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Analysis of Washington Irving’s Stories

Washington Irving’s (April 3, 1783 – November 28, 1859) masterpiece, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., has a historical importance few American books can match. No previous American book achieved a really significant popular and critical success in England, the only arena of opinion which then mattered; but Irving demonstrated that an American could write not only well but also brilliantly even by British standards. In fact, throughout the century English as well as American schoolboys studied Irving’s book as a model of graceful prose.

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Irving had achieved some popularity in his own country well before the British triumphs. In 1807-1808, Irving, his brotherWilliam, and James Kirke Paulding collaborated on the independently published periodical series, Salmagundi. Since the project was a true collaboration, scholars are in doubt as to precisely who deserves credit for precisely what, but two pieces deserve particular notice. “Sketches from Nature” sentimentally sketches two old bachelors, one of whom restores the spirits of the other by leading him through scenes reminiscent of their youth. “The Little Man in Black” is supposedly a traditional story passed through generations of a single family. Irving here introduces another old bachelor, who wanders into the village a stranger to all and sets up housekeeping in a decrepit house rumored to be haunted. First ostracized by the adults, then tormented by the local children, ultimately he dies by starvation, in his last moments forgiving all, a true but misunderstood Christian.

Both pieces display Irving’s graceful style, his prevalent sentimentality, and his wholehearted commitment to charming, pleasing, and entertaining his audience. Both feature an old bachelor stereotype which he inherited from the Addisonian tradition and continued to exploit in later works. The pieces differ in their formal focus, however, and aptly illustrate the two poles of Irving’s fictional nature. The second shows his fondness for the tale tradition: He cites a source in family folklore; the narrative hangs on striking incident; and he flavors the atmosphere with a suggestion of the supernatural. The first features virtues of the periodical essay: evocation of character divorced from dramatic incident; a style dominated by smoothness (Edgar Allan Poe’s term was “repose”) and by descriptions strong on concrete detail; and an essentially realistic atmosphere. Irving’s unique genius led him to combine the best of both traditions in his finest fiction and thereby to create the modern short story in America.

Irving’s early career coincided with the rise of Romanticism, and the movement strongly influenced his greatest book, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Here he capitalized on the element which strongly marks his most successful stories: imagination. Consistently, Irving’s most successful characters, and stories, are those which most successfully exploit the imagination.

The Spectre Bridegroom

In “The Spectre Bridegroom,” the title character triumphs not through strength, physical skills, or intelligence, but rather through manipulating the imaginations of those who would oppose his aims. The story’s first section humorously describes a bellicose old widower, the Baron Von Landshort, who has gathered a vast audience, consisting mostly of poor relatives properly cognizant of his high status, to celebrate his only daughter’s marriage to a young count whom none of them has ever seen. In the story’s second part, the reader learns that as the count and his friend Herman Von Starkenfaust journey to the castle, they are beset by bandits; the outlaws mortally wound the count who, with his last breath, begs Von Starkenfaust to relay his excuses to the wedding party. The story’s third part returns to the castle where the long-delayed wedding party finally welcomes a pale, melancholy young man. The silent stranger hears the garrulous Baron speak on, among other matters, his family’s longstanding feud with the Von Starkenfaust family; meanwhile the young man wins the daughter’s heart. He shortly leaves, declaring he must be buried at the cathedral. The next night the daughter’s two guardian aunts tell ghost stories until they are terrified by spying the Spectre Bridegroom outside the window; the daughter sleeps apart from her aunts for three nights, encouraging their fears the while, and finally absconds. When she returns with her husband, Von Starkenfaust, who had pretended to be the Spectre, they both are reconciled with the Baron and live happily ever after.

By becoming in one sense artists themselves, Herman and his bride both manipulate the imaginations of the Baron, the aunts, and the entire wedding party to make their courtship and elopement possible; here, happily, the dupees lose nothing and share the ultimate happiness of the dupers. There are at least three dimensions to “The Spectre Bridegroom”: As it is read, one can imaginatively identify with the duped family and believe the Spectre genuine, or alternately identify with the young couple innocently manipulating their elders. A third dimension enters when the reader recalls the personality of the frame’s Swiss tale-teller, occasionally interrupting himself with “a roguish leer and a sly joke for the buxom kitchen maid” and himself responsible (it is surely not the modest and proper Geoffrey Crayon or Washington Irving) for the suggestive antlers above the prospective bridegroom’s head at the feast.

