Monday, February 24, 2014

Washington Irving and American "History"

The following is part of a work-in-progress called A Brief History of American Literature.

When the United States became an independent nation in 1783, it didn't have much of a "national literature" to speak of.  There were, of course, Native American oral traditions galore, and many religious writings by Puritan settlers, but most of the literature taught in the schools at this time was Greek, Roman, and European.  America, being a young nation, didn't have the kind of literary history of, say, England, which stretched back hundreds of years.  

One of the earliest, and most popular of the new "American" writers was Washington Irving (1783-1859), who is still widely read and whose works have infiltrated popular culture.  He is most famous for his "Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle" stories, which combined fantasy, folklore, and American history.  When he was writing, however, America (as a nation) didn't have much of a history to speak of, so he drew from pre-American folktales to inspire his memorable stories, which made him a literary celebrity, and inspired countless other writers who would make up the fledgling canon of American literature.

Washington Irving

Ironically, in the early days of the American Republic, one of the most popular genres of fiction was the historical novel, and the most famous historical novelist of this time was Sir Walter Scott, who was British.  Irving loved the writings of Sir Walter Scott, and was greatly influenced by them, if not in style, then at least in content.  Irving sought to create a kind of "mythic history" of America, as Scott had done for England.

He began by exhaustively researching local history, particularly New York history, which at that time was not a very big city.  One of Irving's earliest popular works was A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker (1809).  Diedrich Knickerbocker was a pen-name Irving used.  Irving's "History" was really a satire/commentary on politics and local figures.  It was not a "true" history.  But its existence raised profound, if comical, questions about the shaky difference between history and fiction.  The very popularity of the "historical fiction" novel indicated that Americans were uncertain about who they were.  Irving's "History" was a construct of fact and fantasy, and who was to say it was "untrue"?

In 1815, Irving moved to England, and it was there (ironically) that he wrote two of the most famous stories of American literature: "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."  These stories were part of a collection of stories entitled "The Sketch Book" which was published in 1819.

In Rip Van Winkle, Irving continued his fascination with the history of New York and, by extension, the history of the young American republic.  The story begins before the Revolutionary War, in a sleepy town at the foot of the Catskill Mountains.  New York was first colonized and settled by the Dutch, and so this town has a decidedly Dutch culture.

Rip Van Winkle is a kindly man, who isn't very "industrious."  Instead of working on his small farm, he prefers the company of his friends at the local tavern, or taking long walks in the woods with his dog, Wolf.  One day, on one of these walks into the Catskills, he encounters a strange company of gnome-like guys who are bowling and drinking a mysterious alcoholic beverage.  Van Winkle joins them, gets pretty drunk, and then falls asleep on the grass.  When he awakes, nearly 20 years have passed.

When he returns to his little village, things have changed drastically.  New York has become part of the United States of America, and the pace of life has increased drastically.  Everyone is obsessed with national elections and political debates.  Van Winkle takes a while to figure out what has happened, but ultimately he finds his (now grown) children, and the townspeople accept him as an odd eccentric who likes to tell old tales.

The story is entertaining as fantasy (and comedy), but it also feels like a commentary on how the Revolutionary War changed the culture of the colonies, for better and for worse.  How would the new nation, so interested in its bright future, remember the past?  Rip Van Winkle, the kindly villager, becomes "a man out of time."  While the story is fictional, it does reflect a certain truth about what was gained, and what was lost, when the United States became a nation.

Irving's obsession with history and national identity would continue throughout his life.  While serving as a diplomat to Spain, he wrote a lengthy biography of Christopher Columbus.  And his final work, which he thought would be his masterpiece, was a five-volume biography of George Washington.  Interestingly, however, it is not his "true" histories for which he is remembered, but rather his "fantastical" historical fictions.  Speaking for myself, I am equally interested in American history and fiction, and how the two intersect, and how the stories we tell ourselves about the past inform our current identities.  Washington Irving was also interested in these things.

Rip Van Winkle


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