Irving’s American Progeny
Washington Irving had the unique opportunity of helping a new nation forge its own identity. America, fresh out of the revolution, looked for an author to take charge and create something that seemed to be missing from the newly born nation. He took this responsibility seriously and made a mythology that founded an American literary tradition. He took bits and pieces from the Old World and incorporated them into the New in such a manner that what he wrote appeared original, and yet tied into a tradition that was centuries old. He did this in a manner that astonished many Europeans who believed an American could never produce literature with such a strong English foundation. Although Irving relied heavily on European influence, he drew distinct lines between the American and the European and his plot lines illustrate the struggle between the United States and England.
This amazing period in the nation’s history provided an excellent backdrop for Irving’s work. “‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ (is)…a celebration of the bounty of the United States,” (Bowden, 72). This bounty fueled the fire of social change that was burning in the U.S. at the time. “If we ever had a period during which social progress was not retarded then it was exactly the period Rip slept through. In that generation we were transformed from a group of loosely bound and often provincial colonies into a cocky and independent republic with a new kind of government and—as the story itself makes clear enough—a whole new and new-fashioned spirit,” (Young, 466). Irving took full advantage of the new scene around him, and immortalized himself by demonstrating the importance of what he saw. “‘When I first wrote the Legend of Rip Van Winkle,” so Irving remembered it in 1843, “my thoughts had been for some time turned towards giving a color of romance and tradition to interesting points of our national scenery which is so generally deficient in our country,’” (Wagenknecht, 174). Irving used his characters as depictions of American ideals and emotions in order to show the drastic change that had recently occurred.
Sleeping through the American Revolution forced Rip Van Winkle to cope with the amazing changes that had taken place while he was asleep. “Rip’s country has changed its name. On the hotel sign, George III has given way to George Washington. Rip is no longer even Rip Van Winkle; his own son now answers to that designation,” (Hedges, 140). “From Rip’s point of view, the village he left represented private turmoil and public tranquility. At the story’s end, Rip enjoys private tranquility in a village given over to public turmoil. It is almost as if the one is the price that Rip has to pay for the other,” (Roth, 158-159). Rip’s world had undergone unpredictable changes, but he quickly got back into the swing of his old easygoing life swapping stories outside of the hotel.
Irving also demonstrated the volatility of the times by his definition of history. “Irving’s introduction of Ichabod Crane defines a particular problem of the early American writer. “In this by-place of nature,” he writes, “there abode, in a remote period of American history, that is to say, some thirty years since, a worthy wight of the name Ichabod Crane.” The archaic substantive wight serves to emphasize the incongruity of the introduction; only in the America of the time could a remote period of history be defined as thirty years,” (Martin, 336-337). Irving took this peculiarity and used it to his advantage in a humorous way. He allowed Americans to laugh at the newness of their government while helping them realize the exceptionality of the time period they had just experienced.
He also uses humor in creating his American mythology, while scoffing at those who believe in such supernatural occurrences. Springer gives validity to the imaginative elements of “The Legend”. “What Irving does is show us the value of imagination in bringing wonder and enjoyment into our logic bound lives,” (483). Martin disagrees with this notion. Crane “loses all chance for the double prize of Katrina and the wealth of the Van Tassel farm when, terrified by his excessive imagination, he is literally run out of the region by Brom Bones impersonating the Headless Horseman. Brom Bones—the scoffer at superstition, who boasts that he has ridden a winning race against the Headless Horseman—triumphs and marries Katrina and is the victor of the tale,” (337). Therefore, the true winner in the story, the true American (discussed later) wins by playing on the superstitions of his opponent. “The telling effect of “Sleepy Hollow,” (and) “Rip Van Winkle,”…arises from the fact that the legendary is so firmly interwoven with earthy realism,” (Snell, 383). The entire concept would fail if these two aspects were not so delicately worked together.
Irving relied on older mythology as a source for his work. “Rip Van Winkle,” for instance, uses the age-old story of a character falling asleep for long periods of time and then reawakening. “The sleep-motive in “Rip Van Winkle” has roots which run very deep in world literature. There is the classical story about Epimenides, who retired into a cave to escape the heat of the day when he should have been watching his flock, and slept there for fifty-seven years,” (Wagenknecht, “The Work” 363). This phenomenon serves as a way of showing that although American culture was fairly new, it had its roots in the ancient lore of the Europeans.
