Saturday, June 24, 2017

A Word from Washington Irving

June 2017

"There are certain half-dreaming moods of mind, in which we naturally steal away from noise and glare, and seek some quiet haunt, where we may indulge our reveries and build our air castles undisturbed." --Washington Irving

I've never done an official tally of the types of reading I do in a week, but selections often range from children's books to historical fiction, nonfiction, YA, inspirational, classics, history, poetry, devotionals, books at the library that catch my eye, and titles others's no wonder I'm all over the map when I sit down with a book. This time it was a quote, particularly the one above, that sent me reading. All I knew about Washington Irving (1783-1859) was from my high school days when we had to read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. So who was this man? He speaks of things we can identify with: a writer's affinity for quiet moments and our need for space in which to build our stories. What else might he have added to the discussion?

Well, it turns out, quite a lot...

courtesy google images
1. Contributions. Washington Irving first and foremost is credited for perfecting the American short story. That's why his Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle (found in his widely popular The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon) have endured. If you have not read them in a while, you might want to--in retrospect they are quite a hoot. Ichabod Crane, the schoolmaster in Sleepy Hollow, infatuated with the local beauty, finds himself up against his rival for her hand, the reckless Brom Bones, and then...well, if you remember, there's a headless horseman who throws his head at Ichabod, the disappearance of the schoolmaster, and the later discovery of the man's horse, saddle, and...a smashed pumpkin. And Rip Van Winkle is the rather feckless and ne'er-do-well henpecked husband who disappears for twenty years. The humor in the situation is summed up in the story's final lines: "Even to this day they never hear a thunderstorm of a summer afternoon about the Kaatskill but they say Hendrick Hudson and his crew are at their game of ninepins; and it is a common wish of all henpecked husbands in the neighborhood, when life hangs heavy on their hands, that they might have a quieting draught out of Rip Van Winkle's flagon." You have to read the story to capture the picture in full!

"For my part," Irving once wrote, "I consider a story merely as a frame on which to stretch my materials. It is the play of thought, and sentiment and language; the weaving in of characters, lightly yet expressively delineated; the familiar and faithful exhibition of scenes in common life; and the half concealed vein of humor that is often playing through the whole--these are among what I aim at."

The Alhambra, courtesy google images
2. Travels and Positions. Irving was born to a merchant family in New York City. Later he traveled widely, especially throughout England and Europe, and eventually served in a variety of diplomatic positions including a term as U.S. Minister to Spain. There he had access to the American consul's extensive library of Spanish history which he drew upon to write A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. It was published in 1828. He also lived for a time in Granada, Spain in the famous Spanish castle, the Alhambra, built by the Moors in the 15th century and later home of Catholic monarchs. From this experience he wrote the book The Alhambra. It's a place of particular pull for me since I had the privilege of visiting there a few years back the first time my son and his family lived in Spain and with the fact that his family just recently relocated there again. Later, back in America, Irving wrote a number of books based on his travels to America's frontier.

3. Name and Other Associations. Yes, Washington Irving was named for George Washington. He was born on April 3, 1783, the week of the British ceasefire that ended the American Revolution. So his mother named him after the the war's hero, General Washington. When he was six, the two actually met when Irving's Scottish nanny approached the now first-president of the United States, who at this time resided in NYC, and said, "Please, your honor, here's a bairn named after you."

Irving later became friends with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, won the admiration of Sir Walter Scott in Britain and Nathaniel Hawthorne in America, and also hosted Charles Dickens and his wife at his home during Dickens's American tour in 1842.

4. Marketing. Is it possible that Washington Irving pioneered the art of marketing a book? Well, his approach to selling one of his first books falls either into the category of marketer--or schemer. He wrote A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty under the pseudonym of Diedrich Knickerbocker. It was a satire on local history, poking fun at the city's "Dutch elite" as it has been described. Prior to the book's publication, Irving set up his hoax. He placed a series of missing-person advertisements in New York newspapers, suggesting that Diedrich Knickerbocker, forthcoming author, had gone missing. Irving's ruse apparently generated a lot of interest. Sales of the book took off when it came out.

5. Stamp on Culture. And speaking of Diedrich Knickerbocker, think of the influence this one fictional character had on the culture then--and now: "In his attempts to embody the traditions of his city in an amusing form, Irving met with a success which must have astonished himself. Within forty years after The History was published, Knickerbocker insurance companies, Knickerbocker steamboats, omnibuses, bakeries, ice factories, and magazines were all profiting by the fame of an Old Dutch historian who had never lived at all, except in the imagination of Washington Irving. The Knickerbocker legend had become part of the national heritage" (source: American Poetry and Prose, Norman Foerster, Ed, Houghton Mifflin, 1960). Today we see the name associated with New York's professional basketball team. Another cultural vestige? In 1807, while collaborating with his brother William on the literary magazine Salmagundi, Irving ascribed the nickname Gotham ("Goat's Town") to the city of New York. This was way before Batman came along.

6. Encourager and Crusader. It has been said that Washington Irving was quite willing to help aspiring authors, including Edgar Allan Poe. "There is not a young literary aspirant in the country," a George William Curtis once noted, "who, if he ever personally met Irving, did not hear from him the kindest words of sympathy, regard, and encouragement." Also, because he himself struggled against literary "bootleggers," Irving championed for stronger copyright laws.

Maybe this is more than one wants to know about Washington Irving, but I found myself fascinated with this 19th century writer. His influence continued for generations. It's also been said that he had the attitude of a gentleman, "solidity of character, honor, courtesy, and kindliness," and a love of both the Old World and the New. Hmmm, maybe he's someone I'd liked to have met. At any rate, I sure identify with his words above. These may be what we used to call the "lazy-hazy" days of summer, but they haven't been so lazy around here. Seeking those quiet moments where air castles--or word pictures for us writers--is an ongoing quest. The swing above looks inviting. Anyone for a push?

Any special places that you seek out to find those quiet writing moments? What author, past or present, would you like to meet?