant meditations that appealed to genteel readers in both England and America, and the destruction of Native American cultures and their incomprehensibility to white observers were well suited to literary exploitation as sublime or tragic. Irving's The Sketch Book, which crosses the ocean several times between chapters, indulges both American readers' fondness for “olde England” and English readers' interest in things exotic and savage.
The first two chapters of The Sketch Book clearly set the book up as a travel narrative, whose conventions would lead the reader to expect an orderly procession of impressions of English places and scenes, ending with a return home. Crayon has left the US, he says, in search of “the charms of storied and poetical association” (9); in Europe he has studied the “shifting scenes of life” with “the sauntering gaze with which humble lovers of the picturesque stroll from the window of one print shop to another” (9). And yet going to Europe, for Crayon, is in some respects the opposite of a pleasant exercise in nostalgia. In its narrative effect, the alarming chapter “The Voyage” is similar to Crayon's assessment of a sea crossing: “[I]t makes us conscious of being cast loose from the secure anchorage of settled life and sent adrift upon a doubtful world” (11). Larzer Ziff points out (“Questions” 94) that it almost seems as if Crayon were crossing the Atlantic in the other direction, as he describes the “thrilling cry of Land!” and the first view of “the land of promise” (14). Crayon's landfall is at once a coming home and a coming to a strange land, coming to an old world and coming to a new world. And although the emphatically European “Roscoe” chapter that follows seems to banish the potential reversal of new and old world, the two will be reversed and confused repeatedly throughout The Sketch Book.
In the fourth chapter, “The Wife,” and certainly by the fifth, “Rip Van Winkle,” The Sketch Book's neatly launched travel narrative is quite thoroughly disrupted. Both these chapters are set in the US rather than England, and “Rip Van Winkle” particularly takes us completely away from the concerns of Geoffrey Crayon in England, back to a mythologized prerevolutionary Dutch America. The thematic continuities between “Rip Van Winkle” and the rest of The Sketch Book have been documented by Mary Witherspoon Bowden, Jane D. Eberwein, and Rubin-Dorsky, among others. But I am concerned here with the fact that in terms of narrative voice and continuity, this chapter marks a complete break. Although the English material soon resumes and continues, interrupted only for Irish, Dutch, and Swiss interludes, for 22 chapters, the early insistence on interpolating American material infuses the whole with a sense of underlying American concerns and destabilizes the pretense of travel narrative that structures the book. American themes are abruptly brought to the fore again following the sketch on “Stratford-on-Avon,” when the chapters “Traits of Indian Character” and “Philip of Pokanoket” intervene. Following more rambles in the English countryside with Crayon, the book concludes with two more American sketches before “L'Envoy,” the last chapter of the second volume.5
None of the American chapters of The Sketch Book are explicitly narrated by Crayon, which further unravels the premise of the book. “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” are ostensibly from the pen of the fictional Dutch historian Diedrich Knickerbocker, and the two Indian sketches show no indication of any particular narrator at all.6 It is strange that the narrator vanishes when the book is concerned with his native soil, but his absence indicates—I would here agree with Rubin-Dorsky—Irving's troubled attempt to make his book American and acceptable to the English at the same time. Irving likely thought the American sketches would ground him in English readers' eyes as an American; the Indian sketches were not included in the first American edition, having been published previously in the Analectic, but they were published in the first British edition. Just as European explorers often invoked European culture and art while describing the American landscape, an American traveler in England would invoke Native American culture to locate himself as non-English by claiming a cultural and historical pedigree from another source. Even the Dutch stories could work this way, as a source for non-English identity. The American chapters of The Sketch Book interspersed with nostalgic English sketches can be seen to represent a compulsive composite of American discourses about England, on the one hand, and about clearly non-English Americans, on the other, through which the European American of the early republic becomes simultaneously visible and invisible.7
Another estranging effect in The Sketch Book is the historical setting: the American chapters are set far in the Puritan or Dutch colonial past, and the English chapters too focus on a mythologized Elizabethan England. One way Irving resolves tensions between diverse material is to cast over all of it a literary haze of time and sentiment. However, we can still discern such tensions, as an examination of a set of four consecutive chapters, “Stratford-on-Avon,” “Traits of Indian Character,” “Philip of Pokanoket,” and “John Bull,” will show. The Indian sketches have received very little critical attention, perhaps because they seem so conventional—they usually merit only a mention in discussions of the book8—and yet analysis of their juxtaposition with the English sketches will illustrate the workings of the dual aesthetic of dispossession I am discussing. It may also offer a way of breaking through the conventionality of Irving's sentimental discourse of noble savagery.
“Stratford-on-Avon” is vintage Crayon. Our genial narrator alternately mocks and defends his reverence toward the place of Shakespeare's birth and burial, as he visits all the standard shrines and conjures up some of his own. He listens to apocryphal tales with relish and spends a day at the Lucy estate imagining characters from Shakespeare plays behind every tree: “My mind had become so completely possessed by the imaginary scenes and characters connected with it, that I seemed to be actually living among them” (223). He goes on: “On returning to my inn, I could not but reflect on the singular gift of the poet; to be able thus to spread the magic of his mind over the very face of nature; to give to things and places a charm and character not their own, and to turn this ‘working day world’ into a perfect fairy land” (223). There are, of course, two poets “spreading magic” here, three if we count Irving as well as Crayon, and it is part of Crayon's romantic self-deprecating stance to ascribe all imaginative power to Shakespeare when it is in fact his own fertile fancy that pervades the Lucy estate that day. Likewise, we will see him emphasizing the inherently poetical qualities of Native American life rather than his own romantic interpretations of it: the agency of the European-American author and even his European-American narrator is masked, a crucial part of the aesthetic I am describing here, even as the role of the poet is being celebrated. Irving/Crayon recognizes the power of art to transform reality into romance, but he does not recognize this ability in himself.
The preoccupation with art and inspiration in “Stratford-on-Avon” is persistently interwoven with another of Crayon's concerns, that is, property and ownership, as announced in the very first lines of the chapter: “To a homeless man, who has no spot on this wide world which he can truly call his own, there is a momentary feeling of something like independence and territorial consequence, when, after a weary day's travel, he kicks off his boots, thrusts his feet into slippers, and stretches himself before an inn fire” (209). Crayon enjoys this kind of ownership because of its imaginary qualities and emphasizes his “homeless” situation in mock pathos—after all, tourists seek homelessness, as Crayon makes clear. Another passage on ownership in the Stratford chapter takes a similar approach, although its expansiveness is undercut by a story about Shakespeare that intervenes. Legend has it, we are told, that Shakespeare was ordered to leave Stratford for poaching, a punishment that initiated his theater career. Reminded that a man can be prosecuted for acting as if he owns another's property, we may be less enchanted than Crayon at the powers of the imagination touted in the following passage: “I delight in these hospitable estates, in which every one has a kind of property—at least as far as the footpath is concerned. It in some measure reconciles a poor man to his lot. … He breathes the pure air as freely, and lolls as luxuriously under the shade, as the lord of the soil; and if he has not the privilege of calling all that he sees his own, he has not, at the same time, the trouble of paying for it, and keeping it in order” (217). Extending this notion of ownership to Shakespeare, it would follow that Shakespeare obtained imaginative ownership of the Lucy estate, and indeed all of England, through being denied hunting rights, and more generally that the propertyless man, like Crayon himself, figuratively owns more than the propertied man. Irving, of course, made a career out of figurative possession and imaginative ownership, through artistic representation, of lands he did not belong to; in his various works, England, Spain, and the western territories are brought close to the reader through Irving's sublime communion with and alienation from them.
Immediately following “Stratford-on-Avon,” with no explanation or narrative premise provided, “Traits of Indian Character” and “Philip of Pokanoket” interrupt the mode of English pastoral that predominates in The Sketch Book. Setting and material notwithstanding, these chapters do share a certain Crayonesque sentimental style with the English chapters. Like “Stratford-on-Avon,” the Indian sketches are caught up in the romance of history: although the narrator (hardly distinguishable from Irving in these chapters) desperately laments the impossibility of having transparent access to the past, he also enjoys its inaccessibility, which authorizes him to imaginatively recreate it. Thus, just as he chooses to write about Shakespeare rather than Sir Walter Scott, Irving focuses on King Philip's War of 1675 and excises the critique of the Creek War that framed the 1814 version of “Traits of Indian Character.”9 Whereas in the prejudiced accounts of Puritan historians, “Philip became a theme of universal apprehension” (241), Irving would rather he had been “rendered … the theme of the poet and the historian” (247). In The Sketch Book as in so many of its contemporary texts, the discourse of noble savagery smooths out the Native American path to extinction: Irving predicts that, “driven to madness and despair” (229), Indians will “vanish like a vapour from the face of the earth” (233). King Philip, Irving says, was one of a “band of native untaught heroes; who made the most generous struggle of which human nature is capable; fighting to the last gasp in the cause of their country, without a hope of victory or a thought of renown. Worthy of an age of poetry, and fit subjects for local story and romantic fiction, they have left scarcely any authentic traces on the page of history, but stalk, like gigantic shadows in the dim twilight of tradition” (235). While Irving laments the lack of historical record, this lack becomes an artistic opportunity, as this passage makes quite clear. Ziff has observed that “as political policy acknowledged the Indians' legal existence only after they surrendered their sovereignty … so literary representation acknowledged the Indians' culture only after they surrendered their history” (Writing 158-59); here, indeed, Irving deftly dismisses history and replaces it with “the dim twilight of tradition,” all in generous admiration of Indian nobility.
The Indian chapters do challenge the idea that the English are only harmless and picturesque objects of touristic meditation. Irving does not flinch from depicting gross violence and dishonesty. The insistence on the violence of the English is carried further in “Philip of Pokanoket” by the clearly allegorical role of King Philip, “a patriot attached to his native soil” (246), fighting “to deliver his native land from the oppression of usurping strangers” (240). As an example of the “native growth of moral sentiment” (234), Philip becomes a model American as well as a noble Indian.
However, Philip also shares affinities with the English. He is a monarch, after all, and is treated by Irving with some of the same pathos as James I in the chapter “A Royal Poet.” Crayon is nostalgic for aristocracy and admires it in both English and American settings. Furthermore, Philip and the Native Americans seem to share a kind of intellectual and aesthetic aristocracy with the Englishmen Crayon reveres. As the “wildness and irregularity” (215) of young Shakespeare's genius was nurtured by his environment, so that he became a “great poet of nature” (210), Native Americans too are represented as aesthetically formed by their wild and beautiful surroundings. And they too are poets. The epigraph to “Traits of Indian Character” is an excerpt from Chief Logan's celebrated speech, widely known among white Americans at the time as a specimen of superb Native American oratory, and Irving also cites at length the “beautifully simple and pathetic harangue” (228) of an anonymous Sachem lamenting the looting of his mother's tomb. The chapter ends with the words of an “old warrior”: “We are driven back … our fires are nearly extinguished … we shall cease to exist!” (233).
Despite Irving's claims, of course, Logan, the nameless Sachem, and the nameless “old warrior” were moved to speak not immediately by natural beauty but by the violent behavior of white settlers. Not only did necessity impel and mold their actual speeches to white people (if these speeches are not entirely fictional to begin with), but European-American needs rather than Native American needs are served in the representation of these speeches in The Sketch Book. I would argue that Irving finds these speeches beautiful not only for their resonance from nature, but for the contradiction they represent, which becomes a sublime contradiction once translated from political to poetic discourse. The contradiction of forced utterance of spontaneous sentiment carries great aesthetic value for a white interpreter such as Irving, as it did for many whites in the early republic who indulged in the vogue for speeches of dying or surrendering Indians (Murray ch. 3) or tableaux of suicidal Indians (Sollors 102-30). Irving acknowledges white violence against Native Americans, but he isolates that knowledge from his understanding of their “natural” eloquence. The tension produced by this act of isolation actually intensifies the pleasure, in the way that, more recently, I would suggest, Dances with Wolves's acknowledgment of injustice against native people intensifies its version of noble savage imagery, making it all the more poignant and only marginally more historical.
I will expand on the problem of white representation of Native American oratory, because it is a central component of the aesthetic of dispossession as I am defining it. Logan's speech, delivered in 1774, also appeared in newspapers all over America and England, was reprinted in McGuffey's Readers, was a central piece of evidence in Jefferson's argument for American potential, was reworked into set pieces in plays, and inspired a novel and many poems (see Seeber). The speech is an indictment of white treatment of the Native Americans; Logan asks “any white man to say, if he ever came to [Logan's] cabin hungry, and he gave him not meat” and he condemns the murder of his family in a random act of violence by white soldiers.10 Jefferson compared Logan's eloquence to the oratorical art of Cicero and Demosthenes, and this assessment was shared and elaborated upon by many later commentators. It is interesting to note that the political content of the classical orators was also diffused by time so that they became dehistoricized symbols of universally powerful rhetoric. Like the documents of classical Greece and Rome, Native American oratory, once decontextualized, could be adapted to the political needs of the American nation. Consider this excerpt from the magazine American Pioneer of 1842: “[N]o piece of composition ever did more, if so much, as the speech of Logan, … to form the mind and develop the latent energies of the youthful American orator. Its influence has extended even into the halls of Congress, and has been felt upon the bench and in the bar of this nation; nay more, the American pulpit has been graced by energies which that speech has, in its warm simplicity, called forth” (qtd. in Seeber 132). The passage assumes that Logan's speech is essentially mute and mutable. As Edward Seeber has noted, one of the strange things about the popularity of Logan's speech is that the speech itself is not really very remarkable; it is extremely short and to the point, with none of the metaphorical elaboration white commentators usually praised in Native American speeches (140). But perhaps this is why it served its symbolic purpose so well.
Arnold Krupat, commenting on the popularity of Native American autobiography in a later period, discusses the white need for Native American affirmation of white innocence and notes that “the production of an Indian's own statement of his inevitable disappearance required that the Indian be represented as speaking in his own voice” (35). This presence of the speaking Native American was thus both ideologically necessary and potentially destabilizing to the white text. However, David Murray delineates the process by which, in such quoting of Native American oratory, “the speakers are ‘framed,’ so that what they are saying is actually less important than the fact and manner of their saying it” (36). Sympathy with wronged Indians was “turned into an aesthetic, rather than a moral, sensation” (40), Murray notes. When their words were contained in the works of white authors, Native Americans could not claim figurative property or imaginative ownership as defined in Irving's “Stratford-on-Avon” chapter: neither poetic nor physical property was permitted them. Physical dispossession may have produced artistic possession for Irving and Crayon and Shakespeare, but it is causally linked in the Native Americans' case to loss of artistic possession: thus, “[the Indians] have been dispossessed of their hereditary possessions by mercenary and frequently wanton warfare,” Irving writes, “and their characters have been traduced by bigoted and interested writers” (225). Both Native American political expression and artistic production were subsumed, when they came into contact with white writers, under the aesthetic of dispossession.
Putting this analysis of the aesthetic of Native American dispossession together with the aesthetic of dispossession applied to Crayon and Shakespeare, we see the mechanics of their interrelationship. By invoking a sense of loss even for the greatest English poet, the romantic discourse masks the historical differences between the losses incurred. Irving seems to be consoling himself that like Shakespeare, who was barred from hunting in the forest and forced into sublime artistic production, Native Americans can turn their loss of land and autonomy into aesthetic riches. If Native Americans are unfortunate in “becoming vagabonds in the land of their fathers” (237), they are perhaps fortunate that “the poetic temperament has naturally something in it of the vagabond” (215). But of course the youthful and probably apocryphal vagabondage of Shakespeare, the voluntary and gentlemanly vagabondage of Crayon and Irving, and the enforced vagabondage of Native Americans are hardly identical on any grounds outside of Irving's imagination.
“John Bull,” an affectionate satire of English national character, follows “Philip of Pokanoket” and represents another variant on the theme of property in The Sketch Book. John Bull owns a huge crumbling manor house, metaphorical for England of course, which, while mortgaged to the hilt, will never be taken from him. And John Bull has “much less of poetry about him than rich prose. There is little of romance in his nature, but a vast deal of strong natural feeling” (249). As in the Christmas chapters or even “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” humor seems to be a mode more appropriate to the property owner than it is to the propertyless. In Crayon's aesthetic, propertied people are “down to earth” while propertyless people are visionary or tragic. Thus despite his many-winged house and multitudes of servants, John Bull's “virtues are all his own; all plain, homebred and unaffected” (256); Crayon divests John Bull of aristocracy as he invests Shakespeare and the Native Americans with it. The British, Crayon implies, lost their American colonies through incompetence, which makes them comical now; the Native Americans, on the other hand, were doomed to lose their land and are thus tragic. Crayon, in between John Bull and King Philip in terms of his grasp on history, identity, and land, is presented as alternately poignant and absurd.
As Irving elevated his own sense of loss and romanticized the Native Americans' historical loss such that both white Americans and Native Americans were represented as passive victims, he was not unique. This pattern can be found among other authors as well—particularly educated eastern Americans for whom England was an ideal and Native Americans distant enough to become mere ideals also. For example, in the Leatherstocking novels of James Fenimore Cooper, it is all Hawkeye can do to watch the demise of the Native Americans and step mournfully into their place. “In Hawkeye,” Pease suggests, “Cooper invented a figure who was able to transform cultural dispossession—that of the Mohicans—into a form of self-possession. Cooper was also able to treat Hawkeye's act of taking possession of himself in the woods as a rationale for America's legal title to the frontier” (21). Smith-Rosenberg's reading of Edgar Huntly's somnambulism suggests a mystification of colonialism even more manifest than Irving's. We might also consider the pervasive trope in American culture of the white woman abducted by the Native American man. In this captivity narrative scenario, the colonizers, represented by the “weaker sex,” represent the Native Americans as the aggressors and thus portray white actions as wholly innocent. The popularity of the captivity trope far outstrips the extent of the historical phenomenon and always decontextualizes it from provoking violence on the part of white settlers.
Another trend that I would connect to the “aesthetic of dispossession” in the period, not confined to literature but pervasive in policy and politics, was Americans' widespread insistence that they were not the instigators of the Revolution: England had thrust them from their filial relation to her by oppressing them and treating them like slaves, the story went, and they were forced to rebel. They then allowed themselves, as Irving did, to “cast back a look of regret, as [they wandered] farther and farther from the paternal roof, and lament the waywardness of the parent, that would repel the affections of the child” (47). In white Americans' parent-child conceptualization of their relations with Native Americans, however, it was the child who was represented as wayward, such that the parent (the white government) was reluctantly forced to chastise, constrain, or cast off the child (the Native American tribes; see Rogin ch. 4). White Americans often preferred to cast themselves in a passive role.11
Thus, white Americans who fostered and nurtured their unease at their independence masked their own colonizing position with respect to the Indians, whom they had dispossessed of their land. Crayon's famous humility and self-mockery can be seen as part of a constraining and useful discourse of ex-colonial vulnerability. For if “awe and reverence” for the English deprived Irving of “ease and confidence,” as he claimed (299), he was nonetheless able to use his diffidence to artistic and, I have argued, ideological advantage.
I would like to turn next to the writing of William Apess, a Pequot Indian, who provides a rare challenge to the constraints and conventions of the aesthetic of dispossession and whose treatment of King Philip and Chief Logan can be directly compared to Irving's. I might note that Apess's effective exposure of the uses of romanticism and religion in obfuscating colonialism cannot be attributed simply to his being Native American. Other Native American writers, such as Charles Eastman and Pauline Johnson, have actively participated in the romanticization of Native American culture. It is, I think, Apess's clear-eyed and visceral understanding of Native American history, learned from books by white authors and from experience and Native American sources, that allows him to shatter the illusions of the aesthetic of dispossession. As I asserted earlier, there is little anxiety to be found in Apess's writing, even though his people had been systematically killed and dispossessed of their land, and those who survived lived precariously on the margins of the New England economy and culture. Rather than claiming the status of victim, Apess struggled to escape this status.
In preparing the second edition of his autobiography, A Son of the Forest (1831), Apess “somewhat abridged ‘his life’” to make room for “some general observations on the origin and character of the Indians, as a Nation” (52). Apess does not privilege his own experience over a broader history, however difficult access to this broader history might be. His “general observations” are in fact largely selections from Elias Boudinot's A Star in the West (1816), itself a conglomeration of quotations from earlier authors in support of the thesis that the native people of North America are none other than the ten lost tribes of Israel. Apess makes the same claim, but his emphasis is on the sheer volume of wrongdoing against the Indians. Among the crowd of documents, Apess presents Irving's “Traits of Indian Character” with the sole comment that it “bear[s] testimony of the philanthropy of some of the white men” and that it “originally appeared in the Analectic Magazine, during the time that the United States was engaged in a war with the Creek Indians” (60). The text is from Boudinot, and thus Apess is working from the 1814 version of “Traits of Indian Character,” which unlike the version in The Sketch Book does refer to the Creek War. Despite his contextualization of the piece with respect to that war, Apess oddly excises Irving's direct criticism of the US Army's treatment of the Creeks, and includes some particularly racist material that Irving himself left out from later editions: “It has pleased heaven to give [Indians] but limited powers of mind,” Apess ventriloquizes, “and feeble lights to guide their judgments: it becomes us who are blessed with higher intellects to think for them, and set them an example of humanity” (68). Apess's apparently haphazard borrowing (from Irving via Boudinot, alongside Boudinot's other borrowings borrowed again by Apess) plays havoc with any notion of authorial voice, with regard to either Apess, Boudinot, or Irving. But perhaps Apess's inattention to the content of Irving's sketch is similar to white authors' attitudes towards Chief Logan's speech. In an inversion of Irving's ventriloquism of un-named Indian chiefs, Apess, who may well not have known who wrote “Traits of Indian Character,” presents the sketch without naming its author. It is merely a demonstration that white people have the capacity for sympathy, despite their ignorance, just as Logan's speech served as a demonstration that native people could feel, despite their violence. Apess includes Logan's speech in his appendix also, another borrowing from Boudinot: rather than adjudicating among all these sources, Apess jumbles them together.
