Uncovering an American Legend

By Reviewed by Dennis Drabelle
Sunday, May 27, 2007


The Life of Washington Irving

By Andrew Burstein

Basic. 420 pp. $27.50

Is there another major American writer whose reputation rests on so narrow a base as Washington Irving's? Two indelible short stories -- "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" -- are still in circulation, but that's about it. Irving's masterpiece was his first book, the witty Knickerbocker's History of New York, but who even dips into it now? Or the rest of Irving's substantial oeuvre? He seems to epitomize the canonical author whose Complete Works occupy the shelf like an uncracked fortress: 15 volumes, in his case, including the worshipful biographies of Columbus and George Washington, the travels hither and the tours yon.

This smart new life of the writer, by University of Tulsa history professor Andrew Burstein, may not inspire you to address your Irving gap, but it ably locates an appealing figure in his place and time. Irving belonged to that pre-Whitman, pre-Mark Twain cohort of American authors who sought to make room for their country in world literature as it existed, rather than striking out in new directions more suited to unique national circumstances. "Rip Van Winkle" itself was a borrowing, from a German folktale called "Peter Klaus," which Irving transported to a time and place -- the Empire State-to-be when it was a Dutch colony -- with a strong European presence. This playfully genteel author uttered no barbaric yawps.

He was born in New York City in 1783, the 11th and youngest child of parents who had come over from England two decades earlier. Irving's father owned a store that sold "hardware, wine, and sundries," a business in which several of the sons worked on and off; Washington himself helped with the bookkeeping from time to time. He allied himself with Aaron Burr, a patrician whose federalist politics appealed to the young Irving largely because, in Burstein's words, "he gravitated to people of substance." Later in life, Irving became more attuned to Jacksonian democracy.

Irving began writing newspaper pieces as a teenager, emulating the urbane irony of Addison and Steele's Spectator Papers and publishing under the pseudonym Jonathan Oldstyle. In his early 20s, Irving toured upstate New York and then Europe -- the first of many excursions that made him one of American literature's great nomads. Back home, he joined with other wits and journalists to put out a magazine, Salmagundi, and to study law. He and his brother Peter dreamed up the idea of a mock history of New York, but when Peter dropped out, Washington saw the project through alone, inventing an eccentric Dutchman, Diedrich Knickerbocker, as the purveyor of mixed fact and fiction, complete with droll nicknames for colonial governors, such as Walter the Doubter and William the Testy.

Decades later, Irving met Charles Dickens, his junior by 29 years, who told him how much Knickerbocker's History had meant to him, and the line between Irving's work and the inspired silliness of early Dickens -- especially The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby-- is not hard to trace. As Burstein notes, Knickerbocker's History owes debts of its own to Fielding, Sterne and Swift, but it's refreshing to find this early instance of literary influence running from America to England, rather than the other way 'round.

After meeting Sir Walter Scott in 1819, Irving got busy on the pieces that went into The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, among them the story that made him famous, "Rip Van Winkle." Irving fleshed out its forerunner, "Peter Klaus," by making Rip a sympathetic figure and playing on the discrepancy between changes that go on outside us and our inner conviction that we ourselves stay the same. Turning to "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," Burstein discerns a personal dimension to the story, in that Irving, like Ichabod Crane, was a "bachelor married to his imaginative prospects," a "visitor . . . in the lives of those to whom he is drawn." (Elsewhere, Burstein considers whether Irving, himself a lifelong bachelor who had many boon male friends and no known sexual encounters with women, might have been gay, but concludes that there is no clear evidence one way or the other.)

Irving was befriended by Sir Walter Scott, admired by Lord Byron and widely considered the first American writer who could hold his own with England's best. His Christmas stories helped magnify a middling feast day into an annual orgy of sentiment and spending, and his Tales of the Alhambra focused a romantic light on Spain, a country previously outshone by Italy and Greece. But all too soon he began to revisit old literary ground and to write those pious biographies, including one commissioned by the merchant prince John Jacob Astor. Irving shrewdly packaged his writings and fought tenaciously for copyright protection, he served his country well as minister to Spain, and he has the distinction of being the first American author to make a living strictly by his pen. Although his best work lay almost 40 years in the past, he died, in 1859, a wealthy man.

On a personal note, Knickerbocker's History came as a godsend when I was studying early American literature in graduate school. Through most of the course, the reading assignments had featured hectoring Puritan sermons and feeble knockoffs of Dryden and Pope. The History looked fat and formidable, but it proved to be a breezy compendium of genial nonsense. For having loosened up American letters, Washington Irving deserves the gratitude of us all. ยท

Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.

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