Washington Irving

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Washington Irving (1783 - 1859)

(Also wrote under the pseudonyms Fray Antonio Agapida, Geoffrey Crayon, Diedrich Knickerbocker, Launcelot Langstaff, and Jonathan Oldstyle) American short story writer, essayist, historian, journalist, and biographer.

Irving is considered both the first American man of letters and the creator of the American short story. Although best known for such tales of rural Americana as "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (both published in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., 1819–20), Irving later became a prolific and accomplished biographer as well as a distinguished statesman. He explored a number of literary styles and genres in his writings, with many of his best-known stories incorporating elements of Gothic literature. Such works, many of which were written in a humorous, lighthearted tone, reveal the author's interest in mystery, horror, and the supernatural.


Born in New York in 1783, Irving was the youngest of eleven children. Although 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 MorningChronicle. 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. 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 Whimwhams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq., and Others (1807–8), 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 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 from that time on his works reflected a more serious tone. In an effort to ease 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 revised in Irving's meticulous manner, eventually became The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Irving's most enduring work, the collection—which includes the stories "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"—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 he 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...

(This entire section contains 1630 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

travels in the West were fodder for several of his subsequent books, includingThe Crayon Miscellany (1835), A Tour on the Prairies (1835), Astoria; or, Anecdotes of an Enterprise beyond the Rocky Mountains (1836), and The Rocky Mountains; or, Scenes, Incidents, and Adventures in the Far West (1837). In 1842 Irving became minister to Spain. Although 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 assessed as 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 a beloved author.


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. A History of New York has been considered Irving's most consistently optimistic work, in which he expounds 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. 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.

After the appearance of The Sketch Book, Irving wrote steadily, capitalizing on his international success with two subsequent collections of tales and sketches that also appeared under the name Geoffrey Crayon. Bracebridge Hall; or, The Humorists: A Medley (1822) centers loosely on a fictitious English clan that Irving had introduced in several of the Sketch Book pieces. Bracebridge Hall further describes their manners, customs, and habits, and interjects several unrelated short stories, including "The Student from Salamanca" and "The Stout Gentleman." Tales of a Traveller (1824) consists entirely of short stories arranged in four categories: European stories, tales of London literary life, accounts of Italian bandits, and narrations by Irving's alter-ego, Diedrich Knickerbocker. The most enduring of these, according to many critics, are "The Adventure of the German Student," which some consider a significant early example of American Gothic and supernatural fiction, and "The Devil and Tom Walker," a Yankee tale that like "Rip Van Winkle" draws upon myth and legend for characters and incident.

Irving's later career is marked by his shift toward biography writing. While traveling through Europe in the 1820s, Irving was asked to translate some documents relating to 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 become part of popular culture.

Many of Irving's stories, particularly "The Adventure of the German Student," have received attention for their unique handling of the supernatural and the Gothic. At the time Irving began working on his earliest—and best known—tales, the popularity of Gothic literature had begun to wane. In recognition of the genre's declining appeal, Irving opted for a fresh approach, employing Gothic conventions in nontraditional ways. For example, a number of his stories feature supernatural or macabre happenings, but such events are presented in a comical, lighthearted way—a technique described by some critics as "sportive" Gothic. Michael Davitt Bell has suggested that Irving's influence on the American Gothic tradition is undervalued in part because of his humorous and sometimes satiric tone. While some critics may dismiss his impact as minimal, John Clendenning has asserted that Irving's works "anticipated the advanced gothic fiction of [Edgar Allan] Poe and [Nathaniel] Hawthorne."

John Clendenning (Essay Date 1964)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Clendenning, John. "Irving and the Gothic Tradition." Bucknell Review 12, no. 2 (1964): 90-8.

In the following essay, Clendenning assesses Irving's works within the context of a developing American Gothic tradition.

Although we may scoff at the thrills, tricks, and flights of gothic fiction, its durable influence cannot be ignored. How this popular genre, despite its medieval twaddle and its supernatural bombast, was appropriated by our most serious writers remains an enigma, though some critics have argued convincingly that the genre was, in some ways, serious from the outset. Whatever the case, everyone will agree that the gothic element which survived in the novels of Henry James was distinctly different from the heavy machinery of The Monk. To identify this difference, let me risk a generalization: James learned to subjectify all that Lewis had to objectify; in James unvarnished horror may occur in full sunlight, whereas the grimness of The Monk exists only behind the abbey's closed door. The gothicists' traditional "machinery" was necessarily tangible, because it produced a terror which always fascinated them. But when Isabel Archer Osmond sits before her fireplace, her anguish produces the images which are identifiably gothic in origin. She sees herself in "a dark, narrow alley with a dead wall at the end"; she is locked behind a closed door; she is "draped … in pictured tapestries … shut up with an odor of mould and decay." Lewis was admittedly an interesting psychologist, having accurately described phenomena which today we call suppres-sion, sublimation, projection, and so forth, and yet he could not treat human motivation without a chiller-thriller cause. On the other hand, we admire James because he preserved the gothicists' imagery but treated it as a psychic result, not the factual cause of terror. It was a major accomplishment of the modern novelist to have seen the images of the gothic world as distorted perceptions of reality.

Washington Irving was about half-way between modern fiction and the cult of Mrs. Radcliffe. When he began producing his major works—The Sketch Book (1819–20), Bracebridge Hall (1822), and Tales of a Traveller (1824)—the popularity of gothic novels was falling apart, and a period of reaction, represented chiefly by Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey (1818), was under way. That Irving probably sensed this decline of gothicism and the dangers of aping its style is indicated by these remarks to his brother in 1823:

There are such quantities of the legendary and romantic tales now littering from the presses, both in England and in Germany, that one must take care not to fall into the commonplace of the day. Scott's manner must likewise be avoided. In short, I must strike out some way of my own, suited to my own way of thinking and writing.1

Instead, therefore, of continuing an exhausted tradition, Irving hoped to find some original use for gothic material. To be sure, he did not always succeed, but at his best he became a skillful parodist and a highly suggestive psychologist.

When Irving failed, and his failures were frequent, he merely imitated the "littering" sensationalism at its worst. "The Story of the Young Robber," a sentimental bandit tale commonly associated with gothic fiction, will serve as an example. Here we have the inane plot of a young Italian who falls madly in love with a girl, appropriately named Rosetta, but has his hopes spoiled when he learns that the girl's father has arranged a more lucrative marriage. Unable to control his rage, the young man murders his rival and joins a band of robbers, who eventually kidnap Rosetta and attempt to sell her back for ransom. Unfortunately, the father rather curiously decides that, since the robbers have probably raped his daughter, she may as well be left to die. And die she must. But hoping to make her death painless, the young bandit volunteers to murder her himself, an act which is described with the cheap sentiment typical of the whole tale: "So perished this unfortunate." Everything is false—the bizarre actions, the feigned passions, the histrionic prose. The story exists on the most superficial of surfaces. Never do we enter the world of motives; never is the description a sign of the unwilling killer's agony.

But as innovator of the so-called "sportive" gothic, Irving was a master. Although the term "sportive" is too vague, it is generally assumed to describe a tale which employs an abundance of "machinery" assembled in a light-hearted tone, as is characteristic of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." So pervasive is this tone that the mystery and terror common to most gothic tales are permitted to flourish only in the ironic sense that melodrama is used to promote humor and satire. How Irving managed to employ the machinery without its usual tone is not easy to determine. Certainly his zestful narrator, whom he had used earlier in his Knickerbocker History and who was conspicuously missing in "The Story of the Young Robber," provides the basic ingredient for the humorous tone. The structure of "Sleepy Hollow" also guards against gothic terror, for though the headless Hessian dominates the last pages of the story, he is preceded by amusing details that never lose their influence on the narrative. Finally, the central characters themselves resist a melodramatic treatment. The original gothic hero (a fair representative being Irving's Italian robber) claimed only an ideal existence, whereas Ichabod Crane, the prototypic Yankee schoolmaster who wants only food, comfort, and a plump Dutch wife, brings to the story such a weight of actuality that a world of haunted forests seems, by contrast, absurd.