At the same time, Ichabod Crane’s obsession with Cotton Mather served to demonstrate that Americans had formed their own witch tales, even in the short time spent in the New World. “But Ichabod reasserts the dominance of evil over American self-reliance: he quotes Mather on witches, and describes the ghosts he has seen himself,” (Hoffman, 351). Although the puritan belief in witches traveled the Atlantic with the settlers, Americans had taken this belief and formed a very unique and embarrassing American story/history shortly after their arrival. With this in mind, he went on to separate American folklore from European by using images that were purely American.
He praised the landscape and the bounty of the nearly virgin earth, which England lacked. Brom Van Brunt chose the pumpkin, a purely American fruit, as a substitute for his head, which he threw at Ichabod Crane to drive him out of Sleepy Hollow. The pumpkin symbolizes America’s separation from Europe, because it enabled the pilgrims to remain on this continent as demonstrated through the annual Thanksgiving festival.
Crane represents England in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” thereby giving credence to the pumpkin theory. He incorporated corporal punishment into his curriculum at the school where he taught. “Truth to say, he was a conscientious man, that ever bore in mind the golden maxim, “spare the rod and spoil the child.”—Ichabod Crane’s scholars certainly were not spoiled,” (Irving, 951). Although he abused his pupils, he was just kind enough to prevent losing the sustenance he received from their parents. “Indeed, it behooved him to keep on good terms with his pupils. 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; but to help out his maintenance, he…boarded and lodged at the houses of the farmers, whose children he instructed,” (Irving, 951). Similarly, the English abused their American subjects until they were driven out by the brute force for which this country is so well known.
Ichabod also resembled England in his perception of Katrina Van Tassel. “As the enraptured Ichabod fancied all this, and as he rolled his great green eyes over the fat meadow lands, the rich fields of wheat, of rye of buckwheat, and Indian corn, and the orchards burthened with ruddy fruit, which surrounded the warm tenement of Van Tassel, his heart yearned after the damsel who was to inherit these domains, and his imagination expanded with the idea, how they might be readily turned into cash,” (Irving, 955). Crane witnessed the American bounty and wished to tap into the unlimited resources. He did not love her for who she was on the inside, but rather, what she could do for him. Katrina represents America because whoever wins her also wins the treasures of her father.
Crane recognized this fact as well as Brom Van Brunt, the story’s symbol of the American people. Crane wished to take Katrina, as well as their children and possessions, and travel to new territory, away from Sleepy Hollow, where she was born and raised, much as England had taken America’s resources away from her people in order to replenish depleted funds. Van Brunt recognized Crane’s self-interest and therefore fought to keep the treasure where it rightfully belonged.
Ichabod’s destructive tendencies were shown through Irving’s description of him riding to the party. “He rode with short stirrups, which brought his knees nearly up to the pommel of the saddle; his sharp elbows stuck out like grasshoppers’; he carried his whip perpendicularly in his hand, like a sceptre, and as the horse jogged on, the motion of his arms was not unlike the flapping of wings,” (Irving, 959). The grasshopper image is humorous, but grasshoppers are renowned for their ability to destroy the wealth of the land. This particular insect had his eyes set on the land of Van Tassel. The imagery of the whip resembling a sceptre brings to mind the monarchy, which the pedagogue represents. The borrowed horse, upon which he rode also produces thoughts of England.
Gunpowder, the “broken-down plough horse,” had one good eye which “had the gleam of a genuine devil in it,” (Irving, 959). This worthless, mean-spirited beast provided a stark contrast to the lusty young steed that carried Brom Bones. Daredevil easily overtook gunpowder as Brom chased Ichabod, pretending to be the headless horseman. The old way of doing things (Gunpowder) simply would not suffice in the New World (the world of Daredevil), and therefore the culinary symbol of America (the pumpkin) came crashing onto Ichabod’s head.
“Rip Van Winkle” has a strong European influence as well. Irving tied European explorers into “Rip Van Winkle” showing that although America had formed its own identity, an identity that could not be separated from those who made it possible. The story introduced Rip as the descendant of “The Van Winkles who figured so gallantly in the chivalrous days of Peter Stuyvesant,” (Irving, 938). But after Rip awoke, there is no mention of the Europeans, or the wife who is symbolic of England.
Irving painted a colorful picture of Rip’s home life by saying, “Those men are most apt to be obsequious and conciliating abroad, who are under the discipline of shrews at home. Their tempers, doubtless, are rendered pliant and malleable in the fiery furnace of domestic tribulation, and a curtain lecture is worth all the sermons in the world for teaching the virtues of patience and long suffering,” (Irving, 938). Perhaps Rip would have been more productive at home without his wife breathing down his neck, just as America would have been more satisfying to Britain, had it not been held beneath the English thumb.
