To refer to a writer as the Father of American Literature is the quickest way to consign him to anthologies, and to popular oblivion. This is a truism in legend and history alike: Who prefers the dutiful Abraham to his rebellious sons, or Joseph to Jesus? Who—aside from their biographers—remembers the progenitor of Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers, or Marie Curie? There is no faster way to doom an author than to slap him with a patriotic paternity suit. Washington Irving is often tarred with this well-meaning brush, despite the fact that he was by no means the first American fiction writer, nor did he ever publish in that consummate American form: the novel. It is true that Irving’s stories of the Hudson River Valley, composed more than 150 years ago, still exert a magnetic pull on the American imagination, and that during his lifetime, and for nearly a century after, Washington Irving was, as he once wrote of his character Diedrich Knickerbocker, “a household word.” Nor can it be denied that Irving’s satires, “sketches,” and histories captivated readers on both sides of the Atlantic. The Bard of Sunnyside, creator of icons and ambassador of letters, was arguably the nation’s first exportable celebrity—and its first professional writer to make his living by his pen. And it must be admitted that Irving’s stories do endure as the first fictional chronicle of the American experience, and that the unorthodox, fantastical sensibilities he displayed in his tales of the Hudson River Valley set the stage for the Romantic and Gothic writers who followed him, including Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, and Whitman. Certainly, the absurdist Knickerbocker sensibility of his early satires may be felt in the humor of Twain and Thurber, and even, most recently, the stories of George Saunders and Karen Russell, while his foray into regional literature, America’s first, was followed by that of Sarah Orne Jewett, Mark Twain, and Sherwood Anderson—for starters. No one denies, finally, that many of Irving’s best-known characters have themselves become household names: Rip Van Winkle, for example, or Ichabod Crane. But for the love of the Headless Horseman, please don’t call him the Father of American Literature—there is no more killing kindness than that shopworn phrase.
If you must call Irving something, you might call him the architect of America’s founding mythology. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, when a very young Irving was just beginning his literary career, many writers and historians—American and European alike—dismissed the United States as not sufficiently sophisticated to have a history, and certainly too green for ghosts. New York, burned and battered by seven years of British occupation, seemed to exemplify this barren territory: what past was left to be celebrated in a city so decimated by war? “An apology for the present publication,” one contemporary account of New York City began, “may be derived from the scantiness and incorrectness of the information to be found in any collected or methodical form relative to New York.” Everything was in flux and on the brink of erasure: in Manhattan, even the street names were changing to keep up with the republican times. The Revolutionary War was still in the rearview mirror: surely it was too soon to look back? Irving fundamentally disagreed, and over the course of the next fifty years he wrote definitive accounts of the history and culture of colonial New Amsterdam and the postcolonial Hudson River Valley, published a five-volume life of George Washington, and spun the first yarns from the American frontier. Today, Americans can hardly begin to sort out where Irving’s vision leaves off and theirs begins, so steeped are they in his portrait of their “sublime and beautiful” country. While Irving’s work was almost instantaneously popular in England, it spoke with particular emphasis to brand-new Americans as they made sense of the wilderness they had fought so hard to govern, and as they looked for original narratives, forged out of this uncharted landscape, that they could adopt as their own. What made sense in a world as new and strange as theirs? Stories made sense—and the more fantastical they were, the more they gave meaning to the entire American enterprise. In The Sketch Book, Irving’s second work, we find his most supernatural imaginings, and his most unforgettable characters, tucked quietly among descriptions of idylls in the English countryside, waiting—like the proverbial monster under the bed—for the right moment to pounce.