This local-color element is, on the simplest level, what Irving made the story's central interest: the Connecticut Yankee meets the New York Dutch. The same element, however, by itself so superficial, gives way to an exploration of the role of imagination and the artistic process. Ichabod, we are told, was "an odd mixture of small shrewdness and simple credulity." Having the wit of a Yankee peddler, he is careful to win the affection and confidence of the village. But having also the superstitions of a Puritan, he trembles in fear. One quality enables him to deal with the world as he wishes; the other eventually causes him to leave town at midnight, fearful for his life, never to return. But the "odd mixture" is really two applications of the same thing; for what chiefly characterizes Ichabod's mind is his rich imagination, a mind which dreamingly arranges the pieces of his experience—sometimes giving vivid impressions of himself luxuriating in food, wealth, and women, and giving also clues for realizing them. Thus the New England pedagogue manages, until the end of the story to stay a few steps ahead of the intellectually lethargic Dutch. And when Ichabod is defeated, Brom Bones is not the real victor; he merely stimulated the Yankee's self-destructive imagination. Thus the capacity that enables Ichabod to see the world as it may be—a "sumptuous promise of luxurious winter fare"—is the same irresistible curse which makes ghosts and goblins as palpable as pigeon pies. The story can, then, be understood as an allegory of the artistic process itself, for the literary artist must imaginatively create legends for the world's sleepy hollows. But the limits on the imagination—limits that Irving failed utterly to observe in his "Italian Robber"—demand that the artistically created world coexist with actuality. Permit the imagination to be wholly separated from human experience—as gothic fiction constantly separates them—and the art is destroyed. This problem is, of course, familiar to every student of American literature; our writers, particularly the New Englanders, have repeatedly felt a tension, whether as identified by Emerson between experience and reality, or as seen by Henry James between art and life. Thoreau, Hawthorne, Dickinson, Robinson, Frost, Cummings, Stevens—all of these Yankee artists felt the tension. Frost wanted to climb his birch tree of imagination toward the ideal, but he feared it, prayed that the tree would set him down again to earth, the right place for love. Ichabod's fate was not so kind; he is indeed snatched away not to return, for he rambled too exclusively in the world of pure imagination, and was lost. Thus, the gothic material in "Sleepy Hollow" serves a vital function. Constantly juxtaposed with the actual world, it represents the extreme form in literary art of the imagination disassociated from life. Hence, if Irving has given us a "sportive" gothic, he has not done so uncritically.

But "sportive" gothicism is not parody, though Irving's critics have tended to confuse them. "Sleepy Hollow" is only allegorically an attack on gothicism; parody reveals the excesses of a genre by imitating it. This distinction should be clear enough if we examine a genuine parody of gothic fiction, "The Spectre Bridegroom."

Unlike the other Sketch Book tales, this story has the stereotypic setting of medieval Germany, complete with the satiric names, Baron Von Land-short, Herman Von Starkenfaust, and Katzenellenbogen. For his plot, Irving chose the impossibly obvious formula of the supernatural expliqué, popularized by Mrs. Radcliffe and imitated extensively in America: the hero pretends to be the ghost of the murdered bridegroom in order to win the affections of the heroine and the confidence of her family. The major element, however, which makes "The Spectre Bridegroom" a travesty is not the artificial structure, the grotesque setting, or the ridiculous names, but rather the minds of the characters. Irving presents a society which, craving the supernatural, is ideally prepared to find it. The daughter's literary fare consists exclusively in "church legends" and "the chivalric wonders of the Heldenbuch." Her morbid imagination is clearly indicated by the agonized expressions of the saints she embroiders, who "looked like so many souls in purgatory." Other members of the family seem equally drawn to gothic themes. The baron's greatness seems to consist chiefly in his ability to tell ghost stories. "He was much given to the marvellous and a firm believer in all those supernatural tales with which every mountain and valley in Germany abounds." Indeed, young Starkenfaust got his idea of posing as a spectre from one of the baron's stories, and the family's commitment to the supernatural explanation was their own idea. Like Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, the Katzenellenbogens attempt to interpret their experience in terms of German legends. In fact, the poor relation who suggests the truth—that the spectre may be some evasive young cavalier—draws upon himself the "indignation of the whole company." And when the hoax is finally revealed, one of the aunts is "particularly mortified at having her marvellous story marred…." The most important facet of this parody, therefore, is Irving's interest in the psychology of gothicism. Turning the external gothic theme inward, he treated the supernatural world as an expression of an excessively morbid imagination.

If "The Spectre Bridegroom" is a delightful though serious parody of the gothic tale—particularly of the Radcliffian supernatural expliqué—Irving designed other stories to render it quite as ridiculous, but in an exactly opposite manner. Instead of resolving the supernatural in natural terms, his heroes sometimes—as in "The Bold Dragoon," for example—disguise their very embarrassing natural activities under a gothic mask. Here is our saucy-eyed dragoon, a bold fellow indeed, weaseling his way into an already-filled inn by blarneying the landlord and charming the women, notably "the hostess's daughter, a plump Flanders lass." Then after rousing the entire house by crashing to the floor in the middle of the night, he tells a perfectly incredible story about a "weazen-faced" ghost of a bagpiper, dancing furniture, and a midnight caper with a clothespress. Though doubts are suggested, these are easily silenced by the dragoon's ever-threatening sword and shillelah and by the even more preposterous corroboration of the daughter, who, we are told, was already with the dragoon when the rest of the house appeared. Apparently, therefore, we have an inverted form of the explained supernatural tale; Irving has given us what we may, in fact, call the inverted gothic story—not unlike Chaucer's "Miller's Tale"—in which the lusty dragoon escapes recrimination for his midnight peccadillo with the landlord's daughter by throwing up an absurd haze of supernaturalism.

Although this form has failed to survive in modern fiction, it was one of Irving's favorites. In "Dolph Heyliger," for instance, we have a similarly inverted gothic tale, in which the picaresque hero returns with his life's fortune and a ghost story to explain how he got it. Doubts of Dolph's honesty are never uttered, not of course because his character is spotless but because it is noted that he is "the ablest drawer of a long-bow in the whole province."

If we consider "Rip Van Winkle" in the context of "Dolph Heyliger" and "The Bold Dragoon," it appears that this most famous of Irving's stories also employs the techniques of inverted gothicism. Like Dolph, Rip disappears, only to return later with a supernatural account of his absence. And like the dragoon's story, Rip's tale is "authenticated" in a fashion which is as irrational as the story itself; crucial testimony is given by Peter, "the most ancient inhabitant of the village, and well versed in all the wonderful events and traditions of the neighborhood." The gullible narrator, old Diedrich Knickerbocker, who relates the story without a flicker of doubt, believes Rip's account because (1) stranger stories have been told, (2) Rip was "venerable," "rational," and "consistent," and (3) the story had been recorded by an illiterate country justice. Indeed, the whole community refused even to consider what they should have suspected from the first: that Rip had finally become exasperated with his "termagant wife," took his dog and gun, and deserted. He was, long before his disappearance, a great teller of ghost stories and a notorious malingerer—exactly the sort of man who would ramble for twenty years, then return with a bit of gothic nonsense designed to amuse the town and avoid its scorn. The final paragraph of the story seems to point directly toward this conclusion. Old Knickerbocker admits that Rip had several versions of his account: "He was observed, at first, to vary on some points every time he told it…." Only later did Rip settle down to the story as we have it related. Those few who doubt it suspect that Rip has lost his faculties. The others—men, women, children—have the story memorized. Some even literally believe that thunder is the sound of "Hendrick Hudson and his crew … at their game of ninepins…." We have, then, a society willingly trying to turn life into a gothic legend; as such, "Rip Van Winkle" is a brilliant satire on the gothic mind.

But what should we make of Rip? Only he escapes Irving's satire, for he unites both Starkenfaust and Ichabod: the poseur in one sense, the artist in another. Like Irving himself, and like countless writers in America, Rip's problem is that of a vocation. What is a creature of the imagination to do in a world whose values are represented by Dame Van Winkle? Art in such a world is, as Hawthorne complained in his sketch "The Custom-House," driven to become a mere escape. Thus, the youthful Rip spends his days "telling endless sleepy stories about nothing." Finally, "reduced almost to despair," he is driven to an actual escape: he rambles off, a sad counterpart to Odysseus, not to return for twenty years, a ragged old man, greeted by his dog with a snarl. Yet one quality in him has not been destroyed by age; his imagination is even richer than before, and he had "arrived at that happy age when a man can be idle with impunity…." Perhaps that was what brought him home, the hope that his world could finally accommodate him. It does: Rip becomes an honored village patriarch and chronicler. Unlike Ichabod, therefore, Rip is not defeated by his gothic imagination, because, for him, it was never dissociated from life. Even if the village skeptics are right, and they may be, in believing that old Van Winkle is edging toward senility, he is granted "an old man's frenzy," which Yeats hoped for and which he recognized in King Lear and William Blake. Imagination alone, whether inspired by frenzy or plain cunning, makes Rip's life significant. Thus, in "Rip Van Winkle," Irving accomplished a judgment of the extremes of the gothic mind and a frail reconciliation between it and the role of the artist.

