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Washington Irving


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Washington Irving

“Little minds are tamed and subdued by misfortune; but great minds rise above them.” Washington Irving, a well-known short story author in the nineteenth century, spoke these words of wisdom. Washington Irving became famous in America for his fine works from The Specter Bridegroom to Rip Van Winkle to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. These satirical sketches are all based on the local areas in New York where Irving resided. His adventures through life spread the word of his writings and he became one of the first renowned short story writers in Europe.
Washington Irving was born in New York, New York on April 3, 1783. His mother, Sarah, and father, William Irving, Sr., had eleven children including Washington. He was named after the United States first president, George Washington who was sought to be the greatest hero of all time to his parents. “… He attended the first presidential inauguration of his namesake in 1789” (Biography Channel). Irving was privately schooled and later went to study law in New York after his return from travelling Europe. In 1804 he travelled to France and Italy, while writing journals and letters. When he returned in 1805, Irving continued law school but did poorly for he barely passed the bar exam. (Biography Channel).
After Irving finished his studies, he went on to write humorous essay with his older brother William Irving, Jr., and James Kirke Paulding. The Salamagundi papers published the essays in 1807 to 1808. Irving would often use pseudonyms or aliases such as Geoffry Crayon and Diedrich Knickerbocker. Irving used Diedrich Knickerbocker for his collection of comical writings known as A History of New York. If you are a New York native, or enjoy basketball, you should know that the New York Knicks were originally called Knickerbockers! Coincidence? No – even places in New York are named after Washington Irving’s writings such as the Rip Van Winkle Bridge in the Catskills and Sleepy Hollow in Tarrytown. Irving wrote another collection of essays called The Sketch Book when he went back to Europe in 1815. The essays were written between 1819 and 1820 and included the story of Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. (Biography Channel). These two tails became specifically popular in America but also in Europe. “…Irving, or, Geoffrey Crayon, was welcomed by noted society and literary figures including actors, writers, artists, Dukes, and Lords, Kings and Queens” (C.D. Merriman). He later drifted into politics in England. (Raffel, 32).
Washington Irving suffered from a life of unstable health. On and off his health would decline. He could not walk for many months but he still continued to write. From the years of 1822 to 1832 Irving wrote Bracebridge Hall, or, The Humorists, A Medley, Tales of a Traveller, The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada and Tales of the Alhambra. (C.D. Merriman). He moved to Madrid, Spain for purposes of researching for the biography work he had done on Christopher Columbus. (Biography Channel). He also served as minister to Spain. (Raffel, 32). Washington’s later years were spent in a little Dutch cottage in Tarrytown, New York along the Hudson River. He intended to use this house to continue writing peacefully. Although Irving loved Europe, his heart belonged to New York where he was born and raised. Washington Irving never married but family and friends constantly surrounded him. (C.D. Merriman). He died on the 28th of November in 1859. His seventy-six years of life were fulfilled with plenty accomplishments and memories that contributed to his famous writing works. (Biography Channel). The Specter Bridegroom from the collection of The Traveller’s Tale, is a sketch. This story is light in tone and is read as a summary. The theme of this story is that love cannot be predestined. In this case the Baron Von Landshort’s daughter, from the Katzenellenbogen family, was expected to marry Count Von Altenburg. On his journey to the castle, Altenburg is accompanied by a friend, Hermon Von Starkenfaust. Together they travelled through the dangerous woods. “It will not appear extraordinary, therefore, that the cavaliers were attacked by a gang of the stragglers…” (Irving, 38). When Count Von Altenburg dies, readers are not heavyhearted or surprised.
Starkenfaust continues on to deliver the news to the Baron’s daughter but when he arrives he chokes on his words and cannot tell the Baron’s daughter, her expected groom has died. He then takes on the role of the groom but when leaving the banquet he says he is a ghost. This is Irving’s way of poking fun at the guests who believe anything they hear. “ Two ladies fainted outright, others sickened of the idea of having banqueted with a specter” (Irving, 44). After Starkenfaust vanishes, the baron’s daughter is also taken by the so-called goblin/specter. When the daughter returns with the goblin/specter, the truth is revealed that he is no specter but the friend of Count Von Altenburg.
