|A wealthy gentleman travels across the sea to England to document the lives and tales of ordinary life.
|C. S. Van Winkle
|Short Story Collection
|June 23, 1819 – July 1820
In the past year, I’ve become fascinated with an idea I’ve come to call Constructionism; that being the opposite of Deconstructionism — that society needs to preserve its myths. Ours is a society that has grown addicted to deconstruction in all areas of life. While it is certainly understandable why we as a society want to deconstruct petty superstitions or prejudices in the name of reason and tolerance, the overall phenomena have led to a demystifying of the world — not because the world needs its superstitions and prejudices, but because society needs to be able to look up to people for inspiration. Myths speak to the soul, which is why C.S. Lewis famously called Christianity the one myth that was fully true.
We have fewer moral examples or virtuous leaders anymore because they’ve all been laid to waste for their common human sins. We now live in a sludge of moral relativism and hostility, where nobody trusts anyone or believes in anything. As I said in my review of The Song of Roland, we live in a world full of moral cowards and lack heroes. That can at least be partially laid at the feet of a culture that seeks to destroy people rather than build them up. In my Ballad of the White Horse review, I noted society must tend to and protect its myths from entropy. Our society is all too eager to dissolve its myths and break them down to uncover their hypocrisies and falsehoods.
As Tolkien famously writes in The Lord of the Rings, “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”
It has thus become something of a pet fascination of mine to contemplate how to rebuild the myths of the past – not because they are perfectly righteous, but because we need them to some degree. Washington Irving has been my pet project on this front because he isn’t just a deeply influential forgotten writer but was, in his time, one of the founders of American mythology and the father of American literature.
Spiritual Content: The book is set in late 18th century U.S. and England and the majority of characters are either practicing Christians or are very superstitious
Violence: Characters die, we hear some war descriptions, and several ghosts appear
Language/Crude Humor: Limited to none
Sexual Content: No excessive sexuality but relationships and lust
Drug/Alcohol Use: Characters drink ale and wine frequently
Other Negative Themes: There are potentially problematic elements in the subtext, but the core text is inoffensive
Positive Content: Themes of love, family, connection, and legacy
If you’re an American who went to public school, you’ve probably been forced to read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and/or Rip Van Winkle in your high school English Literature classes. That, or you may have seen the classic Disney adaptation of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. The story is ubiquitous, popular, and one of the most proliferated and popular short stories in our country — so much so that its popularity has eclipsed the man and book that originated it.
Its author, Washington Irving, is considered “the father of American literature.” From the 1820s until his death in 1859, he was America’s first successful man of letters, and his books spread out across the globe, legitimizing America as a center of intellectualism and permitting our one-time enemies in England to start taking us seriously as a meaningful literary tradition in parallel with their own. Less than a decade after the War of 1812, the English were praising America as a home for literature BECAUSE of Irving. He inspired hundreds of 19th-century authors from around the world and sparked entire American literary movements.
Irving is mostly known for two types of writing: short story collections and history. He didn’t write many full novels, and his early attempts at satire novels like The History of New York didn’t break out initially. He also couldn’t be said to be a deep thinker or a contentious social satirist in the manner of his contemporaries like William Wordsworth or Charles Dickens. His history is often embellished or outright falsified in places, such as his infamous claim Christopher Columbus wanted to prove the Earth wasn’t flat. He was, however, a deeply poetic writer and a master of essay writing, and the sheer influence of his work cannot be overstated.
The shortlist of writers who admired his work included Americans Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Herman Melville, and Edgar Allan Poe, and British writers Lord Byron, Thomas Campbell, Charles Dickens, Mary Shelley, Francis Jeffrey, and Walter Scott. We know for a fact Frankenstein author Mary Shelley briefly fell in love with Irving, and Charles Dickens asked for his autograph, crediting A Christmas Carol as being directly influenced by Irving’s short stories.
Irving holds many distinct credits and honors as a writer, but among them, he is also the man credited for creating the modern concepts of Christmas and Halloween, and a lot of that is due to his book The Sketch Book.
The Father of American Literature
Before we go very far into understanding his first successful book, it’s worth understanding a little about his life. Irving was born in New York City in the final weeks of the American Revolution, just before English troops pulled out. He was named after General George Washington, and later as a boy actually had the chance to meet him. At the time, New York City was a major trading colony in the heart of the Americas, but it was surrounded by far less infrastructure and culture than it is now. America was a trade colony and an inherited one at that. New York City had once been New Amsterdam, a Dutch colony, and many of the original settlers’ descendants still lived on farms along the Hudson River.
Washington Irving grew up in what was called the Jeffersonian era, a period of slow intellectual awakening in the young American nation as the country first began to establish itself as a legitimate nation. Even 40 years after the revolution, the world largely looked at the United States as a cultural vassal of the British Empire. The U.S. felt like it too, with almost all American culture being secondhand hand-me-downs from English authors, intellectuals, and thinkers.