Apess's “Eulogy on King Philip,” a speech delivered in Boston in 1836, speaks more directly to the substance of Irving's representation of Native Americans. While Apess had probably not read “Philip of Pokanoket,” he would have relied on some of the same sources as Irving and was thus conversant with the discourses of the history of King Philip's War. Unlike Irving and other chroniclers of King Philip, Apess refuses a tragic emplotment of Philip's life; he is reluctant to allow his audience the sentimental opportunity to “turn with horror” or “blush with indignation” (Irving 233). As in A Son of the Forest, Apess's approach here is to present “a mass of history and exposition” (289), complete with dates and places to a high degree of specificity. In addition to insisting on the concreteness of Native American history, Apess draws on the political discourse of republicanism to demand legal rights and protections for Native Americans. “Give the Indian his rights, and you may be assured war will cease” (307), he proclaims; he also calls for the crimes of white Christians against native people to be judged by Christian standards (287).
Apess repeatedly invokes parallels between King Philip's War and the American Revolution, but he does so to an effect opposite that of Irving. While Irving makes Philip into a kind of forefather to white American revolutionaries, Apess insists that Philip was working toward his own revolution, “though unsuccessful, yet as glorious as the American Revolution” (277). In Apess's account, Philip was an even more worthy leader than the leaders of the later revolution: “[W]hen his men began to be in want of money, having a coat neatly wrought with mampampeag (i.e., Indian money), he cut it to pieces and distributed it among all his chiefs and warriors, it being better than the old continental money of the Revolution in Washington's day, as not one Indian soldier found fault with it, as we could ever learn; so that it cheered their hearts still to persevere to maintain their rights and expel their enemies” (297). Barry O'Connell proposes that in calling his speech a “eulogy,” Apess makes a reference to Daniel Webster's patriotic speeches on the occasion, for example, of the deaths of Jefferson and Adams (xx-xxi). Indeed, Apess begins the speech by establishing a parallel between Philip and other famous leaders, and a contrast between his treatment at the hands of historians and theirs: “I do not arise to spread before you the fame of a noted warrior, whose natural abilities shone like those of the great and mighty Philip of Greece, or of Alexander the Great, or like those of Washington—whose virtues and patriotism are engraven on the hearts of my audience” (277). Instead, he plans to prove the “virtues and patriotism” of a man usually reviled as an enemy of the nation who was nonetheless, he claims, “the greatest man that was ever in America” (308).
What does it mean to demonstrate the patriotism of a Native American leader who was a declared enemy of the settlers? Philip, Apess says, is honored by his descendants; and “so will every patriot, especially in this enlightened age, respect the rude yet all-accomplished son of the forest, that died a martyr to his cause” (277). This use of the word “patriot” seems to mean American patriot (Apess's audience was mostly white), and thus he is asking white Americans to include in their notion of patria the idea that those who are harmed by the state have the right to armed insurrection. Philip is not “a patriot attached to his native soil” in Irving's metaphorical sense (246), but in a historical political sense. Philip is a patriot with respect to his own, Indian, nation, and also, Apess tries to persuade his audience, with respect to the American nation. Philip is here claimed as both native and American; he is a part of both histories and his life as told by Apess reveals the conflicts hidden by white American histories.
Apess's next manipulation of the conventions of pleas on behalf of Native Americans is quite spectacular. Rather than invoking a poetic Indian chief to speak about the inevitability of his disappearance, as did Irving and countless others, Apess forces the president to give an imaginary speech about the deliberate extermination of the Native Americans. The ventriloquized speech runs as follows:
We want your land for our use to speculate upon; it aids us in paying off our national debt and supporting us in Congress to drive you off.
You see, my red children, that our fathers carried on this scheme of getting your lands for our use, and we have now become rich and powerful; and we have a right to do with you just as we please; we claim to be your fathers. And we think we shall do you a great favor, my dear sons and daughters, to drive you out, to get you away out of the reach of our civilized people, who are cheating you, for we have no law to reach them, we cannot protect you although you be our children. So it is no use, you need not cry, you must go, even if the lions devour you, for we promised the land you have to somebody else long ago, perhaps twenty or thirty years; and we did it without your consent, it is true. But this has been the way our fathers first brought us up, and it is hard to depart from it; therefore, you shall have no protection from us.
This “speech” describes in an extraordinarily succinct manner the ideological and economic connections between European Americans' relations to their colonial superiors and their own colonizing role with respect to Native Americans in the postrevolutionary US. “Our fathers,” the president says, started the process of land stealing, and now “we claim to be your fathers.” “This has been the way our fathers first brought us up,” he says, “and it is hard to depart from it”; this is a more directly political example of the kind of masking of agency that I have claimed was common in the early republic. Apess perceptively observes that the father-child metaphor is not applied between the president and white citizens, even though this would be its most logical application; Apess has the president profess helplessness over those who elected him. Apess also comments with bitter sarcasm on the importance of having control over the telling of history: he has the president say “we promised the land you have to somebody else long ago, perhaps twenty or thirty years”—in the foreshortened historical vision of white Americans, “twenty or thirty years” can constitute a long time, time enough to recede into what Irving called “the dim twilight of tradition” (235) in which all manner of deeds can be justified.
Compared to this extended parody of a presidential speech, Apess's mention of Chief Logan in the “Eulogy” is fleeting. Apess brings up the speech in a somewhat ritualized way, as if recognizing its mandatory appearance in any discussion of wrongs done to Native Americans. “The speech of Logan, the white man's friend, is no doubt fresh in your memory” (309), he prompts his audience, and quickly rehearses the story of the murder of Logan's family with which he expects they are all familiar. But instead of quoting Logan, or elaborating on the horrors of his case, Apess passes by his case as “one in a thousand” (309). He refuses to indulge his audience with the usual sentimental catharsis. By denying Logan specificity, I would argue, Apess denies the possibility of reducing Native Americans to one symbol, “Logan, the white man's friend,” a symbol detached from historical structure or process and ritualistically invoked to allow emotional purging with no effect on that historical structure or process. In fact, I think we could see Apess's speech as a rewriting of Logan's, with many-pronged rhetoric and argument and historical evidence making it irreducible to a single aesthetic moment. Like Logan, Apess emphasizes Native Americans' kindness to whites and their betrayal by them. However, Apess does not lament, and he does not ask for pity.
Many postcolonial studies scholars have proclaimed the impossibility or at least the undesirability of comparing literatures of settler colonies and literatures developing out of colonization of indigenous people (see Shohat; McClintock; Brennan 35-36). Their reluctance to draw comparisons may come from a fear that if any party no matter how privileged can claim a “postcolonial” status, the term may lose its political and historical leverage. This could indeed be the effect of an exorbitation of the traits of anxiety, fragmentation, and vulnerability in the early American republic. The term colonial in American studies has for a long time referred largely to Puritans and planters, and the importation of colonial and postcolonial studies approaches into the field has only sporadically challenged this emphasis.
And yet I do not think the solution is to turn completely, as Anne McClintock might do, to the colonization of indigenous people as the only “real” colonialism in colonial America.12 Instead, I am trying to develop a comparative method based on the principle of relation rather than likeness. In most colonies throughout history, settler colonialism and colonization of indigenous people developed simultaneously,13 and to point out that European Americans were in different structural and cultural positions than Europeans hardly seems in itself a denial of difference between the positions of settler and indigenous colonized populations. I hope this essay has demonstrated that to “disqualify” settler colonialism from serious consideration would impede understanding of colonization of indigenous people, which took place in cultural, ideological, and economic relation with settler colonialism. In particular reference to my work in this essay, such disqualification would take away from analysis of writers like Apess, indigenous writers who self-consciously harnessed the anticolonial discourses of settler colonists in new and particular ways.
Perhaps I might return to my initial analogy to present-day feminism. Scholars in this field are doing an admirable job stepping through webs of historical, discursive, and emotional complexity; by identifying the “many varied tools of patriarchy” (Lorde 95), they are becoming better equipped to develop countertools. Tensions have not abated between different feminist communities, but neither should they, in a sense, since the interests and histories of these communities are often very different. There is even less likely to be one type of women's oppression than there is to be one type of colonialism. Intersection of different analyses and actions has been intermittent and difficult, but it has helped to show the inadequacies and inaccuracies of claims to victimhood as a political strategy, and the necessity of a more diversified conception of oppression. These are also tasks central to understanding the history of colonialism in British North America and the US. In comparisons of representational processes associated with the end of American settler colonialism and those associated with the continuing colonization of Native Americans, discussions within feminism can serve as a model and a reminder not to claim likeness or difference in terms too absolute.
For examples of such critiques, see hooks (ch. 4); Trinh (ch. 3); and Lorde. For examples of white women reflecting on their privilege, some 10 years after the Lugones and Spelman article, see Patai 139; Gallop, Hirsch, and Miller 354; and Childers's remarks in her article with hooks (62). I cannot attempt to do justice to all the nuances of terms and identities here; while Lugones speaks of the unacknowledged power of white, middle-class, educated, American women, feminists have more recently become concerned also with the privileges of region, language, sexuality, religion, age, and so on.
The bulk of colonial theory has remained concentrated on the two-sided colonial situation, from Albert Memmi's psychological model from the 1950s through Homi Bhabha's post-structuralist work of the 1980s.
See Kutzinski. Irving's reception in England certainly does invite comparison to the reception of present-day third-world writers. Brennan has observed that Salman Rushdie, Derek Walcott, Isabel Allende, and the rest of a coterie of “cosmopolitan” writers are well known in the metropole (which now includes New York as well as London) “not because they are necessarily ‘better’, but because they tell strange stories in familiar ways” (36). Such literary strategies have led to great success among these few authors: “[T]he metropolitan reader is surprised or delighted to find authors like Rushdie or Allende treating Third-World themes with ‘sophistication,’ and that surprise has everything to do with their current popularity” (38). Similarities with Irving and his context abound; The Quarterly Review (1819) found Irving's Sketch Book most charming, “written for the most part in a spirit of good sense and moderation which could scarcely be expected from an American” (qtd. in Rubin-Dorsky 40). Likewise the Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany (1819) observed with some surprise that The Sketch Book “proves to us distinctly that there is mind working in America, and that there are materials, too, for it to work upon, of a very singular and romantic kind” (qtd. in Rubin-Dorsky 40). Although the parallels appear strong, I would suggest another characterization of the relation between them: in a sense the condescension the twentieth-century postcolonial authors (and nonwhite American authors too) have faced is an effect of the condescension Irving and his contemporary European Americans faced. Americans built up a national culture in response to imperial condescension, and now protect its hegemonic aesthetic values in the way that the British defended theirs. The difference in time period is therefore significant.
Similar anxiety is also present in authors contemporary with Irving: Rubin-Dorsky names James Fenimore Cooper and Sarah J. Hale as examples of those nostalgic for a prerevolutionary world or worried about moral control in the new republic, and one might also consider Charles Brockden Brown's gothic experiments in psychological/national landscape, or the worry over republican female virtue in early American novels such as William Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy or Hannah Foster's The Coquette. Again, I am not denying such traits but seeking to read them differently.
The Twayne edition of The Sketch Book follows the order of the 1848 American edition, although its copy texts derive from the first American edition (1819-20) and first English edition (1820).
“The Wife” may be set in the US, but its location bears no importance to the story; “The Angler” contains a reminiscence of the effect Izaak Walton's “Compleat Angler” had on a group of American boys (264), but the chapter is mainly set in Wales.
One might identify this same necessity in Margaret Fuller's travel sketches, Summer on the Lakes, in which chapters on Niagara and Indian villages are continually interspersed with romantic fables and meditations on German philosophers and Greek gods, or in Caroline Kirkland's A New Home—Who'll Follow? which, while discussing life in swampy half-settled Michigan, contains almost as many quotes from high European culture as does The Sketch Book.
Exceptions are Daniel Littlefield and Rubin-Dorsky, who read these sketches as examples of Irving's general fear of progress or sense of loss. But whereas these scholars seem unsurprised about the continuities between the Indian and English sketches, I found such continuities puzzling.
The 1814 “Traits of Indian Character” is overtly topical, and contains some three pages of criticism of the behavior of the US military in the Creek War: “In the present times,” Irving begins, “when popular feeling is gradually becoming hardened by war, and selfish by the frequent jeopardy of life or property, it is certainly an inauspicious moment to speak in behalf of a race of beings, whose very existence has been pronounced detrimental to public security. But it is good at all times to raise the voice of truth, however feeble” (145). By 1820, the Creek material would either have had to be revised or deleted; Irving chose the latter, making the tone uniformly nostalgic to fit in with the other sketches.
Jefferson's appendix attempts to pin down the circumstances under which the speech was given. Jefferson's treatment of the speech merits a separate discussion, but suffice it to say here that when challenged about the speech's authenticity, Jefferson amassed as much documentary corroboration as possible, and when that proved to be equivocal, he asserted that “whether Logan's or mine, [the speech] would still have been American” (230), a bold act of nationalist cultural appropriation if there ever was one.
Americans of relative privilege continue to have a fascination with victimhood, according to Wendy Kaminer. In her analysis of the American “recovery” or “self-help” movement of recent years, she observes that “[I]n recovery, whether or not you were housed, schooled, clothed, and fed in childhood, you can still claim to be metaphorically homeless. … At its worst, the recovery movement's cult of victimization mocks the notion of social justice by denying that there are degrees of injustice” (155).
McClintock's central point is a criticism of “how seldom the term [post-colonial] is used to denote multiplicity” (86), and yet she is nonetheless eager to make judgments about which nations “qualify” (87) as postcolonial and which do not. I am extremely wary of this exclusivist tendency.
The term colonization refers in its earliest definitions to plantations and satellite communities, that is, settler colonialism (see Finley); in North America, South America, the Caribbean, Australasia, South and East Africa, settler colonialism was part of the mechanism for colonization of indigenous people.
Apess, William. On Our Own Ground: The Complete Writings of William Apess, A Pequot. Ed. and introd. Barry O'Connell. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1992.
Bhabha, Homi. “Interrogating Identity: The Postcolonial Prerogative.” Anatomy of Racism. Ed. David Theo Goldberg. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1990. 183-209.
———. “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse.” October 28 (1984): 125-33.
Boudinot, Elias. A Star in the West: Or, A Humble Attempt to Discover the Long Lost Ten Tribes of Israel. Trenton, NJ, 1816.
Bowden, Mary Witherspoon. Washington Irving. Boston: Twayne, 1981.
Brennan, Timothy. Salman Rushdie and the Third World: Myths of the Nation. New York: St. Martin's, 1989.
Brown, William Hill. The Power of Sympathy. The Power of Sympathy and The Coquette. Ed. William S. Osborne. New Haven: College and University, 1970. 27-129.
Buell, Lawrence. “American Literary Emergence as a Postcolonial Phenomenon.” American Literary History 4 (1992): 411-42.
———. “Melville and the Question of American Decolonization.” American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography 64 (1992): 215-37.
Childers, Mary, and bell hooks. “A Conversation about Race and Class.” Conflicts in Feminism. Ed. Marianne Hirsch and Evelyn Fox Keller. New York: Routledge, 1990. 60-81.
Eastman, Charles A. Indian Boyhood. 1902. New York: Dover, 1971.
Eberwein, Jane D. “Transatlantic Contrasts in Irving's Sketch Book.” College English 15 (1988): 153-70.
Finley, M. I. “Colonies—An Attempt at a Typology.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th ser. 26 (1976): 167-88.
Foster, Hannah. The Coquette. The Power of Sympathy and The Coquette. Ed. William S. Osborne. New Haven: College and University, 1970. 131-272.
Fuller, Margaret. Summer on the Lakes. 1844. New York: Haskell, 1970.
Gallop, Jane, Marianne Hirsch, and Nancy K. Miller. “Criticizing Feminist Criticism.” Conflicts in Feminism. Ed. Marianne Hirsch and Evelyn Fox Keller. New York: Routledge, 1990. 349-69.
hooks, bell. Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. Boston: South End, 1989.
Irving, Washington. The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Ed. Haskell Springer. Boston: Twayne, 1978. Vol. 8 of The Complete Works of Washington Irving. 30 vols. 1969-89.
———. “Traits of Indian Character.” Analectic Magazine 3 (1814): 145-56.
Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. Ed. William Peden. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1955.
Johnson, E. Pauline. Flint and Feather: The Complete Poems of Pauline Johnson. Toronto: Musson, 1917.
Kaminer, Wendy. I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional: The Recovery Movement and Other Self-Help Fashions. Reading: Addison-Wesley, 1992.
Kasson, Joy S. Artistic Voyagers: Europe and the American Imagination in the Works of Irving, Allston, Cole, Cooper, and Hawthorne. Westport: Greenwood, 1982.
Kirkland, Caroline. A New Home—Who'll Follow? Ed. William S. Osborne. New Haven: College and University, 1965.
Krupat, Arnold. For Those Who Come After: A Study of Native American Autobiography. Berkeley: U of California P, 1985.
Kutzinski, Vera M. “Commentary: American Literary History as Spatial Practice.” American Literary History 4 (1992): 550-57.
Littlefield, Daniel. “Washington Irving and the American Indian.” American Indian Quarterly 5 (1979): 135-54.
Lorde, Audre. “An Open Letter to Mary Daly.” This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Ed. Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. New York: Kitchen Table, 1983. 94-97.
Lugones, Maria C., and Elizabeth V. Spelman. “Have We Got a Theory for You! Feminist Theory, Cultural Imperialism and the Demand for ‘The Woman's Voice.’” Women's Studies International Forum 6 (1983): 573-81.
McClintock, Anne. “The Angel of Progress: Pitfalls of the Term ‘Post-Colonialism.’” Social Text 31-32 (1992): 84-98.
Memmi, Albert. The Colonizer and the Colonized. Trans. Howard Greenfield. New York: Orion, 1965.
Miller, Perry. The New England Mind: From Colony to Province. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1953.
Murray, David. Forked Tongues: Speech, Writing, and Representation in North American Indian Texts. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991.
Patai, Daphne. “U.S. Academics and Third World Women: Is Ethical Research Possible?” Women's Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History. Ed. Sherna Berger Gluck and Daphne Patai. New York: Routledge, 1991. 137-53.
Pease, Donald. Visionary Compacts: American Renaissance Writings in Cultural Context. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1987.
Rogin, Michael Paul. Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian. New York: Knopf, 1975.
Rubin-Dorsky, Jeffrey. Adrift in the Old World: The Psychological Pilgrimage of Washington Irving. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.
Seeber, Edward D. “Critical Views on Logan's Speech.” Journal of American Folklore 60 (1947): 130-46.
Shohat, Ella. “Notes on the ‘Post-Colonial.’” Social Text 31-32 (1992): 99-113.
Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. “Subject Female: Authorizing American Identity.” American Literary History 5 (1993): 481-511.
Sollors, Werner. Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 1986.
Somkin, Fred. Unquiet Eagle: Memory and Desire in the Idea of American Freedom, 1815-1860. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1967.
Trinh, T. Minh-ha. Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.
Tyler, Moses Coit. A History of American Literature, 1607-1765. 2 vols. New York, 1878.
von Frank, Albert J. The Sacred Game: Provincialism and Frontier Consciousness in American Literature, 1630-1860. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985.
Ziff, Larzer. “Questions of Identity: Hawthorne and Emerson Visit England.” Forms and Functions of History in American Literature: Essays in Honor of Ursula Brumm. Ed. Winfried Fluck, Jürgen Peper, and Willi Paul Adams. Berlin: Schmidt, 1981.
———. Writing in the New Nation: Prose, Print, and Politics in the Early United States. New Haven: Yale UP, 1991.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6737
SOURCE: “‘An Avenue to Some Degree of Profit and Reputation’: The Sketch Book as Washington Irving's entrée and Undoing,” Journal of American Studies, Vol. 31, No. 2, August, 1997, pp. 275-93.
[In the following essay, Hiller traces the events which influenced The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Grayon, Gent., arguing that with this work, Irving lost his distinctive voice.]
“I have,” confided Washington Irving to his friend and effective literary agent Henry Brevoort, “by patient & persevering labour of my most uncertain pen, & by catching the gleams of sunshine in my cloudy mind, managed to open to myself an avenue to 1 The “avenue” in question was The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.—America's first internationally acclaimed work of literature—which, by March 1821, had become a direct route to respectability and the British establishment, opening to Irving the world of stately homes and their real-life avenues, previously only glimpsed from afar. Pieced together after the collapse of his family business, the collection of sketches may have been a carefully engineered career move, but Irving avoided any suggestion of personal cost in catching only those “gleams of sunshine,” and apparently censoring his cloudier, less amenable self. He continued: “I value it the more highly because it is entirely independent and self created; and I must use my best endeavours to turn it to account” (LI.614). In the context, “independent”—a charged word for his generation—is striking, given that The Sketch Book was anything but. While writing, Irving had appealed to Brevoort to let him know “what themes &c would be popular and striking in America” (LI.546), and his private papers reveal that the book's deferential, nostalgic, pastoralized view of Britain was in fact carefully tailored to what Irving believed were the tastes of his two markets, although not perhaps to those of the critics championing America's new spirit of literary nationalism and cultural independence.
Inspired by the successes of the war of 1812, their challenges and exhortations can be found in periodicals such as the newly founded North American Review, which, in 1815, attacked America's “literary delinquency,” and her undue “dependence on English literature.”2 Meanwhile, The Portico, another new periodical, argued in the Advertisement to its first issue in 1816: “Dependence, whether literary or political, is a state of degradation fraught with disgrace; and to be dependent on a foreign mind for what we can ourselves produce, is to add to the crime of indolence, the weakness of stupidity.”3 Irving's earlier History of New York became a founding text for this movement, and his defection abroad and adoption of a more anodyne style of writing prompted accusations of betrayal, so that, after defining his avenue, Irving was obliged to respond to Brevoort's allegations that back home “many ask whether I mean to renounce my country” (LI.614). The charge was angrily denied—Irving claiming “Whatever I have written has been written with the feelings and published as the writing of an American,” (LI.614). Yet a letter written the previous year to Sir Walter Scott reveals the complexity of his position, underlining both the pull of the Old World and the awe in which Irving apparently held its readers. Disdaining Knickerbocker's exuberant, experimental History as “local, crude and juvenile,” (LI.590), Irving revealed of its successor: “I think I could have made it better, but I have been so new to the ground which I was treading, and so daunted by the idea of writing absolutely for a British public, that my powers, such as they are, have been almost paralyzed” (LI.590). If the insight intimates that the sketches were pitched deliberately at the British market, the reference to feelings of paralysis admits the cost of this manœuvre, and anticipates difficulties of the sort which, I will argue, blocked Irving's subsequent writing and caused him to lose his way as an author thereafter. These problems were first intuited by the Massachusetts poet and essayist Richard Henry Dana in the North American Review of September 1819.
