Author: Washington Irving
Date of Publication:1820
LC Call Number: PS 2060 .S54
A warning—this post is about as personal as I intend to get on this blog. That doesn’t mean it’s incredibly personal; maybe slightly more so than my post on American Gods, but just—well, as Neil Gaiman would say, contains me.
So this is the kind of person that I am—I planned a trip up into the Catskills, which by the way are beautiful and totally worth visiting—and I decided to prepare for this trip by reading some Washington Irving, because what or who is more closely associated with the Catskills than Irving is?
So, I picked up The Sketch Book, which I’d actually read twice before, so I should have known that this was a slightly silly thing to do, because most of the stories are about Irving’s travels (or his narrator, who perhaps isn’t exactly Irving) through England. Still, it includes Irving’s most famous stories, “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” both of which are pretty firmly rooted in the Catskills, along with a couple of others that take place in a very American, very East Coast setting.
As a descriptive work giving me access to the landscape from another viewpoint at the same time, this (or at least, the American parts of it) is very effective. I hiked along the escarpment until I got to the site of an old hotel, gone now, overlooking a grand valley, full of trees of every color, through which the Hudson flowed and the shadows of clouds floated, a favorite vista of the Hudson River School of painters, and I read from “Rip Van Winkle”
Panting and fatigued, he threw himself, late in the afternoon, on a green knoll, covered with mountain herbage, that crowned the brow of a precipice. From an opening between the trees, he could overlook all the lower country for many a mile of rich woodland. He saw at a distance the lordly Hudson, far, far below him, moving on its silent but majestic course, with the reflection of a purple cloud, or the sail of a lagging bark, here and there sleeping on its glassy bosom, and at last losing itself in the blue highlands. On the other side he looked down into a deep mountain glen, wild, lonely and shagged, the bottom filled with fragments from the impending cliffs, and scarcely lighted by the reflected rays of the setting sun.
This is a little later in the afternoon than it was for me, but still—it looked almost exactly like that, and that’s an astonishing feeling for someone who comes from a region which most of the books are not about. It’s even more amazing when you consider that Irving refers to the Catskills as “these fairy mountains,” precisely because “every change of season, every change of weather, indeed, every hour of the day, produces some change in the magical hues and shapes of these mountains,” and yet, these changes are predictable enough that we were able to go there and catch them. Reading about a landscape, and then hiking through it, is a pretty remarkable experience for me—it makes both the landscape and the story more real, as if I were able to have the same experience or at least perceive the same things as another person. (Generally, my outlook tends to be more Blakean: “The fool sees not the same tree that the wise man sees.”)
Of course, what’s curious about this is that it seems to be almost exactly the opposite of the effect intended. Irving calls his book The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, rather than his own name, a decision which tends to disclaim the stories included therein, and the two stories which are the most concerned with this area have another layer of distance added to them, as they are instead attributed to the fictitious Diedrich Knickerbocker, who seems himself to have been something of a folklorist and picked them up from the people around him. Surely there is a little irony in the fact that Irving’s most famous works are these two stories for which he went to such trouble to avoid taking responsibility, stacking them under layers of pseudonyms.
I will note, however, that the presence of a supernatural or apparently supernatural element seems to trigger this desire—“The Spectre Bridegroom” also invokes the possibility of the supernatural, and is attributed to a traveler Irving meets in an inn. This is the case even though in both “The Spectre Bridegroom” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” the spooky occurrences are logically explained by the end of the story. In “The Mutability of Literature,” our narrator has a long conversation with a cranky old book, without resorting to such stratagems, but it it is made clear that this is a dream. The rest of the stories have no supernatural element.
In any case, it is quite clear that Irving is very interested in America and how it is perceived, so that although “The Voyage,” which comes early in the book and describes his journey to England, claims that by traveling over the Atlantic by ship is sufficient to erase all ties with the United States and give Irving a “state of mind peculiarly fitted to receive new and vivid impressions,” he includes some American stories and is, in fact, constantly referring back to his native country. One of the first essays in the book is “English Writers on America,” in which he laments the lack of good writing which would, in his view, properly represent the United States to the British. This essay is almost the definition of American exceptionalism, even while it, somewhat hilariously, claims that the US is or can become free of national prejudices (and this claim follows on the heels of Irving’s complaint that British scholars ought to study important things, like American society, rather than unimportant things, like the history and society of countries in Africa and Asia. This is pretty racist, right? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this is pretty racist.). In any case, his American perspective shows up elsewhere: in “The Angler,” he remembers his somewhat hilarious attempt to follow Izaak Walton’s fishing advice in incompatible American streams, when he meets up with a Welsh fisherman who reminds him strongly of the philosophy of The Compleat Angler. And of course, as I’ve noted before, the two most famous stories of this collection, “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” are very strongly rooted in a very specific region of the American countryside. Well, I haven’t quite discussed “Sleepy Hollow” as much as “Rip Van Winkle,” but it is similar in that respect, although it’s not quite as close to where I was!