The most monstrous of these characters, of course, is the Headless Horseman of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” a figure whose fame has all but outstripped that of his creator. It’s not hard to understand why: the Horseman is arguably the new nation’s first ghost, appearing in the first American ghost story, derived from the Revolutionary War. But it is not just the circumstances that make the tale of this “mysterious and appalling” mercenary soldier particularly American: there is also something faintly comic in Irving’s image of the decapitated soldier, perched on an enormous black steed, plunging into the woods “in nightly quest of his head.” No wonder he is the spirit ancestor of countless “creature of the week” movies—the Headless Horseman has a touch of kitsch. The humorous, emphatically human aspect of his work might explain how Irving’s “authentic histories” of the early republic came to serve as a kind of Good Housekeeping seal on American discourse, American sentiment, and American archetypes in his lifetime. His iconic characters are the fictitious ancestors of nineteenth-century folk heroes such as Natty Bumppo, Paul Bunyan, and Johnny Appleseed. And his invocations of the “unheeded beauties” of the Hudson helped to make that river into the nation’s first artistic pinup, the subject of countless paintings and engravings of the Hudson River School. Irving’s work also inspired a Dutch Colonial architectural revival, a literary magazine (Knickerbocker Magazine), and a bank (the Irving Bank of the City of New York, which printed the author’s face on its antebellum banknotes).
But in recent years, a suspicion of Irving’s most popular fiction has arisen, in the academy and bookstore alike. It doesn’t help that Irving’s more recent champions, such as the critics Harold Bloom and Perry Miller, put him in an exalted league with James Fenimore Cooper and William Cullen Bryant. Those other literary patriarchs have also fallen out of fashion. Nor does it improve matters to insist that every American has absorbed Irving’s stories like plants do sunlight—through their depiction in television shows, movies, and even video games. His books must be facile, the logic goes, because they are so familiar. They must be childish because they are so beloved. And so we relegate Irving to the juvenile section, a Brother Grimm for the New World.
Two hundred years ago, the suggestion that Washington Irving would someday be considered old-fashioned would have been received with disbelief. This is America’s hottest literary property we’re talking about—dowdy? Kid lit? You must have the wrong guy. And even taking into account the relative lack of competition in early republican America, Irving’s success—both in the United States and in Europe—can only be described as meteoric. The native New Yorker, born to Scottish and Irish parents, began contributing theater reviews to his brother William’s newspaper, The Morning Chronicle, while still a teenager. By 1807, at the age of twenty-four, he was cofounder and editor of the satirical magazine Salmagundi, with William Irving and James Kirke Paulding. Salmagundi, a nineteenth-century forerunner of The Onion, only lasted for a year, but during that time it succeeded in deflating the pretensions of would-be plutocrats and bestowed a lasting nickname on New York City: Gotham, from the legendary town in Nottinghamshire whose inhabitants pretended to be fools in order to avoid paying taxes to the king. Two years later, while practicing law in a desultory way, Irving published his first book, entitled A History of New York, from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty. It arrived in a blaze of mock publicity: Irving had advertised the fictional author Diedrich Knickerbocker as missing, and his rent in arrears; the publication of his manuscript was presented as a landlord’s way of recouping his loss.
The History itself was no hoax, but a satirical, mostly accurate account of the New Netherlands settlement and the city of New Amsterdam, now New York. The narrator, Knickerbocker, was a self-proclaimed descendant of the “Dutch Dynasty” of the book’s title—and exceptionally proud to be so. Knickerbocker’s not-so-secret ambition is easily detected: he intends for the History to serve as a kind of Old Testament for New York, recounting the history of its Dutch colonial forefathers, and in so doing, reclaim New York for Holland, nearly 150 years after it was lost. The book was, for its time, pure punk: it was “fake news” before “fake news” existed, equal parts irreverent ridicule and devout nostalgia, and riddled with more double entendres, false starts, political rants, and potty jokes than The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart could manage on a banner night. Not surprisingly, A History of New York was a smash hit—on both sides of the Atlantic. Sir Walter Scott, himself no stranger to youthful international fame, complained that Irving’s “excellent jocose” book left his “sides . . . sore from laughing.” Years later, Irving would describe the book as a “temporary jeu d’esprit,” but in 1809, it was like nothing else that American readers had ever seen emanating from their shores.