While generally admiring, when he reviewed The Sketch Book, after publication of the first numbers in America, Dana was forthright about his perception of its deficiencies, compared to Irving's earlier works: “He appears to have lost a little of that natural run of style, for which his lighter writings were so remarkable. He has given up something of his direct, simple manner, and plain phraseology for a more studied, periphrastical mode of expression” (NAR.7.348). In his epigraph, Irving had presented himself—citing Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy—as a deracinated observer and “mere spectator of other men's fortunes and adventures.”4 Dana takes up this point, implying that Irving had lost touch with his instinctive, “native” voice, but also reflects how complex an issue this remained for an American writing in 1819, particularly one born of a Scottish father and English mother: “He seems to have exchanged words and phrases, which were strong, distinct and definite, for a genteel sort of language, cool, less definite, and general. It is as if his mother English had been sent abroad to be improved, and in attempting to become accomplished, had lost too many of her home qualities” (NAR.7.348). The wording of Dana's review effectively challenges Britain's cultural supremacy—deploying “mother English” to denote Irving's native American—but also implicitly registers the novelty of this enterprise, for which a vocabulary barely exists.
While agreeing with Dana's central contention—he argued “the manner perhaps throughout is more attended to than the matter”5—Francis Jeffrey interpreted Irving's approach very differently in the Edinburgh Review the following year, however. That January, Sydney Smith had famously used its pages to query “In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? or goes to an American play? or looks at an American picture or stature?” (ER.33.79). Jeffrey then implied that it was partly Irving's “de-naturing” of his œuvre that had allowed it to slip through the cultural barriers and appeal to more than just his fellow “natives,” arguing: “Now, the most remarkable thing in a work so circumstanced certainly is, that it should be written throughout with the greatest care and accuracy, and worked up to great purity and beauty of diction, on the model of the most elegant and polished of our native writers.” Hoping that “we may hail it as the harbinger of a purer and juster taste—the foundation of a chaster and better school, for the writers of that great and intelligent country” (ER.34.160), Jeffrey went on to compliment Irving's courtesy and conciliatoriness, though these were by no means always characteristic of his approach to Britain, as his private papers reveal.
Friendless and fearful, on his first visit in 1805, Irving had felt himself to be like “one of our savages when visiting a strange tribe. He courts their friendship tho he 6 Returning to Britain a decade later in 1815 on the visit which would result in The Sketch Book, and immediately after the end of the 1812-14 War (in which he had served although not seen action), Irving initially appeared less troubled. This may have been partly owing to the proximity of his brother, Peter, in Liverpool overseeing the British end of the family's import business, and his married sister, Sarah Van Wart. Irving himself disembarked in Liverpool on 1 July and three days later wrote to his mother from Sarah's house in Birmingham that the weather had been “uncommonly fine since my arrival, and the country is in all its verdure and beauty” (LI.395), adding “the journey from Liverpool to this place is through a perfect garden, so highly is the whole country cultivated” (LI.395). The letter makes no acknowledgement of the significance of the date—4 July—as if Irving wished to ignore any considerations which might separate him from the subjects of this “enchanting” (LI.398) country, where he told Henry Brevoort on 5 July that he had “experienced as yet nothing but kindness and civility” (LI.398).
Implicit in “as yet” is the inference that Irving somehow doubted this good will, or at least regarded it with a residual wariness, which would seem to have stemmed as much from his own complex feelings about Britain, as any overt British hostility. These feelings perhaps lie behind his sympathetic comments on Napoleon's plight following his defeat at Waterloo on 18 June, and subsequent surrender to the British at Plymouth on 24 July. The citizen of a nation undefeated by Britain, Irving wrote to Brevoort again on 16 July 1815 and, remembering Macbeth,7 he compared Napoleon to an “eagle towering in his pride of place” beside the Prince Regent's “mousing owl” (LI.401). After Napoleon's capture, the resentment, longing, scorn, and excitement fermenting in his American breast were decanted into another letter of 27 July. Addressed to Jean Renwick, sister of Francis Jeffrey and mother of Irving's travelling companion that summer, it satirized the excesses of rampant John Bullism as they manifested themselves in a Birmingham church, with a reference to James Thomson's The Castle of Indolence—
Here we found a “round sleek oily man of God” with a face that shone resplendent with roast beef & plumb pudding, holding forth on the late glorious battle of Waterloo & the surrender of Bonaparte. I was exceedingly amused with the awkward, goose like attempts of this full fed divine to get his imagination upon the wing. If you ever saw a gander, in a sudden fit of untoward volatility, endeavour to fly across a mill pond,
Thomson had placed a “little, round, fat, oily man of God”8 in amongst the pleasure seekers of the wizard's castle in Canto I of his poem, noting how he “shone all glittering with ungodly dew / If a tight damsel chanced to trippen by,” (CI.lxix). Irving's use of the citation and allusion to the type of corrupt cleric which it involves recalls Dana's appropriation of the term “mother English,” while also reflecting the extent to which this culture had indeed nurtured Irving, whose depiction of the war-like priest also seems to remember and subvert Chaucer's corrupt and slightly sinister Monk in the Canterbury Tales. The latter—“a lord ful fat and in good poynt”9—embodies the collusion between church and state which Irving satirizes, and also has a bald head “that shoon as any glas / And eek his face, as he hadde been enoynt” (GP.198-99), like Irving's gleaming cleric.
The echoing illustrates the necessity of the shared culture for deeper and more resonant writing, which was also admitted half involuntarily by Edward Tyrell Channing in his article “On Models in Literature,” published in the North American Review the following July. Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard, Channing prefaced his piece with a citation from Wordsworth's poem The Excursion, but went on to assert that a country must be “the former and finisher of its own genius” (NAR.3.207) before continuing in a way which underlined the near impossibility of creative and cultural independence for his generation of Americans. Confusingly, that self-same genius “has, or should have, nothing to do with strangers. They are not expected to feel the beauty of your old poetical language, depending as it does on early and tender associations; connecting the softer and ruder ages of the country, and inspiring an inward and inexplicable joy, like a tale of childhood” (NAR.3.207).
Channing's phrasing betrays the depth of his involvement with what can only be Britain's “old poetical language,” in a year which also saw the North American Review featuring fifty pages of excerpts from the anonymous Journal of a tour and residence in Great Britain during the years 1810 and 1811. Originally published in England, it is considerably less artful than The Sketch Book, offering more of a survey, albeit a well written one, but reflects the hearty American appetite for details of the Old World. Irving would also cater to this curiosity, of course, although the same letter to Mrs Renwick also reveals the very real difficulties he had to overcome in order to find an acceptable way of conveying his experiences. If the writing manifests the force and nature of his attraction to this “loyal little Kingdom,” it equally expresses his intermittent exasperated contempt for the “honest fat headed” subjects with their velvet cushions and droning preacher, even as the succulent, elaborately conceived imagery witnesses to the fertility and potential richness of British culture for his imagination. Though we see why, as a writer, Irving needed to return to Europe, we also feel the impossibility of his position once arrived. Much of what he had to say—at least continuing in the mode of inspired, demented satire pioneered in Salmagundi and The History of New York—would not, presumably, advance his career or win the acclaim he so ardently desired. How to find something else, without completely betraying his own voice, was in many ways the challenge of these early years in Britain.
Even on his first tour to Warwick, Kenilworth, and Stratford, on which he embarked immediately after writing, when he had been in England less than a month, Irving began casting around for a way of opening what he would later term his “avenue.” Inspiration seems to have struck in the grounds of Charlecote Hall, which Irving visited “to see a old family mansion of the rign [sic] of Q Elzabet in fine preservation & certainly one which Shakspear in his boyhood must often have rambled about.”10 Remarkably, though his visit took place on 25 July, and he had previously only experienced England during the autumn and winter, Irving chose to describe the pleasure grounds amid the first stirrings of spring, writing in his journal: “The day was soft and balmy—The buds which had been retarded by lingering frosts were beginning to put forth—the snow drop the [ ] & other firstlings of the spring were seen under Lucy's Park Vast oak avenues deer fawns—rooks cawing—wind sounding among the branches—larks soaring up into the heaven” (JII.61-2). Henry James would document his own warm appreciation of Charlecote's “venerable verdure” in English Hours,11 and the tone of Irving's entry suggests an awakening, or a belated thaw or coming to life. Whether he actually felt this sort of stirring within himself during his visit, or believed that the park ought to represent some sort of extraordinary experience, and was seeking a way of making this apparent, is not certain. Charlecote was undoubtedly a world apart, with the attractively decrepit Elizabethan hall rising out of an Arcadian landscape moulded by Capability Brown in the 1760s,12 as numerous illustrations of the period testify.13 Harping on “the majestic solemnity of these great JII.62), Irving's reverential approach to this idyll of the past could hardly be more different from his affectionately contemptuous satire of the preacher-goose and his middle-class parishioners' celebrations of contemporary British power.
This determinedly escapist vision of Britain was one which Irving would both promote in The Sketch Book and pursue again the following summer, after a winter largely spent struggling with the difficulties of the post-war economic climate, particularly as they affected his family business. Following Peter's over-purchasing, P. & E. Irving & Co. had embarked on the steady slide towards the bankruptcy which put them out of business on 4 March 1818. The experience was deeply distressing to Irving. But, rather than becoming more politicized or radical after seeing at first hand the harshness of the British system in this time of appalling hardship and suffering, like Mrs Trollope after her American tribulations, Irving sought only the more obstinately to deny its traumas, or at least to exclude them from his writing and correspondence, into which they almost never creep. The price of this repression was frequent silences. Writing to Brevoort in July 1816, he complained “my mind is in a sickly state and my imagination so blighted that it cannot put forth a blossom nor even a green leaf” (LI.449), although Irving then waxed eloquent about meeting a “Veteran angler of old Isaac Waltons school” (LI.450) by the River Dee, who had visited America in his youth. Subsequently immortalized in The Sketch Book, this story-book character restored Irving's faith in human nature, and developed his vision of the Old World as the natural habitat of picturesque and unthreatening characters, who felt only goodwill towards America, unlike the bankers and merchants reluctant to help out the struggling Irving firm.14 Or so Irving reassured Brevoort: “His whole conversation and deportment illustrated old Isaacs maxims as to the benign influences of angling over the human heart—I wished continually that you had been present, as I know you would have enjoyed with exquisite relish, this genuine Angler, & the characteristic scenes through which we rambled with him” (LI.451).
The same “amusing rencontre” (LI.451) inspired Irving and his brother Peter to spend their ten-day summer holiday that year in Izaak Walton's native Derbyshire. Interestingly, though, given what Irving had said about his depression and difficulties in writing, he did not write letters home about the excursion for several months, with the exception of two brief and factual notes to his mother, the first of which is dated 6 November. Addressed to Brevoort, it all but spells out the connections between Irving's material and creative lives, as he apologizes rather movingly:
I am sensible my silence exposes me to many hard imputations, but I cannot help it—I can only say it is not for want of having you continually in my thoughts and near my heart, nor for want of the constant desire and frequent resolve to write. But some how or other there has been such a throng of worldly cares hurrying backward & forward through my mind for a long time past, that it is even as bare as a market place: and when I do take hold of my pen, I feel so poverty struck, such mental sterility, that I throw it down again in despair of writing any thing that should give you gratification.
Likening his mind to a bare “market place,” overrun by anxieties, apparently triggers Irving's consciousness of its potential for productivity, however, he then goes on to recall his time in Buxton, caricaturing “the great tendency of the English to run into excrescences and bloat out into grotesque deformities” (LI.459) that he observed among those taking the waters. Singled out in particular is one General Trotter, whom, in an extension of Irving's satire on the preacher-goose, he terms a “toast & butter” soldier, left behind by “the hurry, the fierceness and dashing of the new system” (LI.460). No longer a threat, with his “broad hazy muffin face,” “sleepy eye,” and “full double chin,” the general becomes grotesquely picturesque, a mutation on the theme of Bullish British overfeeding, and is seen as a degenerated, eroded landscape: “He had a deep ravine from each corner of his mouth, not occasioned by an irascible contraction of the muscles, but apparently the deep worn channels of two rivulets of gravy that oozed out from the huge mouthfuls that he masticated” (LI.460).
Toned down and rendered more tasteful, the general was the type of reassuring English man whom Irving would feature in The Sketch Book, something like his characterization of John Bull. That the obsessive description of his eating addressed obliquely Irving's anxieties about the inequities of the British class system, and the suffering which it occasioned, emerges from another letter to Brevoort dated 9 December 1816. In what is his only explicit condemnation of the bitter suffering occasioned by the post-war slump, he laments:
You have no idea of the distress and misery that prevails in this country: it is beyond the power of description: In America you have financial difficulties, the embarrassments of trade & the distress of merchants but here you have what is far worse, the distress of the poor—not merely mental sufferings—but the absolute miseries of nature—Hunger, nakedness, wretchedness of all kinds that the labouring people in this country are liable to. In the best of times they do but subsist, but in adverse times they starve.
Concluding abruptly “but I have some how or other rambled away into a theme which would neither edify nor amuse you, so we will not pursue it” (LI.465), however, Irving anticipates the almost total exclusion of such perspectives from The Sketch Book, unlike the Journal of a tour and residence in Great Britain in which he notes bitterly how “the poor are swept out of the way, as dust of the walks of the rich, in a heap out of their sight” (NAR.3.260). Characterizing his deviation as a “ramble,” Irving associates it with Romantic notions of the involuntariness of thought and inspiration, from which he will subsequently endeavour to distance himself, as his writing becomes progressively more self-conscious and commercial.
The last letter relating to the Derbyshire excursion, dated 29 January 1819, seems to be a transitional one in this respect, dealing with a “ramble of curiosity” undertaken by the Irving brothers along Dovedale. A deep, narrow, craggy, wooded limestone valley, down which Walton's river cascaded spectacularly for two miles, skirted by a narrow footpath, Dovedale was deemed by Gilpin “one of the most pleasing pieces of scenery of the kind we any where met with.”15 Irving was keenly appreciative of these “scenes hallowed by the honest Walton's simple Muse” (LI.469), as he told Brevoort in a letter which reflects his ongoing interest in finding a way of covering British material from an American perspective, and indeed shaping his life experiences into commercial art. Venturing out, back in August, the brothers had met up by chance with their fellow hotel guests from Matlock—among them the three Miss Bathursts, whose presence prompted Irving to rechristen the gorge “Dove Dale” (LI.469). The Irvings were invited to tag along with the other party (complete with picnic and attendants)—and duly did. When he came to retell the story for Brevoort months later, Irving chose to focus on the company as much as the scenery, implying both were so delightful as barely to be credible, but leaving in his revisions as evidence of the difficulties he encountered in writing up his passage:
If a man could not be happy with such a party in such a place, he may give up all hope of sublunary felicity. For my part I was in Elysium Nothing so soon banishes reserve and produces intimacy as a participation in difficulties. The path through the Dale was rugged and beset with petty hazards. We had to toil through thickets & Brambles—Sometimes to step cautiously from stone to stone in the margin of the little river where the precipitous hills over hung its current—We had to scramble up into caverns and to climb rocks—all these were calculated to place both parties in those relative situations which endear the Sexes. I had a
But all these dangers past—when we had descended from the last precipice, and come to where the Dove flowed musically through a verdant meadow—then—fancy me—oh thou “Sweetest of Poets” wandering by the course of this romantic stream—a lovely <“object”=girl
While the elaborate burlesquing, with its brambles, scratched hands, and wet feet, suggests Irving's inherent scepticism about something which he very obviously and simultaneously delights in; the extensive revisions attest to the self-consciousness of his reportage. Changing the phrasing of “lovely woman” to “woman, lovely woman,” or substituting the more literary “peril” for plain “danger,” or the more tender “girl” for “object,” are the actions of a writer acutely alert to the tone of his text. In this context, to proclaim oneself “in Elysium” is no mean thing, but Irving substantiates his otherwise potentially bold claim by alluding to the physical pleasures of “those relative situations which endear the Sexes.” Possibly punning on “relative,” the phrase suggests closeness and intimacy—the reverse of the more habitual distance and reserve between England and America—although its emotional charge is complicated and undercut by the theatricality and seemingly staged nature of the description as a whole. Likewise, Irving's relentless and joyously savage mockery of romantic conventions—naming her “beseeching weakness,” his “swelling pride,” the “verdant meadow,” and “musically” flowing Dove—suggests a resistance to buying into the sorts of values traditionally associated with these terms, assiduously promoted in sketches like “The Wife” or “The Broken Heart.”
Moreover, alluding to his companion as a “woman, lovely woman,” develops the intimations of illicit intimacy with reference to the somewhat less pure heroines of The Vicar of Wakefield and The Story of Rimini. In Goldsmith's novel, Olivia, the Vicar's daughter, sings, “When lovely woman stoops to folly / And finds too late that men betray,” to her family as they breakfast together on the honeysuckle bank, after she has been seduced and abandoned by the dashing but dastardly Squire Thornhill.16 In Leigh Hunt's poem, published on 19 January 1816 following his release from gaol, Paolo (originally from Dante's Inferno) finds “The two dearest things the world has got / A lovely woman in a rural spot”17 when he is falling in love with his brother's wife Francesca. Like the “round sleek oily man of God” earlier, this phrase reflects how Irving saw Britain through a web of literature, but also shows that he wanted to write himself into the scenario, even at the expense of all but stifling his own voice in a welter of second-hand expressions.
The complexity of Irving's position during this “repast champêtre” seems to be registered in his closing comparison of himself to a “Strawberry Smotherd in cream.” The image—which he had previously used in a letter written in America18—is misremembered from George Peele's The Old Wives' Tale where “Strawberries swimming in the cream / And schoolboys playing in the stream”19 feature in a song about courtship and the pleasures of summer. Irving's switching of the verb from the active swimming to the passive smothering intensifies the image, but also adds a note of ambivalence, in that his strawberry is portrayed as immobilized and impotent—smothering leading to death—almost undone by the viscous extremes of pleasure to which it is subjected. Such an analysis chimes with Irving's subsequent admission to Scott of his “powers” having been “almost paralyzed” (LI.590) in Britain, and helps perhaps to explain his defensive use of burlesquing to defuse what would seem to be the powerful emotional charge of the memory.
Inevitably, very little, if any, of the writing in The Sketch Book would be so unguarded, experimental, or personally autobiographical, though. After returning from Dovedale, Irving had spent much of the autumn and winter of 1816-17 with his sister in Birmingham trying to write, and a letter to Washington Allston reflects clearly both his ambitions and his anxieties at the time: “It is infinitely preferable to stand foremost as one of the founders of a school of painting in an immense & growing country like America, in fact to be an object of national pride and affection, than to fall into the ranks in the crowded galleries of Europe; or perhaps be regarded with an eye of national prejudice, as the production of an American pencil is likely to be in England” (LI.478). Irving, however, was aiming to make it in Europe too. Having started work on his own sketches in early summer, by 11 July 1817 he was able to report somewhat pragmatically to Brevoort that he had “a plan which, with very little trouble, will yield me for the present a scanty but sufficient means of support, and leave me leisure to look round for something better” (LI.486). This was, of course, The Sketch Book. Although he was a little coy, Irving stressed the spirit of neediness in which he wrote: “I cannot at present explain to you what it is—you would probably consider it precarious, & inadequate to my subsistence—but a small matter will float a drowning man and I have dwelt so much of late on the prospect of being cast homeless & pennyless upon the world; that I feel relieved in having even a straw to catch at” (LI.486).
Motivated by desperation, Irving seems to have grasped his straw very adeptly. Later that summer he was assiduously cultivating literary contracts first in London, where he spent time with Campbell and Murray, then north of the border during a month-long tour of Scotland. Having met Francis Jeffrey and other Edinburgh luminaries, Irving moved on to Abbotsford. What started out as a courtesy call on Walter Scott became a three-day visit running from August 30 to September 3. Brevoort had earlier given Scott a copy of the History of New York, while Irving had reprinted Scott's poetry in the Analectic Magazine.20 There would, however, seem to have been a measure of genuine affection on Scott's part for the younger writer, whom he would later help to launch The Sketch Book in England. To his brother Peter, Irving portrayed himself as being in heaven: “I have rambled about the hills with Scott; visited the haunts of Thomas the Rhymer—and other spots rendered classic by border tale and witching song—and have been in a kind of dream or delirium” (LI.501). This impression of a country rich in associations was something which Irving would endeavour to create in The Sketch Book, and he enthused further to Peter about his host in terms which would seem to value his professional attributes and the successes accruing from them alongside his personal qualities, reinforcing the feeling that he viewed Scott as a professional role model as well as exemplary friend and father figure—“As to Scott, I cannot express my delight at his character & manners—He is a sterling golden hearted old worthy—Full of the joyousness of youth, with an imagination continually furnishing forth picture—and a charming simplicity of manner that puts you at ease with him in a moment” (LI.501). Irving's feeling for Scott was undoubtedly very real—and yet his Scott is also a stock character, something like the Angler, to be wheeled out on future occasions and exploited. In this market-oriented vein, Irving would subsequently plan for his own “softly tinted style” of prose to possess “golden thread of thought camelion shades of beautiful imagination, Gems of thought” (JII.258). These ambitions tie in with describing Scott as a “sterling golden hearted old worthy,” with a seeming pun on sterling, a phrase which at once sets him back in a tried and tested glorious historic past, but also connects him with the idea of something immensely lucrative.
Perhaps motivated by financial considerations, Irving took quite another view of what he saw as the less commendable interest in simplicity cultivated by Wordsworth and his followers, whose writing apparently manifested rather too much of that “natural run of style” admired by Dana. In his same Scottish journal, he deplored their “endeavour” (he had originally written “disposition”) to introduce into poetry “all the common colloquial phrazes and vulgar idioms.” Irving maintained “in their rage for Simplicity they would be coarse and commonplace” (JII.104). Whilst “rage” may hint at a measure of unacknowledged sympathy for the energy and spirit of the Romantic project, Irving's disapproving allusion to less eloquent forms of expression reminds us of his new self-consciousness. Despite having previously played on Hunt's Story of Rimini in his Dovedale letter—whose “glittering and rancid obscenities” Blackwoods attacked—Irving also turned on his “heterogeneous taste” in the same poem. He claimed “a fondness for gorgeous material is mingled with an occasional proneness to the most grotesque—we fancy him a common stone mason with dirty apron & trowel in hand sometimes building with marble & sometimes with rubbish” (JII.104). Irving's conclusion indicated the way ahead: “Now the Language of poetry cannot be too pure and choice. Poems are like classical edifices, for which we seek the noblest materials—What should we think of the Arts of the architect who would build a Grecian temple of brick when he could get marble” (JII.104).