In most of these modifications of the gothic tradition, Irving's "psychology" played an important part. The too richly imaginative Ichabod Crane, with Puritan superstitions whirling in his brain, was able to manufacture his own midnight goblin, whether or not the external world of fact could give evidence of it. An imitation spectre bridegroom captured the credulity of nearly all the Katzenellenbogens, nourished as they were on the gothic thrills of German legends. This emphasis on the subjective rather than the objective, which was, as I have indicated, the really significant use of gothic motifs in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was brought to an intriguing climax in "The Adventure of the German Student." At the outset of the story we learn that young Gottfried Wolfgang, a student of German philosophy who literally believes that he is dwelling among "spiritual essences," had been sent by his family to Paris to regain his mental stability. Unfortunately, his monastic life at the Sorbonne, together with the sobering effect of the reign of terror, cancels "the splendors and gayeties of Paris." In the extremity of his isolation. Gottfried has a recurring dream of a woman, "a female face of transcendent beauty." Occupied constantly with thoughts of this dream-woman, he comes one evening upon the guillotine at the Place de Grève, where he meets her, exactly the woman of his dreams. They talk; he brings her home; they make love. The next morning, on rising to greet his bride, he finds her dead. A closer examination reveals that she has been decapitated; in fact, she is the very woman who had been guillotined the day before. This knowledge is too much for Gottfried who screams, "I am lost forever," just before he suffers a mental breakdown. We are left, as we are often left in Irving's stories with two possible explanations: either Gottfried met the transcen-dent lady truly incarnated, a ghost who became a corpse in the morning, or the woman was a corpse from the beginning. If the psychic condition of Gottfried who, we are told, related the story to the narrator in a madhouse, is significant, then the second version has the greater validity. Viewed in this way, the tale is a story of a madman having sexual intercourse with a decapitated cadaver, thinking she is the transcendent lover of his wildest dreams. No doubt the whole plan is too fantastically sensational. But this is not the sensationalism of "The Young Robber" or indeed of the usual gothic novel. For the factual events are not those that create the terror of the story, nor can the avowal of supernaturalism account for its effectiveness; the acute terror of "The German Student" results from the derangement and the delusions that give a horribly false view of the world. Irving has, therefore, given us one of the first examples of psychological gothicism, in which the crude supernatural motif is dismissed and the gothic tale becomes genuinely a study of grim terror and anguish.

I do not pretend that Irving was a great artist; he was not. But as a parodist, he mirthfully helped to destroy all that was crude in gothic fiction. More importantly, one cannot deny that he anticipated the advanced gothic fiction of Poe and Hawthorne. Then following admittedly in their wakes, we have French symbolism and Henry James—two fundamental forces behind twentieth-century fiction. We should not be surprised, therefore, to find traces of Irving's "sportive" gothic in the works of William Faulkner or his subjectified "machinery" in the midnight novels.


This paper was presented in an earlier and somewhat different form at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association at Chicago in December, 1963.

1. Pierre M. Irving, The Life and Letters of Washington Irving, II (New York, 1864), 166.

Michael Davitt Bell (Essay Date 1980)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Bell, Michael Davitt. “Strange Stories: Irving’s Gothic.” In The Development of American Romance: The Sacrifice of Relation, pp. 77-85. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

In the following excerpt, Bell discusses Irving’s humor and treatment of ambiguity as part of the American Gothic tradition.

It has long been a critical truism that the tradition of gothic romance played an essential role in the development of American fiction—far more so than in England, where the tradition originated. It is curious, then, that Irving, although the bulk of his fiction falls clearly within the gothic mode, has been accorded little recognition in this connection. Scholars concerned specifically with his work acknowledge and sometimes analyze his gothicism, but they do not generally concern themselves with his place in the larger American tradition. Leslie Fiedler and Richard Chase, in their major studies of the development of American fiction, virtually ignore him.1 Yet Irving was clearly the most important American practitioner of gothic fiction in the 1820s, when Poe and Hawthorne were beginning to write. In view of his contemporary stature, so total a lack of recognition would seem to constitute a serious oversight on the part of modern literary historians.2

The reasons for this oversight are not mysterious. Recent critical interest in American gothic has called attention to what Melville called “the power of blackness” in our classic writers: the terrors of unconscious motives and forbidden fantasies, the horrors of the soul and the wilderness. Such matters have more importance in Irving than is generally supposed, but, as we have seen, he is more interested in covering them up than in probing them. Furthermore, readers have had trouble in reconciling what Henry A. Pochman called Irving’s “sportive Gothic” with the intensity of the major American gothicists. As Stanley T. Williams has complained: “The strength and weakness in Irving’s treatment of the supernatural is that he is partly satiric; he loves to end a wild tale with a good-humored chuckle.”3 Had Irving determined the later course of American gothic, it would seem, Ligeia might simply have been a substitute lover in disguise, like the Spectre Bridegroom. Fedallah, no doubt, would have but masked a fun-loving Brom Bones figure (perhaps Bulkington), permitting Ahab to retire into cabbage patches of spermacetti prosperity, while Ishmael regaled a small-town circle in upstate New York with yarns of his twenty-year sleep on a whaling ship. Even Young Goodman Brown might have escaped to New York, following his encounter with a Satanic Pumpkin, to become a justice of the Ten Pound Court.

Yet Irving’s humor is worth taking seriously. He may avoid the intensity of later writers (though they were not themselves uniformly serious, particularly Poe and Melville), but behind his humor lies a penetrating inquiry into the very mode the later writers would develop more soberly. Irving’s sportive satire is directed, first of all, at gothic fiction itself, at the conventions and attitudes with which such fiction was associated.4 Thus, for instance, the “Strange Stories by a Nervous Gentleman,” which open Tales of a Traveller, repeatedly burlesque the central situation of Ann Radcliffe’s gothic romances: the anxiety of a quivering, sensitive heroine in a haunted chamber. Only, in Irving’s tales we do not have sensitive heroines; instead, there is the far from terrified and “very manly” (46) widow of “The Adventure of My Aunt,” who apprehends the intruder in her chamber without a superstitious tremor, or there is the boisterous Irish soldier in “The Bold Dragoon,” who grossly burlesques the Radcliffean stereotype and whose “supernatural” story is probably, in any case, an ingenious cover for alcoholic or sexual excesses.

Irving especially delights in lampooning the attention Mrs. Radcliffe’s characters—like Cooper’s Natty Bumppo—always manage to devote to refined aesthetic response in the midst of terrifying scenes and circumstances. Hence the Misses Popkins, in “The Adventure of the Popkins Family,” who “were very romantic, and had learnt to draw in watercolors, [and] were enchanted with the scenery around; it was so like what they had read in Mrs. Radcliffe’s romances” (370). Even after being robbed, we are told, “they declared the captain of the band to be a most romantic-looking man, they dared to say some unfortunate lover or exiled nobleman; and several of the band to be very handsome young men—‘quite picturesque!’” (373).5 It is small wonder that Irving’s easy humor irritates those who admire the working-up of similar effects in Cooper (one thinks particularly of The Deerslayer, in which Natty is always registering the Claude- or Salvator-esque lighting of scenes fraught with imminent danger).

Irving’s burlesque of the Radcliffean sublime does not, however, stop with the “good-humored chuckle.” Mrs. Radcliffe allows her virtuous characters to thrill to the sublimity of evil without making them see the connection between their opposed aesthetic and moral responses. Irving forces this connection. In “The Painter’s Adventure,” the artist-narrator is captured by bandits, to whom he responds very much in the idiotic manner of the Misses Popkins. Imprisoned in a mountain hideout, with execution possible at any moment, he yet can muse: “I forgot in an instant all my perils and fatigues at this magnificent view of the sunrise in the midst of the mountains of the Abruzzi” (385). He imagines himself a Salvator among banditti and spends most of his time sketching his “picturesque” captors.

The tone of light comedy is dropped, however, in the interpolated “Story of the Young Robber.” Here a member of the band tells the painter of his own complicity in the capture of his beloved, who was then gang-raped by his comrades and murdered by himself. This tale was universally condemned by Irving’s contemporaries and is hardly more favorably regarded today, but it makes its point, and it reveals something deeper than “good humor” in Tales of a Traveller; for it is the purpose of the tale to affront the reader’s complacency by shattering the aesthetic bounds of its genre. “I was sick at heart,” the painter confesses at the close, “with the dismal story I had heard. I was harrassed and fatigued, and the sight of the banditti began to grow insupportable to me” (418).

One reason modern readers fail to appreciate the anti-Radcliffean humor of the Tales is that we no longer care very much about Ann Radcliffe. Even in 1824 Irving’s concern with her was rather old-fashioned. In the popular mind she had been rendered obsolete by the more diabolical gothicism of Lewis, Maturin, and Byron, but Irving, unlike these writers—and unlike Hawthorne and Melville later6—was not often willing to break through the protective shield of sublimity to confront outright moral diabolism. Nevertheless, he was fully aware, as his Radcliffean parodies make clear, that to do so was implicit in the appeal of gothic. True terror had to have genuine horror as its basis. Otherwise it was a sham, a hoax.

