Sunday, August 09, 2009

Washington Irving

A friend recently loaned me Washington Irving's Sketch Book. She thought I would like it and she was right. I liked it so much that I headed over to Wikipedia to see what the dish on Irving is. Some of this info comes from there.

Washington Irving (1783-1859) is said to be one of the first Americans to make a living as a writer. He created the following items:
  • "Gotham" as a nickname for New York City.
  • the myth that in 1492, Columbus and his compatriots believed the Earth was flat. Yes, apparently it's a myth.
  • the tale of Rip van Winkle, which retained its popularity for a long time.
  • the tale of the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow, which also retained its popularity for a long time, and was even made into a Walt Disney cartoon in 1958.
He did not invent the two stories listed above; his original contribution was an American setting and, I suppose, his writing style.

He lived in England for many years. As a Jane Austen fan, I have to remark that they briefly overlapped, chronologically as well as geographically. He first moved to England in 1815; Austen died two years later. It seems unlikely that they ever met, but they both worked with the same publisher (John Murray) and it is tempting to think that they had mutual acquaintances (I do not know if a publisher counts as an acquaintance.)

Sir Walter Scott was an admirer of both writers - Austen and Irving - but a personal friend and benefactor to Irving alone. In his preface to the Sketch Book, Irving tells the story of how Scott offered him the position of editor of a magazine. Perhaps because he had tried this before, Irving had to refuse. He quotes from his letter to Scott:
"My whole course of life has been desultory, and I am unfitted for any periodically recurring task, or any stipulated labor of body or mind."
I find it rather amusing that, after having declared himself completely incapable of doing any actual work, he ended up going into the diplomatic service.

Throughout the Sketch Book he portrays himself as a dilettante, a rootless, homeless wanderer and essentially lazy person. This must have been somewhat of an exaggeration. The fact is that he did a lot of writing, which is hard work (especially if he was able to make it seem effortless), and a lot of traveling, which always requires exertion. It seems to have been part of his technique for charming people, to insist that he was not to be taken seriously.

The person who wrote the afterword to this edition of the Sketch Book claims, among other things, that underneath his light-hearted facade Irving was melancholy and obsessed with death. "Underneath" is not quite accurate. The Sketch Book contains many stories about tragic deaths, funerals, and so on, along with such lines as "[I was] indulging in that kind of melancholy fancying which has in it something sweeter even than pleasure." Apparently some later editions of the book removed all the depressing chapters - but that's not Irving's fault, now is it?

As for being obsessed with death: it may seem that way to a modern reader. But people paid much more attention to death in earlier times. It was present for them in a way that it's not for us. When Irving asks, "who is so fortunate as never to have followed someone he has loved to the tomb?" he's referring to ordinary reality. He himself was one of eleven children, of whom three died in infancy. His fiancee died at the age of nineteen (in fact, he never married.) I don't think he would have written so much about death and funeral customs if he didn't think his audience would be interested.

In some ways, he was a very conventional person. Many of the stories in the Sketch Book praise old customs and old writers, lament their passing, and criticize novelty. But he did allow himself a few rebellions. His sympathy for Native Americans was apparently very unusual for his time. He retells from a "volume of early colonial history" an incident in which a group of Europeans surround an Indian village, set fire to it and kill all the inhabitants (mostly women and children, as the warriors had been defeated in a previous battle.) He quotes:
"they were in much doubt then, and afterwards seriously enquired whether burning their enemies alive could be consistent with humanity, and the benevolent principles of the Gospel."
And yet you will note that they didn't discover their doubts until afterward.

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