In contrast to Irving's earlier letter, when he wrote of his imagination being unable to put forth greenery, this comparison of writing to “classical edifices” is strikingly inorganic—as far away from Romantic nature poetry as possible. Additionally, the connections with planning and building emphasises those aspects of writing which are willed and deliberately constructed—against the spontaneous or haphazard movements of inspiration. That Irving should compare words with buildings, and particularly with buildings so explicitly associated with tradition and the ruling elite, would seem to reflect the determinedly pro-establishment nature of his literary undertaking. This ambition is evident in a further undated musing from the autumn of 1817, whose stiltedness and sense of an imposed agenda betrays the difficulty of this approach for Irving's writing, which more naturally turns towards American subjects. He notes, “England so richly dight with palaces—earth so studded & gemmed with castles & palaces—so embroiderd with parks & gardens So storied—so wrought up with pictures.—Let me wander along the streams of beautiful England & dream of my native rivers of my beautiful native country” (JII.182).
That Irving found Britain's accumulation of history—which had “studded & gemmed” its seemingly impenetrable surface—threatening emerges from a subsequent undated journal entry from the period. It presents the past as poised to crush those obliged to reside beneath it, while suggesting that the overwhelming weight is what gives it its value: “England the deposits of all English Antiquity, Usage &c. I should dread any revolution—I consider it as an old picturesque gothic building what may be very inconvenient to its inhabitants but I should dread to see it pulled down or even repaired—even a turret pulled down tho it threatened to fall on the heads of the inhabitants” (JII.287). In the context, “deposits” seems to have connotations both of banking and the accretions of time. Perhaps reflecting his own intentions of “trading” in this Old World merchandise, and in some manner confusing them with the difficulties experienced both by his brothers and American merchants since Independence, Irving continued “That it may not Eliminate the laws of fair & open commerce” (JII.287). This line of thought was developed in the letter he sent to Ebenezer Irving on 3 March 1819, accompanying the first number of The Sketch Book, which also looked forward to future issues. Deploying a term signifying both a piece of writing and an object for trade, he confided to his merchant brother his hopes of producing “articles from time to time that will be sufficient for my present support, and form a stock of copyright property, that may be a little capital for me hereafter” (LI.540).
Ebenezer had been encouraging his younger brother to return to America and take up regular employment. Irving concluded by indicating that he saw this as a last chance to establish himself as a writer, and make good his earlier career, saying “I feel myself completely committed in literary reputation by what I have already written; and I feel by no means satisfied to rest my reputation on my preceding writings” (LI.540). As if in some way denying his considerable American success to date, he presented The Sketch Book as a means of validating himself at home, telling Ebenezer that “it would repay me for a world of care and privation to be placed among the established authors of my country and to win the affections of my countrymen” (LI.541). Notwithstanding these hopes, in another letter, written on the same day to Henry Brevoort, Irving appeared to distance himself emotionally, as he had physically, from American culture and values, envisaging a role at once potentially independent of, and yet integral to, his nation's emerging cultural synthesis: “I seek only to blow a flute accompaniment in the national concert, and leave others to play the fiddle & frenchhorn” (LI.543).
In this delicately ambitious spirit, Irving wrote to Brevoort again, on 12 August 1819, that he wanted to cancel a sentence in the “John Bull” sketch which would have read: “He is like the man who would not have a wart taken off his nose because it had always been there & c & c” (LI.554). Witnessing his retreat from the gravy-drooling General Trotter, Irving decreed “I do not like the simile & question whether it is a good & pleasant one you had better run a pen through it and let the paragraph end with the word ‘family abuses’” (LI.554). This sensitivity to market values is reflected again in the same letter in his comment that their mutual friend James Paulding should not “write himself below his real value by hasty effusions” (LI.555). Irving's own position was spelt out that October, when he told Scott “the reverses of fortune I have experienced since I had the pleasure of Seeing You, make my literary success a matter of Serious importance to me” (LI.568), and asked him to sound out Constable regarding an English edition after Murray had turned The Sketch Book down. Scott responded very sympathetically, offering Irving the editorship of an anti-Jacobin magazine in Edinburgh with a salary of £500 a year, which he declined gratefully. He then asked Scott to press Constable for a decision, ending in a way that underscored the extent to which his mind turned to material considerations: “And now my dear Sir I will finish this egotistical scrawl by again expressing my heartfelt gratification at the interest you have taken in my concerns—and believe me I feel more joy and rejoicing in your good opinion than I should in all the Gold & Silver in friend Constables breeches pockets—albeit his pockets are none of the shallowest” (LI.570).
The construction of the sentence—reflecting an almost compulsive preoccupation with money—is a measure of the distance Irving had travelled during the gestation and composition of The Sketch Book. Together with his revision of the “John Bull” sketch, and desire only to play the flute in the national orchestra, it suggests the extent to which a conjunction of material and cultural pressures caused him to surrender or compromise both his creative autonomy and sense of national identity, notwithstanding his protestations to the contrary. Fenimore Cooper's first novel, Precaution, a genteel, English, comedy of manners published in 1820, was apparently similarly intimidated, but his second, The Spy, set during the War of Independence and published in 1821, embraced the American subject and was enthusiastically received. Indeed, after Irving had been recognized in England, no major American author would seem to have felt obliged to pander to the European market as he had done. While The Sketch Book probably gained as much as it lost from the compromises Irving forced upon himself—resulting as they did in the unique blend of European and American materials and perspectives—the same cannot be said of his subsequent output. None of the books which followed—Bracebridge Hall, Tales of a Traveller, his biography of Columbus, his Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada, or The Alhambra—lived up to his early promise or sparkle. By the early 1830s, John Murray would come to feel that Irving had written himself out, although he did subsequently find a new American lease of life in A Tour on the Prairies. While the tangle of reasons behind the change in his literary fortunes cannot fully be unravelled, in opening to himself his “avenue to some degree of profit and reputation,” with all the compromises this entailed, Irving could of necessity have had little inkling where it might lead.
Washington Irving Letters Volume I 1802-23 (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978), 614. Hereafter LI. Angled brackets are used in quotations in order to identify revisions made by Irving.
North American Review, I (Nov. 1815), 35. Hereafter NAR.
Cited in Benjamin Lease, Anglo-American Encounters: England and the Rise of American Literature (Cambridge University Press, 0000), 3.
The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978), 1. Hereafter SB.
Edinburgh Review, 34 (Aug. 1820), 162. Hereafter ER.34.
Washington Irving Journals and Notebooks, Vol. 1 (University of Wisconsin Press, 1969), 456. Hereafter JI.
The Seasons and The Castle of Indolence (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984) Canto 1, stanza LXIX. Hereafter CI.
The Riverside Chaucer (Oxford University Press, 1987), The General Prologue, Line 200. Hereafter GP.
Washington Irving Journals and Notebooks, Vol. II 1807-22 (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981), 61. Hereafter JII.
English Hours (London: William Heinemann, 1905), 201.
Charlecote and the Lucys, Alice Fairfax-Lucy (London, 1958), 224-27.
Observations Relating Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty (London, 1772), 232.
The Vicar of Wakefield (London: Heron Books), 158.
The Story of Rimini, Canto III.257-58.
The Old Wives' Tale, 1595, George Peele (Manchester University Press 1980) lines 80-81.
This was a monthly collection of European periodical literature which Irving edited during the 1812-14 war.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9930
SOURCE: “Origins of American Literary Regionalism: Gender in Irving, Stowe, and Longstreet” in Breaking Boundaries: New Perspectives on Women's Regional Writing, edited by Sherrie A. Inness and Diana Royer, University of Iowa Press, 1997, pp. 17-37.
[In the following essay, Pryse explores the advent of regionalism by comparing Harriet Beecher Stowe's “Uncle Lot” to Irving's “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle.”]
Any attempt to construct a narrative of the origins of regionalism must begin by acknowledging the problematic status of such an attempt in a critical climate where both “origins” and “regionalism” are themselves contested terms. In a survey of this problem, Amy Kaplan builds her discussion of late-nineteenth-century regionalism on the post-Civil War cultural project of national reunification. For Kaplan, this project involved forgetting a past that included “a contested relation between national and racial identity” as well as “reimagining a distended industrial nation as an extended clan sharing a ‘common inheritance’ in its imagined rural origins” (“Nation” 242, 251). My own project in this essay takes up the concept of origins from an earlier historical point than does Kaplan. In her first published fiction, “A New England Sketch” (1834) (or “Uncle Lot,” as she later retitled it when she included it in The Mayflower ), Harriet Beecher Stowe associates regionalism with remembering that American literary culture emerged from a contested relation in which men were victorious, that, for Stowe, the values of women's sphere offered a moral ground for the construction of nation, and that any subsequent reinvention of national origins that did not take into account the contest over men's and women's “spheres” of influence would indeed serve as cultural “forgetting.”
Philip Fisher complicates our understanding of the term “regionalism” by defining it as a series of “episodes” in American cultural history that have in common a politicized “struggle within representation,” an ongoing cultural civil war that serves as “the counterelement to central myths within American studies” (243, 233). For the nineteenth century, sectional voices split along geographical lines; in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, massive immigration between 1870 and 1914 produced “a regionalism of languages, folk customs, humor, music and beliefs” set against processes of Americanization; “the regionalism of our own times … is one of gender and race” (242-43). Suggesting that such a counterelement makes a critical move from myths (of a unified America) to rhetorics (as sites of cultural work), Fisher identifies Harriet Beecher Stowe as one of the “masters” of “collaborative and implicational relations between writer or speaker and culture” (237). For critics interested in how literature accomplishes what Jane Tompkins in Sensational Designs described as “cultural work,” Stowe appears to have joined the late-twentieth-century conversation over the relationship between literature and culture.
Far from viewing Stowe herself and the particular form of regionalism she took for her fiction as a “diminished thing,” a “subordinate order” (to cite James M. Cox's dismissive critical assessment of regionalism in Columbia Literary History of the United States [764-65]), we can view her work as engaged in a rhetoric of cultural dislocation, a project of inventing alternatives to national views on slavery, women's education, the profession of literature, and women's roles in nation building. Joan Hedrick observes in the preface to her recent biography of Stowe that the hostility to Stowe's writing that judged her work “to be amateur, unprofessional, and ‘bad art’” emerged “in the 1860s between the dominant women writers and the rising literary establishment of men who were determined to displace them” (Harriet Beecher Stowe ix). As I shall demonstrate, although Stowe began writing before the Civil War and appears to equate regionalism with a geographical concept—and memory—of New England life in her first published work, she was from the beginning engaged in the kind of rhetorical contestation Philip Fisher associates with “new Americanist” concepts of regionalism. For Stowe, this cultural work involved gender and the role of women in the nation—a rhetorical struggle that remains unresolved.
In writing her first sketch Stowe discovers that the process of conversion, a distant forerunner of what feminists in the 1970s termed “consciousness raising,” can provide the narrative intention for a work of fiction, thereby allowing ministers' daughters (both Stowe herself and Grace Griswold in the sketch) to imagine expanding their authority in literary and domestic spheres. My own understanding of conversion in Stowe is similar to that of Jane Tompkins, who writes in her analysis of Uncle Tom's Cabin that for Stowe, “historical change takes place only through religious conversion” but that such conversion for Stowe has “revolutionary potential” (133, 145). Tompkins argues that Stowe pushes her beliefs “to an extreme and by insisting that they be applied universally, not just to one segregated corner of civil life, but to the conduct of all human affairs, Stowe means to effect a radical transformation of her society” (145). In “Uncle Lot,” conversion becomes a model for narrative form as well as a transformative theme: Stowe is attempting to “convert” her (male) readers to the power of women's narrative authority.
In presenting conversion as both the source of action and the goal of fiction in “Uncle Lot,” Stowe anticipates the empathic point of view characteristic of women regionalist writers and their narrators, thus originating the cultural and literary developmental line of the regionalist tradition. If for the Beechers conversion required a “private change of heart” (Sklar 27), the conversion of evolving American literary culture would require a cultural change of heart. And in this way, from her earliest published sketch, Stowe attempted to transform the direction of American fiction with the same passion that her sister Catharine addressed to the transformation of the profession of teaching; for both sisters, teaching and storytelling were forms of preaching, and women were suited to practice all three. By the time Harriet Beecher came to view herself as a writer, she already knew that American women wrote and published their work. Yet creating a legitimate arena within which American women might exert national influence would require for Stowe not the overt confrontation with paternal authority which had characterized her sister's experience of conversion, during which Catharine proved unable or unwilling to achieve conversion on her father, Lyman's, terms (Sklar 31-38), but the subtle, persuasive, affectional process of eliciting inner change. For women to achieve a position in American literary culture, Stowe's early work indicates, men, especially those men like Washington Irving who were already producing an “American” fiction, must also be “converted” to those same qualities that Catharine Beecher had argued “placed women closer to the source of moral authority and hence established their social centrality” (Sklar 83). Such an argument requires fuller elaboration and a more detailed and historicized reading than we have previously granted Stowe's first sketch and its rhetorical strategies. For while literary historians have recognized the contributions of humor of the Old Southwest, another “minor” literary tradition, to the development of American fiction, we have yet to acknowledge regionalism as either a narrative tradition in its own right or one that substantially influenced the direction of American literature.1
Although “Uncle Lot” has been ignored by literary historians, critics, and theorists alike, the sketch marks a significant moment in the development of American literature in the nineteenth century, and I read it in the context of this moment. Remaining within a critical regionalism that continues to define itself along the lines of Philip Fisher's “struggle within representation,” I trace evidence of both conflict and influence that established Stowe from the beginning, even before the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852, as a writer for whom civil war was as viable a cultural concept as it became an economic and political one by the 1860s.
“Uncle Lot” locates Stowe's early rhetorical position on the question of women's potential contribution to American authorship, and the position involves cultural battle lines and opposing sides. I suggest that we may view literary regionalism as the emergence of the “Ichabod Crane school” of American narrative, despite Crane's ignominious defeat at the hands of Brom Bones, and that we can identify Stowe's sketch as her attempt to “convert” American readers to the values of what Irving had termed, albeit disparagingly, the “female circle” and the “sleepy region.” In the process Stowe creates the possibility of regionalism itself as a literary form capable of conferring literary authority on American women. What we might term the “Brom Bones school” emerges through the work of Augustus Baldwin Longstreet in Georgia Scenes (1835) and in the fiction of the Old Southwest humorists of the 1840s and 1850s, who respond to the question of gender either by relegating women characters to the source and object of sexual humor or by omitting women from their tales altogether. Stephen Railton's extensive discussion of south-western humor and its “national audience of men” (91) makes a clear case for the gendered separation of early-nineteenth-century American fiction, suggesting that “gentlemen” themselves felt “excluded and powerless” in American society but “could find vicarious compensation in the rough world of the humorists, where it is women who do not matter, except as occasional objects of unfrustrated resentment” (103-04). The women writers of domestic and didactic scenes of American life, Catharine Sedgwick, Lydia Huntley Sigourney, and Stowe's sister Catharine Beecher, who influenced both Stowe and later writers in the regionalist tradition, occupied entirely different rhetorical and cultural territory from the humorists. Even the editors who published the works of these writers—William T. Porter and his Spirit of the Times, and James T. Hall and the Western Monthly Magazine—take up opposing or “separate” positions on the topic of women as cultural subjects. We can view the humor of the Old Southwest and early regionalism as manifestations of two possible but mutually exclusive gender-specific directions for the development of American fiction before the Civil War.
Although “Uncle Lot” announces a departure in American fiction from the sketches of Stowe's male predecessors and contemporaries, her own female successors would more fully delineate the features of regionalism and more explicitly link these features to women's lives in nineteenth-century America than Stowe herself did. Conversion based on “private change of heart” (Sklar 27) in Stowe reemerges as the “collaborative and implicational relations between writer or speaker and culture” (Fisher 237), to extend Fisher's formulation beyond Stowe herself, and becomes a feature of regionalist narrative. Later in the century, beginning with Alice Cary's Clovernook sketches of the early 1850s and including such writers as Rose Terry Cooke, Celia Thaxter, Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Zitkala-Sa, Grace King, Kate Chopin, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Sui Sin Far, and Mary Austin, American women writers would refine regionalism as an approach to narrative that would develop parallel to but divergent from the techniques and forms of local color fiction. Judith Fetterley and I have made this argument in the introduction to American Women Regionalists, our collection of some of the central works in the regionalist tradition, and an analysis of the cultural moment in which “Uncle Lot” first appears provides early evidence that regionalism and “local color,” though often conflated, do represent different articulations of and attitudes toward regional subjects.
Without Stowe's own later work, “Uncle Lot” would not assume the significance it does, but Stowe further elaborated the themes of “Uncle Lot” in her most important fiction. Uncle Tom's Cabin, as I have indicated, further develops the theme of conversion. The Pearl of Orr's Island (1862) establishes women's development and education as a contested site (see Fetterley, “Only a Story”). And in great late works, Oldtown Folks (1869) and Sam Lawson's Oldtown Fireside Stories (1872), Stowe continues to propose regionalism as a direction for American fiction. Sam Lawson, Stowe's narrator in these works, is a more successful and benign version of Rip Van Winkle. Stowe's persistence in developing these themes gives her first published sketch renewed significance in our own century, as we attempt to trace the origins of literary authority for American women writers and attempt, as well, to fairly assess their contribution to nineteenth-century American literature. Writing regional sketches in particular gave Stowe a way of educating her contemporaries. Stowe makes it possible for her readers to take a second look at characters others might find laughable or without literary value, such as Uncle Lot himself, or, later, in The Pearl of Orr's Island, Aunts Roxy and Ruey—rural, female, elderly, and otherwise disenfranchised persons. Reading “Uncle Lot” in its various contexts thus opens up, to use Stowe's own language in the sketch, a “chestnut burr” of genre in American fiction; the sketch kept alive for Stowe the possibility that her female successors might experience the authority of authorship, thereby “converting” her own readers to the idea that women's voices and women's values can influence her own postrevolutionary and our own postmodern American culture.
Two conclusions become possible from reexamining Stowe's first sketch within the context of early-nineteenth-century writers' responses to gender: first, that while some women began to make an issue of women's roles and rights after 1835,2 the question of whether American fiction itself would follow lines confirmed by the cultural ideology of “separate spheres” remained as yet unanswered in the 1830s, so that ultimately our analysis of “Uncle Lot” presents a moment not unlike our own, in which gender as a cultural construct was much more fluid than it would be for at least the next century (or in our case, the previous century); and second, that the very consciousness of gender and its relation to narrative for early-nineteenth-century American writers created an opening for the development of “separate genres” or narrative traditions within which women writers might develop their authority as storytellers. Regionalism has its origins both in this as-yet-indeterminate relationship between gender and genre and at the same time in a consciousness of gender in Stowe's early work and the writing of her male and female contemporaries.
“Uncle Lot” makes for interesting reading in its own right: it is the first published sketch by an important American writer; it coincides with the influential Beecher family's move to Cincinnati and thus presents New England life and values to a western audience; and it is a work which has remained in the archives of American literary history.3 But it becomes an even more interesting text read as the young Harriet Beecher's awareness of an emerging American fiction and her attempts to redirect that fiction by revising Washington Irving. An analysis of the significance of “Uncle Lot” as a cultural moment therefore begins with a discussion of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
When Rip Van Winkle comes down from the mountain and finds his new place in his postrevolutionary village as a “chronicle of the old times ‘before the war’” (40), Washington Irving creates a vocation for the American artist. At the beginning of the tale Rip has “an insuperable aversion to all kinds of profitable labour” (Irving 30), preferring instead to spend his time telling ghost stories to children, but he awakens from his twenty-year sleep to discover that the storyteller in the new republic has an important role to play. In “Rip Van Winkle” Irving avoids prescribing a form for the American story, but he does suggest that it will have a content different from English narrative; like the image of George Washington on the sign in front of the Union Hotel, American fiction may derive from English and European models but is also “singularly metamorphosed” (Irving 37). However, despite Rip's altered perception in the tale, Irving makes it clear that certain things have not changed. George is still a George, not a Dame; Irving allows Rip a “drop of comfort” when he discovers that he has survived two wars at once, the American Revolution and the tyranny of “petticoat government,” for Dame Van Winkle is dead. And Irving spares Rip any complicity in her death; she has broken a blood vessel “in a fit of passion at a New-England pedlar” (Irving 39). Angry women do not survive to tell the story of the “old times ‘before the war.’” Dame Van Winkle cannot be a candidate for the American artist; such would be a singular metamorphosis indeed.4 For Irving the American storyteller, like the American hero, must be male.
By granting the postrevolutionary American artist a cultural role with secular rather than divine authority (George Washington replaces King George), Irving asserts the separation of literature from theology as the political ground for an American story. Irving's Knickerbocker tales reveal the gender anxiety that this shift created for early-nineteenth-century male American writers.5 In their separation from Puritanism as a cultural base, turning away from the writing of sermons and toward the writing of fiction, Irving's male contemporaries split off that anxiety, which Irving figures as the psychocultural castration image of the headless horseman. They projected “headlessness” onto women writers and asserted masculinity itself as evidence of divine authority. Irving's narrator thus fiercely refuses to take women—the already “castrated”—seriously. And just in case his readers remain insufficiently convinced that Dame Van Winkle is dead and worry that she might return to haunt them or pose a threat to Rip's postrevolutionary authority, Irving resurrects her in a literary way as Ichabod Crane in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” then frightens “her” out of town, not needing the Freudian and Lacanian theories of our own century to make the point that gender anxiety for men signifies the fear of absence, castration, headlessness.6
In “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Irving removes the undesirable qualities that characterized Dame Van Winkle from his portraits of the Dutch wives and projects them instead onto the character of Ichabod Crane. During Ichabod's reign over his “little literary realm,” the schoolroom, the pedagogue uses “a ferule, that sceptre of despotic power” and “the birch of justice reposed on three nails” to enforce his limited government (Irving 283). Like Dame Van Winkle, Ichabod Crane in the schoolroom becomes someone to escape, and Irving describes the scholars' early dismissal as “emancipation” (284). However, outside the schoolroom, Ichabod undergoes a transformation and becomes the embodiment of Rip rather than Dame. He has a “soft and foolish heart towards the [female] sex” like his counterpart in Irving's earlier tale. He becomes the playmate of his own charges and the congenial companion of their mothers: he would often “sit with a child on one knee, and rock a cradle with his foot, for whole hours together” (Irving 276). He seems initially content to become one of the region's “native inhabitants,” deriving pleasure from visiting, “snugly cuddling in the chimney corner,” filling the role of “travelling gazette,” and expressing his desire for the “comforts of the cupboard” (Irving 273, 278, 276, 275). And within the “female circle,” he enjoys the position of “man of letters” (Irving 276). Yet Irving does not grant him Rip's place as American artist; the extracts from Cotton Mather that Ichabod contributes to the storytelling at Van Tassel's castle do not appear to be successful in competing with the ghost stories Brom Bones tells.
