Washington Irving

 

photoDid you know that Washington Irving was one of the first American prose writers to gain any respect abroad?  British readers condescended to read his book of short stories The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon.  I will review his two most popular and enduring stories Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow for you today.  Both stories are set in Dutch communities in the Catskill mountains of New York.  If you haven’t tried to read English literature in chronological order, you may not be able to appreciate how happy a story set in the Americas makes me.  Familiar landscapes!  I am from the Appalachian region in Virginia and Irving’s mention of that mountain chain in his introduction to Rip Van Winkle made my heart sing:

Whoever has made a voyage up the Hudson must remember the Catskill Mountains. They are a dismembered branch of the great Appalachian family, and are seen away to the west of the river, swelling up to a noble height, and lording it over the surrounding country. 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 they are regarded by all the good wives, far and near, as perfect barometers. When the weather is fair and settled, they are clothed in blue and purple, and print their bold outlines on the clear evening sky; but sometimes, when the rest of the landscape is cloudless, they will gather a hood of gray vapors about their summits, which, in the last rays of the setting sun, will glow and light up like a crown of glory.

Ah, isn’t that lovely?  Irving’s description establishes the Catskills as a place of mysterious beauty.  Later, our main character will have a magical misadventure in these mountains. Rip is something of a loveable layabout.  Everyone in the town loves him, except his shrew of a wife.  Rip Van Winkle is one of the classic henpecked husbands in literature.  Can you feel a feminist rant coming?  Let’s start with a quote:

The great error in Rip’s composition was an insuperable aversion to all kinds of profitable labor. It could not be from the want of assiduity or perseverance […] The women of the village, too, used to employ him to run their errands, and to do such little odd jobs as their less obliging husbands would not do for them; in a word, Rip was ready to attend to anybody’s business but his own; but as to doing family duty, and keeping his farm in order, it was impossible.

Imagine with me for a minute that you are a small town wife in the mid-1700s.  You rely on your husband to keep yourself and your children sheltered and fed.  If your husband fails to feed you, you will starve.  There is no divorce.  Now, every day you see your partner in life shuffle off into town with his dog to sit on the bank of the river with his pole all day, but he never brings home a single fish to eat.  He puts up other wives’ barns while your fence falls into disrepair.  Your children run about in rags, because you have no money to clothe them properly and the neighbors laugh at your pathetic, ramshackle farm.  In these circumstances, would you be an affectionate, tender wife?  Would you sing your husband’s praises?  Not even for a second.  You would be a stressed out, angry, exhausted wreck of a person.  You would curse your husband out every day, because every single day that he lolled about not providing for his family, your rage would be renewed in full.  My sympathy lies entirely with the “termagant wife” not with the henpecked husband.  She is stuck in a terrible situation and it’s surprising that she doesn’t just murder him.  Rant over. Well, rant paused.

One day Rip goes off into the Catskills to escape his wife and has a strange encounter with some men wearing old-timey Dutch clothing.  As you probably know, he falls asleep against a tree and wakes up in a strange world.  His beard has famously grown very long.  Unbeknownst to Rip, the American Revolution has come and gone and that lucky dog slept through the whole thing.  Not a bad deal at all for someone of his indolent disposition. Ultimately, Rip Van Winkle is the story of a man who cannot handle the duties and responsibilities in his life. He fails to support his family and he sleeps through the turmoil of war. Loser. However, Rip’s awakening is quite surreal and has captivated the imaginations of readers for hundreds of years.

The Headless Horseman that terrorizes Ichabod Crane in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a similarly enduring character in American literature.  Briefly, large-nosed, lanky schoolmaster Ichabod Crane lives in the town of Sleepy Hollow.  He is self-interested, and superstitious enough to fear the local legend of the Headless Horseman, the ghost of a decapitated Hessian—German soldier hired by the English army.  Ichabod finds himself competing for the hand of rich and voluptuous Katrina.  His rival is a large, handsome local bully.  Tension and terror ensue.

I thoroughly enjoyed both of these stories.  Irving has a mellow, richly descriptive style and a sly, but good natured humor that made me feel like I was hearing a story told by someone’s funny, clever grandpa.  His characters are unique and so well-defined that they have become legends in their own right in American culture.  Here’s an example of how excellent Irving is with characterization and imagery:

The revenue arising from his school was small, and would have been scarcely sufficient to furnish him with daily bread, for he was a huge feeder, and, though lank, had the dilating powers of an anaconda.

Why do we read, if not to encounter phrases like “dilating powers of an anaconda?”  Ichabod Crane is an Epicurean and an opportunist.  Through his eyes we see the town of Sleepy Hollow as an American Elysium, a land of milk and honey bursting with pastoral delights.  The images Irving conjures up when Ichabod goes to dinner at Katrina’s house are out of control.

You might like these two short stories if:

  • you love America.  Not the nation, but the geographical region.
  • you are like me and excellent descriptions of pastoral scenery really rev your engine.
  • you are interested in American folklore.
  • you like some surrealism, mysticism, humor or horror mixed in with your classic literature.

You might not like these two short stories if:

  • you’re foolish.

Final thoughts: Both of these stories are delightful.  If you haven’t read them or haven’t read them in a while, they are definitely worth your time.  Also, you can read them free online.  Rip Van WinkleThe Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is more fun, so if you’re only going to read one, pick that one.

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