Washington Irving, you smell nice, too

Well, it is with great relief that I can declare to all you cybernauts that I have been cured of the little Strawberry Shortcake “issue” I suffered from for most of last week. So far, no jingles for children’s toys have achieved that kind of connection with Washington Irving, so I think we can call me officially cured.

Yes, this week has been all about Washington Irving. We’re reading the two most commonporker johnson Irving stories, “Rip Van Winkle,” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” The main reason I chose these old standbys is that I have never read them and I wanted to know if they are, as they say, “good.”

Here’s the usual spiel on Washington Irving: He was the first acknowledged master of the “American short story” genre, and gained huge popularity at home and abroad as such. He was particularly interested in speaking to a European audience in order to convince those Old Worlders that America actually did have “history” and an environment suitable for the creation of great art. Although he is known for his whimsical storytelling, Irving’s main goal was to portray the folk culture of the young republic in a semi-documentarian way, thus elevating that culture (and his portrayal of the culture) to the status of high art.

The two stories we read, in fact, Irving claims to have found among the writings of an amateur historian, Diedrich Knickerbocker, who, if he was real, would have been one of the nation’s first ethnographers, I suppose. (Ethnographer: Fancy word for a person who goes around writing down the stories, and describing the activities, of some particular group of people.) Knickerbocker is, of course, a persona created by Irving to lend, paradoxically, both credibility and whimsy to his stories: credibility, by means of an elaborate explanation of the stories’ provenance (where they came from and why the are true); whimsy, since the whole thing is an elaborate, ironic fabrication (or, lie, if you will).

So now I have read the two old standards taught as the first examples of American storytelling, and what do I think? I like them. I was especially pleased that Irving resists creating a good vs. evil duality in any of his stories. In both of these stories, characters seem pulled along by fate (often associated with willful “Nature,”), with only the slightest token resistance. The outcomes of the stories see characters equally blessed and cursed–and both “blessings” and “cursings” can be redefined as their opposites from different perspectives. That seems pretty modern–and pretty honest–to me.

The stories also have their weaknesses. From the restless student’s perspective, one wonders how much of a supposed ghost story can actually be dedicated to descriptions of North American birds and traditional Dutch cooking. As I mentioned above, Irving was trying to elevate this folksy stuff to a new artistic level, but a fat lot of good that does to a 16-year-old that wants to see some heads rolling. The stories also suffer from a perspective limited to that of the European, white male, with all the assumptions of dominance that this gender/ethnic classification implied in the 18th century. It sometimes seems like Irving is making fun of the typical male’s sexism, yet he betrays his own limited perspective by his inability to construct a plausibly complex female character. Also, his description of the black “house servants” lurking around the edges of “Sleepy Hollow” narrative shows he has no appreciation for the deep problems inherent in a racist society.

On that last issue, there’s good news and bad news. The next great American movement we’ll study, the Transcendentalists, recognized the problems Irving glossed over. The bad news? The group was still dominated by white, European males who, however “enlightened,” simply couldn’t fully “transcend” the limited perspective linked to their gender and ethnicity. The bottom line is, a more diverse group would produce better, more interesting ideas. But that’s a problem for next week.

Well. This has been a most business-like post. You can download the stories from the link at the bottom of the post. They make a nice, Autumny read, so check ’em out.



Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Rip Van Winkle

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