Monday, June 29, 2015

Washington Irving and the Satire of Cultural Amnesia


Though his particular gift for wit fell out of fashion in literary circles of the early 20th century, Washington Irving was once understood as essential to American literature. He could count among his admirers the likes of Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mary Shelley, and Mark Twain. Despite his stock having fallen in academia, there remain very good reasons to revisit him today, as he is arguably our foundational satirist.

While his gifts as a writer were admittedly middle brow and inclined towards a light, popular style of prose, Washington Irving seemed to know of the fundamental cultural challenge to the revolutionary mindset: that our greatest intellectual temptation would be to a self-inflicted amnesia. As a nation of immigrants, most of us are descended from people who left behind their previous nations, previous home towns (often the familial home from time immemorial), and in many cases did so without entertaining the hopes of seeing those left behind again. While this is often accompanied by a particular sort of bravery and ingenuity, it can also be haunted by the phantoms of what was left behind¯so much so that we can be in denial of who we were and to what institutions, philosophies, and values we owe our beliefs and ideals.

His first book, Dietrich Knickerbocker’s History of New York, capitalized on the amnesia of New Yorkers by a mix of biting satire and real history of the Dutch reign in Manhattan. The book is foundational to any study in American humor: wild, free, self-deprecatory, and merciless to the public figures of his day; by turns lyrically funny, absurd, and reflective. Without it, we might wonder whether American humor, from Twain to the Marx brothers to Jerry Seinfeld to Stephen Colbert, would have taken the particular shape it did.

When Americans, always prone to utopian daydreams, were in danger of taking themselves far too seriously--when the term “manifest destiny” was embryonic--Dietrich Knickerbocker rolled his bugged-out eyes, chuckled gruffly, and whispered into the ear of a young nation, “Remember thou art mortal.”



The book which made him internationally famous, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, gent., was a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic because it resonated so strongly with a people unified by language and family bonds, yet separated by a revolution. In it, Irving plumbed the depths of the Anglo-American consciousness and conscience. If political theorists like Alexis de Tocqueville hypothesized that the early Republic was the product of a specifically Anglo-American culture, The Sketch Book serves as a proof, for the entire text seeks to demonstrate and strengthen a cultural kinship.

Irving’s two most famous stories are to be found in The Sketch Book , virtually bookending the text: “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” In “Rip Van Winkle,” he whimsically pointed out the hazards of the new Republic, that a once humble acceptance of life under monarchy could easily give way to arrogant corruption, vice, and the nauseating specter of being governed by village idiots with a gift for demagoguery.



One of the many points of the story is that Rip, once worthless for his laziness, is now an indispensable part of the community for what he remembers, which is life before the revolution. He acts as a touchstone of continuity, bridging the gap between the old values and the new. His happy dotage was a suggestion that the new Republic eschew chronological snobbery--the fallacy that because we happened to be born later, we must therefore be inherently more virtuous. Some of these themes would return with a vengeance in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

But between these two, The Sketchbook wanders like a restless spirit through the English countryside. Irving’s alter-ego broods over human mortality while observing a country funeral, comments satirically on the intelligentsia of his day, and ponders the poetic legacy of James the First of Scotland, whom he includes, in the English canon (seamless cultural blending seems a specialty of Irving--he did similar things in his integration of Hudson Valley Dutch culture with Anglo-American ideas). Dominating the center of the volume are a series of sketches describing a rustic Christmas celebration in a English manor, fully festive in the “old traditions”, pre-Puritan. (This section influenced not only American understandings of Christmas celebration, but also served as a harbinger for the Oxford movement in England.)

Lightly drawn as they are, none of Irving’s sketches are shallow: They work as a mosaic, collectively acting as both a warning and an encouragement. Toward the end, he denounced the treatment of Native Americans in a way atypical of his era. He seems always to be saying, “Don’t forget who you are and where you came from. The past is still there, whether you like it or not, and though it might hold suffering, and though you might need absolution, it also holds joy and wisdom.”

The final warning of the book comes in the form of a Headless Horseman, who is either a real ghost of the Revolution or the town bully in disguise, and who targets, of all people, the schoolmaster. Is it history chasing Icabod Crane, the puritanical teacher obsessed with stories of witch hunts, or just Brom Bones scaring him out of town? Irving doesn’t say, and perhaps our answers tell more about ourselves than about him.

Washington Irving spent his last days in Tarrytown, near the setting of his most famous story. He was a member of the local Episcopal Church, tried to revive the old Dutch festivities on St. Nicholas Day, and was moved to tears by singing the Gloria . In particular he loved to repeat the words “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, and good-will to men.” Though his era was in many ways a bigoted one, he resisted and thereby helped to shape a better future. One of his last revisions to Knickerbocker came late, removing the anti-Catholic references its youthful version contained. He was a man who had seen his share of specters, to be sure, but who didn’t believe they were the strongest reality.


[an earlier version of this essay appeared in First Things]

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