Ichabod Crane will not serve as Irving's image of the American artist; neither will he provide a model for the American hero. For Irving reveals him to be a fraud—not a real contender for the love of Katrina Van Tassel but instead a glutton whose desire for Katrina derives from greed and gorging. Most startling of all, Ichabod turns out to be no settler after all but rather to have fantasies of sacking the “sleepy region” in order to invest “in immense tracts of wild land, and shingle palaces in the wilderness,” toward which he would set off, Katrina and the children on top of a wagon and “himself bestriding a pacing mare” (Irving 280). Too much a member of the “female circle,” as Irving defines women's culture, to bring off this quintessentially masculine vision, Ichabod becomes by the end of the tale merely a debased version of it, an unsuccessful suitor, an “affrighted pedagogue,” an “unskilful rider” (Irving 292, 294). Reminding us that women had produced “more than a third of the fiction published in America before 1820,” Lloyd Daigrepont suggests that Irving “instilled in Ichabod Crane the characteristics of those writers who dominated the American literary scene” in the early days of the Republic—what he calls a “burgeoning popular taste for the excessive emotionalism of the sentimental tale, the novel of sensibility, and the Gothic romance”—and that in the conclusion of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Irving “symbolically portrayed their defeat” (69-70).
Irving creates Brom Bones instead as Crane's triumphant adversary and as an image of American manhood. “Brom Bones … was the hero of the scene,” a man who has tamed Daredevil, a man “in fact noted for preferring vicious animals, … for he held a tractable well broken horse as unworthy of a lad of spirit” (Irving 287). As Daniel Hoffman observes, Brom Bones “is a Catskill Mike Fink, a Ring-Tailed Roarer from Kinderhook” (89). Brom Bones above all represents masculinity, a quality absent in Irving's characterizations of both Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane, and this masculinity gives him authority over Ichabod. The “burley, roaring, roystering blade” has a “bluff, but not unpleasant countenance,” “more mischief than ill-will in his composition,” and “with all his overbearing roughness, there was a strong dash of waggish good humour at bottom” (Irving 737). The excesses of the “female circle” may threaten the cultural order with “petticoat government,” but the excesses of masculinity merely contribute to our national health—we all have a good laugh at Ichabod Crane's cowardice, incompetence, and basic cultural impotence. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” turns the folktale into a tall tale: sobered by the seriousness of his own attempt to reflect American identity in the Republic's fiction, Irving rejects as “sleepy” any literary authority the Dutch wives might claim and establishes the “roaring blade” as the literary descendant of Rip Van Winkle.
Like many other writers in the 1830s, Stowe begins “Uncle Lot” by reworking Irving's “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Most of these writers, however, as Hennig Cohen and William B. Dillingham observe, imitated what they term the “ingredients of a typical sketch of Southwest humor: the physically awkward, ugly, and avaricious Ichabod; the good-natured but rowdy Brom Bones and his friends, who love a practical joke; the desirable plum, Katrina Van Tassel.” Cohen and Dillingham report that “it would be difficult to estimate the number of Southern tales directly influenced by ‘Sleepy Hollow,’” and they cite some examples: Joseph B. Cobb's “The Legend of Black Creek,” William Tappan Thompson's “The Runaway Match” and “Adventures of a Sabbath-Breaker,” and Francis James Robinson's “The Frightened Serenaders” (xii). Thus Stowe was not alone in modeling a work of fiction on “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”7 However, Stowe's text critiques Irving, thereby establishing the context for regionalism, an approach to the representation of rural and regional people and values that involves respect and empathy and grants voice to regional characters in the work, an approach that differs markedly from that of the “humorists,” who created such characters as objects of derision rather than subjects of their own agency.
Stowe's text specifically reveals similarities between her village of Newbury, “one of those out-of-the-way places where nobody ever came unless they came on purpose: a green little hollow” (“Uncle Lot” 2), and Irving's “little valley, or rather lap of land among high hills, which is one of the quietest places in the whole world,” a “green, sheltered, fertile nook” (272, 279). Stowe notes the “unchangeability” of Newbury, particularly in its “manners, morals, arts, and sciences” (“Uncle Lot” 2); Irving describes the “population, manners, and customs” of his “sleepy region” as “fixed” (274). Both authors introduce their characters as representatives of the larger citizenry. Irving's Ichabod Crane “was a native of Connecticut, a state which supplies the Union with pioneers for the mind as well as for the forest” (274), and Stowe describes James Benton as “one of those whole-hearted, energetic Yankees” who possessed a “characteristic national trait” (“Uncle Lot” 3). Like Ichabod Crane, James Benton is a newcomer to the village of Newbury, he “figured as schoolmaster all the week, and as chorister on Sundays,” he makes himself at home “in all the chimney-corners of the region,” devouring “doughnuts and pumpkin pies with most flattering appetite,” and he generally “kept the sunny side of the old ladies” (“Uncle Lot” 4, 6). James Benton holds what Stowe describes as “an uncommonly comfortable opinion of himself” (“Uncle Lot” 3); Irving characterizes as Ichabod's “vanity” his belief that in his performance as chorister “he completely carried away the palm from the parson” (276). Both tell stories, and both have, as Stowe writes of James Benton, “just the kindly heart that fell in love with everything in feminine shape” (“Uncle Lot” 6).
There is thus a great deal of evidence to suggest that Stowe begins “Uncle Lot” by invoking “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” However, Stowe imitates in order to revise. For Stowe, there is no threat of castration, nothing to “lose”; what seems revolutionary about “Uncle Lot” is not its explicit content—since unlike Irving's tales, “Uncle Lot” reinforces the values of a theology based on inner feeling and a literature congruent with theology—but rather the demonstration of a woman's authority to be the writer of the tale.8 Unlike Irving, Stowe identifies women's values not as debased but as central to the “private change of heart” that must precede cultural conversion, a conversion of domestic ideology that would acknowledge women's moral centrality and women's role in creating American culture, and she asserts the centrality of feeling in American culture by transforming Ichabod Crane into James Benton, a hero willing to acknowledge women's authority at least in the domestic sphere.9 “Uncle Lot” thereby links place—Newbury as invocation and reinvention of Irving's “sleepy region”—with values of domestic ideology, conversion, and women's authority that together lay the foundation for her successors in the regionalist tradition. Regional “place” becomes more or less a feature of the fiction and a sign of preindustrial, even prepatriarchal authority for the women of faculty that move throughout Stowe's own work and the later herbalists, healers, and empathic visitors that populate sketches and stories by later women regionalist writers.
Stowe claims that her “main story” involves a romance between her hero, James Benton, and Uncle Lot Griswold's daughter, Grace. However, like Irving in his portrait of Katrina Van Tassel, Stowe gives her readers only an occasional glimpse of Grace; instead she focuses on the process by which male characters in the sketch become converted or transformed in various ways. Stowe places Uncle Lot at the thematic center of her sketch. She describes him as a “chestnut burr, abounding with briers without and with substantial goodness within” but “‘the settest crittur in his way that ever you saw’” (“Uncle Lot” 7, 12). Initially Uncle Lot expresses an aversion to the young hero, James Benton, so in order to “win” Grace's favors, James must first elicit Uncle Lot's recognition of what James believes to be Uncle Lot's inner feelings. Thus the “conversion” of Uncle Lot's opinion of James replaces courtship as Stowe's organizing principle in the narrative; James tries to reach Uncle Lot behind the defenses he has created, the overlays of his “chestnut burr,” and to convert him into a person capable of expressing feeling, that “substantial goodness within.” In addition, James Benton achieves his own spiritual conversion, and conversion to the ministry, by falling in love with Grace's minister brother, George, then, upon young George's untimely death, replacing him within the family as Uncle Lot's “son.” Marriage with Grace at the end of the sketch merely ritualizes this “son” relationship. Thus, despite Stowe's claim that Grace figures as her heroine, she pays very little attention to Grace herself.
However, unlike Irving's portrait of Katrina, what characterization Stowe does provide underscores Grace's intellectual capacity and moral superiority, features congruent generally with the ideology of domesticity and specifically with Stowe's sister Catharine's vision of women. Catharine appears to have believed that conversion was a much less strenuous task for women than for men, that women only needed to be educated in the schools she proposed, where they would “learn proper social, religious, and moral principles and then establish their own schools elsewhere on the same principles” (Sklar 95), and that women would then be in a position to assert their influence on the nation. As Katharine Kish Sklar writes, “Catharine Beecher not only wanted to ‘save’ the nation, she wanted women to save it” and engaged in a campaign to transform teaching from a men's profession to a profession “dominated by—indeed exclusively belonging to—women” (96, 97). Catharine Beecher herself took over much of the care of her younger siblings, including the then-four-year-old Harriet, after their mother, Roxana, died, and it was Catharine who supervised Harriet's education from the time she was about thirteen (Sklar 60).
Given her sister's powerful model, we can view Stowe's portrait of Grace Griswold as suggesting that her sketch does not need to convert Grace, who is the already-converted, and therefore does not need to focus on Grace's development as part of the sketch's “plot.” Stowe describes Grace as follows:
Like most Yankee damsels, she had a longing after the tree of knowledge, and, having exhausted the literary fountains of a district school, she fell to reading whatsoever came in her way. True, she had but little to read; but what she perused she had her own thoughts upon, so that a person of information, in talking with her, would feel a constant wondering pleasure to find that she had so much more to say of this, that, and the other thing than he expected.
(“Uncle Lot” 9)
Grace already represents grace; she possesses the moral character to which the men in Stowe's sketch must aspire in order to demonstrate their own spiritual conversion, which becomes manifested for James in his success at winning over Uncle Lot, then winning a congregation and a wife, and for Uncle Lot in his ability to express his feeling for James Benton. The men in particular must experience that “private change of heart” which characterized conversion for Lyman Beecher (Sklar 27). Within the ideology that asserted women's moral centrality, it does not surprise readers that after speaking very little throughout the sketch, Grace asserts herself in the sketch's final scene, when she tells Uncle Lot, a visitor to her house following her marriage to James, “Come, come, father, I have authority in these days, so no disrespectful speeches” (“Uncle Lot” 31).10
Thus conversion, rather than the confrontation and defeat that characterize “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” gives Stowe's narrative its direction, and conversion figures as an aspect of plot as well as of theme. Stowe gives James Benton the task of trying to “convert” Uncle Lot; conversion, not seduction, becomes her hero's test. In the scene which depicts this “conversion,” James Benton arrives for an unannounced visit to Uncle Lot's house with the ostensible goal of winning Uncle Lot's affection. Stowe writes:
James also had one natural accomplishment, more courtier-like than all the diplomacy in Europe, and that was the gift of feeling a real interest for anybody in five minutes; so that, if he began to please in jest, he generally ended in earnest. With great simplicity of mind, he had a natural tact for seeing into others, and watched their motions with the same delight with which a child gazes at the wheels and springs of a watch, to “see what it will do.”
(“Uncle Lot” 16)
James wishes to open up the “chestnut burr” that characterizes Uncle Lot's defenses against feeling, and he uses powers of empathy—his “natural tact for seeing into others”—to help Uncle Lot recognize and reveal the “latent kindness” he holds within his “rough exterior” (“Uncle Lot” 16).
Stowe reverses Irving's condemnation of women, suggesting that instead of annihilating what Irving calls “petticoat government” at the end of “Rip Van Winkle,” American society might benefit from genuine government, at least in the domestic sphere, by women; and instead of frightening Ichabod Crane out of town, as Irving does in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” she creates her own hero in Ichabod Crane's image, then “converts” him from his prankish boyishness into a man of deep feeling, into a man, in Catharine Beecher's sense, who becomes more like a woman as the sketch progresses and ends by submitting to Grace's authority.
In Stowe's world, Dame Van Winkle might exert genuine influence, might even speak, as does Stowe herself in assuming authorship; in “Uncle Lot,” Stowe reinforces the nineteenth-century view of women's interest in feeling and moral character, while the masculine behaviors of Brom Bones disappear from the fiction. Thus Dame Van Winkle survives in the work of Harriet Beecher Stowe not as a shrill-voiced termagant but as a woman capable of using her verbal facility in order to assert, in Grace's closing lines, “authority in these days” (“Uncle Lot” 31). Irving has to justify the exclusion of women from the province of storytelling; Stowe wants not to exclude men but to include women in the profession of literature (even though, ironically, she never created a female narrator in her work). Nevertheless, the fact that “Uncle Lot” has remained unremarked for most of this century attests to the apparent victory of Irving's position. At least as literary history has recorded it, Brom Bones inspired an entire “school” of tall tale fiction by the Old Southwest humorists, whereas Ichabod Crane disappeared into the “sleepy region.”
In reading “Uncle Lot” to the Semi-Colon Club, Stowe had the good fortune to attract the attention of editor James Hall of the Western Monthly Magazine. One of Stowe's biographers, in describing James Hall's influence, writes that he advocated “cheerfulness, morality, and regionalism” as a literary aesthetic, was “a chivalrous admirer of women writers,” and encouraged payment for contributors to American periodicals (Adams, Harriet Beecher Stowe 35-36)11 In awarding his fiction prize to Harriet Beecher's first New England sketch, he was also implicitly urging her to counter the portrait of American life that the frontier appeared to encourage—as he knew very well. In Letters from the West, Hall had recorded the telling of yarns by an old keelboatman named Pappy, whom he had encountered while traveling down the Ohio on a flatboat (W. Blair 70);12 and as editor of The Western Souvenir, issued in Cincinnati in 1828, “the first of American gift books from beyond the Alleghenies” (Thompson 95-96), Hall achieved the distinction of having been the first editor to publish a lengthy account of the career of the legendary Mike Fink (W. Blair 81-82). Like Washington Irving, Hall appears to have been interested very early in the tall tale; but unlike Irving, he would choose, as editor of the Western Monthly Magazine, to encourage his contributors, especially women, to write about other regional material than the portraits of frontier life that would survive in American literary history as humor of the Old Southwest.13
Hall contrasts sharply with his contemporary, William T. Porter, whose sporting magazine, the Spirit of the Times, first published in 1831, provided gentlemen interested in the leisure pursuits of horse racing, hunting, and listening to tall tales with a way of gratifying their fantasies of upper-class superiority (since much of the humor Porter published derived from “the foibles and follies of the lower classes” [Yates 88]) and of ratifying their belief in masculine values and male dominance. Unlike Hall, whose interest in developing western material inspired his work, Porter was a commercialist, interested more in the culture of the sporting world than in literature. He initially catered “to the wealthy slaveholding sportsmen and their friends and allies, who ‘ruled’ racing” (Yates 17). With the decline of horse racing by the end of the 1830s, Porter began to include the early local color fiction literary historians term humor of the Old Southwest. As Norris W. Yates observes, “The bulk of [Porter's] later readers belong to a new and larger economic and social class—a class which may have shared the values and interests but not the economic resources of the old” (21). Thus the values and interests of the slave-holding sportsmen and their allies contrast decidedly with the values and interests of the audience for and contributors to Hall's Western Monthly Magazine. The readers who allowed the Spirit of the Times to flourish for more than thirty years may not have been able to prevent women from speaking out in public meetings, but by excluding morality from the province of humor they attempted to exclude the particular sphere of women's influence in nineteenth-century culture from fiction and effectively defined storytelling as a masculine occupation. The writers who contributed to William T. Porter's sporting magazine continued to develop American literature as a masculine enterprise. To the extent that humor of the Old Southwest establishes Brom Bones as the American hero, this particular literary genre describes a direction for fiction that women writers could not and did not follow.14
Augustus Baldwin Longstreet and his colleague on the Augusta Sentinel, William Tappan Thompson, both of whom published their sketches in the 1830s, were the only Old Southwest humorist writers who treated female characters in their fiction (W. Blair 74).15 Of these two, Longstreet in Georgia Scenes (1835) had the greater influence.16Georgia Scenes is an important text to examine in establishing gender consciousness as a feature of early American fiction, for while it reaffirms Irving's perspective and establishes further precedent for the humorists' exclusion of women, it also suggests a lingering fluidity in the relationship between gender and genre in the 1830s. At the same time, Georgia Scenes suggests that Old Southwest humor evolved in part from suppressing the possibility of female literary authority. In Longstreet's preface to Georgia Scenes he tells us “that when he first wrote and published the sketches which went into the volume, he was ‘extremely desirous’ of concealing his authorship; and that in order to accomplish his purpose, he had used two pseudonyms. For sketches in which men are the principal actors, he says, he uses the name Hall; for those in which women are the most prominent, he writes under the name Baldwin” (Meriwether 358; Longstreet v).
James Meriwether writes that “the dominant figure of the book is Hall; … Baldwin simply serves as a foil to the ultimately much more masculine and successful Lyman Hall” (359). In Baldwin's sketches, the narrator becomes a moralist who stands back from the action, contrasting “country girls” with their urban counterparts and condemning women who become “charming” creatures and lead their husbands to early graves. By contrast, in Hall's sketches, Hall participates in the action, proves himself to be a crack shot, and establishes himself as a man's man. A third character who appears in the sketches, Ned Brace of “A Sage Conversation,” establishes storytelling as one of many contests, like gander pulling, horse swapping, or horse racing, in which boys or men can prove their masculinity. Both Ned Brace and Lyman Hall achieve a less ambiguous masculinity than does Baldwin.
In suggesting Baldwin's ultimate ineffectuality, Longstreet, like Irving in his portrait of Ichabod Crane, links Baldwin to the world of women that he simultaneously mocks. The “country girls” of “The Dance” are so “wholly ignorant” of urban fashion that “consequently, they looked, for all the world, like human beings” (14); thus Longstreet manages to make fun of both country and urban “girls” in the same jest. In “The Song,” piano player Miss Aurelia Emma Theodosia Augusta Crump has hands that engage in conflict at the keyboard, and “anyone, or rather no one, can imagine what kind of noises the piano gave forth” as a result (Longstreet 70). Longstreet's portraits of women characters, primarily in Baldwin's sketches, led his biographer Kimball King to remark, “It is hard to understand how a man who appears to have had close, satisfying relationships with his wife and daughters, all sensible, intelligent women who led exemplary lives, could portray their sex so unflatteringly, unless his bias were actually a pose, a part of his writer's mask” (80). However, the emerging gender consciousness of the 1830s makes this explicable; Longstreet, like Irving, associates storytelling with masculinity and political power, for Hall ends the volume, in “The Shooting-Match,” by proving his marksmanship and thereby earning the potential votes of the country people. The people promise to support him if he “offers” for anything; “Longstreet makes it clear that the judgment of these people is to be respected and if Hall will accept such responsibilities he will be an able and successful public official” (Meriwether 361), such as Longstreet himself later became in his career as a judge, preacher, and college president. Baldwin, on the other hand, clearly lacks the shooting ability to qualify as either effective storyteller or political man; as he demonstrates in his failure to execute the humorous “double cross-hop” step of his first sketch in Georgia Scenes, he cannot even dance (Longstreet 21).
In Baldwin's most powerful sketch, “A Sage Conversation,” the three aged matrons who relate anecdotes to each other prove Longstreet's point, for they seem unable to understand the meaning of the very anecdotes they are attempting to tell and thus do not succeed in the actively masculine pursuit of contriving and telling stories. Baldwin opens “A Sage Conversation” with the assertion, “I love the aged matrons of our land. As a class, they are the most pious, the most benevolent, the most useful, and the most harmless of the human family” (Longstreet 186). Nevertheless, the women cannot solve the riddle of Ned Brace's story concerning “two most excellent men, who became so attached to each other that they actually got married” (Longstreet 188), and although the women light their pipes and sit around the fire until late in the night, their talking never rises above the level of what one of them calls “an old woman's chat” (Longstreet 196). Although they may look like men, engaging in pipe smoking and late-night conversation, the women are innocents on the subject of cross-dressing, recalling women who “dress'd in men's clothes” and followed their true loves “to the wars,” and one of them concludes that “men don't like to marry gals that take on that way” (Longstreet 191). They miss the humorous potential of their own material; they prove themselves incapable of sustaining the line of a narrative longer than a brief comment or two; they suggest that their only expertise lies in the realm of herbal remedies; and throughout, they demonstrate the general inability of women to be storytellers.
