By Michael Dirda
Sunday, January 20, 2008
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.
For as luck would have it, just before reading Jones's biography, I ran into a friend -- an actor by profession -- who is an ardent Irving collector. Why in the world, I asked him, do you collect Washington Irving of all people? He answered, "I find nearly everything he wrote absolutely enchanting."
That was enough for me. I spent a couple of days reading around a handy little volume of Irving's "representative writings," first published in 1934. Those writings weren't at all what I expected: A History of New York and a good deal of The Sketch Book were genuinely funny, with a sly, almost Wodehouse-like humor. Take this description of the wondrous accomplishments of the heroine of "The Spectre Bridegroom":
"By the time she was eighteen she could embroider to admiration, and had worked whole histories of the saints in tapestry, with such strength of expression in their countenances that they looked like so many souls in purgatory. She could read without great difficulty, and had spelled her way through several church legends. . . . She had even made considerable proficiency in writing; could sign her own name without missing a letter, and so legibly that her aunts could read it without spectacles."
I discovered that Irving's prose was a model of neoclassical elegance and syntactic balance -- which, Jones tells us, was why the British so admired it. In one essay, "Traits of Indian Character," Irving even spoke with a surprisingly modern sympathy for Native Americans and their culture -- and scathingly indicted white colonialists for destroying them and it: "The whites have too frequently set them an example of violence, by burning their villages and laying waste their slender means of subsistence; and yet they wonder that savages do not show moderation and magnanimity towards those who have left them nothing but mere existence and wretchedness." In such fine stories as "The Adventure of the German Student" (from Tales of a Traveller) or "Legend of the Arabian Astrologer" (from The Alhambra), Irving is just spellbinding. The first is a classic ghost story, the second a superb tale of magic and trickery. Little wonder he has long been regarded as the father of the short story in America.
Yet even though he was a pioneering figure in American literature, Irving shouldn't be viewed as primitive or rough-hewn. He possessed a romantic sensibility but wrote with 18th-century suavity. In fact, as he once said in a letter, he viewed himself as a stylist:
"For my part, I consider a story merely as a frame on which to stretch my materials. It is the play of thought, and sentiment, and language; the weaving in of characters, lightly, yet expressively delineated; the familiar and faithful exhibition of scenes in common life; and the half-concealed vein of humor that is often playing through the whole, -- these are among what I aim at, and upon which I felicitate myself in proportion as I think I succeed."
Brian Jay Jones quotes from Irving's letters and journals throughout his biography, so he does convey something of the writer's genial narrative manner. And, despite his prefatory admonition, Jones also offers concise but telling summaries of the major works, noting that "Sleepy Hollow," for instance, is "less about plot than mood." But I think Washington Irving: An American Original, as good as it is, missed a chance to be a bit more useful to modern readers: We really need a contemporary introduction to Irving's wonderful stories and sketches, one that makes people want to explore and enjoy his humorous, elegant and atmospheric prose. That said, Jones's book is a start. Washington Irving was once the most famous writer in America, which means nothing in itself. But he is, as I myself have only lately discovered, still worth reading -- and not for instruction but for all kinds of pleasure and delight. *
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.