Autumnal reflections with Washington Irving

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Fall puts me a Washington Irving frame of mind. This time of year, I find myself pulling down his The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. from the bookshelf. Irving wrote the collection of tales between 1819 and 1820. The volume includes “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” which have become American classics. Both stories take place in the waning days of autumn, with its cornucopia of colors, cooling temperatures, and dreaminess of time passing. Rereading the stories is a kind of holiday for the heart.

Portrait of Washington Irving by John Wesley Jarvis (Wikipedia)

Portrait of Washington Irving by John Wesley Jarvis (Wikipedia)

Born in New York in 1783 of immigrant parents, Irving was named after the founding father of our country, George Washington. Many consider Irving as the father of American literature since he was the first author to make his living by writing stories. Though he was an attorney by profession, Irving had little interest in the law and found himself often dreaming of “Fairy Land.” He stated, “I never think of these dreams without a confidence that there is something in store for mankind infinitely more delightful than anything we can conceive.”

In “Rip Van Winkle,” as in many of his stories, the dream world and the world of reality become parallel. Rip’s story takes place in the years prior to and after the American Revolution. While hunting with his dog in the Catskill Mountains, leisure-loving Rip encounters a short, strange figure dressed in antique Dutch fashion. The creature eerily calls him by name and asks for his help in carrying a keg of liquor. Partaking of the beverage, Rip falls asleep. Upon awakening he finds himself feeling very stiff, with an old, rusty gun beside him and no sign of his beloved dog Wolf.

Making his way back to his native village, he finds that things have changed. Rip observes, “Strange names were over the doors – strange faces at the windows – everything was strange.” He adds, “There was a busy, bustling, disputatious tone” to the community, instead of the “drowsy tranquility” he had known. Boisterous commerce abounds everywhere, disrupting the old ways. People no longer know one another. Rip soon learns he has been bewitched by the moonshine and put to sleep for twenty years. He is astonished to learn that America’s leader is no longer George III, but George Washington.

In the new forward-looking nation, Irving’s character hearkens back to a simpler past. Irving himself was not a believer in unchecked material progress and coined the term “the land of the almighty dollar.” One critic labeled him an “arch Federalist.” In Sleepy Hollow, he writes longingly for a place where, “manners and customs remain fixed, while the great torrent of migration and improvement … sweeps by them unobserved.” Through Rip, Irving seems ill at ease and lonely, and in search of some abiding community. But this is the fate of the artist.

I marvel at the astonishing beauty of Irving’s prose style – all grace, ease and delight! He is the preeminent stylist. His prose builds a quiet domain for a gentleman in the busy world of democratic commercialism. Though noted for his geniality, there is also a note of melancholy in him that, like the fall season, is a reminder of our own mortality.

Irving traveled the world, and lived abroad in both Spain and England for over 17 years serving on diplomatic missions for the United States. He was America’s first widely popular writer.

In a sketch entitled “Autumnal Reflections,” Irving says, “Let us, then, comfort ourselves with this reflection; that though the shades of morning have given place to those of the evening, – though the spring is past, the summer over, and autumn come, – still you and I go on our way rejoicing.”

Irving’s propensity for dreaming and dreams is the realm of the artist. It is not a form of escapism: For art is not a means of evading reality, rather it offers a greater encounter with it. Irving holds forth the belief in a better world than this one, and the hope that the present reality will be a forgotten dream, and that the dream will have become the reality.

Patrick J. Walsh is a freelance writer from Quincy.

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