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American Trailblazer

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books and culture

American Trailblazer

Though mostly remembered for his folktales, Washington Irving authored a broader catalog that offers timely lessons for today. July 1, 2022
Arts and Culture

Washington Irving tends to be remembered only for his folktales of early America. But while “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” deserve their place in American literature, Irving has more to offer us. He was not only the first internationally successful American writer of the young republic but also America’s first great travel writer. Irving had an active eye, noting the national character of foreign lands and the tensions of American society at home. His writing shows the exuberance of the early American character.

In Irving, we find the direction of American literature and its ambivalence about values and meaning. He was a localist creating a national myth, interested in the people and history around him. He was also a cosmopolitan looking across states, oceans, and time. Whether at home or abroad, Irving found something of importance.

His first success was A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, in which he satirized the upper-class Dutch families of New York. It was so popular that his pseudonym, Diedrich Knickerbocker, became a shorthand for New Yorkers (and lives on in various forms today). “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” appear in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., and maintain a close connection to the Dutch roots of the Hudson Valley.

Much of the rest of the Sketch Book dealt with Irving’s travels in England and some notes on America. His most famous work, the book was alternately proud of and conflicted about American history. His best-known creations are folktales, proud reflections on the American Revolution and on the tenacity of the early colonists. Yet in other stories, regret replaces pride. Take Irving’s condemnation of the American government’s treatment of American Indians. “Traits of Indian Character” and “Philip of Pokanoket” frankly assessed the recent past:

It has been the lot of the unfortunate aborigines of America, in the early periods of colonization, to be doubly wronged by the white men. They have been dispossessed of their hereditary possessions by mercenary and frequently wanton warfare, and their characters have been traduced by bigoted and interested writers. . . . The rights of the savage have seldom been properly appreciated or respected by the white man.

Irving’s work captures the tension between celebrating America and seeing the injustices of the past. He decried the colonists’ “lust of conquest,” writing, “It is painful to perceive even from these partial narratives how the footsteps of civilization may be traced in the blood of the aborigines.” But such lines weren’t motivated by the desire for self-flagellation common today. His religious upbringing and the influence of the ancient Greeks on his education may have taught him that history was tragic, that no nation was created without bloodshed or sin. No woke hero of the past, Irving also wrote a myth-making biography of Christopher Columbus.

In any case, the Sketch Book grabbed international attention not for its ruminations on America but for its focus on England. English readers took strongly to Irving, who recounted his attempt to find out whether the Boar’s Head Tavern, a pub mentioned in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, still existed. He dwelled on English Christmas traditions and the customs of the countryside and pondered Westminster Abbey, “these emblems of living and aspiring ambition, close beside mementos which show the dust and oblivion in which all must sooner or later terminate.” And like any other travel writer, he described the voyage across the Atlantic to Britain and its unpleasantness.

Irving threw himself into England and his wanderings, trying to understand an unfamiliar land and build literary connections. An American on the make—offering a glimpse of another place’s culture, history, and customs—he noted “the rich vein of melancholy which runs through the English character.” Irving jumped from close descriptions of the English and England to philosophizing: “The love which survives the tomb is one of the noblest attributes of the soul.” He also offered something instructive to other traveling Americans: report, don’t pontificate. Irving’s strongest writing came from observations, not generalizations.

Irving originally went to England to work for his family’s ill-fated import business. Later, his literary fame helped him become friends with the American minister to Spain, Alexander Hill Everett, who invited him to Madrid. Irving’s Spanish excursion inspired his Columbus biography, as well as his Tales of the Alhambra, a mix of Spanish history, travelogue, and folktales. Spain’s influence on his writing was as great as England’s: along with his Tales, Irving wrote a history of the conquest of Granada and a biography of the prophet Muhammad.

Irving’s perambulations kept him abroad for 17 years. For an American, it made sense: the cultural centers of Europe had no rivals in America. Like the artist Benjamin West, Irving knew that he had to head abroad for opportunity. Unlike West, Irving returned home. Even so, other American writers criticized him as “European,” ignoring his American heritage and the material for his work that it provided. Those critics missed Irving’s importance: he forced Europeans to take American art and culture seriously. Irving may have become more European, but he also made Europeans more American. And his career helped later American writers gain respect from European readers.

If American literature were ever lost, Irving’s works could rebuild much of what went missing. He dealt in American history and folktales, English habits, the romantic Spanish past, Islam’s influence on the West, and the tensions of a confident young country in the New World. He wrote broadly instead of limiting himself to a few topics and encouraged young writers to do the same. His travels prepared him to reject limitations on his ideas or his work.

The impulse to explore, to expand beyond home, and to start anew has long been seen as foundational to the American character. Today, however, fewer people move to new states or show the resiliency of their grandparents. Their view of life has narrowed. New possibilities seem more remote. Today’s writers, and Americans generally, would do well to take Irving’s vision to heart. Our national inheritance should impel us to explore, move, and observe; it offers encouragement to those who struggle. The trail has been blazed—if only we would take American literature seriously.

Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images

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