Rip Van Winkle

The narrative perspectives informing Irving’s single greatest achievement, “Rip Van Winkle,” radiate even greater complexities. At the simplest level the core experience is that of Rip himself, a good-natured idler married to a termagant who drives him from the house with her temper. While hunting in the woods, Rip pauses to assist a curious little man hefting a keg; in a natural amphitheater he discovers dwarfish sailors in archaic dress playing at ninepins. Rip drinks, falls asleep, and awakens the next morning alone on the mountainside. In a subtle, profound, and eerily effective sequence, Irving details Rip’s progressive disorientation and complete loss of identity. The disintegration begins mildly enough—Rip notices the decayed gun (a thief’s substitute he thinks), his dog’s absence, some stiffness in his own body—each clue is emotionally more significant than the last, but each may be easily explained. Rip next notices changes in nature—a dry gully has become a raging stream, a ravine has been closed by a rockslide; these are more dramatic alterations, but still explainable after a long night’s sleep.

Upon entering the village, he discovers no one but strangers and all in strange dress; he finds his house has decayed, his wife and children have disappeared; buildings have changed as well as the political situation and even the very manner and behavior of the people. In a terrible climax, when Irving for once declines to mute the genuine horror, Rip profoundly questions his own identity. When he desperately asks if anyone knows poor Rip Van Winkle, fingers point to another ragged idler at the fringe, the very image of Rip himself as he had ascended the mountain. Even Poe or Franz Kafka never painted a loss of identity more absolute, more profound, more credible, more terrible. After a moment of horror, Irving’s sentimental good humor immediately reasserts itself. Rip’s now-adult daughter appears and recognizes him; the ragged idler turns out to be his son, Rip, Jr. Rip himself hesitates for a moment, but, upon learning that his wife has died “but a short time since,” declares his identity and commences reintegrating himself in the community, eventually to become an honored patriarch, renowned for recounting his marvelous experience.

Thus is the nature of the core narrative, which is almost all most people ever read. The reader values the story for its profound mythic reverberations; after all, throughout Western civilization Irving’s Rip has become an archetype of time lost. The reader may also appreciate Irving’s amoral toying with lifestyles, and although the Yankee/Benjamin Franklin lifestyle Rip’s wife advocates and which leads to her death (she bursts a blood vessel while haggling) fails to trap Rip, he triumphs by championing the relatively unambitious, self-indulgent lifestyle Irving identifies with the Dutch. Still, many people feel tempted to reject the piece as a simplistic fairy tale dependent on supernatural machinery for its appeal and effect. This is a mistake.

Those who read the full story as Irving wrote it will discover, in the headnote, that Irving chose to relate the story not from the point of view of an omniscient narrator but from that of Diedrich Knickerbocker, the dunderheaded comic persona to whom years earlier he had ascribed the burlesque A History of New York. The presence of such a narrator—and Irving went to some trouble to introduce him—authorizes the reader to reject the supernatural elements and believe, as Irving tells us many of Rip’s auditors believed, that in actuality Rip simply tired of his wife, ran away for twenty years, and concocted a cock-and-bull story to justify his absence. Looking closer, the reader discovers copious hints that this is precisely what happened: Rip’s reluctance to become Rip again until he is sure his wife is dead; the fact that when his neighbors hear the story they “wink at each other and put their tongues in their cheeks”; the fact that, until he finally established a satisfactory version of the events, he was observed “to vary on some points every time he told it.” In the concluding footnote, even dim Diedrich Knickerbocker acknowledges the story’s doubtfulness but provides as evidence of its truth the fact that he has heard even stranger supernatural stories of the Catskills, and that to authenticate his story Rip signed a certificate in the presence of a justice of the peace. “The story, therefore, is beyond the possibility of doubt.” Irving clearly intends to convince his closest readers that Rip, like the couple in “The Spectre Bridegroom,” triumphed over circumstances by a creative manipulation of imagination.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

