Washington Irving, |
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow & Other Stories
(Penguin Classics, 2014)
As a writer, Washington Irving has become lost to us. No one reads him outside of a university class anymore and, in that context, he has been reduced to a symbol, the voice of the emerging America. His work has, according to Elizabeth Bradley, who provided the introduction for this volume, "came to serve as a kind of Good Housekeeping seal on American discourse, American sentiment, and American archetypes...."
I know that was the impression fed to me when I read him in college. I'd gotten great pleasure from reading Irving before but now I was told that I'd missed the whole point, that Irving was actually writing symbolic odes to the emerging American nation, that his intention was to give the newly formed United States -- he was born in 1783, the year the American Revolution formally ended -- its own set of myths and folktales.
In "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," for example, Ichabod Crane represented the British, all awkward and uptight and ramrod straight, humorless and easily scared out of his wits. The headless horseman was America, strong, brave, self-reliant, ambitious and able to take charge. "Rip Van Winkle" was presented as more of the same. Rip himself represents America while his wife represents England. He's easygoing, likable and down to earth, while she is a perpetual nag for whom nothing is good enough. When Rip wakes 20 years later, his neighbors, good Americans that they are, have thrown over the yoke of burden that people like Rip's wife have thrown over them by learning to lose their apathy and assert themselves. Rip finally has the society that will allow him to triumph.
It is because of soul- and joy-destroying readings like these that Elizabeth Bradley put together this new collection of Irving's work. It is time, she says, that we lose Irving the propagandist and once again read Irving the writer. That's a great idea. He's a fine stylist, capable of wonderfully alive descriptions, fine characterizations and strong, rustic dialogue. He's funny, suspenseful and has a quirky cast of mind that makes him a delight to read.
This volume contains the complete The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent, with all of the stories and essays. Whether he's writing fiction or nonfiction, Irving will keep you turning the pages, more often than not with a smile on your face.
If you have not read him, here's your starting point. If you read him as an assignment in college, here's your chance to lose the baggage and come to him as reader to writer, not as decoder to propaganda codemaker.
book review by
Michael Scott Cain
18 October 2014
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