Generations ago, around the time of Stanley Williams’ 1935 study of the man and his works, intellectual fashion made one of its less attractive lurches towards ignorance when it decided that Washington Irving was no genius, but a rather light-weight and decidedly second-rate writer. This gross miscalculation has only recently been adjusted by saner minds, especially those of Andrew Burstein and Brian Jay Jones, whose recent books have begun to irrigate the scholarly desert.
It is no small trick to resuscitate the reputation of a literary star who was once so lofty and feted, having fallen so low. The Irving of nineteenth-century fame was considered foundational to American literature and could count among his admirers the likes of Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mary Shelley, and Mark Twain. Just a few decades into the drab and bloody twentieth century, however, he was considered too naive and too “European” for serious consideration.
It was an era that could celebrate a grim author like Hemingway, who had manly despair enough to shoot himself. Such a man was considered a martyr to his muse. While Irving was likewise prone to depression, his humble acceptance of it was more likely to be sneered at by modernist scholars. It is an indication of the moral weakness of much twentieth-century criticism that Hemingway’s suicide resulted in no backlash against his legacy, while Irving’s nervous breakdown would be the occasion not for sympathy but for ridicule.
The current climate is perhaps better suited to evaluate Irving’s unique contribution to our culture. Having survived two world wars and a cold war that threatened to dwarf either of them in its capacity for destroying civilization, we can realize that much of the scholarship of the last century, like much of its art, was dominated by a tremendous fearfear that humanity was destined to destroy itself, that America as both an idea and a living nation was fundamentally corrupt, based on racist principles, greed, or intolerance of some sort.
A witch hunt began to find the "real problem," which could have resulted in the gratuitous destruction of our cultural heritage. Iconoclasm was the order of the day, and we should count ourselves blessed that literary icons are less easily destroyed than statues. Hiding silently on bookshelves around the world, they await a future when their voices might finally be spoken in broad daylight.
Washington Irving is of particular importance, especially now that so many of those who howled at the specter of a systemically evil nation are silent at the election of Barack Obama. What will many faculties do, now that their view has been thus radically altered or at least thrown into question? The culture of iconoclasm can only endure so long as one wants to smash an icon. Once one reveres the icon, an inevitable conservatism sets inthere is a natural desire to preserve memories and eventually even the traditions and institutions recognized as having been virtuous.
The exciting part about this for any conservative (cultural and religious as much as any other) is the opportunity to demonstrate to the intelligentsia that the current moment did not materialize from nothing; that, in fact, if our present traditions and icons are worth preserving, perhaps it is worth reevaluating those which lead to them. Perhaps, at just this moment, we can make the intellectual world safe for the academy's stock villain: the loathed dead white male. Perhaps we can make the academy safe once again, not so much for democracy but for Longfellow.
If such a revival is to happen, Washington Irving ought to be the first to speak at our Camp Meeting, for he, better than any before him and perhaps after, knew of the fundamental cultural challenge to our truly revolutionary nation. He knew, intuitively, that our greatest intellectual temptation would be to a self-inflicted amnesia. As a nation of immigrants, most of us are descended from people who left behind their previous nations, previous home towns (often the familial home from time immemorial), and in many cases did so without entertaining the hopes of seeing those left behind again. We are most of us descended from radical separatistsfrom those aboard the Mayflower to the most recent immigrant risking life and limb over the Mexican border.
And while this is often accompanied by a particular sort of bravery and ingenuity, it can also be haunted by the phantoms of what was left behindso much so that we can be in denial of who we were and to what institutions, philosophies, and values we owe our beliefs and ideals. Americans can forget, for example, that our concepts of law are founded upon the rights of Englishmen, and Protestants are often shocked when they learn that many of the doctrines they hold dear were formulated and defended first by the Catholic Church. Though he didn’t discuss these issues directly, Irving did something unique: He approached the problem symbolically.
His first book, Dietrich Knickerbocker’s History of New York, capitalized on the amnesia of New Yorkers by a mix of biting satire and real history of the Dutch reign in Manhattan. The book is foundational to any study in American humor. It is wild, free, self-deprecatory, and merciless to the public figures of his day, and by turns lyrically funny, absurd, and reflective. Without it, we might wonder whether American humor, from Twain to the Marx brothers to Seinfeld, would have taken the particular shape it did.
