Old Dutch church and graveyard in Sleepy Hollow, Tarrytown, From Benson Lossing's "The Hudson, from the Wilderness to the Sea".
Why does no one read Washington Irving any longer? Ask a literarily-inclined New Yorker about Washington Irving and you'll probably get a condescending reference to Rip Van Winkle. The heritage of America's first great writer has passed into the safekeeping of school children, historical societies, and real estate interests. Yet for most of this nation's history Irving was considered one of the stars in America's literary firmament, and a half dozen of his books were required reading for anyone who wanted to be considered a cultivated citizen.
Of course I, like most Americans nowadays, first learned about Irving through children's books and Walt Disney's animated film of Ichabod Crane battling the Headless Horseman. Yet when I first moved to Tivoli some 15 years ago I couldn't help but notice how, as thunderstorms approached from the west, they almost inevitably stalled over the Catskills. Irving had imputed the sound of distant thunder to Catskill mountain men bowling ninepins, and this nearly mythic image made me curious about its author. Deciding to take a serious look at the man who produced these Hudson Valley legends, I bought myself a copy of the Library of America's first volume of Irving's selected works.
I quickly discovered it wasn't going to be easy to find more of that Hudson Valley thunder. The first third of History, Tales & Sketches was taken up with dated satirical commentary from newspapers and Salmagundi, a literary journal founded by Washington, his brother Peter and brother-in-law James Kirke Paulding in the first years of the 19th century. The last third was a reprint of Irving's most famous bestseller, The Sketchbook, written under the pseudonym of "Geoffrey Crayon, Esquire." This is the volume that contains Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow; and, in fact, those two stories in their original prose are well worth owning the book. But they are also the only Hudson Valley stories included, and with the exception of two brief essays about American Indians and one about English writers' distorted impressions of the USA, the only of the 32 "sketches" with American subject matter. Most of the others are a traveler's romanticized, sentimental observations on the manners and customs of the English countryside—with an extended middle section about an English squire's celebration of the Christmas. And this is the volume that cemented Irving's reputation as the first American writer of quality?
To me, it was the middle third of the Library of America edition—Irving's less-well-known but irrefutably most original work, his Knickerbocker History of New York—that justified this reputation. Originally conceived by Irving and his brother as the lampoon of a pompous New York State guidebook, the project evolved into a Swiftian parody of epic proportions. In the process Irving made fun not just of New York's good Dutch burghers but of Jefferson and the raucous first years of American democracy. Most remarkable was Irving's pseudonymous invention of a scatterbrained, impecunious buffoon/scholar named Diederich Knickerbocker who had supposedly left behind this manuscript when he disappeared mysteriously from a Manhattan hotel. The origins of the book may lie in the satirical journalism undertaken earlier by him and his brothers, but the biting wit and topical humor lift it into a category all its own.
Whatever happened to Washington Irving to turn him from Diederich Knickerbocker into the mannered artiste of The Sketchbook, Sir Geoffrey Crayon? Curious about this question, I turned to the "biography of record," a two-volume scholarly treatment written by Yale professor Stanley Williams in the 1930s. It was little help. In his introductory words, Williams loftily denigrates both Irving's career and achievements. He then goes on to prove his contempt on the thousand pages that follow. What was he trying to prove—that he agreed with most of his contemporary literary critics of "the American Renaissance" who belittled Irving's work as too upper class, too quaint, and too cosmopolitan?
Stanley Williams's imposing dismissal of Irving effectively scared off more sympathetic treatments for nearly 80 years. Suddenly in the last year and a half, however, a pair of serious new biographies have emerged from two younger authors. The first to appear, history professor Andrew Burstein's The Original Knickerbocker, attempts to present a wider cultural portrait by showing how this "acclaimed American storyteller, ambassador, biographer, and New York Politico... shaped a nation." Brian Jay Jones, a 40-something freelance writer and former speechwriter with an interest in comics and rock and roll, has written a more straightforward but in some ways more energetic biography in Washington Irving: An American Original.
Jones, by hewing closely to the colorful events of Irving's life, allows us to retrace his extraordinarily varied career with almost novelistic intimacy. Burstein's portrait of Irving is more distant, less vivid, and occasionally encumbered by theoretical interpretations—but it paints a colorful canvas of the New York world of the arts, especially the chapter on Knickerbocker writers like Fitz-Greene Halleck and William Cullen Bryant. Both biographies re-establish some of the excitement of the man and his era that were leeched out of the subject by the pompous Williams, and finally give a modern reader not only real insight into this unusual and very American author, but an in-depth look into this critical period in our national culture.
One important aspect of Irving's story presented in both biographies is the account of Irving's writing of his History. In the months after he and his brother conceived the idea, Washington fell in love with Matilda Hoffmann, the younger daughter of his attorney employer, only to see her contract tuberculosis and die from it at age 17. After this agonizing tragedy Irving withdrew upstate to the Kinderhook home of his friend William Peter Van Ness, Aaron Burr's second during the infamous duel in which Alexander Hamilton was killed. Here, in the spring of 1809, Irving sat down and composed the farce that was to become Knickerbocker's History, living daily with the excruciating contrast between the pain in his heart and the vitality of the rejuvenated countryside. In these surroundings he found the voice of Diederich Knickerbocker. (The house was later purchased by former president Martin Van Buren and rebaptized Lindenwald. It remains to this day a National Historic Site.)