In “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” our source is again Diedrich Knickerbocker, and again, creatively manipulating the imaginations of others proves the key to success. The pleasant little Dutch community of Sleepy Hollow has imported a tall, grotesquely lanky Yankee as schoolmaster, Ichabod Crane. Although he is prey to the schoolboys’ endless pranks, he himself ravenously and endlessly preys on the foodstuffs of the boys’ parents. Ichabod finally determines to set his cap for the pretty daughter of a wealthy farmer, but Brom Bones, the handsome, Herculean local hero, has likewise determined to court the girl. The climax comes when the principals gather with the entire community at a dance, feast, and “quilting frolic” held at Katrina Van Tassel’s home. Brom fills the timorous and credulous Ichabod full of tales of a horrible specter, ghost of a Hessian soldier beheaded by a cannonball, who inhabits the region through which Ichabod must ride that night to return home. As he makes his lonely journey back, Ichabod encounters the dark figure who carries his head under his arm rather than on his neck and who runs him a frightful race to a bridge. At the climax the figure hurls his head and strikes Ichabod, who disappears, never to be seen in the village again. Brom marries Katrina, and years later the locals discover that Ichabod turned lawyer, politician, newspaperman, and finally became a “justice of the Ten Pound Court.”

Again it is the character who creatively manipulates the imagination who carries the day; the manipulatee wins only the consolation prize. Again the Dutch spirit triumphs over the Yankee. In this story there is something quite new, however; for the first time in American literature there is, in the characterization of Brom Bones, the figure of the frontiersman so important to American literature and American popular culture: physically imposing, self-confident, rough and ready, untutored but endowed with great natural virtues, gifted with a rude sense of chivalry, at home on the fringes of civilization, and incorporating in his own being the finer virtues of both the wilderness and the settlements. Irving here brilliantly anticipated both the essence of southwestern humor and of James Fenimore Cooper’s seminal Westerns.

Irving wrote a great many other stories, including several romantic tales set in Spain, most of them flawed by superficiality and sentimentality; he also produced a number of gothic stories, some of which are still read with pleasure, among them “The Adventure of the German Student” and “The Devil and Tom Walker.” Irving, however, reached his highest point in his first published short story, “Rip Van Winkle.” He never equaled it in any subsequent story—but then, only a tiny handful of writers ever have.

Major works
Miscellaneous: The CompleteWorks ofWashington Irving, 1969-1989 (30 volumes).
Play: Charles the Second: Or, The Merry Monarch, pb. 1824 (with John Howard Payne).
Nonfiction: A History of New York, 1809; Biography of James Lawrence, 1813; A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, 1828; A Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada, 1829; Voyages and Discoveries of the Companions of Columbus, 1831; A Tour of the Prairies, 1835; Astoria, 1836; The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, 1837; The Life of Oliver Goldsmith, 1849; The Life of George Washington, 1855-1859 (5 volumes).
Short fiction: The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., 1819-1820; Bracebridge Hall, 1822; Tales of a Traveller, 1824; The Alhambra, 1832; Legends of the Conquest of Spain, 1835; The Complete Tales of Washington Irving, 1975, 1998 (Charles Neider, editor).

Bibliography
Aderman, Ralph M., ed. Critical Essays on Washington Irving. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990.
Hiller, Alice. “‘An Avenue to Some Degree of Profit and Reputation’: The Sketch Book as Washington Irving’s Entree and Undoing.” Journal of American Studies 31 (August, 1997): 275-293.
McFarland, Philip. Sojourners. New York: Atheneum, 1979.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Murray, Laura J. “The Aesthetic of Dispossession: Washington Irving and Ideologies of (De)colonization in the Early Republic.” American Literary History 8 (Summer, 1996): 205-231.
Myers, Andrew B., ed. A Century of Commentary on the Works of Washington Irving. Tarrytown, N.Y.: Sleepy Hollow Restorations, 1976.
Piacentino, Ed. “‘Sleepy Hollow’ Comes South: Washington Irving’s Influence on Old Southwestern Humor.” The Southern Literary Journal 30 (Fall, 1997): 27-42.
Plummer, Laura, and Michael Nelson. “‘Girls Can Take Care of Themselves’: Gender and Storytelling in Washington Irving’s ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.’” Studies in Short Fiction 30 (Spring, 1993): 175-184.
Rubin-Dorsky, Jeffrey. Adrift in the Old World: The Psychological Pilgrimage of Washington Irving. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.
Tuttleton, JamesW., ed.Washington Irving: The Critical Reaction. New York: AMS Press, 1993.
Williams, Stanley T. The Life of Washington Irving. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1935.

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Categories: American Literature, Literary Theory, Short Story

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