“It is with feelings of deep regret that I observe the literary animosity daily growing up between England and America. There is a general impression in England that the people of the United States are inimical to the parent country,” Irving said.
Having lived his life as a lawyer and trader for his Presbyterian father’s family, the young Irving endeavored to leave the U.S. and see the world but ended up having his trip cut short when he discovered his older brother’s trading post in England having fallen into disrepair. He would spend decades of his life abroad, missing the beautiful land of his childhood and lamenting that he couldn’t escape his family’s business despite his education. He would eventually attempt to pour his efforts into one more book to break into the literary world, to great success.
The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. was born as a result of this series of tensions of realities. It’s a short story collection of 34 essays written under the pen name of Geoffrey Crayon (Irving enjoyed writing under pen names, including Dutch historian Diedrich Knickerbocker whom he invented, the namesake of the New York Knicks). When he finished and released Sketch Book, it became a runaway success in both England and the Americas, becoming the first novel of note that English literary critics considered worthy of positive attention.
While Irving is somewhat underrated today, it must be said he is still a great author. Even 202 years later, The Sketch Book is an amazing read. The 19th-century prose is denser than what modern readers are used to, but Irving is a talented stylist nonetheless. It’s an immediately accessible and fun book, filled with well-spun yarns, vivid details, deep moments of melancholy, and self-reflection.
Because of the book’s success, he would write two more short story collections, would go on to become a world-renowned author, historian, and the U.S. ambassador to Spain, and write the first great multi-volume history book on the life of George Washington.
An Overview of The Sketch Book
It is difficult to offer a succinct summary of The Sketch Book for the simple reason that it’s a short story collection. There is no strong narrative thread to follow throughout the novel and what we do get is elusive. We do understand the titular “Sketch Book” is meant as a kind of travel guide. It documents the life of fictional world traveler Geoffrey Crayon as he writes about his experiences sailing from America to England, exploring the English countryside, visiting new places, meeting new people, sitting down for meals with families, and learning their customs.
Interspliced with this is short fantasy stories inspired by Dutch-American fairy tales, including its two most famous entries: Sleepy Hallow and Rip Van Winkle. These two are some of the only stories in the novel that are actually set in the United States. The rest of the stories are quite laid back, sketching a look at the lives of ordinary people and documenting their eccentricities, hypocrisies, tragedies, and joys in sharp detail.
The book begins with something of an apology, an appeal to the consciousness of English writers who looked condescendingly upon America and its young culture and people. He admits in the prologue America is a land “degenerated” from the greater minds and treasures of Europe. At the same time, he defends his homeland as a young nation that needs the support of its intellectual forebearers to find its own way. America couldn’t deny its roots, but it could soon grow into its own nation with its own identity and traditions.
“I should have felt little desire to seek elsewhere its gratification, for in no country have the charms of nature been more prodigally lavished. Never need an American to look beyond his own country for the sublime and beautiful natural scenery. But Europe held forth the charms of storied and poetical association. There were to be seen the masterpieces of art, and the refinements of highly cultivated society,” Irving writes.
I can’t fully explore all 34 of his short stories in the space allotted to me, but I don’t need to to capture the breadth of what he accomplishes. Most of the essays are descriptive in nature. They’re not always narrative stories as they are descriptions of a place. Borrowing heavily from the English Romantic tradition of the time, Irving describes the nature of the places he visits through his internal experience, describing his emotional reaction to new experiences and providing extensive details that bring the scenes to life.
All of the stories are joyful, but they’re undercut by sadness and longing as the people he meets reveal the challenges they face and the losses they’ve incurred just as a matter of living in a fallen world.
In The Wife, the narrator meets a young successful couple beset by tragedy when the husband is met with financial hardships and realizes he won’t be able to keep his wife happy and living in luxury. He hides this shame from all but the narrator, who encourages him to do the challenging thing and tell the truth to his loving wife. The man realizes he would rather be happy with her in poverty than not at all and breaks the truth, to which she is saddened but accepting and comforting. The two move to a poorer cottage and find an even deeper love in poverty than they did in luxury because he told her the truth.
“She must know it sooner or later; you cannot keep it long from her, and the intelligence may break upon her in a more startling manner than if imparted by yourself; for the accents of those we love soften the harshest tidings. Besides, you are depriving yourself of the comforts of her sympathy,” Irving writes.
In The Widow and Her Son, the narrator stumbles upon a funeral train of a frail elderly woman that has lost the very last member of her family, her adoring son, who once helped her with food and carried her to church every Sunday. She has no husband or close friends to care for her and she is poor. Ultimately, she dies of a broken heart shortly after.