For the first time, an American writer had made a concerted effort not just to identify the formative influence of the New Amsterdam settlement on the contemporary city, but to bring that settlement to vivid, charming life. Irving’s book was a story of origins: it explained the etymology (and odd cartography) of the city’s colonial streets, demystified its geography—from Buttermilk Channel to Spuyten Duyvil—and established the genealogy of its (thoroughly middle-class) Dutch founding families. It also asserted the Dutch roots of several New York customs that have persisted to this day, such as a fondness for doughnuts (which Knickerbocker’s Dutchmen called “oly koeks”), the practice of stoop sitting, and an abiding passion for “authenticity,” the epithet with which the make-believe historian wards off all those who would question the accuracy or neutrality of his account. In the service of satire, the young humorist had created something even more lasting: a set of colorful ancestors for a city in need of fresh founding fathers. New Yorkers, scarred by seven years of British occupation during the recent war, were particularly happy to discard their lordly English forebears in favor of the more republican (and lovable) ones offered by the History. They adopted the fictional historian too, to Irving’s delight, and quickly made him the city’s first mascot, a post he would hold for more than 150 years. Just a year after the publication of Irving’s book, New York and Albany newspapers could be found quoting “the immortal historian Knickerbocker” to settle a dispute about local politics, or make a comment on city history, and by 1848, when Irving published a revised edition of the History, it had become a true “household word.” “I find its very name,” he noted in the “Author’s Apology,”
used to give the home stamp to everything recommended for popular acceptation, such as Knickerbocker societies, Knickerbocker insurance companies, Knickerbocker bread, and Knickerbocker ice, and when I find New Yorkers of Dutch descent priding themselves on being “genuine Knickerbockers,” I please myself with the persuasion that I have struck the right chord[.]
To be a Knickerbocker was to be a certain kind of native New Yorker: patrician, certainly, possibly of Dutch descent; a civic leader and improver; and, in some ineffable way, a power broker. A letter to the New York Gazette illustrates these qualities: “an old Knickerbocker congratulates his younger brethren on the probable preservation of the great open walk of his ancestors . . . recently called the Battery.” At the end of the History, Knickerbocker all but predicts this resurrection when he describes his (supposedly imminent) demise:
Haply this frail compound of dust, which while alive may have given birth to naught but unprofitable weeds, may form a humble sod of the valley, from whence shall spring many a sweet wild flower, to adorn my beloved island of Manna-hatta!
Irving’s “crabbed, cynical, impertinent little son of a Dutchman” would prove to be anything but “unprofitable”—he would be immortal.
In a manner of speaking, however, the fictional historian was right: Irving’s readers never again encounter the living Knickerbocker. Instead, after an interval of ten years, during which time Irving worked for the family business (imports), edited a magazine until it failed, served as a colonel on the Canadian front during the War of 1812, and traveled in England, they were presented with two stories, “found among the papers of the late Diedrich Knickerbocker,” that are themselves found at the beginning and end of a collection entitled The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. It is a less than auspicious way to discover Irving’s most enduring tales—“Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”—and their appearance is made all the more strange and remarkable by the nature of the work that they bookend. The Sketch Book was published serially from 1819 to 1820, when Irving was little more than ten years into his literary career, but the collection still serves as a handy metonym for his entire oeuvre. It is a kitchen-sink read, part travelogue, part story anthology, part personal essay: all forms that Irving would return to throughout his more than fifty-year career as a writer. The “sketch” form may seem resolutely eighteenth century—mannered, even “dressy,” as the American critic Richard H. Dana Sr. wrote in the North American Review, but the content of The Sketch Book is, in the main, surprisingly modern—and surprisingly fun.
The appeal of The Sketch Book derives in large part from the comic ambivalence of its tone. Crayon, the putative narrator, presents himself as a pilgrim in reverse: an American looking for his roots (literary, aesthetic, academic, sentimental) in the Anglo-Saxon holy land; that is, England. He visits all the right sacred sites, from Stratford-on-Avon to Windsor Castle, and is appropriately worshipful in each place, relaying the beauty and wonder of the ancient, storied places in a tumbling rush of encomiums—except when he doesn’t. In fact, for a book supposedly inspired by a desire to visit “the quaint peculiarities of ancient and local custom,” a remarkable proportion of its pages are devoted to acerbic accounts of very contemporary phenomena. Early in the collection, Crayon excoriates English travel writers for their depiction of America and for their perpetuation, in these accounts, of their own “national prejudices . . . the inveterate disease of old countries.” He argues that they “under rate a society where there are no artificial distinctions, and where, by any chance, such individuals as themselves can rise to consequence.” “We have but to live on,” Crayon concludes, “and every day we live a whole volume of refutation.” This is a battle cry, not an ode to the old country.