The story ends with the baron’s daughter and Hermon Von Starkenfaust falling happily in love and marrying in place of Count Von Altenburg. This story is Washington Irving’s attempt to summarize a love story about arranged marriages and true love. If Count Von Altenburg never died, would the baron’s daughter still fall in love at the sight of Hermon Von Starkenfaust? His point is to demonstrate that they were not predestined for each other but ended up together anyway.
Washington Irving also uses other languages as devices in this sketch. Notice how Hermon Von Starkenfaust is a German name. Starkenfaust means “strong fist.” Altenburg means “high mountain.” The man the baron’s daughter is due to marry is exactly that, a high mountain, a rich wealthy man who could not be avoided by the arranged marriage. When the robbers attack Altenburg, Starkenfaust acts as a strong fist to protect himself from the thieves. He is also strong in a sense of leaving the woman he falls in love with at first sight and strong again when he is brave enough to admit the truth at the very end. Washington Irving also relates this story to a real family who were once very powerful in former times – Katzenellenbogen; meaning Cat’s-Elbow. (Raffel, 33). A subsequent story that is unique amongst Irving’s work, Rip Van Winkle, tells the story of a mediocre man, husband, father, and farmer by the name of Rip Van Winkle. The tale takes place in a small village at the base of the Catskill Mountains while America was still being colonized by England. Incapable of providing for his family due to his own lack of ambition and constantly criticized/verbally abused my his wife, Dame Van Winkle, Rip spent most of his time having idle, meaningless conversation with men outside of a hotel. However, Dame Van Winkle even clarified Van Winkle’s tendencies to the people of the hotel, going as far as scolding those he was with for promoting his lassitude. This “escape” was a two-pronged sword that Van Winkle used in order to try avoid the harassment of his wife while also soothing himself with idle activity, which is all he really cared to do. Eventually, a day of wandering with his dog Wolf, takes him on an adventure that results in the extinguishing of his problems. (Irving, 1 – 95). The story is believed to be a retelling of a very old Folktale despite the setting being in the Catskills of New York. (Warner, 191). An aspect that keeps this story distinct from the other sketches of Irving is the change in narrators. In this story the narrator is Diedrich Knickerbocker, not Geoffrey Crayon. This is important in that Knickerbocker heavily supports the veracity of the tale, which serves to portray the significance of authenticity in storytelling. (Irving, 1-95). The theme that best suits the story is that of a fantasy in which an individual escapes the consequences of not dealing with his day-to-day responsibilities. Rather than dealing with the repercussions of his laziness and getting on better terms with his cynical wife, Rip Van Winkle dreams for twenty years, awaking to find that he has slept through the years that required him to work and provide for his family. In other words, his laziness is now readily accepted by those around him and he avoided all of his problems. At this time in America, immigrants were coming in order to pursue a life of fortune. (Warner, 118). Therefore, his shortcomings would have made him contradictory to what the American dream had been. The irony is that people with those same characteristics exist in present day.
Rip Van Winkle’s wife was surely the only antagonist. Despite fulfilling her duties as a wife, there are no positive traits portrayed by this character. Rip Van Winkle is an uninterested, unambitious man who does very little to help his family. Dame Van Winkle is a nagging wife that does nothing more than berate her husband for his inadequateness. “From even this stronghold the unlucky Rip was at length routed by his termagant wife” (Irving, 43). In a way, Irving is displaying the way that a marriage should not function. A man should be more hard-working, taking the role of a provider for the home. A wife should be more understanding and helpful instead of pessimistic and alienating, unless her goal is to alienate and push away her husband.
The night that Van Winkle spent in the mountains portrayed his escape from responsibility through creativity. Rip Van Winkle very literally dreams his duties away. This phenomenon sheds light on the importance of ingenuity and inventiveness when dealing with various boring tasks of day to day life. However, Irving aims to display the balance that exists when doing so. This can be seen in the public’s skepticism of Rip Van Winkle when he returned to the village with his farfetched story. (Irving, 69 – 95).