It is this latter perception that informs Irving’s most profound sportiveness. His tales—refusing the plunge into satanism, the true “power of blackness”—come to burlesque not only the gothic tradition but themselves as well. “The Adventure of My Uncle” prepares us for the explanation of a midnight apparition and then brusquely denies it when the Marquis, apparently out of family delicacy, refuses to disclose the “secret” of the portrait of his ancestress. In “The Little Antiquary” we share the title character’s fear for his ring, but at the last moment the bandit declines to take it. “You think it,” he explains, “an antique, but it’s a counterfeit—a mere sham” (338), and so, of course, is the story, which, having built up our expectations only to deflate them, reveals to us our own complicity in the duplicitous pursuit of fictional titillation.7 Following the incredible “Adventure of the German Student” an incredulous auditor asks: “And is this really a fact?” “A fact not to be doubted,” replies the narrator. “I had it from the best authority. The student told it me himself. I saw him in a madhouse in Paris” (74). Which information also—it should be observed—incriminates the narrator.

Sir Walter Scott, in 1824, noted the gothic ambiguity of “some modern authors” who

have exhibited phantoms, and narrated prophecies strangely accomplished, without giving a defined or absolute opinion, whether these are to be referred to supernatural agency, or whether the apparitions were produced (no uncommon case) by an overheated imagination, and the presages apparently verified by a casual, though singular, coincidence of circumstances.8

Such ambiguity informs the characteristic procedure of later American writers. Ishmael, for instance, never establishes the authority of Elijah’s or Fedallah’s prophecies. Melville was at his most mawkish in the realm of rational, Radcliffean gothic, as in the unintentionally ludicrous “expla-nation” of the legends surrounding Yillah’s origin in Mardi; but he took gothic ambiguity to extraordinarily effective lengths, leaving open, for example, the question of the Confidence-Man’s “supernatural” origin. Poe consistently moots the question of whether the occurrences in his tales are truly “supernal” or merely the products of the narrators’ “overheated” imaginations, and Hawthorne’s reliance on the formula of “multiple choice,” as with the apparitions in the heavens or on Dimmesdale’s chest in The Scarlet Letter, has received considerable discussion.9

Irving, too, normally establishes the supernatural in this ambiguous manner, as did his friend Scott, from whom he may have learned the trick; but unlike Scott—and well before Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville—Irving saw the crucial significance of gothic ambiguity. On the formal level it removed the narrator to the position of nonprivileged reporter, permitted only to infer motives and meanings from phenomenal appearances. It severed his relation with his material, and it severed as well what Hawthorne, in “The Custom-House,” would call his “true relation” (4) with the reader. In such fiction all phenomena, in effect, become supernatural and ambiguous. The importance of such a stance to Hawthorne and Melville should be clear; one thinks, for example, of “The Minister’s Black Veil” and of much of Billy Budd. Toward the end of the latter work the Surgeon defines “phenomenal,” in trying to account for the strange manner of Billy’s death, as “an appearance the cause of which is not immediately to be assigned” (498). Irving’s experiments with gothic ambiguity might be said, in this sense, to have given currency to the “phenomenal” stance and style in American fiction.

This ambiguity is not for him, as it was for Scott, primarily a technique for compounding “betwixt ancient faith and modern incredulity.” Rather, it provides a formal strategy for dealing with what Irving saw as the central problem presented by fiction itself, in any imaginative mode. Irving’s parodies of Radcliffe, and his phenomenal style, force the reader from the supernatural to the psychological—to the consideration of the irrational or duplicitous motives of characters and narrators. Irving is an important transitional figure in the increasing subjectification of gothic terror.10 But he is more than that, for in the gothic quandary over the nature and status of the supernatural he found a metaphor, and an established form, for investigating the larger question of the nature and status of fictional imagination and its appeal—a question of direct relevance to the predicament he shared with his fellow romancers. What Irving perceived in the 1820s was that the crisis of the gothic tradition— how was one plausibly to pass off the supernatural in modern times?—precisely corresponded to the crisis of romance in nineteenth-century America— how was one to pass off the literary imagination and its products in a hostile culture?

This is not to say that questions about the nature and status of imagination were not already important in the gothic tradition as it came down to Irving. In fact, Mrs. Radcliffe’s great accomplishment was the conversion of the pseudo-supernatural thriller into a forum for enacting the great psychological-moral contest between fancy and judgment. In her romances the passionate terrors of the seduction novel become explicitly linked with imagination and subjectivity. The alternation between illusory terror and rational reassurance becomes the essential action of her tales. Mrs. Radcliffe may appeal to the imagination, but the virtue of her virtuous characters always consists in their ultimate adherence to “solid” reason and virtue, if only after long and interesting struggles.

Radcliffean gothic, considered in terms of its overt moral appeal, is really antigothic, since it subjects the supernatural and imaginary, in the end, to firm, rational control. Its strength and its weakness lie in Mrs. Radcliffe’s ability to ignore the stark contradiction between her fiction’s irrational appeal and its rational message. She refuses to see the obvious analogy between the terrors besetting her heroes and heroines and the power of romance itself as it besets the reader. There are times when she seems on the verge of such a recognition. Emily St. Aubert’s adventures at Udolpho appear to her “like the dream of a distempered imagination, or like one of those frightful fictions in which the wild genius of the poets sometimes delighted”; and in The Italian, El-lena Rosalba reflects, after successfully surviving her various ordeals, that “contrasted with the sober truth of her present life, the past appeared like romance.”11 But Mrs. Radcliffe never becomes self-conscious about her own role as romancer. The most incredible events are reported with the earnest seriousness of the domestic novelist. Thus in her fiction the contest between imagination and judgment remains entirely a matter of theme. There is nothing in her procedure, in her handling of narrative stance and voice, to suggest that she has made the connection between her great subject and the hazards or duplicity of her own practice.

This is precisely the connection that Irving does make. Which is to say that in his best fiction—as later in Poe’s, Hawthorne’s, and Melville’s—gothic romance becomes aesthetically self-aware. Irving’s skepticism about gothic fiction is as thorough as Jane Austen’s in Northanger Abbey, but he does not follow her when, in rejecting romantic imagination, she allies fiction instead with judgment and “novelistic” realism.12 Rather, he continues to indulge in romance but does so in full awareness of its duplicity. What distinguishes his best gothic tales is the self-consciousness with which they simultaneously exploit and burlesque the basis of their own narrative appeal.

“The Adventure of the German Student” is a case in point. After listening to the first three of the “Strange Stories by a Nervous Gentleman,” the old gentleman with the haunted head observes, so we are told, “that the stories hitherto related had rather a burlesque tendency. ‘I recollect an adventure, however,’ added he, ‘which I heard of during a residence at Paris, for the truth of which I can undertake to vouch, and which is of a very grave and singular nature’” (65). There follows the grisly tale of Gottfried Wolfgang’s copulation with an animated corpse, guillotined the day before, and of his ensuing insanity when, the black collar removed from her neck, her head rolls to the floor. The story is gruesome and compelling. Even the final revelation that it may all have been a delusion of Gottfried’s “diseased” imagination hardly lessens the horror, and perhaps it increases it—like the hideous “explanation” at the end of Alfred Hitchcock’s gothic masterpiece, Psycho. To such delusions, who would not prefer “real” specters?

But the tale is ludicrous all the same, and a “burlesque tendency,” despite the narrator’s disavowal, is seldom far from its verbal surface. It is indeed “grave,” this tale of a reanimated corpse whom Gottfried meets in the “Place de Grève.”13 The reader, already in on the secret, is charmed to learn, of the “vicissitude” afflicting this decapitated darling, that “many a fair head, which had once been pillowed on down, now wandered houseless.” She is truly one “whom the dreadful axe had rendered desolate.” By the time the narrator informs us that “she raised her head” (69)— which may also be a joking reference to “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”—we recognize that there is a consistent employment of double-entendre here and, behind it, a consistent duplicity of narrative motive. We have been trapped by a tale whose verbal surface advertises it as a trap. This is not to say that we have been duped— although that is also true—but that our appreciation of the story derives from its form, its texture, rather than from the thrills it offers. Our real engagement is not with Gottfried, the Radcliffean victim, but with the narrator, with enjoying the interplay between his “heated brain” and what Canby calls his “rhetorical display.” This display exists all on the surface; calling into doubt both the authority of the tale and the sanity of the teller, it provides no solid clues for a final judgment of either. The style, that is, becomes as ambiguously “phenomenal” as the world—possibly real, possibly illusory—about which it pretends to report.

Much of Irving’s fiction is perfunctory, flat, even lazy, but in his best tales the Radcliffean tension between extremes of illusion and judgment is fully integrated into the act of narration. As the protective terminology of rational, associationist aesthetics breaks down, the predicament of Mrs. Radcliffe’s characters becomes the predicament of Irving’s narrators and auditors, including the reader. At the close of his “Strange Stories,” the Nervous Gentleman is even put through the archetypal ordeal of the Radcliffean heroine. Following the evening’s tale-telling, he retires to a chamber remarkably similar to “those eventful apartments described in the tales of the supper-table” (76). Here he is terrified by the “Mysterious Picture” painted by the Young Italian, which awakens in him a “horror of the mind”14—just as Clithero Edny’s irrational tale upset the rational equipoise of Edgar Huntly. “I tried to persuade myself,” he writes in true Radcliffean fashion, “that this was chimerical, that my brain was confused by the fumes of mine host’s good cheer, and in some measure by the odd stories about paintings which had been told at supper” (78). “It is my own diseased imagination,” he insists, “that torments me” (80). In spite of this rational reassurance, however, he spends the night on a couch downstairs.