Crayon also proves to be adept at the sport of calling out snobs, social climbers, and fakes: bourgeois families, glimpsed at prayer in their nouveau riche finery in “The Country Church”; a bereaved and penniless widow, snubbed by fashionable neighbors in “The Widow and Her Son”; or the working-class daughters of “Honest Lamb,” the butcher, improving their “tone” with music lessons and a French dancing-master in “Little Britain”—all are targets for his republican scorn. In a similar vein, Crayon makes an exhaustive study of all the existing sites associated with William Shakespeare’s life and work: not just for a “poetical pilgrimage,” as he asserts, but to poke holes in the tourist hoaxes and sloppy mythology that has sprung up around these landmarks. “I am always of easy faith in such matters,” Crayon remarks, after proving the opposite with his skeptical treatment of Shakespeare’s birthplace and, in particular, the moldering and inauthentic artifacts on display there:
There, too, was his tobacco box; which proves that he was a rival smoker of Sir Walter Raleigh; the sword also with which he played Hamlet; and the identical lanthorn with which Friar Laurence discovered Romeo and Juliet at the tomb! There was an ample supply also of his mulberry tree, which seems to have as extraordinary powers of self multiplication as the wood of the true cross; of which there is enough extant to build a ship of the line.
He makes equally short work of “Dame Honeyball,” a stand-in for Shakespeare’s “Mistress Quickly,” who assembles Bardic relics of the Boar’s Head Tavern (onetime haunt of Falstaff) for his enjoyment, only to have Crayon describe her credulous faith (and her trove of evidence) as “a rich mine to be worked by future commentators . . . almost as fruitful of voluminous dissertations and disputes as the shield of Achilles, or the far famed Portland vase.”
And yet Crayon comes most to life in the sketches where he too succumbs to the enchantment of an ancient place, or allows himself to “escape . . . from the commonplace realities of the present, and lose myself among the shadowy grandeurs of the past.” Some of these stories, such as “The Mutability of Literature,” in which the narrator finds himself in conversation with a very opinionated quarto he opens in the library of Westminster Abbey, would not be out of place in the pages of Harry Potter: “the little book gave two or three yawns, like one awakening from a deep sleep; then a husky hem, and at length began to talk.” The talking book complains of fickle readers and mercurial publishers, and is shocked and a little offended when informed by Crayon that the “pure and elegant English” of its pages have become “intolerably antiquated” over the intervening centuries since its printing. In another, “The Art of Book Making,” Crayon sneaks into the grand reading room of the British Museum to catch a glimpse of the scholars working there, and the “immense collection of volumes of all ages and languages, many of which are now forgotten, and most of which are seldom read.” There he falls asleep, and dreams of “a ragged, thread bare throng” of authors seizing upon published books, which turn into articles of clothing in their hands. In this way they fashion themselves (and their own works) piecemeal from the labor of others, until the literary portraits on the walls of the reading room come alive and snatch back their handiwork. Crayon is turned out of both Westminster and the British Museum at the end of the tales: as an American, the narrative suggests, he must be mindful of these fraught inheritances and look for his own enduring themes elsewhere—a challenge that Irving faced from other American writers throughout his career.
Strangely, it is in the depiction of an old-fashioned English Christmas that Irving finds one of these lasting themes. At the time The Sketch Book was published, Christmas was not the cultural and commercial behemoth that it is today—either in England or in America. In Irving’s native New York City, the holiday was superseded in festivity, if not religious importance, by New Year’s Day, which gentlemen spent paying innumerable calls on friends and relatives, singing songs, and accepting a cup of cheer in each house they visited. “New York seemed to enjoy a general carnival,” Philip Hone wrote of one New Year’s Day, before noting the familiar phenomenon of extreme gridlock on Broadway, stretching “from one end to the other.” Irving’s tales of Christmas at Bracebridge Hall, a quintessential English country estate, offered fresh competition to that Dutch tradition. And while they present a yuletide portrait that may seem familiar to contemporary readers of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Dickens’ famous holiday tale would not be published until 1843. At the time of the publication of The Sketch Book, the future creator of Tiny Tim was himself just eight years old. Here, as if in anticipation of Fezziwig, we find the Squire of Bracebridge Hall, a “bigoted devotee of the old school” of Christmas, who upholds every Tudor-era tradition he can find, from mummery and mistletoe to the boar’s head and wassail bowl. We also find a suggestion of Scrooge: Crayon ends one meditation on the delights of an English Christmas with the remark:
He who can turn churlishly away from contemplating the felicity of his fellow beings, and can sit down darkling and repining in his loneliness while all around is joyful, may have his moments of strong excitement and selfish gratification, but he wants the genial and social sympathies which constitute the charm of a merry Christmas.