James M. Cox suggests, with irony, that in the final “showdown” between Stowe and the frontier humorists, Stowe “wins”; that in Uncle Tom's Cabin, she turns the bear hunt characteristic of much of southern and frontier humor into a man hunt; and that she “killed” the humorists by raising the question of serious moral culture. He claims that he does not wish to “put down Mrs. Stowe” but argues that it was ultimately Samuel Clemens who found the form of genius for the materials of native American humor (“Humor” 591-92). It is difficult to imagine how Stowe or any other woman writer of the 1830s and 1840s could have written the kind of American humor Cox refers to here, since in order to do so she would have had to achieve that humor at women's expense and ironically agree to take only masculine culture, with its sport, jests, frolics, and put-downs, seriously.17 Cox views Clemens as the product of the implicit conflict between Stowe and the Old Southwest humorists, implying that the local color school of American fiction, including Bret Harte and Hamlin Garland, emerged from the same origins as Old Southwest humor.18 For Cox, Stowe and Longstreet appear to sketch alternative directions in American fiction, and Hall's sketches in Georgia Scenes (if not Baldwin's) support this point. Hall's narratives create further variations on the theme of masculine dominance, serve to reify the distinctions between men and women characteristic of “separate spheres,” and contribute to dividing early-nineteenth-century American fiction along the lines of humor at others' expense, exemplified by Old Southwest and local color “schools,” and empathy for others, in the tradition of literary regionalism, primarily exemplified by women writers.19
With the publication of “A New England Sketch” or “Uncle Lot,” Stowe joined an emerging group of women who had begun to publish in magazines—Lydia Maria Child, Catharine Sedgwick, Lydia Huntley Sigourney, among others—and who, by their very success as publishing authors, underscored the issue of gender in nineteenth-century literary culture. In her delineation of woman's fiction, however, Nina Baym suggests that Stowe's interests in slavery and religion were “issues transcending gender” and that they “set her apart from the other American women writing fiction in her day” (15). Stowe certainly knew Sedgwick's A New England Tale (1822), the novel Baym credits with inaugurating the genre of woman's fiction; Sklar notes that it had created controversy within the Beecher family and that Catharine in particular had attacked Sedgwick, a convert to Unitarianism, as having betrayed her social position and the Calvinist tradition (44-45). It was perhaps in recognition of Sedgwick as well as an attempt to distance herself from the controversy that led Stowe to change the title of “A New England Sketch” to “Uncle Lot.” Yet if Stowe chooses not to model herself on Sedgwick, more is at stake than a defense of her family's social standing and theological allegiance; she also chooses not to write in the formal tradition of Sedgwick. Instead, she raises questions of region that Sedgwick, despite the regional flavor of her title, does not address.20 Stowe's interests in “Uncle Lot” suggest that as early as 1834 there existed the possibility that women would create not a single major tradition but two—women's fiction and regionalism—that would develop independently of each other, yet share some common themes, concerns, and influences. Thus, while Stowe responds to Irving in “Uncle Lot,” she also drew her inspiration from her female contemporaries. Critics have identified several works by women with the roots of the regional tradition in American fiction, in particular Lydia Huntley Sigourney, Sketch of Connecticut: Forty Years Since (1824), Sarah Josepha Hale, Northwood: A Tale of New England (1827), Eliza Buckminster Lee, Sketches of a New-England Village in the Last Century (1838), and Caroline Kirkland, A New Home—Who'll Follow?; or, Glimpses of Western Life (1839), in addition to Sedgwick's A New England Tale.21
Stowe herself, in The Pearl of Orr's Island (1862), would bring female characters and values into the center of a regional novel. In this book in particular, Stowe demonstrates the influence of Sigourney, who published the memoir Sketch of Connecticut in Hartford the same year thirteen-year-old Harriet Beecher moved there to become a student at her sister Catharine's Hartford Female Seminary.22 In Sketch of Connecticut, Madam L. tells Farmer Larkin, a regional character who makes a brief appearance, that she doesn't recollect the names of his children. He replies, “It's no wonder that ye don't Ma'am, there's such a neest on 'em. They're as thick as hops round the fire this winter. There's Roxey and Reuey, they're next to Tim, and look like twins. They pick the wool, and card tow, and wind quills, and knit stockins and mittins for the fokes in the house; and I've brought some down with me to day, to see if they'll buy 'em to the marchants' shops, and let 'em have a couple o' leetle small shawls” (Sigourney 118). This passage provides evidence that Stowe had read Sketch of Connecticut before she began The Pearl of Orr's Island, for she names her own characters Roxy and Ruey in that novel after the daughters of Farmer Larkin. The model Sigourney created in her New England farmer with his Connecticut speech rhythms also served to influence Stowe's own portrait of Uncle Lot, the one character in her first sketch who speaks in dialect. In her analysis of Sketch of Connecticut, Sandra A. Zagarell argues that Sigourney's writing “was quite directly concerned with the foundations and organization of public life,” and that both she and Sedgwick (in Hope Leslie ) “addressed a major political topic of the day, the nature of the American nation” (“Expanding” 225). Thus Sigourney becomes a model for Stowe in two ways: she offers regional characters for Stowe's later meditation and expansion in “Uncle Lot” and The Pearl of Orr's Island, and she also confirms for Stowe that women have an inalienable claim to an evolving American political and cultural vision. Sigourney explores, as Stowe would later do, the possibilities of literary authority for women.
“Uncle Lot,” unlike A New England Tale, does not inaugurate a genre. Regionalism, in contrast to woman's fiction, begins inchoately, reflecting uncertainty on the part of both male and female writers in the 1830s concerning the ways in which the gender of the author might inscribe the formal concerns of the work. For by the 1830s the direction of critical judgment concerning women writers, though clearly forming, was not yet set. Stowe's vision of Uncle Lot as the “settest crittur you ever saw” and the challenge she sets her hero to convert Uncle Lot to the expression of feeling establishes her perspicacity in implicitly predicting that gender itself would remain a “chestnut burr” within American culture, that is, a briery issue difficult to open but yet containing its own reward. Genre is also a “chestnut burr” in the emerging world of “separate spheres.”23 What Stowe begins to explore in the regionalism of “Uncle Lot” is the possibility that the limits of genre can indeed be transformed or, to use a word more in keeping with the ideology of “woman's sphere,” “converted” to the cultural work of developing a form for women's narrative voice.
Numerous scholars and critics are working to define the tradition of regionalism and to explicate its features and significance. Most scholars link regionalism with the development of the fictional sketch in nineteenth-century American literature. See Jeffrey Rubin-Dorsky for a discussion of Irving's development of the sketch form. See also Sandra Zagarell, “Narrative of Community: The Identification of a Genre,” in which she identifies a “department of literature” she terms “narrative of community” and includes numerous American writers often described as regional in this “department.” See also Josephine Donovan, New England Local Color Literature: A Women's Tradition; Perry D. Westbrook, Acres of Flint: Writers of Rural New England, 1870-1900 and The New England Town in Fact and Fiction; and introductory essays on regional writers in Elizabeth Ammons, ed., “Introduction”; Judith Fetterley, ed., “Introduction”; and Marjorie Pryse, ed., “Introduction,” Stories from the Country of Lost Borders; see also critical essays on Cary, Cooke, and Stowe in Fetterley, ed., Provisions: A Reader from 19th-Century American Women; see also Pryse, “Introduction,” The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories; and Pryse, ed., Selected Stories of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. Lawrence Buell notes some disagreement with the tendency of what he calls the “feminist revisionary scholarship” to identify the regionalist tradition as female. In his own work, he examines regional representation in American literature, arguably a broader survey but one which does not locate itself within the boundaries of prose fiction, although he does acknowledge that “the staple of regional prose, however, continued to be the short sketch or tale” (296). In Buell's survey of the field of regional representation, he finds that it “looks considerably more androgynous once we survey the whole panoply … So although I agree that the conception of social reality that underlay New England regional poetry and prose lent itself to feminist appropriation and became, in the postwar era, increasingly a woman's construct, … provincial literary iconography [is] a project in which writers of the two sexes participated together” (302-03). See Louis Renza for a discussion of the ways “minor literature” (such as regionalism) in Jewett demonstrates pressures to become “major literature,” and see Richard Brodhead for “a different account of the regionalist genre from what feminist studies have proposed” (Cultures 144).
See Nancy Cott. She locates the origins of nineteenth-century American feminism within the decade of the 1830s and asserts that the development of feminism actually depended on the ideology of “woman's sphere.”
Stowe herself collected “Uncle Lot,” originally titled “A New England Sketch,” in The Mayflower, or Sketches of the Descendents of the Pilgrim (1843), a work with a limited circulation and out of print by 1855. Following the success of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the collection was reissued, with additional sketches, and this collection then became part of the Riverside Edition of Stowe's works. However, the sketch has not appeared in anthologies of American literature and remains unknown except by Stowe scholars. John Adams included the sketch in his edition of Stowe's work (see Adams, ed., Regional Sketches: New England and Florida), and the sketch appears in Fetterley and Pryse, eds., American Women Regionalists 1850-1910.
For further explication of the significance of the silencing of Dame Van Winkle, see Fetterley, The Resisting Reader 1-11.
For a general discussion of gender unease in early-nineteenth-century American culture and the relationship between the minister and culture, see Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture, although Douglas's work has been superseded by others. See in particular Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction 1790-1860. For an argument that manhood produces its own anxiety for nineteenth-century writers, see David Leverenz, Manhood and the American Renaissance.
Railton discusses the “psychic underside” of early-nineteenth-century American men's public selves and suggests that “it reveals their instinctual doubts about the sacrifices that the role of gentleman in a democracy exacted of them” (102).
See also John Seelye, “Root and Branch: Washington Irving and American Humor.” Buell notes that “probably the single most important American prose work in teaching native writers to exploit regional material for literary purposes was Washington Irving's The Sketch-Book” (294).
Biographical evidence suggests that Harriet Beecher was writing with her father as well as with Washington Irving in mind. Although she initially called her most interesting character in “A New England Sketch” Uncle Timothy Griswold, changing his name when the story reappeared as “Uncle Lot” in The Mayflower, there would have been no confusion in the Beecher family that “Uncle Tim” was based on Harriet's father Lyman's Uncle Lot Benton. Lyman Beecher's mother had died two days after his birth, he had been raised by a childless aunt and uncle instead of in his father's household, and he had apparently entertained his own children with numerous tales about his childhood with Uncle Lot (Rugoff 4, 219). Thus James Benton, who becomes the “adopted” son of Lot Griswold in the sketch, serves as Harriet's portrait of her father as a young man. By choosing to write a sketch based on her father's own tales from childhood, to become like Lyman Beecher a storyteller, Harriet implicitly expressed her desire to model herself on her father, but she carefully disclaimed the ambitiousness of this desire, describing her work, in a letter to her brother George, as “a little bit of a love sketch …, a contemptible little affair” (Boydston, Kelley, and Margolis 62). Thus we can see her hiding behind the “love sketch” as a story more suitable than others a woman might tell, even though her interest in conversion in the sketch clearly identifies her as the daughter of Lyman Beecher, the Congregational minister known in the early 1800s for his power as a revivalist and the man who produced seven sons, all of whom became ministers.
Although the senior Beecher had definite views about gender differences, often lamenting that Harriet, with her intelligence, had not been born a boy and therefore a potential minister, he appears to have made no distinctions between young men's and young women's potential for experiencing conversion, and Lyman Beecher taught both daughters and sons that conversion involved a “private change of heart” rather than merely a social and public acknowledgment of belief (Sklar 27).
In collecting “Uncle Lot” for The Mayflower, Stowe changed the original wording of Grace's closing lines. In “A New England Sketch,” Grace tells her father, “I'm used to authority in these days” (191). The change, with its echo of biblical usage, serves to reinforce Grace's moral authority to speak.
Hall appears early in the history of the Beecher family's move to Cincinnati. Prior to the publication of “Uncle Lot,” Hall's Western Monthly Magazine had published an essay titled “Modern Uses of Language,” signed “B,” and attributed to Catharine although written by Harriet (Boydston, Kelley, and Margolis 50-51). Sklar notes that Catharine viewed the Western Monthly Magazine as a potential outlet for her educational ideas, and that she included its editor James Hall among the trustees for the Western Female Institute, the school she opened in Cincinnati (110). Hall continued as a friend of the Beechers until he engaged in a defense of Roman Catholics in open conflict with Lyman Beecher's position on Catholicism, with the result that the Western Monthly Magazine lost its influential supporters and suffered financial failure, and Hall retired into banking (Flanagan 66-67).
Hall describes “Pappy” as a “humourist” who “would sit for hours scraping upon his violin, singing catches, or relating merry and marvellous tales” (182).
Ironically, in Flanagan's biography of James Hall, he writes that “Hall sketched women infrequently and on the whole rather badly” (143).
Caroline Kirkland may have been viewed as an exception; she was one of the few women, if not the only one, whom Porter published in The Spirit of the Times; Porter reprinted Kirkland, but she did not contribute original material (Yates 60).
William Tappan Thompson collected his Major Jones letters in 1843 as Major Jones's Courtship, the same year Stowe collected her own sketches in The Mayflower.
Alone among the major Southwest humorists, Longstreet did not publish his work in the Spirit of the Times (Blair 85).
See Blair's discussion of early American humor, especially 18-19.
Guttman terms “Sleepy Hollow” “a prefiguration of the tradition of Mark Twain and the frontier humorists” (171).
After Augustus Baldwin Longstreet graduated from Yale in 1813, he entered law school in Litchfield, Connecticut, where he attended sermons by the Reverend Lyman Beecher and visited in the Beecher home. “He also found time to visit Miss Pierce's School for Young Ladies, where he frequently regaled the young women with his droll accounts of rural Georgia in his ‘country boy’ pose. His first practice as a raconteur began during the Connecticut years” (King, Augustus 12), with women, and likely the Beecher family, as his audience. The young Harriet would not have directly benefited from hearing Longstreet's stories (she would have been hardly three years old), and yet it is one of the delightful coincidences of literary history that the two writers who would each begin to develop alternative possibilities for the treatment of American materials that Irving sets out in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”—Longstreet with his southern humor and male world of sporting stories, Stowe with the “sleepy” regionalism of “Uncle Lot”—would both have “met” in Litchfield, Connecticut.
Buell terms A New-England Tale “really more an expose than an exposition of provincial village culture, too heavily committed to a Cinderella plot … and anti-Calvinist satire … to accomplish much by way of regional mimesis” (295).
See discussions of Hale and Sedgwick in Nina Baym, Woman's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America 1820-1870; see discussions of Sigourney and Sedgwick in Sandra A. Zagarell, “Expanding ‘America’: Lydia Sigourney's Sketch of Connecticut, Catharine Sedgwick's Hope Leslie.”
John Adams in Harriet Beecher Stowe terms Sketch “a true forerunner of Mrs. Stowe's work” (31). As an adolescent, Harriet met, knew, and very likely read Sigourney, her sister's dear friend in Hartford.
Tompkins suggests that even Hawthorne, in some of his earliest sketches collected in Twice-Told Tales (1837) (“Little Annie's Ramble,” “A Rill from the Town Pump,” “Sunday at Home,” and “Sights from a Steeple”), began as a “sentimental author” long before he would become the genius of the American romance and damn the “scribbling women” (10-18). Buell focuses on the iconographic representation of region rather than the relationship between regional representation and genre; he does observe that “the staple of regional prose, however, continued to be the short sketch or tale” (296).
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8132
SOURCE: “From Nation of Virtue to Virtual Nation: Washington Irving and American Nationalism” in Narratives of Nostalgia, Gender and Nationalism, edited by Jean Pickering and Suzanne Kehde, Macmillan Press, 1997, pp. 52-73.
[In the following essay, Sondey demonstrates how Irving's use of nostalgia in Salmagundi and The Sketch Book promoted his views on conservatism and the national identity.]
Washington Irving (1783-1859) began his literary career in the midst of the national identity crisis prompted by the transition from Federalist republicanism to Jeffersonian democracy. During the first decade of the nineteenth century Americans found themselves at odds over conflicting elitist and populist, public and private conceptions of the masculine persona representative of American nationality. On the one hand conservatives advocated an elitist conception of American character exemplified by the publicly virtuous legislator typical of classical republicanism. Democrats on the other hand advocated a popular conception of national character exemplified by the private liberal-democratic individual. The basic difference between these two personifications may be summed up as that between a corporatism that emphasizes duty to station and hierarchy over individual interests, and an individualism that emphasizes social mobility and self-interest over duty to social and political institutions. In The Letters of the Republic Michael Warner notes that the eventual ascendance of liberal democracy prompted the development of the bourgeois domestic character typical of modern American nationalism:
Modern Nationalism is more at home. It constructs ‘Americanness’ as a distinctive but privately possessed trait. It allows you to be American in the way you tailor your coat, or the way you sing, or the way you read a book. It does not insist that you regard such activities as public, virtuous actions. I speak of a modern nationalist imaginary to emphasize that it requires your public self imagery to develop in a private sphere.
My aim, insofar as this nationalist imaginary is of a literary nature, is to analyze how Irving taught his readers to experience national identity as a matter of reading a book. However in doing so I will argue that such a nationalism is more usefully discussed as a publicly developed representation that regulates the perception of self in a private sphere that consists of domestic life and individual taste or sensibility. More specifically I will argue that Irving was the first American author to realize that the productions of the literary press, particularly sentimental literature, constituted the primary means to regulate the nation's self-image. In other words his books demonstrate how the apparently moribund values of American conservatism might achieve a renewed influence over bourgeois individuals if distributed in a capillary fashion via the press and figured in terms of the domestic sentimentality associated with the private character of liberal democracy.
An examination of the changing role that nostalgia plays in two of Irving's earliest publications offers an unparalleled opportunity to trace the various purposes and circumstances that influenced the formation of the conservative or genteel strain of American nationalism that Irving pioneered. In Salmagundi (1807-8), a magazine of social and political satire, Irving employs nostalgia simultaneously to mourn and lampoon the decline of conservatism from a sociopolitical movement of national scope to a merely private disposition. There the public character of conservatism appears reduced to the nostalgic figure of an aging Federalist patriarch limited in power to the personal tastes and authority he exercises within the confines of family life. It is not until the publication of The Sketch Book (1819), a collection of short stories, literary criticism and travel essays, that Irving demonstrates how nostalgia and patriarchal domesticity may be used to represent conservatism as a vital influence upon national character. In this case, rather than sponsoring mourning among conservatives for the lost public aspects of Federalist character, his work promotes a desire among liberal democrats to affiliate themselves with it on a private basis. The result is a literary mode of affiliation that links readers to a textual or virtual society whose substance is the commonly held desire for a genteel sensibility that appears as if it must be recovered from the past. In short, by showing how Irving learned to use nostalgia to create desire for a patriarchal representation of domesticity, I will demonstrate that his genteel nationalism provided American conservatism with the Trojan Horse it needed to carry its values into the bourgeois private sphere and regain there as a matter of cultural authority the influence it had lost in the public sphere.1
Like many conservatives during the Jefferson administration (1800-8), Irving believed that a hierarchical social order promoting class deference constituted the substance of republican national character and the essence of the public interest. Accordingly he believed that it was the personal duty of virtuous republican citizens and legislators to use national government to maintain that order and prevent the disorderly effects of the laissez-faire progressivism favoured by democrats. Indeed it was Irving's namesake, George Washington, who personified the paternalistic public character that conservatives hoped to institutionalize in the national government and from there impress upon society at large. However, the reelection of Jefferson in 1804 demonstrated that such political paternalism had poor prospects given the social and economic ambitions of the American electorate. Conservatives thus had little choice but to concede the hopelessness of promoting a ‘republican’ social and political character by means of national government.
In Salmagundi Irving attacks representative democracy for destroying the political aspects of republican character, namely the paternalistic rule of those elite few whose property, social standing and leisure allowed them the independence and education needed to serve the public good. He complains that in Jefferson's ‘mobocracy’ any virtuous candidate ‘who possesses superior talents … will always be sacrificed to some creeping insect who will prostitute himself to familiarity with the lowest of mankind’ (193). Such corrupt candidates, he continues, ‘by administering to [the people's] passions, for the purposes of ambition’ will ultimately ‘convince them of their power’ and thereby make government an instrument of popular interests (195). As the mixture of bestial, sexual and economic metaphors suggests, Irving assumes that democratic candidates have abandoned the cause of reason and morality: they have rejected the rational deliberation and paternalistic administration of the public good (political virtue) in order to give voice and power to the passing desires of an ignorant majority.
Other conservatives, however, trying to be less pessimistic about the prospects of preserving republican values, looked toward the voters for help. In an essay titled ‘Phocion’, Fisher Ames, a leading Federalist congressman during the Jefferson administration, raises the hope that the virtuous members of the electorate may yet remove the democrats from office. He bases this hope on the assumption that there still exists a sufficient number of voters who ‘reverence’ the transcendent good of social hierarchy, particularly those ‘customs and institutions we derive from our English ancestors’ (178). However, the affection among the national electorate for the elitist social institutions and deferential political relations found mainly on the long-settled east coast proved quite limited compared to that for representative democracy and laissez-faire liberalism.2 Consequently Ames admits that a return to republicanism is in fact unlikely, a view to which he gives pointed expression in an 1805 essay titled ‘The Dangers of Liberty’. There, after noting that the republican character of Rome resulted from a ‘political virtue’ of its people, he turns to the issue of American character: ‘Is there any resemblance in [Roman virtue] to the habits and passions that predominate in America? Are not our people wholly engrossed by the pursuit of wealth and pleasure?’ He then observes that ‘Though grouped together into a society, the propensities of the individual still prevail; and if the nation discovers the rudiments of any character, they are yet to be developed’ (Works 412-13). As a result, Ames concludes, the nation is ‘descending from a supposed orderly and stable republican government into a licentious democracy, with a progress that baffles all means to resist’ (429).
In Salmagundi Irving addresses the decline of conservative fortunes in his description of Christopher Cockloft, a nostalgic old Federalist whose disgust with liberal democracy drives him to retreat into his ancestral home, Cockloft Hall. There he indulges his ‘propensity to save every thing that bears the stamp of family antiquity’ (132-3) and attempts to create a refuge free from modern influence where he can preserve the ‘little vivid spark of toryism which burns in a secret corner of his heart’ (134). But even at home Cockloft must fend off the inroads of parvenu styles that threaten the English and colonial tastes that attest to the historical legitimacy of his character:
The Miss Cocklofts have made several spirited attempts to introduce modern furniture into the hall, but with very indifferent success. Modern style has always been an object of great annoyance to honest Christopher, and is ever treated by him with sovereign contempt, as an upstart intruder. It is a common observation of his, that your old-fashioned substantial furniture bespeaks the respectability of one's ancestors, and indicates that the family has been used to hold up its head for more than the present generation; whereas the fragile appendages of modern style seemed to be emblems of mushroom gentility, and to this mind predicted that the family dignity would moulder away and vanish with the finery thus put on of a sudden. The same whimwham made him averse to having his house surrounded with poplars, which he stigmatizes as mere upstarts, just fit to ornament the shingle palaces of modern gentry, and characteristick of the establishments they decorate.