The next morning, the Baronet “explains” the odd effect of the Italian’s painting by reading “The Story of the Young Italian”—a nice way to rationalize the effects of a work of art! Then each guest is taken to see the picture. All agree that “there was a certain something about the painting that had a very odd effect upon the feelings.” The displaced, aesthetic vocabulary for rationalizing imagination is apparently vindicated in the end. The nearly hysterical fantasies of the Nervous Gentleman are “fixed” to a “real” object with “real” associations. “After all,” moralizes the now less nervous Nervous Gentleman, willing to probe the unconscious once it has been rationalized and generalized, “there are certain mysteries in our nature, certain inscrutable impulses and influences, which warrant one in being superstitious. Who can account for so many persons of different characters being thus strangely affected by a mere painting?” “And especially,” replies the Baronet, “when not one of them has seen it!… I gave the housekeeper a hint to show them all to a different chamber!” (139).

This final, wonderful hoax calls attention, once again, to the fragile complicity between artist and audience, narrator and reader, in the imaginary indulgence of romance, and it traces this imaginative complicity, finally, to those unconscious “mysteries in our nature,” those “inscrutable impulses and influences,” behind the serene mask of rational aesthetic discourse. One thinks of the importance of such “mysteries” and “impulses” to Brown, Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville. Yet Irving holds back—and this is, perhaps, his limitation—from any full exploration of these “mysteries” and “impulses.” He does not wish, or perhaps dare, to probe the unconscious sources and implications of the imagination—to probe the “energy” (in Brown’s terms) behind rational literary and psychic “order.” His is a fictional world of sophisticated duplicity, of shimmering surfaces that only imply the depths their author himself refuses to enter. That he was aware of what went on in these depths is suggested by the nervousness of his Nervous Gentlemen and by the clear patterns—clear to us, anyway—of alienation, guilt, and frustrated rage that animate his artist fables and such stories as “Annette Delarbre.” Perhaps he understood these patterns too well and too personally to confront them directly. His way, in any case, was not the way of sincerity.

But we can exaggerate the significance of his evasion of sincerity. Even Brown, for all his sincerity of intention, found himself trapped by the duplicitous order of rhetoric, by the tyranny of “words” over “sentiments.” Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville would discover the same trap. And the Baronet’s hoax, while it may undercut the authority of the Italian’s painting and story, does not deny the “mysteries” and “impulses” implicit in the Nervous Gentleman’s uncontrollable fantasies. In fact, it comments in a rather sinister fashion on these fantasies; for in denying them a last associational link with the “real” painting, in under-cutting the last possibility of Radcliffean “explanation,” it testifies that in romance the Jamesian cable of relation—psychological, social, and aesthetic—has indeed been cut. In such romance, “at large and unrelated,” motive could only be ambiguous, and style “phenomenal.”


1. Richard Chase, The American Novel and Its Tradition (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1957); Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (Cleveland: Meridian, 1960). Chase’s omission of Irving is understandable; dealing only with long fictions, he also excludes Poe. Fiedler, however, who devotes forty-four pages to Poe (and the “Development of the Gothic”) and forty-two pages to Brown (and the “Invention of American Gothic”), mentions Irving only once—in a reference to “such popular histories as Irving’s Astoria or Adventures of Captain Bonneville” (Love and Death, p. 371). Similarly, Joel Porte, who discusses Poe at length in The Romance in America (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1969), virtually ignores Irving.

2. Chase, Fiedler, and Porte all stress the importance of Cooper, and quite rightly. He had his own debts and contributions to the gothic tradition; moreover, his writings were certainly as influential as Irving’s, and (together with the influence of Scott) they spawned a host of imitations. Yet to exclude Irving seems perversely myopic. Poe and Hawthorne, for instance, in turning to the short gothic tale rather than the long historical romance, began their careers by following Irving’s example, not Cooper’s.

3. Henry A. Pochman, “Irving’s German Sources and The Sketch-Book,Studies in Philology 27 (1930): 506; Williams, Life, vol. 1, p. 274.

4. Lady Lillycraft, in Bracebridge Hall, “places the Castle of Otranto at the head of all romances” (22). But Irving was not quite so old-fashioned. The principal target of the Tales is the rational English gothic of Ann Radcliffe, whom Irving placed “at the head of her line” (Williams, Life, vol. 2, p. 288). He also undoubtedly read Lewis and Maturin and, as well, a good deal of the German literature that influenced them. The effect of such reading can be detected in such tales as “The Story of the Young Italian” and “The Story of the Young Robber.” Also, the opening pages of Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer seem very much in force in the description of Buckthorne’s miserly uncle. On these matters, see Henry A. Pochman, “Irving’s German Tour and Its Influence on His Tales,” PMLA 45 (1930): 1150-87, and Williams, Life, vol. 2, pp. 286-96 (esp. pp. 288-89).

5. This “exiled nobleman” suggests that Schiller’s Die Räuber, or at least its immense and abiding popularity, lies behind the Misses Popkins’ sensationalism. Schiller’s play, which gave birth to the literary vogue of banditti, clearly influences the “Italian Banditti” section generally and “The Story of the Young Robber” in particular. For an argument that it also lies behind “The Story of the Young Italian,” see Pochman, “Irving’s German Tour,” pp. 1172-73; for a rejoinder, see Williams, Life, vol. 2, pp. 288-89.

6. Poe is often included in lists of American gothic diabolists. In fact, however, he consistently expressed his scorn for diabolism. In 1831 he dismissed “the devil in Melmoth” as one who “labors indefatigably through three octavo volumes, to accomplish the destruction of one or two souls, while any common devil would have demolished one or two thousand” (Works, 7:xxviii; cf. 11:13). “Pure Diabolism,” he wrote in 1849, “is but Absolute Insanity. Lucifer was merely unfortunate in having been created without brains” (16:160). “Absolute Insanity” was not, of course, without interest for Poe, and there may be some defensive special pleading in his dismissal of “Pure Diabolism.” But his interest was more in self-torture or passive victimization than in external, proselytizing evil. In “The Pit and the Pendulum,” for instance, the Inquisition, that great subject of gothic fiction, is simply a convenience. As an active presence it is not “treated” at all. What matters are its effects, not its motives.

7. It must be admitted that some of the deflations in Irving’s tales seem to result more from indolence than from calculation. For instance, following the spectral shenanigans in “Wolfert Webber,” we are simply told: “In fact, the secret of all this story has never to this day been discovered” (Tales, 540). Irony may be intended here, but one’s impression is that Irving, having written himself into a corner, wishes to extricate himself as rapidly as possible.

8. Sir Walter Scott, “Ann Radcliffe,” in Ioan Williams, ed., Sir Walter Scott on Novelists and Fiction (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968), p. 116.

9. On this aspect of Hawthorne, see, for instance, Yvor Winters, In Defense of Reason (Denver: Alan Swallow, 1947), p. 170, and F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1941), pp. 276-77.

10. This aspect of Irving’s achievement is discussed in John Clendinning, “Irving and the Gothic Tradition,” Bucknell Review 12 (1964): 90-98.

11. Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) (New York: Dutton, 1931), vol. 1, p. 301, and The Italian: or, the Confessional of the Black Penitents (1797) (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 302.

12. Jane Austen’s attack on gothicism also includes her most sustained defense of her own chosen mode (which she carefully distinguishes from romance): the “realistic” novel of manners, “in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language” (Northanger Abbey [1818] [New York: New American Library, 1965], p. 30). What distinguishes Irving is his refusal to make this kind of distinction. In these contrasting responses to Mrs. Radcliffe—burlesque rejection as opposed to burlesque indulgence—one comes perhaps as close as one can to the point of divergence between the “realistic” “Great Tradition” of nineteenth-century British fiction and the tradition of American romance.

13. Gottfried’s first encounter with the female victim of the Terror is strikingly similar to Tobias Pearson’s first encounter with Ilbrahim, victim of the Puritan persecution of the Quakers, in Hawthorne’s “The Gentle Boy” (first published in 1832, in The Token). Gottfried, wandering alone at night, sees the spectral woman at the foot of the guillotine. Pearson, wandering alone at evening, sees Ilbrahim at the foot of the gallows. “What is your name,” Pearson asks the strange boy, “and where is your home?” “They call me Ilbrahim,” replies the boy, “and my home is here” (Twice-Told Tales, 72). “But you have a home,” Gottfried suggests to the stranger, to which she replies: “Yes—in the grave!” (70). Gottfried, in compassion, takes her to his home; Pearson, in compassion, takes Ilbrahim to his. One scarcely wishes to argue, here, deliberate allusion by Hawthorne to Irving’s story or even conscious imitation. One feels, nevertheless, that Hawthorne read his Irving carefully.