The publication of A History of New York transformed Irving overnight into the most promising American man of letters. The book was an instant success, and editions soon appeared in England and even in France. All cultivated society was anxious to meet the clever young man who had so stylishly skewered the infant history of New York, the nation's newest commercial capital. The America of 1810 was no place for a young man to try to earn a living with his pen, however. He had not been able to bring himself to a real practice of law, and the death of Matilda Hoffmann had robbed him of any further incentive to continue on that path. He reluctantly accepted the editorship of a new magazine, volunteered for the War of 1812, and eventually busied himself with the family's import-export business, finally migrating to Liverpool to work there with his brother on the export end. When that business went bankrupt in 1818, Irving lost his illusions about being able to survive off the family business. He would need to make his own living, and he would have to do it the only way that had ever brought him success: by writing.
Both new biographies of Irving provide valuable details about the unusual trans-Atlantic publishing history of The Sketchbook—a subject itself worth examining for its cross-cultural implications. Though neither author directly addresses why Irving felt compelled to discard Knickerbocker as his main authorial voice, it's clear that the old Dutch buffoon was somehow out of place in a post-Napoleonic England being swept up in the tides of the Romantic movement. My own take is that Irving created a new writer's identity to rescue himself from the ignominy of bankruptcy and the sneers of a disdainful British cultural class. He had been living a pauper's existence in Liverpool, Manchester and London. He saw all around him the signs of a great wave of industrialization, but was more interested in the ruins and traditions and habits of Olde England that were fast disappearing. His four essays on Christmas, at the time a holiday largely unobserved in many American households, lie at the origin of the movement to reinvent the occasion as an Anglo-Saxon tradition. Luckily Diederich Knickerbocker resurfaced, almost by chance, while Geoffrey Crayon was dreaming. In Manchester, in the warm bosom of his sister and brother-in-law's house, he had a vision of Rip Van Winkle and composed the story literally overnight, along with an outline for "Legend of Sleepy Hollow."
Diederich Knickerbocker and Geoffrey Crayon were only the first in Washington Irving's series of identity transformations. He stayed in Europe for another decade and while there he wrote, sometimes under a Spanish pseudonym, books about Christopher Columbus, the Alhambra, and Mohammed. In the process he became the prime exponent of America's fascination with Moorish Spain (a huge influence also in the Hudson Valley, evident in Frederic Church's Olana). When he returned home to New York he took up the the American West as a subject in several volumes, and as a final contribution to American history he devoted the last decade of his life to a monumental five-volume biography of his namesake, George Washington.
To the great pride of a young nation, Washington Irving overcame the stigma of cultural provincialism, producing works about England, Spain and other parts of the Old World which were admired by established European writers and critics and admitted by acclamation to the ranks of world literature. By placing his American stories in the context of other essays and narratives about England and English culture, he did not diminish or belittle them in the eyes of his countrymen, but rather elevated them.
The homely and nostalgic vein of Irving's has held its own to this day. Despite the disdain of the literati, there's been no movement to dismantle the honorifics granted the author during and after his lifetime. Irvington, now a piece of the suburban mosaic in southern Westchester County, may not be as distinct a settlement as Cooperstown, New York, but Irving probably still outranks Cooper in the sentiments of fellow Americans. A good portion of the tourist and educational culture of the Hudson Valley revolves around Irvingiana—from high schools with names like Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod Crane, and, of course, Washington Irving, to the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, Irving Place, and Irving's own Sunnyside, part of the historic trust underwritten by Rockefeller family fortune.
Knickerbocker, "the almighty dollar," Sleepy Hollow, Headless Horseman, and Rip Van Winkle are totems that have worked their way ineradicably into the consciousness of millions of Americans as well as foreigners. And the entire nation's celebrations of Christmas and Santa Claus would not be the same without the fifty pages from The Sketchbook. Still, his works are remarkably hidden, unread, and unappreciated. While Gulliver's Travels is available in any number of publishers' classic editions, none of these publishers makes available such an edition of Irving/Knickerbocker's History. To land yourself a bound edition of Book of the Hudson, the only single volume that offers the core short fiction that remains of interest today, will cost you a minimum of $300 from Alibris or Amazon.com.
In my opinion, Irving became embalmed in his own legends during his very lifetime. At war with himself, he buried himself in a romantic cottage next to the Hudson and tried to create the appearance of comfort, style and elegance, an appropriate context for the position to which his fellow Americans had unofficially elected him. It was a phony set-up, and when the superficial part of the magic wore off, the fall in his reputation was catastrophic.
Washington Irving, however, continues to lay claim to a rightfully important place in the living body of American literature. Legend-collecting and tale-telling—the Sleepy Hollow of Brom Bones, Dolph Heyliger's voyage up the Hudson, the rolling thunder of Rip Van Winkle's bowling partners—was the source of his appeal. As portraitist, satirist, biographer or historian, he invested the landscape with meaning and symbol, distilling a distinctly New York mythology. While Henry Hudson put his name on maps of the North River, it was Washington Irving who first brought New York and its largest river valley into the consciousness of the world's readers. The boisterous wit and aspiring dandyism of Irving in 1810 is the first birth of the cosmopolitan verve that still echoes through the pages of such magazines as the New Yorker. Irving himself should still be seen not only as America's first great writer, but as one of the first examples of the American genius at turning culture into commodity.