“When I saw the mother slowly and painfully quitting the grave, leaving behind her remains of all that was dear to her on earth and returning to silence and destitution, my heart ached for her. What are the distresses of the rich? They have friends to soothe, pleasures to beguile, and a world to divert and dissipate their griefs. What are the sorrows of the young? Their growing minds soon close above the wound, their plastic spirits soon rise beneath the pressure, and their green and ductile affections soon twine around new objects. But the sorrows of the poor, who have no outward appliances to soothe, the sorrows of the aged with whom life at best is but a wintry day, and who can look for no aftergrowth of joy, the sorrows of a widow, aged, solitary, destitute, mourning over an only son the last solace of her years, these are indeed sorrows which make us feel the importance of consolation,” Irving writes.
These two stories are illustrative of just how vividly Irving paints his characters. Most of them are quite random and obscure figures, dealing with average problems like death and poverty, but he paints these lives as portraits with a fullness of the joys and sorrows they feel. He captures the slowness of life overcoming these people and shows how they are able to react with and without the support of love and friendship.
My favorite essay of the collection is The Mutability of Literature, where he muses on the brief and temporal nature of literature. In the story, the narrator is brought into an ancient abandoned library in an old Abbey filled with ancient works of literary criticism, philosophy, and theology. Most of the works are largely forgotten by the masses who instead prefer contemporary literature.
He muses on which of these two kinds of literature is preferable. Does one want to be an author who writes popular books and is immediately forgotten, or to write something essential and eternal some monk 1,000 years from now will find discerning and brilliant? Either way, time destroys the fame both outcomes create eventually, leaving only scraps of wisdom they carried along. It almost alludes to the same wisdom of James 5:1-3: that our temporal accomplishments are always doomed in the end, but that’s okay because they aren’t what truly matters. We are links in the chain handing down wisdom, and it is okay to praise the lord, die, and be forgotten.
“What vast valleys of dullness, filed with monkish legends and academic controversies. What bogs of theological speculations; what dreary wastes of metaphysics. Here and there only do we behold the heaven-illuminated bards, elevated like beacons on their widely separated heights, to transmit the pure light of poetical intelligence from age to age,” Irving writes.
Old Fashioned English Christmas
It is frequent that the chain of history and tradition is broken and one of the greatest things The Sketch Book did was to reattach a chain that had long since been forgotten by reinvigorating the concept of the old-fashioned Christmas celebration.
Shortly after the English Civil War in 1647, the military dictator and Puritan Oliver Cromwell banned the celebration of Christmas, which he considered a garish Roman Catholic holiday that had little to do with Christ. Following the restitution of the monarchy by King Charles II, Christmas was reinstated, but it didn’t largely take off again. Subsequently, Christmas did not have much of a cultural impact in the early American colonies where Puritanism, Anglicanism, and Unitarianism were among the largest religions. To this day, many Puritans’ descendants consider Christmas heretical.
For nearly two centuries, the holiday became a pastoral holiday celebrated in the rural areas of northern England, less so in the centers of civilization like London. Irving, though, considered these rural outposts to be the source of the real spirit of England. There he found ancient traditions and anachronisms that had been preserved since the Middle Ages, unblemished by civilization – among them being Christmas celebrations.
“The strange who would form a correct opinion of the English character must not confine his observations to the metropolis. He must go forth into the country; he must sojourn in villages and hamlets, he must visit castles, villas, farmhouses, and cottages; he must wander through country churches, attend wakes and fairs and other rural festivals and cope with the people in all their conditions, and all their habits and humor,” Irving writes.
Sitting right in the center of The Sketch Book, Irving dedicates no less than five short stories just to detailing his experience of spending weeks leading up to Christmas with a wealthy Bracebright family, documenting all of their traditions and habits. These stories are among the best in the entire book and explore everything from old traditions to the amazing feasts celebrated by the locals. We learn about the history of yule logs and mistletoe, the joys of plum pudding, spice alcohol, and roast beef dinners, and of dancing in front of the fireplace and telling ghost stories.
“It is a beautiful arrangement, derived from days of yore, that this festival, which commemorates the announcement of the religion of peace and love, has been made the season for gathering together of family connexions, and drawing closer again those bands of kindred hearts, which the cares and pleasures and sorrows of the world are continually operating to cast loose,” Irving writes.
The warmth and nostalgia of these descriptions is intoxicating. It is no wonder Christmas would develop into such a major national holiday as a result of these stories. Nostalgia is sadness for something that has been lost, and both the U.S. and England had lost Christmas to the whims of overzealous Puritan dictators. The desire to reorient society around total piety had destroyed the goodness and warmth of the season, something that would only fully be realized after Charles Dicken further popularized these ideas in A Christmas Carol 24 years later.
Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle
We cannot end a discussion on The Sketch Book without discussing its two most popular tales in some depth. They remain to this day Irving’s most popular works, to the point that it’s quite common to find short story collections that specifically carve these and other of his ghost stories such as The Bridegroom’s Spectre out of The Sketch Book and rearrange them, selling them as student editions or horror compilations.
Ghost stories have always been a popular kind of story, especially in the 1800s when it was common for families to dramatically read them in party settings. Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle were popular largely because they were two of America’s early original ghost stories. Though they were based on German and Dutch legends and stories, the small details of these two stories reveal them to be DISTINCTLY American in their setting and themes.
Both concern stories of characters who would be quite contemporary to Irving’s life – living in the Hudson River Valley amongst Dutch farming colonies like quiet pastoral workmen. Both stories are also concerned with otherwise decent common people who are caught up in common vices, which any proper American Puritan would recognize as dangerous such as laziness, gluttony, or womanizing.
Rip Van Winkle follows the story of its titular lead, a well-liked rural farmer who is nonetheless lazy and disliked by his wife, who he considers a joyless nag that he actively finds ways to avoid. One day he is hiding in the woods and is invited into a strange supernatural world where he is given an alcoholic beverage and falls asleep for decades. During that time, the American Revolution is fought, his wife passes away, his friends disperse, and his children grow into adulthood. He wakes up not knowing who George Washington is and nearly instigates a bar fight by speaking positively about King George III.
The short story draws interesting parallels between Rip’s wife and king as if to say that his sleeping through the revolution has freed him of the burden of two nagging influences on his life. It is fairly comedic in that sense. Despite the fact his laziness had literally robbed him of decades of his life, he seems quite content by the end of the short story even after the horror of it settles in.
The Legend of Sleepy Hallow is also similarly whimsical, dealing with supernatural forces and vices. Its lead character Ichabod Crane, a stereotypical “Connecticut Yankee,” moves to the tiny nook of Sleepy Hallow in 1790 to become the new schoolmaster for the tiny Dutch farming village, which is infamous for a supposed ghost infestation. Crane is depicted as living a somewhat epicurean lifestyle. He’s noted for his obsession with food and women. He doesn’t own a home or large amounts of possessions. He simply stays with the families of his students and mooches off their foodstuffs, although he is a well-rounded, sensible, and otherwise decent man. He is quite superstitious, though, carrying with him a book of witchcraft for his own amusement.
When he falls in love with a local wealthy family’s beautiful daughter, Katrina Van Tassel, he falls into a romantic rivalry with an eligible bachelor named Brom Bones. When Crane is initially rejected, he finds himself being chased out of town by a headless man on horseback carrying a carved pumpkin, never to be seen again. Bones marries Tassel shortly after and is heavily implied to be related in some way to the appearance of the supposed ghostly apparition and disappearance of Crane.
The story has a very enlightened spirit to it in the sense it isn’t sympathetic to the supernatural. As the postscript says, the legend was transmitted to Crayon’s predecessor Knickerbocker by a third party who himself heard it from the wives of the families who knew Crane, who believed Crane had absconded to the spirit world via witchcraft. Even before Knickerbocker, the legend was already in doubt. The story’s lesson is clear: being swept up by emotion and impulses can destroy our aspirations and lives.
It is worth understanding that Irving was a lapsed Presbyterian. It is not believed he was in any way an atheist, as evidenced by the sheer volume of references to Christianity he depicts, but was simply a man of his time, when reason, rationality, and deism were challenging religious notions like miracles and superstitions. Even so, both stories are examples of Irving’s beautiful writing. He captures his own prejudices as equally as the sincerity and faults of his characters.
Even setting history aside, The Sketch Book is a wonderful work of literature in its own right. It has aged tremendously well because of Irving’s smooth and clear prose style and the insights he brings to the average lives of everyday Englishmen and Americans. The stories feel universal, driven by eternal themes of sadness, loss, whimsy, and joy. It is easy to pick up any random story in the collection and read it end-to-end.
As a work of American literature, though, it deserves special commendation. The book didn’t just legitimize our young nation as a place where good writers could emerge – it created new myths and ideas just by being heavily circulated. It created the legend of the Headless Horseman. It created our modern version of Christmas. It brought new ideas into people’s lives that are now just considered part of the collective consciousness. Unlike some previous authors I’ve reviewed in this series, like G.K. Chesterton, these ideas didn’t emerge from a reactionary disdain for modernity. Irving was a worldly, modern, enlightened man of his time. He was fully American in every sense of the word. He existed in the culture he lived in and made it better. He added to the American story.
The Sketch Book is great because it built something new. Now, in a time when tearing things down is easy, there is something admirable about that.
+ Beautiful Prose
+ Historically Influential Stories
- Somewhat Lacking in Structure or Resolution
The Bottom Line
The Sketch Book is one of the most important and influential works of literary in contemporary history, but it is also fun and accessible in ways may classics aren't.