The liquor of the little men pushed Rip into a twenty-year stupor, just as the propaganda of men such as Samuel Adams forced Americans into the mental snooze that necessarily accompanies war. Just as Rip awoke to view the trickery of his short companions, the Americans awoke to realize that no government is perfect. Otherwise there would be no men arguing over politics. These busy people about the once quiet town make a statement about the new democracy. Although they had gained a greater opportunity for self-advancement, they had, perhaps, lost a bit of the happiness that they enjoyed through idleness.
Rip’s confusion seems to say something about the American identity crisis at the time. He questioned if he was really himself because his son and namesake had grown to fill his lazy shoes. “Rip…Beheld a precise counterpart of himself, as he went up the mountain: apparently as lazy, and certainly as ragged. The poor fellow was now completely confounded. He doubted his own identity, and whether he was himself or another man,” (Irving, 945). Fortunately, Rip reveled in boredom. He was too old to work, and so he sat around to talk politics. Although he was pleased with the lack of oppression, he had no one to relate to. The Americans were similarly working to find their place in the world without Mother England watching over them. They had succeeded in accomplishing their goals, and had to ask themselves what they were supposed to do next.
Several of the physical changes of the town hold political significance as well. “Instead of the great tree that used to shelter the quiet little Dutch inn of yore, there now was reared a tall naked pole, with something on top that looked like a red night cap, and from it was fluttering a flag, on which was a singular assemblage of stars and stripes—all this was strange and incomprehensible. He recognised on the sign, however, the ruby face of King George…was singularly metamorphosed. The red coat was changed for one of blue and buff, a sword was stuck in the hand instead of a sceptre, …and underneath was painted in large characters GENERAL WASHINGTON,” (Irving, 944). Cutting down the old tree represents an “out with the old in with the new” attitude, that the Americans must have felt after claiming their liberty. The tree was replaced with a symbol of the new way of life—the flag with a liberty cap. The sign makes a powerful statement all its own. Government is government no matter how you paint it. They had traded one George for another, even if they did not want to admit it.
Although Irving’s descriptions of the physical realm have political undertones, they also achieve his previously stated purpose of giving attention to the national scenery. His vivid descriptions of the Catskills give the reader a dreaminess that could be accomplished by no other means besides actually going there. He painted the landscape in such a way that it would stick in the readers’ minds and help them to realize the magnificent opportunities presented daily in a land of seemingly endless natural resources.
Although he dismissed the myth of the headless horseman as a hoax put forth by
Brom Bones, he created a legend that lived far into the future. The story of the little men at ninepins also presents a legend of the thunderous mountains. “Nothing interrupted the stillness of the scene, but the noise of the balls, which, whenever they were rolled, echoed along the mountains like rumbling peals of thunder,” (942). These myths gave the youthful America a sense of belonging in a world of well-established nations.
These two stories took the American literary tradition from its infancy into adolescence. They served as a foundation for later writers, and put the American landscape into words. The basic breakdown of the two stories is as follows: anyone can make it in America. The dreamers may barely scrape by, but brute force takes the cake.
Bowden, Mary W., Washington Irving. Boston: Twayne, 1981.
Hoffman, Daniel. “Prefigurations: ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.’” PMLA, Vol. LXVII (1953): 425-435. Rpt. in A Century of Commentary on the works on Washington Irving. Ed. Andrew B. Myers. Tarrytown: Sleepy Hollow Restorations, 1976. 343-355
—“Rip Van Winkle.” 1819. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: Norton, 1998. 936-948.
Martin, Terence. “Rip, Ichabod, and the American Imagination.” American Literature, vol. XXX (1959): 137-149. Rpt. in A Century of Commentary on the works on Washington Irving. Ed. Andrew B. Myers. Tarrytown: Sleepy Hollow Restorations, 1976. 330-342.
Roth, Martin, Comedy and America. Port Washington: Kennidat, 1976.
Snell, George, “Washington Irving: A Revelation.” The Shapers of American Fiction: 1798-1947, (1947). 105-16. Rpt. in Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Dennis Poupard. Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale, 1982. 382-383.
Springer, Haskell. “Introduction to Rip Van Winkle & The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” (1974). Rpt. in A Century of Commentary on the works on Washington Irving. Ed. Andrew B. Myers. Tarrytown: Sleepy Hollow Restorations, 1976. 480-486.
Wagenknecht, Edward, Washington Irving: Moderation Displayed. New York: Oxford UP, 1962.