There are two more pieces in this book about America—specifically, they are two interlinked pieces about Native Americans. The first is called “Traits of Indian Character” and is an essay, while the second, “Philip of Pokanoket” is the story of that particular individual (probably known to my fellow board gamers because of the existence of a somewhat controversial wargame titled King Philip’s War). These two pieces are a curious blend of racism and anti-racism. Irving buys into several stereotypes and Eurocentric assumptions about Native Americans, starting out by describing “the North American savage” as “ stern, simple and enduring; fitted to grapple with difficulties, and to support privations.” Irving certainly isn’t free of the temptation to paint romantic pictures of The Noble Savage, and he really lets the US government off the hook, but at the same time, he also advocates for their better treatment and astutely points out that they have been described “by bigoted and interested writers” and that these prejudiced accounts had done a great deal of harm in the lives of the Native Americans: “The colonist has often treated them like beasts of the forest; and the author has endeavored to justify him in his outrages.” Irving goes on to argue that the white colonists have not respected the rights of the Native Americans, that the vices often ascribed to them are in fact those created by their status in white society (or lack thereof), that their reaction to adversity is critiqued not because of how they react but because of who they are, and that to criticize Native Americans for reneging on treaties is in fact the height of hypocrisy. He gives a sympathetic account of King Philip in which he deplores the bloodshed perpetrated by the white colonists. Now, while doing all this, he certainly doesn’t express himself in a way that a social justice advocate would find free of error, and he reveals his biases when he talks about “civilization,” and when he treats them, essentially, like Tolkien’s elves at the end of both pieces—noble beings who will soon, alas, be gone from the world. That part isn’t great. But it’s still remarkable to find such a sympathetic treatment and such awareness of the damage done by racism in a book published in 1820.
Irving also writes quite a bit about what he thinks of British character (“John Bull” is interesting and I truly don’t know what to make of it), and especially about traditional British Christmas, which seems to really fascinate him. I suspect him of fabricating some characters for convenience when he writes about this, but that is neither here nor there. What is interesting is that Irving’s tourism, too, seems largely informed by his reading. He writes about visiting libraries and looking at books in “The Art of Book-Making” and “The Mutability of Literature.” This is a way for him to think about literature in general. I was amused to find that the latter includes moment in which Irving laments the proliferation of writers brought about by improvements in technology:
Formerly there were some restraints on this excessive multiplication. … Authorship was a limited and unprofitable craft, pursued chiefly by monks in the leisure and solitude of their cloisters. The accumulation of manuscripts was slow and costly, and confined almost entirely to monasteries. To these circumstances it may, in some measure, be owing that we have not been inundated by the intellect of antiquity; that the fountains of thought have not been broken up, and modern genius drowned in the deluge. But the inventions of paper and the press have put an end to all these restraints. They have made everyone a writer, and enabled every mind to pour itself into print, and diffuse itself over the whole intellectual world. The consequences are alarming. The stream of literature has swollen into a torrent—augmented into a river— expanded into a sea.
This is an argument familiar to anyone who has been paying attention to the debates over e-books and self publishing. Obviously, it’s older than that.
However, Irving’s interest isn’t limited to general observations about literature. Instead, he engages in an early form of fan tourism, looking for a landscape that is familiar to him from literature; specifically, he wants to hunt down scenes from Shakespeare. He spends some time in London looking for the Boar’s Head Tavern and is delighted to find a painting of it. He visits Stratford and tries to believe everything that people tell him about their connections to the life of Shakespeare and the relics that are there. His interest in Shakespeare is certainly different from mine—he’s really interested in Falstaff and puts a lot of stock in the deer-poaching story—but it’s clear that this is an author who means a lot to him and who has provided at least some of his reason to travel, and that he sees scenes from Shakespeare and from descriptions of Shakespeare’s life as he visits these places.
There is something nicely symmetrical about this—me, reading The Sketch Book to enhance my travels in the Catskills, while The Sketch Book details the relationship between Irving’s reading and his writing. While it’s true that Irving will never mean as much to me as Shakespeare obviously does to him (sorry, WI), I enjoy this additional similarity between my reading and my experience.