When Americans, always prone to utopian daydreams, were in danger of taking themselves far too seriously, when the term "manifest destiny" was embryonic, Dietrich Knickerbocker rolled his bugged-out eyes, chuckled gruffly, and whispered into the ear of a young nation, “Remember thou art mortal.” It is now fashionable to assert that this was the high-water mark for Irving, that the satirical genius was his true vein.
But perhaps this is only a sign that we need to go back and grow along with Irving once again. Knickerbocker is indeed a masterpiece, but Irving’s career was to probe deeper.
The book which made him internationally famous, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, gent., was a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic because it resonated so strongly with a people unified by language and family bonds, yet separated by a revolution. In it, while maintaining the quicksilver prose and lightness of phrase that modernists mistook for naivete, Irving plumbed the depths of the Anglo-American consciousness and conscience. If political theorists like Alexis de Tocqueville hypothesized that the early Republic was the product of a specifically Anglo-American culture, The Sketch Book serves as its greatest proof, for the entire text seeks to demonstrate and strengthen a cultural kinship.
Irving’s two most famous stories are to be found in The Sketch Book, virtually bookending the text: “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” In “Rip Van Winkle,” Irving whimsically pointed out the hazards of the new Republic, that a once humble acceptance of life under monarchy could easily give way to arrogant corruption, vice, and the nauseating specter of being governed by village idiots with a gift for demagoguery.
One of the many points of the story is that Rip, once worthless for his laziness, is now an indispensable part of the community for what he remembers, which is life before the revolution. He acts as a touchstone of continuity, bridging the gap between the old values and the new. His happy dotage was a suggestion that the new Republic eschew chronological snobberythe fallacy that because we were born later, we must be inherently more virtuous. Some of these themes would return with a vengeance in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
But between these two, The Sketchbook wanders like a restless spirit through the English countryside, where Irving’s alter-ego broods over human mortality while observing a country funeral, comments satirically on the intelligentsia of his own day, and ponders the poetic legacy of James the First of Scotland, whom he includes, in proto-multicultural fashion, in the English canon. Dominating the center of the volume are a series of sketches describing a rustic Christmas celebration in a English manor, fully festive in the “old traditions” before Puritanism soured the feasting. This section influenced not only American understandings of Christmas celebration, but also English.
None of Irving’s sketches are shallow: They work as a mosaic, collectively acting as both a warning and an encouragement. Toward the end, he boldly denounces the treatment of Native Americans in a way that would make revisionist historians blush, for he beat them to it by over a century. He seems always to be saying, “Don’t forget who you are and where you came from. The past is still there, whether you like it or not, and though it might hold suffering, and though you might need absolution, it also holds joy and wisdom.”
The final warning of the book comes in the form of a Headless Horseman, who is either a real ghost of the Revolution or the town bully in disguise, and who targets, of all people, the schoolmaster (even small towns have their intelligentsia). Is it history chasing Icabod Crane, the puritanical teacher obsessed with stories of witch hunts, or just Brom Bones scaring him out of town? Irving doesn’t say, and perhaps our answers tell more about ourselves than about him.
Washington Irving spent his last days in Tarrytown, near the setting of his most famous story. He was a member of the local Episcopal Church, tried to revive the old Dutch festivities on St. Nicholas Day, and was moved to tears by singing the Gloria. In particular he loved to repeat the words “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, and good-will to men.” Though his era was in many ways a bigoted one, he resisted and thereby helped to shape a better future. One of his last revisions to Knickerbocker came late, removing the anti-Catholic references its youthful version contained. He was a man who had seen his share of specters, to be sure, but who didn’t believe they were the strongest reality.
If this national moment of healing and optimism we are currently enjoying is real, perhaps it has room to reconsider some of the things we might have forgotten. And if this is so, we could do a lot worse than to start, once again, with Washington Irving.
Eric Seddon is a poet and cultural critic in Cleveland. The present essay is part of a projected study on American Poetics.