Dickens’ unlikely protagonist, “hard and sharp as a flint from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster,” is that very churl. Did Irving inspire one of Dickens’ most famous characters? Twenty years later, on the eve of his American tour, Dickens sent a girlish fan letter to Irving, noting that he had traced the route in The Sketch Book as homage to Crayon’s creator. “I wish to travel with you . . . down to Bracebridge Hall,” he added, although no such journey ever transpired, and the English author mostly pilloried the United States in his American Notes (with a quick compliment for Irving, who had by that time become a national celebrity). A Christmas Carol was published two years later, in 1843.
The ontological Scrooge notwithstanding, Irving’s account of Christmas made a lasting impact on American readers as well. For once, Crayon sets aside his quizzical, smart-aleck style in favor of pure enthusiasm: there is next to nothing for him to criticize at Bracebridge Hall because it, like New Amsterdam, is a perfect microcosm of an earlier, happier time. Others apparently agreed: 1823 marked the anonymous appearance of “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” a now-famous poem that combined Knickerbocker’s tales of St. Nicholas, patron saint of New Amsterdam, with the “whim and benevolence” of the Bracebridge vignettes, to create an indelible—and inaugural—portrait of Santa Claus. The accessible, Americanized “Saint Nick” of the poem (which has historically been attributed to the scholar and New York landowner Clement Clarke Moore), is further proof of the appeal and elasticity of the worlds that Irving created in his early fictions.
But nowhere is the durability of Irving’s imagined worlds so evident as in the Hudson River Valley of New York. Irving first visited the landscape that would become the setting for two of his most famous tales, “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” in his youth, when he and Paulding (whose Dutch-descended family had a home there) fled a yellow fever outbreak in New York City for healthier air along the Hudson highlands. For Irving, the relative antiquity of the “vegetating” settlements, the stolid Dutch dynasties they sheltered, and the dramatic (and recent) military history it so modestly hid, conspired to make the region seem wonderfully haunted. Here was another “contagion,” as Irving would later write in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” to replace the one they had left behind in the city: “a drowsy, dreamy influence” and a “visionary propensity” that
is not confined to the native inhabitants of the valley, but is unconsciously imbibed by everyone who resides there for a time. However wide awake they might have been before they entered that sleepy region, they are sure, in a little time, to inhale the witching influence of the air, and begin to grow imaginative—to dream dreams, and see apparitions.
It is here that readers discover Rip, the Dutch colonist who sleeps through the Revolutionary War and is none the worse for it, and Ichabod, the superstitious schoolmaster with grand plans for upward mobility. These two antiheroes, their histories “discovered” in manuscripts supposedly penned by Diedrich Knickerbocker (for the ultimate in unquestionable authenticity), are the real visionaries of The Sketch Book, even if their singular reveries are interrupted by ghosts and “goblin troopers,” not to mention by challenging or difficult women, a favorite stalking-horse of the bachelor Knickerbocker. Crucially, the transcendental backdrop for their delicious fantasies—the “fairy mountains” and haunted lowlands along the Hudson—prodded Americans, gently but firmly, to see ghosts and dream dreams of their own. The Knickerbocker tales in The Sketch Book, along with those that followed in the collections Bracebridge Hall (1822) and Tales of a Traveller (1824), helped readers to envision their new country as a primeval wilderness, as dense with stories and romantic possibility as it was with “swamp and stream and awful woodland.” Before Thomas Cole ever made his way up the river, Irving was the Hudson River School.