14. The terrifying, mysterious portrait was a standard, even hackneyed, device in gothic fiction; but given Poe’s special admiration for “The Young Italian,” it is interesting to note how close Irving’s uses of the device, here, is to Poe’s use of it in the narrative frame of “The Oval Portrait.”

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Salmagundi; or, The Whim-whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq., and Others [with William Irving and James Kirke Paulding] (journal) 1807–8
A History of New York, from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty [as Diedrich Knickerbocker] (parody) 1809
The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. [as Geoffrey Crayon] (short stories) 1819–20
Bracebridge Hall; or, The Humorists: A Medley [as Geoffrey Crayon] (short stories) 1822
Tales of a Traveller [as Geoffrey Crayon] (short stories) 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] (sketches and short stories) 1832
The Crayon Miscellany [as Geoffrey Crayon] (sketches and short stories) 1835
A Tour on the Prairies (travel sketches) 1835
Astoria; or, Anecdotes of an Enterprise beyond the Rocky Mountains (history) 1836
The Rocky Mountains; or, Scenes, Incidents, and Adventures in the Far West: Digested from the Journal of Captain B. L. E. Bonneville, of the Army of the United States, and Illustrated from Various Other Sources (biography and history) 1837; also published as The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, 1898
Oliver Goldsmith (biography) 1849
The Life of George Washington (biography) 1855–59

Primary Sources

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Irving, Washington. "Adventure of the German Student." In Great Tales of Terror from Europe and America: Gothic Stories of Horror and Romance, 1765–1840, edited by Peter Haining. 1972. Reprint edition, pp. 424-30. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd., 1973.

The following short story was originally published in 1824 in Tales of a Traveller.

On a stormy night, in the tempestuous times of the French revolution, a young German was returning to his lodgings, at a late hour, across the old part of Paris. The lightning gleamed, and the loud claps of thunder rattled through the lofty, narrow streets—but I should first tell you something about this young German.

Gottfried Wolfgang was a young man of good family. He had studied for some time at Göttingen, but being of a visionary and enthusiastic character, he had wandered into those wild and speculative doctrines which have so often bewildered German students. His secluded life, his intense application, and the singular nature of his studies, had an effect on both mind and body. His health was impaired; his imagination diseased. He had been indulging in fanciful speculations on spiritual essences until, like Swedenborg, he had an ideal world of his own around him. He took up a notion, I do not know from what cause, that there was an evil influence hanging over him; an evil genius or spirit seeking to ensnare him and ensure his perdition. Such an idea working on his melancholy temperament produced the most gloomy effects. He became haggard and desponding. His friends discovered the mental malady that was preying upon him, and determined that the best cure was a change of scene; he was sent, therefore, to finish his studies amidst the splendours and gaieties of Paris.

Wolfgang arrived at Paris at the breaking out of the revolution. The popular delirium at first caught his enthusiastic mind, and he was captivated by the political and philosophical theories of the day: but the scenes of blood which followed shocked his sensitive nature; disgusted him with society and the world, and made him more than ever a recluse. He shut himself up in a solitary apartment in the Pays Latin, the quarter of students. There in a gloomy street not far from the monastic walls of the Sorbonne, he pursued his favourite speculations. Sometimes he spent hours together in the great libraries of Paris, those catacombs of departed authors, rummaging among their hoards of dusty and obsolete works in quest of food for his unhealthy appetite. He was, in a manner, a literary ghoul, feeding in the charnel-house of decayed literature.

Wolfgang, though solitary and recluse, was of an ardent temperament, but for a time it operated merely upon his imagination. He was too shy and ignorant of the world to make any advances to the fair, but he was a passionate admirer of female beauty, and in his lonely chamber would often lose himself in reveries on forms and faces which he had seen, and his fancy would deck out images of loveliness far surpassing the reality.

While his mind was in this excited and sublimated state, he had a dream which produced an extraordinary effect upon him. It was of a female face of transcendent beauty. So strong was the impression it made, that he dreamt of it again and again. It haunted his thoughts by day, his slumbers by night; in fine he became passionately enamoured of this shadow of a dream. This lasted so long, that it became one of those fixed ideas which haunt the minds of melancholy men, and are at times mistaken for madness.

Such was Gottfried Wolfgang, and such his situation at the time I mentioned. He was returning home late one stormy night, through some of the old and gloomy streets of the Marais, the ancient part of Paris. The loud claps of thunder rattled among the high houses of the narrow streets. He came to the Place de Grève, the square where public executions are performed. The lightning quivered about the pinnacles of the ancient Hôtel de Ville, and shed flickering gleams over the open space in front. As Wolfgang was crossing the square, he shrunk back with horror at finding himself close by the guillotine. It was the height of the reign of terror, when this dreadful instrument of death stood ever ready, and its scaffold was continually running with blood of the virtuous and the brave. It had that very day been actively employed in the work of carnage, and there it stood in grim array amidst a silent and sleeping city, waiting for fresh victims.

Wolfgang's heart sickened within him, and he was turning shuddering from the horrible engine, when he beheld a shadowy form cowering as it were at the foot of the steps which led up to the scaffold. A succession of vivid flashes of lightning revealed it more distinctly. It was a female figure, dressed in black. She was seated on one of the lower steps of the scaffold, leaning forward, her face hid in her lap, and her long dishevelled tresses hanging to the ground, streaming with the rain which fell in torrents. Wolfgang paused. There was something awful in this solitary monument of woe. The female had the appearance of being above the common order. He knew the times to be full of vicissitude, and that many a fair head, which had once been pillowed on down, now wandered houseless. Perhaps this was some poor mourner whom the dreadful axe had rendered desolate, and who sat here heartbroken on the strand of existence, from which all that was dear to her had been launched into eternity.

He approached, and addressed her in the accents of sympathy. She raised her head and gazed wildly at him. What was his astonishment at beholding, by the bright glare of the lightning, the very face which had haunted him in his dreams. It was pale and disconsolate, but ravishingly beautiful.

Trembling with violent and conflicting emotions, Wolfgang again accosted her. He spoke something of her being exposed at such an hour of the night, and to the fury of such a storm, and offered to conduct her to her friends. She pointed to the guillotine with a gesture of dreadful signification.

'I have no friend on earth!' said she.

'But you have a home,' said Wolfgang.

'Yes—in the grave!'

The heart of the student melted at the words.

'If a stranger dare make an offer,' said he, 'without danger of being misunderstood, I would offer my humble dwelling as a shelter; myself as a devoted friend. I am friendless myself in Paris, and a stranger in the land; but if my life could be of service, it is at your disposal, and should be sacrificed before harm or indignity should come to you.'

There was an honest earnestness in the young man's manner that had its effect. His foreign accent, too, was in his favour; it showed him not to be a hackneyed inhabitant of Paris. Indeed there is an eloquence in true enthusiasm that is not to be doubted. The homeless stranger confided herself implicitly to the protection of the student.

He supported her faltering steps across the Pont Neuf, and by the place where the statue of Henry the Fourth had been overthrown by the populace. The storm had abated, and the thunder rumbled at a distance. All Paris was quiet; that great volcano of human passion slumbered for a while, to gather fresh strength for the next day's eruption. The student conducted his charge through the ancient streets of the Pays Latin, and by the dusky walls of the Sorbonne to the great, dingy hotel which he inhabited. The old portress who admitted them stared with surprise at the unusual sight of the melancholy Wolfgang with a female companion.

On entering his apartment, the student, for the first time, blushed at the scantiness and indifference of his dwelling. He had but one chamber—an old fashioned saloon—heavily carved and fantastically furnished with the remains of former magnificence, for it was one of those hotels in the quarter of Luxembourg palace which had once belonged to nobility. It was lumbered with books and papers, and all the usual apparatus of a student, and his bed stood in a recess at one end.

When lights were brought, and Wolfgang had a better opportunity of contemplating the stranger, he was more than ever intoxicated by her beauty. Her face was pale, but of a dazzling fairness, set off by a profusion of raven hair that hung clustering about it. Her eyes were large and brilliant, with a singular expression that approached almost to wildness. As far as her black dress permitted her shape to be seen, it was of perfect symmetry. Her whole appearance was highly striking, though she was dressed in the simplest style. The only thing approaching to an ornament which she wore was a broad, black band round her neck, clasped by diamonds.

The perplexity now commenced with the student how to dispose of the helpless being thus thrown upon his protection. He thought of abandoning his chamber to her, and seeking shelter for himself elsewhere. Still he was so fascinated by her charms, there seemed to be such a spell upon his thoughts and senses, that he could not tear himself from her presence. Her manner, too, was singular and unaccountable. She spoke no more of the guillotine. Her grief had abated. The attentions of the student had first won her confidence, and then, apparently, her heart. She was evidently an enthusiast like himself, and enthusiasts soon understand each other.