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is another one of Irving’s works that uniquely had a setting in America. The story takes place circa 1790 in the settlement in Tarry Town. The secluded village of Sleepy Hollow is known for its ghouls, supernatural atmosphere and mind-bending environment. An interesting aspect of Tarry Town is that it is riddled with stories regardless of its youth as a settlement. This could have been Irving attempting to make a connection between the storied land of England and the youthful land of America through the use of a secluded town between the Hudson and Tappan Zee.
The story tells the tale of Ichabod Crane, a superstitious schoolmaster with an ill-warranted sense of intelligence and self-worth who competes with Abraham Van Brunt (“Brom Bones”) for the love of an 18 year old farm girl Katrina Van Tassel. Ichabod’s role as the schoolmaster makes him somewhat popular amongst the women in Sleepy Hollow. However, this is only due to the misunderstood perception of his advanced education. He is homeless, so his life on the road allows him to have many stories for the families of the farmhouses. His name also does much to describe him in that he resembles a crane. These qualities make him the stories anti-hero because although he is the protagonist, he possesses assets that do not make him particularly admirable, which result in his downfall. Despite his social acceptance, the narrator, Knickerbocker, often takes on a sarcastic tone when describing his attributes. In portraying the social atmosphere of the town, Irving does well to paint the picture of American society at the time of the story. He shows little emphasis on social class and education but vividly displays the abundance of resources. This could have been an attempt at creating a sort of American Tradition in storytelling. (Irving, 99 – 218).
The prevailing intentions behind this “legend” can be seen in the major themes expressed throughout the work. The idea of reliability in storytelling is one that was kept prominent in Rip Van Winkle, however, the narration of this story leaves a different sense of desire in the reader. Crayon, who is reading the story that was written down by Knickerbocker, who admits that he heard the story from an old man, doubts its truthfulness. In the end, the message conveyed is that at time doubt must be cast aside in other to enjoy the unknown of the legend.
The notion of veracity helps to transition into the next theme which is, again, the importance of imagination. With so much left up to the reader’s discretion, such as the fallout between Katrina and Ichabod, as well as the identity of the horsemen. (Irving, 143). The message to be taken here is that the debate between conjecture and truth can sometimes provide the best “legends”. The understanding of what actually happened is left up to the reader, which, when the story is retold, allows for its evolution. In doing so, Irving displayed the paradox that exists between a story in which the validity is strongly supported versus one that is ambiguous and left up to the perspective and discretion. A separate theme of the supernatural is depicted throughout the story, by both Ichabod and Brom Bones. “…Ichabod was horror-struck on perceiving that he was headless!—but his horror was still more increased, on observing that the head, which would have rested on his shoulders, was carried before him on the pommel of the saddle”. (Irving 204) Brom Bones told more stories of the supernatural at the farmhouse the night prior to Ichabod’s encounter. The stories of the supernatural served as a way to escape the mundane lifestyle that gave rise to the occasional spout of boredom yearning for something more. Nonetheless, it is legends such as these that condone perplexity. Perhaps Irving was attempting to stress the importance of embracing doubt and entertaining the supernatural. It is only rational to acknowledge that there are powers far greater than humans as well as phenomena that we do not have the capacity to understand. Could the horseman Ichabod encounter have been Brom Bones carrying out a final attempt to get Ichabod to leave Sleepy Hollow? Does the area of Tarry Town hold supernatural forces/beings? The legend will remain to evolve just as the question of belief will continue to mystify the reader.
Washington Irving’s environmental locations throughout his life were reflected in his works. His passion for writing took him from America to Europe where he became one of the most renowned authors in that time. He was a respected man by his family, friends, and readers. His sketches and tales, though short and light in tone, often capture a deeper meaning than seen on the surface. When picking apart each piece and analyzing his writings, you are capable to understand the art in his writing that holds such value. Washington Irving is a memorable man in New York State for his impact on the local areas but his works travel much farther than that and this is why he is such a popular writer for his time.

Irving, Washington. The Sketch Book, by Washington Irving. S.l.: Grosset and Dunlap., n.d. Print.
Merriman, C. D. "Washington Irving." - Biography and Works. Search Texts, Read Online. Discuss. Jalic Inc., n.d. Web. 02 Apr. 2014.
Warner, Charles Dudley. Washington Irving. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin Cand, 1881. Print.
"Washington Irving Biography." A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.

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