At first, the Knickerbocker stories seem woefully out of place in The Sketch Book, whose narrator prides himself on his genteel urbanity: these are wild, outlandish stories that mash the supernatural and the domestic together without warning or apology. But their vehemence serves a larger purpose: with or without Irving’s consent, they constitute a battle cry for the American imagination, a pumpkin hurled at the head of polite literature. From the inspiration of “Rip” and “The Legend” we can trace not only the aforementioned development of the Romantic and Gothic movements, but even the beginnings of American science fiction. There is more than a touch of “Planet of the Apes” about Rip Van Winkle’s horrified revelation that he is in the same place, but everything has changed: “‘God knows,’ exclaimed he, at his wit’s end, ‘I’m not myself—that’s me yonder—no—that’s somebody else got into my shoes . . . and everything’s changed—and I’m changed—and I can’t tell what’s my name, or who I am!’” There is nothing more contemporary than Rip’s anguished outcry: the shock of the new is no less shocking for being nearly two hundred years old. “The Legend,” on the other hand, imbues the Hudson River Valley with the kind of spiritual authority that Geoffrey Crayon granted to Stratford-on-Avon, and makes the argument for Tarrytown, where Irving would later purchase a country retreat, which he dubbed Sunnyside, as the wellspring of American folklore. The Headless Horseman, who was a local celebrity in the fictional village of Sleepy Hollow, has become an international one in real life, and nearly two hundred years since the publication of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” readers still find the race between Irving’s spectral soldier and his attenuated teacher remarkably appealing, and want for themselves the “visionary propensity,” the “continual reverie,” that characterized the imaginative and phantom-ridden community that he haunts. Visitors still flock to the region in the thousands, in search of the landmarks of Ichabod’s brief tenure in Tarrytown. Some of these places may indeed be found on a map: the cemetery at the Old Dutch Church, where the Horseman “tethered his horse nightly,” or the forest around the haunted Raven Rock (now part of the Rockefeller State Park Preserve), or, for literary context, Irving’s home at Sunnyside. Others have been destroyed (the wooden bridge over the Pocantico River where Brom Bones asserted the horseman “sprang away over the tree tops with a clap of thunder” has been replaced by Route 9), and still others exist only in “The Legend” itself. Like the author before them, Irving’s readers merge the real and the fantastical in their search for Sleepy Hollow, and find their delight at the ephemeral intersection between the two. Little surprise, then, that the New York suburb of North Tarrytown should have rechristened itself Sleepy Hollow in 1996—except to wonder why it took so long!
Another measure of the enduring appeal of the Knickerbocker stories in The Sketch Book is their continual recurrence in popular culture: every generation since Irving, it seems, has remade Ichabod or Rip in their own image—and with their newest technology. Before the Civil War, actor Joseph Jefferson adapted “Rip Van Winkle” for the stage as a temperance play: it would run for forty years, and photographs of Jefferson as the aged Van Winkle were treasured souvenirs. The Jazz Age produced The Headless Horseman, a silent film of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” starring Will Rogers, while in the 1950s Disney animated the same story, this time with narration by Bing Crosby. At the end of the twentieth century, Tim Burton directed a live-action Sleepy Hollow, with Ichabod as forensic detective rather than schoolmaster, and many grisly beheadings, perhaps to keep the attention of a contemporary audience. Most recently, Ichabod and his horseman can be found in primetime, on a television drama called simply Sleepy Hollow—this time with extra monsters, time travel, and skinny jeans. But adaptations are only part of the Irving legacy: the stories provide a set of shared cultural referents for an ever more diverse body of work, artistic and otherwise. The headless horseman has been featured in rap lyrics, on postage stamps and city seals (Sleepy Hollow, Illinois), animated in The Legend of Smurfy Hollow, and transformed into a Lego, while Rip Van Winkle’s sleep is now the stuff of hoary metaphor and inauguration addresses, as American (and clichéd) as apple pie. In addition, the American holiday of Halloween, while never specifically mentioned in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” has become inextricably linked to the tale of Ichabod Crane and his monstrous adversary.