Ironically, the use of domestic nostalgia to establish a standard of taste and to transform the illegitimacy of liberal-democratic character also highlights the historical failure of American conservatism. As Irving's satirical tone suggests, Cockloft's nostalgia is ridiculous insofar as it displaces criticism of liberal democracy on to taste and reduces what had been a momentous social and political struggle over national character to a contest of class sensibilities within the home. Thus his struggle to exorcize both liberal tastes and feminine influence from Cockloft Hall portrays a conservatism so socially and politically marginalized that it must retreat to the domestic scene and displace women from their traditional sphere of influence.
Nonetheless it would be incorrect to assume that Irving's satirical treatment of Cockloft implies a thorough detachment from the elitist values he represents. Prior to this passage Irving advises the reader to look kindly upon Cockloft's efforts to preserve in the privacy of his home those curious objects reflecting the values of his grandfather's generation: ‘Let no one ridicule the whim-whams of [Cockloft's] grandfather:—If—and of this there is no doubt, for wise men have said it—if life is but a dream, happy is he who can make the most of the illusion’ (239). As Irving's wistful comment suggests, nostalgia compensates to some degree for Federalist losses by constituting a private realm of sensibility where conservatives might enjoy an illusion of the paternalistic authority they had hoped to exercise in public.
Irving's use of the private sphere to figure larger social and political issues conforms to Eric Sundquist's observation regarding nineteenth-century American literature that metaphors of ‘family or genealogy … act as surrogates for a more abstractly envisioned “past”’ that ‘stimulate the writer's desire to find in the family a model for the social and political constructs still so much in question for a recently conceived nation’ (Sundquist xii). However, in Irving's case, this desire to find in the past familial models for contemporary social and political constructs was frustrated by conservatism's preemptive historical failure. The Cockloft family, rather than representing a private model for the character of the nation's public institutions, merely represents the private character of a class that had already lost its bid to define them. Moreover in telling the story of that loss, particularly its political consequences, Irving depicts a conservatism that also has lost all hope of reasserting any vital national influence.
Sundquist addresses the problem of preserving and distributing authority under revolutionary circumstances in terms derived from Freud's understanding of social genesis. He observes that the liberal-democratic victory over Federalist conservatism prompted the production of literature whose representation of paternal authority he likens to the ritual of celebration and atonement in Freud's account of the patricide that establishes fraternal authority and order. After noting how this guilt engenders a desire to recover the father's authority through cultural ritual, Sundquist comments that among American writers ‘experiments in authorial desire must risk the possibility that they … will either become repetitive commemorations in the name of an overthrown authority, or else find themselves at a loss before the very absence of that authority’ (xii). Ideally the resolution to this problem is the transfer of the overthrown paternal authority to the commemorative ritual. From there, it may then be distributed and made present among the sons as a means to assure the continuity and authority of the social order founded upon their revolt. However Irving's experiment in authorial desire constitutes a failure to transfer and distribute paternal authority. As a cultural ritual his nostalgia is merely a mournful commemoration of the destruction of such authority that leaves his audience at a loss as to how to compensate for its absence. Thus Salmagundi's nostalgia merely serves to adumbrate the lost public dimension of Federalist ideology and reduce desire for the patriarchal family to a mournful reminder of conservatism's failure to impress its character upon the public institutions of the nation.
In Salmagundi Irving's nostalgia indicates that he had yet to realize the potential of the press as a means to form the national identity and preserve conservative authority. The disparaging comments he makes there regarding ‘Logocracy’, or rule by the printed word, indicate that he perceived the press (especially political publications) to be largely responsible for the partisan fighting that had undermined the Federalists' efforts to preserve republican character and public institutions. He notes that because of the political press many Americans ‘are at a loss to determine the true nature and proper character of their government’ which seems one moment to be a republican ‘aristocracy’ and another a democratic ‘mobocracy’. But in fact the truth is ‘a secret which is unknown to these people themselves, their government is a pure unadulterated logocracy or government of words’ (142). Although Irving exaggerates to satirize, conservatives generally were frightened by the power of the press over the opinions of the people and policy of legislators. Ames makes clear the Federalist case against the press:
The many, who before the art of printing never mistook in a case of oppression, because they complained from their actual sense of it, have become susceptible of every transient enthusiasm and of more than womanish fickleness of caprice. Publick affairs are now transacted on a stage, where all the interest and passions grow out of fiction, or are inspired by the art, and often controlled at the pleasure of the actors.
Ironically Ames' complaint that political publications diminish the authority of experience, create a malleable popular opinion and replace reasoned political deliberation with a popular sentimentalism elicited by fiction anticipates precisely Irving's use of the literary press in The Sketch Book. There Ames' bitter observation that many Americans ‘learn only from newspapers that they are countrymen’ (414) assumes a positive connotation and marks the difference between a republican national character based upon elitist social and political institutions and a modern nationalism founded upon popular participation in a textually propagated sensibility.3
In The Sketch Book's first literary essay, ‘English Writers on America,’ Irving states that ‘Over no nation does the press hold a more absolute control than over the people of America; for the universal education of the poorest classes, makes every individual a reader’ (74). He then addresses directly the role of the press in creating the ‘public mind’ that forms the substance of the national character when he warns his American readers not to let ‘political hostility’ arising from the press accounts of the recently concluded War of 1812 bias their attitude toward the English:
Governed as we are entirely by public opinion, the utmost care should be taken to preserve the purity of the public mind. Knowledge is power, and truth is knowledge; whoever therefore knowingly propagates a prejudice, willfully saps the foundation of his country's strength.
However the apparent opposition of rational judgment to sentiment (hostility), public interest to private prejudice, breaks down when Irving tries to explain his simple assertion that ‘knowledge’ governs the formation of the nation's collective ‘mind’. On the one hand Irving objects to the use of the press to determine opinion for the public. He insists that its role in the democratic political process should be limited to providing the information that citizens need to make the individual rational judgments from which representative democracy derives popular will. Such citizens, he asserts, ‘are individually portions of the sovereign mind and sovereign will, and should be enabled to come to all questions of national concern with calm and unbiassed judgments’ (77). But on the other he claims that it is precisely the author's responsibility ‘to make [the press] the medium of amiable and magnanimous feeling’ (74) and invest the public mind with sentimental fictions that do bias it in matters of ‘national concern’. It is in fact this latter approach that corresponds to Irving's use of sentimental literature to create a sensibility conducive to genteel nationalism.4
Gaining recognition for the press itself as a basis of modern society was only the beginning of Irving's struggle to promote genteel nationalism among American readers. Establishing the legitimacy and authority of the conservative sensibility he hoped to propagate there constituted his greatest challenge. To accomplish this required the use of English literary models whose patriarchal representations of domestic life sponsored the sort of sensibility from which Irving hoped to construct a genteel American nationalism.
The ongoing anxiety over the legitimacy of the American national character guaranteed Irving a ready audience for the account of his cultural ‘pilgrimage’ to England in 1815 that constitutes the majority of The Sketch Book.5 There, in the guise of his authorial persona, Geoffrey Crayon, he attempts to elide the historical ruptures that had prevented Americans from looking toward England for models of private, if not social and political, character.6 His nostalgic desire for English culture thus represents an effort to establish an affiliation with England that will allow that country to serve as ‘a perpetual volume of reference … wherewith to strengthen and embellish [American] national character’ (79). As his allusion to textuality and filiopiety implies, he proposes this affiliation in order to provide American literary culture with the genealogy and paternal character it needed to legitimize its own sentimental authority. Moreover in the course of doing so he also demonstrates the figural, narrative and associative techniques that give nostalgic discourse the ability to evoke desire among bourgeois readers for a conservative sensibility. For it is, he suggests, the study of these literary models and techniques, not the outright imitation of English social and political institutions, that will help Americans learn how to create their own nationalism.
In ‘English Writers on America’ (Sketch Book) Irving clearly abandons the republican assumption that national identity depends primarily on its social and political institutions. Instead he emphasizes the spirit, thought, opinion and feeling typical of bourgeois sensibility as the bases of national character. Public institutions, he suggests, are merely the expression of a nation's private character, not vice versa. This change is particularly apparent when Irving advises his American readers not to resent the English for denigrating their character:
We are a young people, necessarily an imitative one, and must take our examples and models, in a great degree, from the existing nations of Europe. There is no country more worthy of our study than England. The spirit of her constitution is most analogous to ours. The manners of her people,—their intellectual activity—their freedom of opinion—their habits of thinking on those subjects which concern the dearest interests and most sacred charities of private life, are all congenial to the American character; and in fact are all intrinsically excellent: for it is in the moral feeling of the people that the deep foundations of English prosperity are laid.
Irving goes on to conclude that English social order itself, ‘an edifice that so long has towered unshaken’, owes its durability to ‘foundations’ in ‘private life’. In particular he refers to those ‘sacred charities’ and ‘moral feelings’ that originate in the bourgeois family and bind the individual to the father as the source of the patrimony and legitimacy that guarantee social standing. Like Edmund Burke, who claimed that ‘We begin our public affections in our families’ (315), Irving models the individual's relationship to the nation on patriarchal family life. Thus his domestically figured nationalism offers its readers membership in a virtual family that transforms their private lives into what Burke calls ‘so many little images of the great country in which the heart [finds] something it [can] fill’ (315). In this manner the modern nation substantiates itself in the mutual identification or recognition that bourgeois individuals realize through a shared desire for the cultural ideal represented by the patriarchal family.
In effect Irving proposes to synchronize and regulate American sentiments by establishing a paternalistic cultural authority modeled upon that of English domestic literature. To this end The Sketch Book engages its American readers in a nostalgic ritual meant to invoke the spirit of those days when they approached England ‘with a hallowed feeling of tenderness and veneration as the land of our forefathers’ and when after ‘our own country there was none in whose glory we more delighted, … none toward which our hearts yearned with such throbbings of warm consanguinity’ (75). Irving uses such filial and domestic sentiments to create the sense of impending patrimonial loss and genealogical discontinuity essential to the invocation of nostalgic desire, as is apparent when he reminds Americans who reject their English heritage for political reasons that
there are feelings dearer than interest—closer to the heart than pride—that will still make us cast back a look of regret, as we wander farther and farther from the paternal roof, and lament the waywardness of the parent, that would repel the affections of the child.
Of nearly a dozen literary essays, character sketches and short stories in The Sketch Book addressing questions of national identity, the character sketch ‘John Bull’ offers the most pointed illustration of Irving's transformation of nostalgia. The sketch begins by examining how Bull, the personification of England in a series of political allegories by John Arbuthnot (1667-1735), contributed to the creation of modern English character. Irving observes that the wide-spread printing and sale of caricatures based on Arbuthnot's texts was a likely reason that Bull became the personification of ‘common’ or middle-class English character:
Perhaps the continual contemplation of the character thus drawn of them, has contributed to fix it upon the nation; and thus to give reality to what at first may have been painted in a great measure from the imagination. Men are apt to acquire peculiarities that are continually ascribed to them. The common orders of the English seem wonderfully captivated with the beau ideal which they have formed of John Bull, and endeavour to act up to the broad caricature that is perpetually before their eyes.
However, despite the focus of this passage on the pictorial aspect of Bull as an ego ideal, the main purpose of Irving's sketch is to elaborate a narrative context in which Bull may represent nostalgia as an effective conservative response to the conflict between tradition and progress. Toward this end, Irving sets Bull's story in the midst of a family crisis that poses his paternalism and reverence for tradition against his sons' democratic and progressive interests. But despite the apparent parallels between his story and Cockloft's, Bull's differs significantly in the positive effects it ascribes to nostalgia.
As a paternal figure ‘who is given to indulge his veneration for family usages and family incumbrances, to a whimsicial extent’ (387), Bull maintains his home in a manner redolent of an English monarchism at odds with the progressive values held by his sons. Although he is inclined to listen to their counsel and slowly accommodate their modern tastes and interests, this ‘wholesome advice has been completely defeated by the obstreperous conduct of one of his sons’. This impatient younger son sees little purpose in preserving the hierarchy and authoritarianism that characterize relationships among the inhabitants of Bull's estate and threatens to lead ‘the poorest of his father's tenants’ in revolt: ‘No sooner does he hear any of his brothers mention reform or retrenchment, than he jumps up, takes the words out of their mouths, and roars out for an overturn.’ Irving emphasizes the democratic or ‘leveller’ inclinations of the disobedient son by noting that he will not be satisfied until ‘the whole family mansion shall be leveled with the ground, and a plain one of brick and mortar built in its place’ (388). At this point Bull's story appears likely to be little more than a mournful recapitulation of Cockloft's. However its conclusion does not bear out such an assumption. Instead the older son sides with his father, helps preserve his rule and forestalls revolt ‘against paternal authority’.
The story of Bull's relationship to his sons suggests an impending lower-class overthrow of upper-class paternalism much like that which American conservatives perceived in the rise of Jeffersonian democracy. However in this case the story concludes with the promise of reconciliation. The eldest son, though in favor of change, nonetheless seeks to preserve his patrimony and mitigate any outright destruction of paternal authority. As with Freud's account of the totem meal, Irving's story describes an attempt to balance the desire to assert independence from paternal authority with the desire to preserve that authority for the benefit of the sons. The ideal result, the story suggests, should be a ‘wholesome’ reformism or balance of the old and new.
Typically, Irving illustrates his conception of the proper manner in which to reform national character in terms of Bull's home and the tastes that it reflects:
John had frequently been advised to have the old edifice thoroughly overhauled, and to have some of the useless parts pulled down, and the others strengthened with their materials; but the old gentleman always grows testy on this subject. … If you point out any part of the building as superfluous, he insists that it is material to the strength or decoration of the rest, and the harmony of the whole, and swears, that the parts are so built into each other, that if you pull down one, you run the risk of having the whole about your ears.
Again, like Burke, Irving subscribed to the belief that, compared to the simplicity of mere reaction or revolution, ‘At once to preserve and reform is quite another thing’ (Burke 80). Accordingly, Irving's architectural metaphor represents English nostalgia as an effective means supporting and preserving conservative interests. Bull's home represents the desired result of a communal narrative requiring that the old remain a vital part of the present and that the new not be added at the expense of those long-established interests ‘built into’ the extant order. Bull's home is thus an image of a patrilineal narrative that promises to confer power and authority (patrimony) upon those who seek at once to reform and to preserve its values rather than depose them through revolution. However, unlike England, the United States had no long-standing conservative social and political institutions to serve as foundations for a reformist narrative of this sort. As Irving's earlier effort to evoke nostalgia in Salmagundi indicates, any attempt to ask Americans to recall a desire for a ‘traditional’ social and political order they never had is ridiculous. Cockloft Hall is an illusory image of a past and a patrimony that American conservatives had merely wished for. It is not, however, ridiculous for Irving to offer his American readers a patrilineal cultural narrative featuring the ‘traditional’ values he would have them use to ‘embellish’ their liberal-democratic reality. In this case, it becomes entirely reasonable to suggest that Americans reform their liberal-democratic excesses in a manner consistent with the cultural patrimony represented by Bull and other figures drawn from English letters. It is in this case the ‘traditional’ sensibility exemplified by models of English private life that constitutes the substance of nostalgic desire. Consequently, the nostalgia and nationalism that Irving offers his American readers is more thoroughly virtual or cultural than that which he ascribes to the English, and the genteel reformism he promotes among Americans thus proceeds from the private realm of sensibility to the public realm via literature.
Irving offers a more personal example of how sensibility itself may constitute a basis for nationalism in his account of Geoffrey Crayon's literary pilgrimage to Stratford-on-Avon. Crayon, though an American, participates in English national community through the associations he has acquired from reading English books, particularly his tourist guide, the ‘Stratford Guide Book,’ and Shakespeare's plays.7 Crayon announces that ‘Indeed the whole country about here is poetic ground: every thing is associated with the idea of Shakespeare’ (329). Irving represents the power of textual associations in the way that Crayon participates in English sensibility through his reading. Crayon exclaims at one point that ‘My mind had become so completely possessed by the imaginary scenes and characters connected with [Stratford-on-Avon], that I seemed to be actually living among them.’ Shakespeare, he goes on to note, ‘is indeed the true enchanter, whose spell operates not upon the senses, but upon the imagination and the heart’ (339). Despite his recognition that his participation in English society is merely a matter of textually propagated associations of questionable historical validity, he still defends the value of his experience: ‘What is it to us whether these stories be true or false, so long as we can persuade ourselves into the belief of them, and enjoy all the charm of the reality?’ (320). Unlike in Salmagundi, where Cockloft's sensibility constituted a barrier between the individual and community, the sensibility illustrated by Crayon reflects an understanding that a textually regulated sensibility provides a crucial means to link the individual to the larger community of those with similarly organized tastes.8
‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ exemplifies how Irving applied these lessons of English nationalism to the United States. Narrated in the persona of the ‘sentimental historian’ Diedrich Knickerbocker, the story elaborates representations of prerevolutionary domestic life from vague hints of the Dutch colonial period in New York. As a little-studied group with few controversial historical or political associations, the Dutch offered Irving a relatively neutral set of figures upon which to inscribe the narrative and associations appropriate to a genteel nationalism. As might be expected, the narrative he uses is that of a contest between conservatism and progressivism. The Dutch are associated with the historical legitimacy that Irving ascribes to those who demonstrate a tasteful respect for paternalism, tradition and social hierarchy characteristic of members of the community of genteel sensibility. Their opponent, Ichabod Crane, the Yankee incarnation of modern America, exhibits the individualistic desires for economic gain and social mobility typically associated with liberal-democratic progressivism.9
‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ satirizes these desires by subjecting Crane to Sleepy Hollow, an environment governed by the influence of the past.
From the listless repose of the place, and the peculiar character of its inhabitants, who are descendants from the original Dutch settlers, this sequestered glen has long been known by the name of Sleepy Hollow, and its rustic lads are called the Sleepy Hollow Boys throughout all the neighbouring country. A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere.
(Sketch Book 417)
Unlike liberal-democratic society, with its fixation upon the future and social mobility, the Dutch village retains its conservative character in the midst of flux:
it is in such little retired Dutch valleys … that population, manners, and customs remained fixed, while the great torrent of migration and improvement, which is making such incessant changes in other parts of this restless country, sweeps them by unobserved.
Sleepy Hollow thus represents a nostalgic sensibility that shelters conservative values that no longer find acceptance in the liberal-democratic public sphere. There, ensconced in the privacy of the domestic scene and individual sensibility, they maintain their influence as matters of taste. In effect Irving's story represents a ritual space which permits the members of his audience to exorcize their unmitigated liberal-democratic progressivism through a literary act of sentimental bonding that affirms the paternal authority over the private sphere of a conservative sensibility ostensibly recovered from the past.
The story of Ichabod Crane's invasion of Sleepy Hollow centers upon his desire to marry Katrina Van Tassel and sell the land that forms her dowry to realize an investment scheme: Crane's ‘heart yearned after the damsel who was to inherit these domains, and his imagination expanded with the idea, how they might be readily turned into cash, and the money invested in immense tracts of wild land, and shingle palaces in the wilderness’ (428). Whereas the value of Katrina and her land to the villagers derives from their role as necessary means to reproduce their patriarchal family and communal values, their value to Crane is primarily economic. Consequently Crane's rival, the village hero, Brom, must defend the integrity of the village by asserting his claim (and that of the village) to Katrina and her land.
This confrontation between nostalgic and progressive modes of national ideology comes to a climax in the encounter between Brom (disguised as the Headless Horseman) and Crane. There the integrity of conservatism reasserts itself by subjecting the liberal-democratic desires that fire Crane's economic dreams to the conservative sensibility that they threaten. Ultimately, Crane's inability to understand Sleepy Hollow's legends as a virtual basis of the villagers' society causes his downfall. His literal belief in their ‘marvellous’ ghost stories and ‘Mather's direful tales’ provides them with a means to turn against him the sensibility that he represses.
Ironically, ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ is a gothic ritual of exorcism in which the quotidian Crane represents the evil spirit and the Headless Horseman the figure of communal integrity. Thus the communal sensibility that Crane represses and threatens returns to haunt him and nearly trample underfoot the liberal ideology he represents:
Ichabod cast a look behind him. … Just then he saw the goblin rising in his stirrups, and in the very act of hurling his head at him. Ichabod endeavoured to dodge the horrible missile, but … he was tumbled headlong into the dust, and … the goblin rider, passed like a whirlwind.
Exiled from the community of genteel sensibility, Crane finds a more congenial home in the institutions of liberal-democratic public life. We are told that he
had changed his quarters to a distant part of the country; had kept school and studied law at the same time; had been admitted to the bar, turned politician, electioneered, written for newspapers, and finally had been made Justice.
This conclusion, however, may suggest an escapist fantasy isolating conservative sensibility from a liberal democracy that continues to gain power in the public institutions of the nation, as Crane's subsequent career indicates. But insofar as sensibility replaces such institutional bases of national character (educational, legal and political and the publishing system that supports them), their loss is not so great a blow to conservatism. As the conclusion suggests, Irving is willing to cede these institutions to democrats in return for control of sentimental literature (the ‘public mind’) that regulates the sensibility of American readers.
Although genteel nationalism may appear to be the consolation prize for America's social and political losers, in reality it is a cultural institution of great importance. Irving realized that being a modern American did not require participation in specific social or political institutions. What it did require was participation in a desire organized by a textually propagated sensibility whose tastes and manners constituted the substance of the national character. In The Sketch Book Irving defined the genteel aspect of the great imaginary national family that has served for nearly two centuries as the United States' principal cultural mechanism of ideological regulation. He was first among American writers to articulate clearly the narrative and associative strategies by which a culturally defined character (sensibility) might mediate the social and political conflicts of a progressive nation. He was first, in other words, clearly to articulate for Americans how the reading of domestic literature constitutes a socio-aesthetic ritual that fuses elitist and populist, liberal and conservative elements into an enduring basis for national community. However, it is also this same cultural ritual, with its emphasis on genealogy, patrimony and paternal authority, that has promoted and legitimized the white, male and anti-democratic character of American nationalism. In this context, Irving's abandonment of the myth of the republic for the genteel American Dream sets the terms for the subsequent development of the anglocentric and patriarchal culture that continues to exercise a considerable, if not dominant, authority over the representation of American national character in academe and the popular media. And, as the current multicultural trend and conservative reaction to it indicate, we have only recently begun to recognize the extent to which genteel nationalism has contributed to the oppressive exclusions and divisions that characterize class, gender and race relationships in the United States.
