Michael Dirda

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By Michael Dirda
Sunday, January 20, 2008

WASHINGTON IRVING

An American Original

By Brian Jay Jones

Arcade. 468 pp. $29.99

Delight and instruction are the two poles of art, at least according to Horace, but each genre balances these aspects differently. One might read a poem purely for the loveliness of its verbal music, but a biography, no matter how exquisitely written, must be more practical, presenting what its author judges to be the salient facts about a vanished human life. In the case of literary biography there is an additional didactic element: The work should excite a renewed interest in the subject's writing or offer some deeper understanding of it.

Such theorizing forced itself upon me when I began to think about Brian Jay Jones's Washington Irving: An American Original. This is, in most respects, a fine biography -- engaging, clearly written and well researched, full of material that is likely to be unfamiliar to most modern readers. But, in his preface, Jones announces that he will focus on Washington Irving the man, leaving comment about his writings to the literary critics. This struck me as a mistake, and I'll explain why in a moment.

Washington Irving (1783-1859), it turns out, was far more than a homespun, cracker-barrel storyteller, which is exactly the impression that I, at least, carried away from high school English class. He was, for instance, an international celebrity and the first American writer truly admired by the British; he spoke French, German, Spanish and a smattering of Italian. For 17 years he remained abroad, living by his pen when not serving as an envoy in London or an ambassador in Spain. Jones strikingly sums up Irving's public life thus:

"A friend to six presidents, he had danced with Dolley Madison in the White House, consoled Martin Van Buren in London, and flattered a young Queen Isabella in Madrid. . . . John Jacob Astor" -- the richest man in America -- "tapped him to be his personal biographer. Mary Shelley had a crush on him. Edgar Allan Poe flattered him. Sir Walter Scott loved him. Dickens, Longfellow, and Hawthorne adored him. Even those like James Fenimore Cooper who loathed him gave his work their grudging respect."

Elsewhere, Jones shows us that the young Irving was a dunce in school, hung out with a gang of rowdy young men, might have been homosexual and suffered from depression and debilitating skin rashes. After the success of his tongue-in-cheek A History of New York, published under the name Diedrich Knickerbocker, he endured nine years of creative drought -- but then brought forth his masterpiece, The Sketch Book, which includes "Rip Van Winkle," "The Spectre Bridegroom" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." (All three, interestingly enough, derive from German, not American, folklore.) Jones also reminds us that Irving coined the word "Gotham" for New York City and "Knickerbockers" for New Yorkers (and, by abbreviation, the name for the city's basketball team). He also gave us that useful phrase "the almighty dollar." Because of his cozy stories of Christmas banquets at Bracebridge Hall or of spooky nights in Sleepy Hollow, he arguably created the festive modern Christmas (though Dickens is usually given credit) as well as the spooky American Halloween.

All this, and much else, Jones conveys and conveys well. Nonetheless, Irving needs far more than a crisply written account of publishing successes and business failures or of his lifelong sociability and devotion to his brothers and sisters. What Washington Irving really needs is someone to champion his books.

When I was growing up, the four junior high schools in my Ohio hometown were named Hawthorne, Lowell, Whittier and Irving. Apart from Nathaniel Hawthorne (whose harrowing The Scarlet Letter is still the bane of many 11th graders), are any of these others still part of a living literary tradition? In the case of Irving, everyone knows the idea behind "Rip Van Winkle," but how many have actually read the story? Children catch the annual Halloween broadcasts of the animated "Legend of Sleepy Hollow" -- narrated by Bing Crosby -- and parents probably figure that's all they need. Is it? Disney's Headless Horseman is admittedly very cool, the stuff that childhood nightmares are made of, but Irving's original story -- neatly balancing local color and satire against the eerie and mysterious -- is far more than a cartoon.

And so is Irving himself. He's a real writer we shouldn't forget or dismiss -- not that I realized this a month ago.


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