In the infatuation of the moment Wolfgang avowed his passion for her. He told her the story of his mysterious dream, and how she had possessed his heart before he had even seen her. She was strangely affected by his recital, and acknowledged to have felt an impulse towards him equally unaccountable. It was the time for wild theory and wild actions. Old prejudices and superstitions were done away; everything was under the sway of the 'Goddess of reason'. Among other rubbish of the old times, the forms and ceremonies of marriage began to be considered superfluous bonds for honourable minds. Social compacts were the vogue. Wolfgang was too much of a theorist not to be tainted by the liberal doctrines of the day.

'Why should we separate?' said he: 'our hearts are united; in the eye of reason and honour we are as one. What need is there of sordid forms to bind high souls together?'

The stranger listened with emotion: she had evidently received illumination at the same school.

'You have no home nor family,' continued he; 'let me be everything to you, or rather let us be everything to one another. If form is necessary, form shall be observed—there is my hand. I pledge myself to you for ever.'

'For ever?' said the stranger, solemnly.

'For ever!' repeated Wolfgang.

The stranger clasped the hand extended to her: 'Then I am yours,' murmured she, and sunk upon his bosom.

The next morning the student left his bride sleeping, and sallied forth at an early hour to seek more spacious apartments, suitable to the change in his situation. When he returned, he found the stranger lying with her head hanging over the bed, and one arm thrown over it. He spoke to her, but received no reply. He advanced to awaken her from her uneasy posture. On taking her hand, it was cold—there was no pulsation—her face was pallid and ghastly.—In a word—she was a corpse.

Horrified and frantic, he alarmed the house. A scene of confusion ensued. The police were summoned. As the officer of police entered the room, he started back on beholding the corpse.

'Great heaven!' cried he, 'how did this woman come here?'

'Do you know anything about her?' said Wolfgang eagerly.

'Do I?' exclaimed the police officer: 'she was guillotined yesterday!'

He stepped forward; undid the black collar round the neck of the corpse, and the head rolled on the floor!

The student burst into a frenzy. 'The fiend! the fiend has gained possession of me!' shrieked he: 'I am lost for ever!'

They tried to soothe him, but in vain. He was possessed with the frightful belief that an evil spirit had reanimated the dead body to ensnare him. He went distracted, and died in a madhouse.

Here the old gentleman with the haunted head finished his narrative.

'And is this really a fact?' said the inquisitive gentleman.

'A fact not to be doubted,' replied the other. 'I had it from the best authority. The student told it me himself. I saw him in a madhouse at Paris.'1


1. The latter part of the above story is founded on an anecdote related to me, and said to exist in print in French. I have not met with it in print.

Title Commentary

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

"Adventure of the German Student"


SOURCE: Devlin, James E. "Irving's 'Adventure of the German Student.'" Studies in American Fiction 7, no. 1 (spring 1979): 92-5.

In the following essay, Devlin analyzes "Adventure of the German Student" as a "cautionary tale warning against sexual fantasy and masturbation."

Although it remains one of Washington Irving's more popular pieces, "Adventure of the Ger-man Student" has escaped the critical attention accorded his best known tales. Regarded usually as an eerie hoax on the basis of a trick narration that seems to dismiss any more serious meaning, or seen simply as a Gothic fancy, "Adventure of the German Student" has failed to profit from the sort of scrutiny that has proved so successful in the study of other of Irving's tales.

One need be no dyed-in-the-wool Freudian to recognize the host of disguised sexual allusions that haunt the work of the "genteel" Irving and provide considerable insight into his mind. William L. Hedges wrote accurately some years ago that "an interplay of desire, fear and guilt … characterizes his treatment of love, sexuality, and marriage."1 Indeed, his two best-loved tales, "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," are now read as replete with sexual innuendo.

The first of these, as Leslie Fiedler,2 Philip Young,3 and others have convincingly shown, expresses a desire to escape adult male sexual responsibility and the duties of marriage for a second childhood of advanced old age; of the second, it is enough to note that the devastatingly seductive Eula Varner owes both her being and her mentality to Faulkner's vivid recollection of Katrina Van Tassel.4 In short, Dame Van Winkle's depiction represents a disavowal of the mature woman while Katrina Van Tassel's offers an unflattering picture of a nubile maiden. In the latter tale Irving's careful diction, ostensibly used to describe a fertile farm, serves in its plosive bounty to characterize a blouse-bursting Dutch coquette whose chief delight is the torment of young men. It is hardly surprising, then, that the "Adventure of the German Student," one of the Tales of a Traveler (1824), yields considerably more meaning when viewed from a similar perspective.

This brief tale, which the reader ultimately discovers is narrated at several removes, recounts, in terms anticipating Poe, the progressive psychic disintegration of young Gottfried Wolfgang, who leaves the University of Goettingen for Paris in hope of escaping "the mental malady preying upon him." The Paris of the Reign of Terror proves even less accommodating than his German habitat, however. Crossing a dark, stormy Parisian square late at night in a state of perturbation, he encounters a "female figure" languishing at the foot of the guillotine whom he leads back to his rooms in the Latin Quarter near the Sorbonne. There, agreeing to be his "forever," she "sank upon his bosom." On his return home the next morning from a quest to find "more spacious apartments suitable to the change in his situation," he discovers the woman still lying on his bed and apparently dead. When the police are summoned, an officer immediately recognizes her as a victim of yesterday's guillotine. Stepping forward he undoes the black ribbon around her neck as her head falls rolling to the floor. The distracted student is shortly thereafter committed to an asylum whence his story is ultimately spread.

The tale, the plot of which Irving had at second hand from Thomas Moore,5 is clearly more than a ghost story. It turns out to be, in fact, a cautionary tale warning against sexual fantasy and masturbation, with overtones and situations that will remind German readers of Frank Wedekind's pointed assault on sexual repression in the daring Fruehlings Erwachen written some fifty years later. Evidence to support such a "Freudian" reading, one might almost say "orthodox reading" in the light of recent Irving scholarship, appears at every turn.

A young man, whose morbid habits of seclusion are constantly reiterated in the story, has "impaired his health" by "indulging in fanciful speculations" of an uncertain nature, but which are later revealed to involve fantasies of "female beauty." Convinced that there is "an evil influence hanging over him," he agrees to exchange his "secluded life" for a less morbid environment lest he "ensure his perdition." His "imagination" is already "diseased" and he himself "haggard and desponding" in need of a "cure." While neither Gottfried Wolfgang's condition nor its cause is in any wise identified, apart from a vague reference to the intensity of his studies, Irving's diction consistently draws on the oblique terminology regularly employed in the last century (and much of this) to describe the milieu and effects of "self-abuse" or the "solitary sin." In Gottfried's seclusive behavior, indulgence in erotic fantasies, frantic effort to change his habits, and his concomitant guilt and fear for both his health and soul, Irving offers a contemporary profile of the solitary sinner.

In Paris Gottfried is unable to change his ways. He continues to keep to his room and to indulge his "ardent temperament." While he is "too shy" to "make any advances to the fair," or to seek the companionship and love of a real woman, he remains "a passionate admirer of female beauty, and in his lonely chamber would often lose himself on forms and faces which he had seen, and his fancy would deck out images of loveliness far surpassing the reality." No words here are quite so revealing as the phrase "lose himself" which suggests that the student's lonely erotic reveries frequently culminated in the dread loss of virility solitary sexual indulgence was feared to cause. But Gottfried Wolfgang's final commitment to unwholesome fantasy comes only after a series of dreams of a particular woman of whom he grows "passionately enamoured." This fantasy woman, who appears to him only in an "excited and sublimated state," represents his acceptance of a life governed by sensual satisfaction and an allegiance to his indulgence even at the cost of growing madness.

On a stormy night some time later, how long is uncertain, he finds her, crouching at the foot of the guillotine, prototypical symbol of castration. Thus is the sin (masturbation) emblematically linked to its punishment (the loss of manhood). The spectral creature, "ravishingly beautiful," of course, and "clad in black" accompanies the gaunt student home where Gottfried enjoys a final night, not of necrophilial passion, as the story would suggest, but rather of final surrender to sexual satisfacion in solo. The otherwise ascetic young German's pleasure with a French lamia in the decadent environment of an ancient hôtel in the Latin Quarter, an image that would certainly have appealed to Thomas Mann, is undoubtedly tempered by dreadful anxieties. But it is only on the next day when the lady's head falls from her body that Gottfried's emasculation is complete. If the looming silhouette of the guillotine has not established what is transpiring, the decapitation must, for as William Hedges has seen, Irving's "images of maiming and cutting down seem to carry an unconscious implication of fear of castration."6 The story is over. Wolfgang is indeed "lost forever" as he shrieks. Mad and impotent, at least psychically, he is led off to the madhouse since the penalty for masturbation is insanity.