In Salmagundi Irving failed to recognize that the United States was becoming a virtual nation founded upon the printed page and that social and political institutions no longer constituted the principal means of regulating its self-image. Not until the publication of The Sketch Book does he finally employ a textually propagated desire for familial representations as a public means to exercise cultural authority over the private sphere. Kaja Silverman discusses this linkage of desire to representation as the ‘suture’ or ideological bonding ‘inherent in all the operations that constitute narrativity’ (236). She goes on to note in reference to the work of Lacan and Jacques-Alain Miller that ‘Suture can be understood as the process whereby the inadequacy of the subject's position is exposed in order to facilitate (i.e. create the desire for) new insertions into a cultural discourse which promises to make good that lack’ (231). Similarly, Irving's nostalgia elicits a sense of lack that it subsequently fulfills.
As Isaac Kramnick notes, Jeffersonian America witnessed the ascendancy of the ‘new liberal ideal’ of ‘a society of achievement, a social order of competitive individualism, in which social mobility was possible and the rightful reward for ingenious people of talent and hard work’ (4). Although conservatives accepted the ‘improvement’ of certain individuals of ‘merit’ within a given social order, they condemned the self-interest of competitive individualism as antithetical to the character of a republic. From their perspective, social hierarchy constituted the raison d'être of American republicanism and the essence of the public good.
Irving's use of literature as a mode of community is a variation on Benedict Anderson's account of how newspapers helped create nationalism. In Imagined Communities Anderson observes of newspaper reading that
the significance of this mass ceremony—Hegel observed that newspapers serve modern man as a substitute for morning prayers—is paradoxical. It is performed in silent privacy, in the lair of the skull. Yet each communicant is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion. Furthermore this ceremony is incessantly repeated at daily or half-daily intervals throughout the calendar. What more vivid figure for the secular, historically-clocked, imagined community can be envisioned … ? [This] remarkable confidence of community in anonymity … is the hallmark of modern nationalism.
It is precisely the synchronization and regulation that Anderson ascribes to reading newspapers that Irving employs in his attempt to reassert conservative authority by means of sentimental culture. Although The Sketch Book does not qualify as a mass media production on the scale of newspapers, it nonetheless represented a prototype of popular prose fiction insofar as it was aimed at an inclusive audience and written in a sentimental style. Nonetheless Michael Gilmore notes in The Columbia History of the American Novel that the 5000 copies it sold made it a best-seller in its day (Elliot 58). He also comments that The Last of the Mohicans ‘qualified as a best-seller in 1826 with 5750 copies in circulation’ (54). See Jay Fliegelman's definitive study of metaphors of paternal authority in popular American publications of the late eighteenth century.
In a passage comparing the bourgeois individual to more traditional Anglo-American conceptions of the publicly active political subject, J. G. A. Pocock states that the bourgeois individual lived in an ‘increasingly transactional universe of “commerce and the arts”’ in which ‘he was more than compensated for his loss of antique virtue by an indefinite and perhaps infinite enrichment of his personality, the product of multiplying relationships, with both things and persons, in which he became progressively involved. Since these new relationships were social and not political in character the capacities that they led the individual to develop were called not “virtues” but “manners”’ (49). It is my contention that one of the most important manifestations of these manners is taste, which makes possible an affiliation to a class and, ultimately, a national community on the basis of sensibility.
Stanley T. Williams discusses Irving's life in England and Europe at great length in the first of his two-volume biography, The Life of Washington Irving. Irving's main residence from 1815 to 1832 was in England. Scott exercised an important influence upon him there prior to the publication of The Sketch Book. Both shared an enthusiasm for Edmund Burke's conservative reformism.
Irving's collaborator in Salmagundi, James Kirke Paulding, had entered into combat with the English in his 1812 satire The Diverting History of John Bull and Brother Jonathan (see Reynolds, James Kirke Paulding, 40-54). Works such as his contributed to the ‘Paper War’ between America and England that Irving hoped to dispel. This journalistic feud fueled considerable anger and insecurity among Americans regarding the historical legitimacy of their national character. Many, conservative and democrat alike, responded to English insults by arguing that the legitimacy of American character resulted from its radical newness and independence from the corrupt character of Europeans. Noah Webster takes this position in his American Magazine (1788) when he advises his readers to ‘Unshackle your minds and act like independent beings. You have been children long enough, subject to the control and subservient to the interest of a haughty parent. You now have an interest of your own to augment and defend—and a national character to establish and extend by your wisdom and judgment’ (Kohn 57). Nearly three decades later in 1815 periodical publisher Hezekiah Niles takes a similar stand when he declares that Americans have ‘a National Character’ whose virtues ‘need no guarantee from the bloodstained and profligate princes and powers of Europe’ (Kohn 59).
In The Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1700) Locke notes that it is the unconscious and habitual character of associationism that distinguishes it from rationally directed thought (with which he claimed it interfered):
there is another connexion of ideas wholly owing to chance or custom: Ideas that in themselves are not at all of kin, come to be so united in some men's minds, that it is very hard to separate them; they always keep company, and the one no sooner at any time comes into the understanding, but its associate appears with it.
However, by the time Irving published The Sketch Book popular aesthetic works had established associationism as more than an impediment to clear rational thought. They had demonstrated that associations, when propagated and controlled by art, could be made to contribute significantly to the production of consensus and cohesion in modern society. Aesthetician Archibald Alison may be counted among the foremost proponents of the belief that associationism provides a basis for national community of sensibility or taste. For example in 1790 he noted associationism's contribution to national sensibility and sentiment in his remarks on music:
There are other tunes of the same character, which, without any particular merit, yet always serve to please the people, whenever they are performed. The natives of any country, which possesses a national or characteristic music, need not be reminded, how strongly the performance of such airs brings back to them the imagery of their native land; and must often have had occasion to remark how inferior an emotion they excite in those who are strangers to such associations.
In addition Alison notes how the sentiments associated with given cultural productions link the individual to that sense of cultural and communal genealogy essential to nationalism:
There is no man in the least acquainted with the history of antiquity, who does not love to let his imagination loose on the prospect of its remains, and to whom they are not in some measure sacred, from the innumerable images they bring. Even the peasant, whose knowledge of former times extends but to a few generations, has yet in his village some monument of the deeds or virtues of his forefathers; and cherishes with a fond veneration the memorial of those good old times to which his imagination returns with delight, and of which he loves to recount the simple tales that tradition has brought him.
So too modern literary culture creates the ‘traditional’ tales that link its readers to a past and make the ‘virtues’ of the forefathers the cultural patrimony of the modern nation.
In Adrift in the Old World Jeffrey Rubin-Dorsky argues that
Irving was preoccupied with the loss of the nation-as-home, a loss that was not yet viewed as permanent. Following Irving to Europe … Americans sought along with him not only a release from the oppressive realities of a materialist culture but, as well, a source of continuity to replace the one that was fast becoming historically obsolete.
He concludes that ‘Irving's fictional world’ was ‘a substitute for the political order of George Washington's republican vision’ (xviii-xix). Although I agree that Irving's vision of patriarchal domesticity indeed served as a substitute for a lost Federalist order, I do not see it as a ‘release’ or escape from the problems of liberal democratic society. In fact Irving's nostalgic vision employs the press in a positive manner that contests liberal-democratic progressivism and makes of sentimental literature a basis for a more conservative American society. It is in this sense that Irving indeed uses literature to create a sense of continuity and construct the nation-as-home on the pages of The Sketch Book.
Rubin-Dorsky asserts that the patriarchal ruler of the English country home, the squire or yeoman farmer, represents
the principal stabilizing force in his society, with no aristocratic yearnings, liberal, sensible, and, above all, virtuous, [he] is Irving's English version of the yeoman farmer championed by Thomas Jefferson and reclaimed by Andrew Jackson as the source and strength of an American agrarian republic.
Although he observes that, ‘like these agrarian idealists, [Irving] believed that virtue resided in the country’ (147), he recognizes that such a vision was ‘anachronistic’ in Irving's time and fashioned to appeal ‘to a nation uneasy with its own progress and changing self-image’ (146). In effect Irving ‘retreated’ from liberal-democratic reality ‘to his imagination’ where he created from elements of the English and American past the agrarian home he desired. Whereas Rubin-Dorsky locates the main tension in Irving's work between Jeffersonian agrarianism and an ascendant liberalism, I argue that that tension resides mainly between liberal-democratic progressivism and conservatism. Although Irving had abandoned the Federalist persuasion as a viable social and political ideology for modern America, he only did so in order to revive it in a conservative sensibility, not in order to celebrate the egalitarian idyll of Jeffersonian agrarianism.
Alison, Archibald, Essay on the Nature and Principles of Taste, Edinburgh, 1790: repr. Hildesheim, Germany: Georg Olms Verslagbuchhandlung, 1968.
Ames, Fisher, Works of Fisher Ames, Boston: T. B. Wait, 1809.
Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities, London: Verso, 1983.
Burke, Edmund, Reflections of the Revolution in France, New York: Penguin, 1969.
Elliot, Emory (ed.), The Columbia History of the American Novel, New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.
Fliegelman, Jay, Prodigals and Pilgrims: the American Revolution Against Patriarchal Authority, 1750-1800, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
Irving, Washington, Salmagundi in The Complete Works of Washington Irving, vol. 6, Boston: Twayne, 1977.
———, The Sketch Book, New York: G. P. Putnam, 1859.
Kallich, Martin, The Association of Ideas and Critical Theory in Eighteenth-Century England, The Hague: Mouton, 1970.
Kohn, Hans, American Nationalism, New York: Collier Books, 1961.
Kramnick, Isaac, Republicanism and Bourgeois Radicalism, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990.
Pocock, J. G. A., Virtue, Commerce and History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Reynolds, Larry, James Kirke Paulding, Boston: Twayne, 1984.
Rubin-Dorsky, Jeffrey, Adrift in the Old World, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1988.
Silverman, Kaja, The Subject of Semiotics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.
Sundquist, Eric, Home as Found, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.
Warner, Michael, The Letters of the Republic, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.
Williams, Stanley T., The Life of Washington Irving, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1935.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2549
SOURCE: “Henpecked to Heroism: Placing Rip Van Winkle and Francis Macomber in the American Renegade Tradition,” Hemingway Review, Vol. 17, No. 2, Spring, 1998, pp. 111-17.
[In the following essay, Catalano compares “Rip Van Winkle” to Hemingway's “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” arguing that both protagonists share a transformation against the powers of female authority.]
As American citizens, both Washington Irving and Ernest Hemingway were aware of the “renegade spirit” distinguishing American culture from its confining European influences. As American artists, both authors were no less benefactors of this unique tradition than shapers of its modern form. Hemingway is especially known for extending the American renegade spirit beyond our borders to include safari hunters, matadors, and soldiers, yet undeniably “[Hemingway] is at home, too, with the Rip Van Winkle archetype, with … traditional evasions of domesticity and civil life” (Fiedler 305). Because “traditional” also constitutes “conventional,” these “traditional evasions” may help explain how such “henpecked heroes” as Rip Van Winkle in Irving's “Rip Van Winkle” and Francis Macomber in Hemingway's “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” manage to compel sympathy and survive this national iconoclastic tradition.
Even “reluctant renegades” must first confront the emasculating effects of spousal tyranny. Rip is rendered impotent as a provider; Francis is unable to satisfy his wife sexually and ultimately cuckolded. Because “Margot was too beautiful for Macomber to divorce her and Macomber had too much money for Margot ever to leave him” (CSS 18), Margot abates her disgust for Francis by kissing their safari guide Wilson full in the mouth. She later shares Wilson's double cot in what K. G. Johnston calls “her tribute to a man of courage” (46) in predictable allegiance to the American renegade tradition, and consistent with what Wilson names her “American female cruelty” (emphasis mine, CSS 9). All Francis holds is a healthy bankroll. He has achieved the masculine merit-badge of “provider,” but lacks the confidence to wield this influence over his wife.
However, where Francis falters Rip proves himself, and vice versa. Rip has given his wife children; his lack of financial resolve is the issue. Rip's emasculation therefore takes the reverse form of Francis's, and because it is much more difficult for Dame Van Winkle to take financial revenge on Rip than for Margot to take sexual revenge on Francis, Rip's humiliation is limited to interminable tongue-lashings. Still, Rip is not lazy: he simply has an “insuperable aversion to all kinds of profitable labour,” helping neighbors “in the roughest toil” and performing for other women “such little odd jobs as their less obliging husbands would not do for them” (emphasis mine, Irving 40). Oddly, Rip takes pleasure in helping his neighbors but simply doesn't want to toil for his family. While some may read this noncompliance as marital retaliation, I would suggest that Rip confirms his emasculation through an infantile rejection of responsibility.
Appropriately, Rip and Francis ultimately assert their masculinity through the hunt—the paradigm of masculine control. Rip finds virility in his shotgun's command over life and death. Hunting seemingly elevates him above his wife's reproach: “[Rip's] only alternative to escape from the labour of the farm and the clamour of his wife, was to take gun in hand, and stroll away into the woods … [where] the still solitudes echoed and re-echoed with the reports of his gun” (42-3). While this “ability to dominate one's personal universe is what Rip had been seeking all along” (Plung 79), Rip's continual avoidance of his masculine responsibility leaves Dame Van Winkle little choice but to dominate the world outside Rip's “personal universe.” In daily life, a mere archetypal hunt cannot achieve the heroic boon of success. Leslie Fiedler calls this “the American inversion of the traditional Yin-Yang symbols, an odd conversion of the male into a symbol of nature and the female into that of organized society” (335). Still, the success of such an inversion in the new American renegade tradition may be foretold by Rip's “shotgun,” which only winds up rusted.
Links between the hunt and masculine potency abound throughout Hemingway's work, and Francis seeks remasculation through a safari he hopes will win him Wilson's respect and possibly a sexual “tribute” from Margot. Michelle Scalise Sugiyama explains that “the more successful a man is as a hunter, the more mates and offspring he is able to invest in” (20), so Francis's sexual prosperity is tied to this primal equation. Wilson's reply—“I have your big gun” (16)—is meant both literally and figuratively, as is his reaction to Francis's cowardice: “[He] suddenly felt as though he had opened the wrong door in a hotel and seen something shameful” (15). The seeming “nakedness” of Francis's fear emphasizes the cleft between his own sexual prowess and that of Wilson as the “experienced hunter,” as does Wilson's professional discretion: when Francis asks if anyone will find out about his “misfire,” Wilson responds, “No … I'm a professional hunter. We never talk about our clients. … It's supposed to be bad form to ask us not to talk though” (8). Lacking “good form” as well as other “essential knowledge” (Seydow 37), Francis snivels, “‘I'm sorry,’ … and looked at [Wilson] with his American face that would stay adolescent until it became middle-aged … ‘I'm sorry I didn't realize that. There are lots of things I don't know’” (emphasis mine, CSS 8). Having a “face that would stay adolescent until it became middle-aged” (and having learned only “about sex in books … too many books” ) implies that Francis has missed his sexual peak, the height of his masculine powers, and possibly explains how Margot acquired such decisive marital control. In Hemingway's terms, “bagging a lion” or buffalo is analogous to “bagging” a woman, so Francis must “lose his virginity” through the hunt to achieve even a qualified heroism.
Notably, both characters' transitions into American anti-heroism, while precipitated by the hunt, actually occur through a transgression of time. Both men temporarily exist in an accelerated state. For Rip, twenty years pass like an afternoon nap, although there are indications that his “dream” exceeds mere mental transportation: “Rip now felt a vague apprehension stealing over him. … He paused for an instant … there was something strange and incomprehensible about the unknown that inspired awe and checked familiarity” (43-4). David J. Kann calls this Rip's “little death” because of the vast change it effects on Rip's identity, and reiterates the necessity to “deal with the story as an abstraction rather than embedded in the linear movement of time” (194). While a “flock of idle crows … seemed to look down and scoff at the poor man's perplexities,” “secure in their elevation” as part of the natural world that remains constant through time, Rip's village “was altered” by contrast: “Strange names were over the doors—strange faces at the windows—everything was strange. His mind now misgave him; he now began to doubt whether both he and the world around him were not bewitched” (46-7). Rip's identity is remade through time's effect on his village. Logically, then, Rip feels initially displaced once he is replaced into his usual rate of time.
Francis Macomber also achieves anti-heroism through temporal expediency. His “short, happy life” is a matter of minutes: at the peak of his buffalo hunt, Margot shoots her husband “about two inches up and a little to one side of the base of his skull” (28). Francis forgoes Rip's twenty-year transition and changes instantaneously from a “bloody coward” to a “ruddy fire-eater.” Adhering to the Hemingway sex/hunt analogy, Wilson calls this “More of a change than any loss of virginity” (26). According to S. P. Jain, Francis's transformation is possible because “utter absorption in his insufferable situation naturally suspends ‘the functioning of [his] imagination’ (which, according to Hemingway, is the root-cause of all fear) and throws him ‘completely in the very second of the present minute with no before and no after’” (129).
Francis describes a feeling “like a dam bursting” inside of himself, but the “wild, unreasonable happiness” that follows foreshadows his untimely end (emphasis mine, CSS 25). This speedy change disturbs Margot: “‘You've gotten awfully brave, awfully suddenly,’ his wife said contemptuously, but her contempt was not secure. She was very afraid of something. Macomber laughed, a very natural hearty laugh, ‘You know I have,’ he said. ‘I really have’” (26). Because Margot can't thwart the transformation Jain calls “impregnated with a sense of inexorability” (129), she exercises the last control she retains over Francis, stopping him literally dead in his tracks.
Francis has his moment, and that is all the time he gets. But for Hemingway, this is all the time Francis needs to have lived happily—the story is, after all, not called “The Short Happy Day,” “Hour,” or “Moment” of Francis Macomber. Francis's achievement of true happiness, however brief, warrants Hemingway's choice of the word “Life.” So Francis, too, achieves anti-heroism through his limited mastery over time.
As “henpecked heroes,” Rip and Francis experience marital deliverance to achieve anti-heroism. While some might argue that Margot won the war of the Macombers with the help of her. 65mm Mannlicher (pronounced “manlicker”), the fact that such extremes were necessary to control Francis proves his victory. As Nina Baym explains, “whatever she does, Margot is as ‘buffaloed’ as the buffalo,” exercising a mere “illusion of power” which “rather than freeing her deliver[s] her from the power of one man to the power of another” (119). While Margot's infidelity and manslaughter only puts her at Wilson's disposal instead of Francis's, Francis's transformation makes him wholly independent. Wilson recognizes the signs of Margot's defeat: “she saw the change in Francis Macomber now. … She's worried about it already, he thought” (26), and becomes convinced of the change himself: “It had taken a strange chance of hunting, a sudden precipitation into action without opportunity for worrying beforehand, to bring this about with Macomber, but regardless of how it happened it had most certainly happened. Look at the beggar now. … Be a damn fire eater now” (25-6).
Francis's newfound happiness and emancipation, not his death, are meant to be the story's climax. His death, and especially the unresolved critical question of Margot's intention, is immaterial because Francis has heroically transcended his emasculating fear. Francis becomes an unequivocal hero, and Margot is purposely left to the reader's judgement. Joseph DeFalco recognizes that Francis “has severed the maternal-wife bond and achieved freedom from domination. The final shooting is anticlimactic, for it represents the woman's inability to recognize the freedom of the husband-son figure” (206). Wilson, too, notes this inability on Margot's part: “‘That was a pretty thing to do,’ he said in a toneless voice. ‘He would have left you too. … Why didn't you just poison him?’” (28). Even after doling out the ultimate penalty for transgression, Margot cannot dilute Francis' fulfillment of a “short, happy life.”
Conversely, Rip survives his wife to become the undisputed victor of the war of the Van Winkles, so his anti-heroism differs as something that happens to him as a result of fortunate circumstances, rather than within him as a result of directly confronting his fears. Whereas Francis consciously feels the rush of his instantaneous transformation “like a dam bursting” (25), Rip is initially confused by his change: “He doubted his own identity, and whether he was himself or another man” (50). Although this problematizes our giving Rip credit for his transformation, the fact of his change remains.
When he emerges from his twenty-year nap having conquered the progression of time, Rip is no longer a henpecked loafer but an emancipated widower and ultimately, the village patriarch. Fittingly, Rip learns that Dame Van Winkle has precipitated her own demise by “[breaking] a blood vessel in a fit of passion at a New-England peddler” (51). Both justice and time are on his side. Rip feels unambiguously pleased about his new marital status and becomes the envy of the townsmen: “it is a common wish of all henpecked husbands in the neighborhood, when life hangs heavy on their hands, that they might have a quieting draft out of Rip Van Winkle's flagon” (53).
Rip's happiness differs from Francis's in being bound up with community: “In [Rip's] case context—chiefly the absence of critical viewpoints such as those of Dame Van Winkle—and the power of a past for a present that can perceive its relevance create the conditions for social happiness” (Shear 547). Rip's “social happiness” and patriarchal position are assured when Peter Vanderdonk, “a descendant of the historian of that name” who “was the most ancient inhabitant of the village, and well versed in all the wonderful events and traditions of the neighborhood,” sanctions Rip's story about his time spent in the Kaatskills and “assured the company that it was a fact” (51-2). Thus, Vanderdonk validates Rip's place as American anti-hero.
Rip can now assume his “privileged rebirth into the ‘storyteller’” (Rubin-Dorsky 399), reversing his patronage of those pseudo-pundits who had inhabited the inn. In fact, Rip finds his former cronies “all rather the worse for the wear and tear of time” and “preferred making friends among the rising generation, with whom he soon grew into great favour” (52). Still, Rip's newfound happiness is no less a product of his marital release than it is of his “being arrived at that happy age when a man can be idle with impunity” (52), so a twenty-year nap proves key to Rip's anti-heroic contentment.
Even modern veterans of the American literary tradition cannot dismiss Francis Macomber and Rip Van Winkle as casualties of the American renegade spirit that founded it. In spite of ourselves, we root for them. Both the hen and the henpecked can relate to their oppression. Everyone has at least felt the weight of parental control as children; hence the sympathy that Rip and Francis compel. Nevertheless, what constitutes “universal” also constitutes “ordinary,” and the extraordinary step that Rip and Francis take to transcend their typical troubles makes them anti-heroes. In this sense, Washington Irving and Ernest Hemingway's “henpecked heroes” remain distinctly American despite their lack of adherence to the renegade spirit underlying our cultural and literary tradition.
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