1. William L. Hedges, Washington Irving: An American Study (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1965), p. 11.

2. Leslie A. Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (New York: Stein and Day, 1966), pp. 339-43.

3. Philip Young, "Fallen from Time: The Mythic Rip Van Winkle," KR, 22 (1960), 547-73.

4. Cecil D. Eby, Jr., "Ichabod Crane in Yoknapatawpha," GaR, 16 (1962), 465-69.

5. Hedges, pp. 148-49.

6. Hedges, p. 201n.


SOURCE: Lupack, Barbara Tepa. "Irving's German Student." Studies in Short Fiction 21, no. 4 (fall 1984): 398-400.

In the following essay, Lupack examines aspects of delusion, fantasy, parody, and the Gothic in "Adventure of the German Student."

Sensing the decline of gothicism and the dangers of aping its style, Washington Irving rejected an exhausted tradition.1 Not wanting to abandon "the legendary and romantic tales" entirely, however, he sought an original use for gothic material and turned to a manner more "suited to [his] own way of thinking and writing."2 Suggestive psychology through parody, a technique which reveals the excesses of a genre by imitating it, allowed Irving simultaneously to employ and to burlesque the conventional treatment of the elements of "German" romanticism: angst, weltschmerz, sentimentality, supernatural intervention, horror, sexual aberration, and psychological disorders.

"Adventure of the German Student," one of Irving's most delightful and enduring tales, is indeed a successful parody of the "exhausted" gothic form. Gottfried Wolfgang, a young and impressionable student of German philosophy living in Paris during the bloody reign of terror, believes that he is possessed by an evil spirit. His imagination, fired by his loneliness and melancholy, creates a "shadow," the recurrent dream of a woman of "transcendent beauty." One evening, Gottfried, preoccupied with the vision of this female face, encounters a young woman dressed in black at the Place de Greve. He offers her lodging, brings her back to his home, and there he recognizes her as the woman of his dreams; that same evening, they pledge eternal affection for each other and consummate their compact. The next morning, Gottfried is shocked to find his "wife" dead—indeed the corpse of a woman guillotined the previous day. Realizing that "the fiend" had reanimated her body to ensnare him and to ensure his perdition, he goes mad.

John Clendenning has argued that the reader is left with two possible explanations: either Gottfried met the transcendent lady truly incarnated, a ghost who becomes a corpse in the morning, or the woman was a corpse from the beginning. If the reader concedes the imbalance of the protagonist, as suggested by the fact that he related his adventure to the narrator of the tale while in a madhouse, then, according to Clendenning, the second version has the greater validity. Viewed in this way, a madman has sexual intercourse with a decapitated cadaver, thinking she is the transcendent lover of his wildest dreams.3

While Clendenning's arguments are convincing—as far as he pursues them—he overlooks a third alternative, another viable and plausible reading of the sketch's ending. Admitting Irving's suggestion that Gottfried is insane—which most critics of the tale, including Clendenning, do—it follows that the entire adventure may have been no more than the mere psychological projection of a deranged and repressed young man. That Gottfried is deranged can be assumed from his peculiarly melancholic disposition which leads to his breakdown and subsequent incarceration in a Paris asylum; that he is repressed is clear from his lack of involvement with real women and his commitment to the pursuit of his fantasy female. "His imagination [was] diseased," writes Irving early in the story; it is probable, therefore, that the woman by the guillotine was nonexistent, a manifestation of this madman's imagination, the perfect sado-masochistic relationship, as in Browning's "Porphyria's Lover."

Regardless of which interpretation the reader chooses, neither the "facts" of the sensational plot nor the intimations of supernaturalism constitute the terror of the tale; the ultimate terror results, rather, from the psychological gothicism Irving achieves, based upon the derangements and delusions which create a horribly false view of the world. As a parody, "German Student" destroys the crudeness which exists in nineteenth-century romance, playfully dispels the excesses of gothic fiction, and anticipates the advanced gothicism of Poe, Hawthorne, Faulkner, and such diverse forces behind twentieth-century literature as Henry James and the French symbolists.4

Nowhere in the tale, however, is Irving's parody more skillful than in the description and treatment of the character, Wolfgang. A tremendous irony is implicit in his very name: Gottfried literally means "God's peace," yet peace—particularly God's peace—is one virtue the young student glaringly lacks. He is a rebellious and restless romantic whose "visionary and enthusiastic character" has caused him to wander "into those wild and speculative doctrines which have so often bewildered German students." He indulges in fanciful speculations on spiritual essences and rejects conventional Christian beliefs to create his own "ideal world." Like Faust—and the archetypal ramifications of Wolfgang's perverse quest for knowledge are deliberate and pervasive—he, in effect, sells his soul to an evil and forbidden agent. Then he consummates his bargain, somewhat unknowingly, by engaging in intercourse with a demon, a succubus not unlike the beautiful Helen in the Faust legend. His damnation is inevitable and he dies, despairingly, in a madhouse. Ironically, he becomes the victim of his own rapacious appetite for arcane knowledge. Yet it is precisely this rapaciousness, as integral to the typical gothic hero as his despondent Germanic nature and brooding melancholy, which, when deliberately exaggerated in "Adventure of the German Student," makes Irving's protagonist a parody of the very type he epitomizes.


1. John Clendenning, "Irving and the Gothic Tradition," Bucknell Review, 12 (May 1964), 91. Mr. Clendenning provides a perceptive study of Irving's "inverted gothic" form and a fine analysis of "Adventure of the German Student."

2. Pierre M. Irving, The Life and Letters of Washington Irving (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1864), II, 166.

3. Clendenning, pp. 97-98.

4. Clendenning, p. 98.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


Reichart, Walter A. Washington Irving and Germany. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1957, 212 p.

Biographical discussion of Irving's experiences in Germany. The author points out the similarity between Irving's short stories and German folktales.


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 his later works.

Bowden, Mary Weatherspoon. Washington Irving. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981, 201 p.

Book-length study of Irving's life and works.

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.

Coad, Oral Sumner. "The Gothic Element in American Literature before 1835." The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 24, no. 1 (January 1925): 72-93.

An historical overview of gothicism in American literature that includes a survey of Gothic elements in The Sketch Book.

Critical Essays on Washington Irving, edited by Ralph M. Aderman. Boston: Hall, 1990, 276 p.

A collection of essays exploring varied aspects of Irving's works.

Dawson, Hugh J. "Recovering 'Rip Van Winkle': A Corrective Reading." ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 40, No. 3 (1994): 251-73.

Contends that the forest scene in "Rip Van Winkle" is Gothic rather than comic and that the story is not antifeminist.

Griffith, Kelley, Jr. "Ambiguity and Gloom in Irving's 'Adventure of the German Student.'" CEA Critic 38 (1975): 10-13.

Asserts that the ambiguity in Irving's "Adventure of the German Student" accounts for the story's "shocking and depressing psychological realism."

Ringe, Donald A. "Washington Irving." In American Gothic: Imagination and Reason in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, pp. 80-101. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1982.

Examines Irving's Gothic writings, asserting that they are "fundamentally concerned with a problem of human perception."

Rodes, Sara Puryear. "Washington Irving's Use of Traditional Folklore." Southern Folklore Quarterly 19, no. 3 (September 1956): 143-53.

Describes Irving's effective use of folklore in "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and recounts the original folktales from which Irving drew his stories.

Roth, Martin. "Irving and the Old Style." Early American Literature 12, no. 3 (winter 1977–78): 256-70.

Focuses on Irving's "Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle," suggesting that these early essays shed light on the author's later works.

Turner, Deanna C. "Shattering the Fountain: Irving's ReVision of 'Kubla Khan' in 'Rip Van Winkle.'" Symbiosis: A Journal of Anglo-American Literary Relations 4, no. 1 (April 2000): 1-17.

Compares "Rip Van Winkle" to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem "Kubla Khan," suggesting similarities in theme, symbolism, and form.

Veeder, William. "Form, Psychoanalysis, and Gender in Gothic Fiction: The Instance of 'Rip Van Winkle.'" In Gothick Origins and Innovations, edited by Allan Lloyd Smith and Victor Sage, pp. 79-94. Atlanta, Ga. and Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994.

Analyzes "Rip Van Winkle" to demonstrate that "form and psychology are … intricately related to questions of gender in the Gothic."


Additional coverage of Irving's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: American Writers; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 56; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 97; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1640–1865; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 3, 11, 30, 59, 73, 74, 183, 186, 250, 254; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Short Stories; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 1; Literature Resource Center; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 2, 19, 95; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 1, 8, 16; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 2, 37; Supernatural Fiction Writers, Vol. 1; Twayne's United States Authors; World Literature Criticism; Writers for Children; and Yesterday's Authors of Books for Children, Vol. 2.


Irving, Washington