For all these reasons, Knickerbocker casts a long shadow over The Sketch Book, and it is therefore confusing to turn to the “L’Envoy,” with which Irving closes his collection, and find the author defending the “miscellaneous whole” with the remark: “it could not be expected that any one would be pleased with the whole; but that if it should contain something to suit each reader, his end would be completely answered.” What, finally, is the meaning of this miscellany? Has Irving been writing his way out of an American inferiority complex, or has Crayon been employed in the sole service of imitating his English role models—“the sincerest form of flattery?” It is too tempting, as twenty-first-century readers, to want to reduce the book to one literary goal or the other: to a pull quote, a sound bite, a hashtag. Is Irving a toady and a hack, as Philip Freneau suggests in his bitter 1823 ode “To a New England Poet,” urging his nameless audience: “Why pause?—like Irving, haste away / To England your addresses pay / And England will reward you well?” Or is Irving a canny marketer and copyright pioneer, concealing a new American form in layers of old English costume? This is ultimately a very modern dialectic, one that relies on nearly two hundred years of literary history for its argument. How can Irving, who was among the first to make that history, offer anything but a generous patchwork for the writers who would follow? “We are a young people, necessarily an imitative one, and must take our examples and models, in a great degree, from the existing nations of Europe,” he wrote in “English Writers on America.” More wonder then, that out of the crucible of these models, he was able to forge the beginnings of something entirely new—of the dream life of a nation.
During a 1907 pilgrimage to Sunnyside, Henry James remarked upon the “sense of legend, of aboriginal mystery” that he experienced during his sojourn in the Hudson River Valley. The skeptical expat, surprised at his own sentimental response to the landscape, wondered if “Rip Van Winkle had really been at the bottom of it all.” In this the author is mistaken: Irving, not Rip, is “at bottom” of the mystery; it is he who has created this very American bridge between the real and the mythic. Knickerbocker described Sleepy Hollow as a place with “contagion in the very air,” breathing forth “an atmosphere of dreams and fancies infecting all the land.” Over two centuries, Irving’s most memorable stories have infected readers the world over, weaving his characters indelibly into the fabric of American culture in the process. Thankfully, it is a sickness for which there is no cure.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Aderman, Ralph M., ed. Critical Essays on Washington Irving. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990.
Anthony, David. “‘Gone Distracted’: ‘Sleepy Hollow,’ Gothic Masculinity, and the Panic of 1819.” Early American Literature 40, no. 1 (2005): 111–144.
Avery, Kevin. “Selling the Sublime and Beautiful: Landscape and Tourism.” In Art and the Empire City: New York, 1825–1861. Metropolitan Museum of Art. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000.
Bender, Thomas. New York Intellect. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.
Bradley, Elizabeth L. Knickerbocker: The Myth Behind New York. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009.
Brooks, Van Wyck. The World of Washington Irving. New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1944.
Bryant, William Cullen, et al. The Sunnyside Book. New York: G. P. Putnam & Sons, 1871.
Burrows, Edwin G., and Mike Wallace. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Burstein, Andrew. The Original Knickerbocker: The Life of Washington Irving. New York: Basic Books, 2007.
Clark, Lewis Gaylord. Knick-Knacks from an Editor’s Table. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1852.
Duyckinck, Evert A. Irvingiana: A Memorial of Washington Irving. New York: Charles B. Richardson, 1860.
Gassan, Richard. The Birth of American Tourism: New York, the Hudson Valley, and American Culture, 1790–1830. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008.
Greven, David. “Troubling Our Heads About Ichabod: ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’ Classic American Literature, and the Sexual Politics of Homosocial Brotherhood.” American Quarterly 56, no. 1 (2004): 83–110.
Hiller, Alice. “‘An Avenue to Some Degree of Profit and Reputation’: The Sketchbook as Washington Irving’s Entrée and Undoing.” Journal of American Studies 31 (1997): 275–93.
Historic Hudson Valley. Visions of Washington Irving: Selected Works from the Collections of Historic Hudson Valley. Tarrytown, NY: Historic Hudson Valley in conjunction with Perpetua Press, 1991. An exhibition catalog.
Hopper, Edward. The Fire on the Hearth in Sleepy Hollow: A Christmas Poem of the Olden Time. New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1865.
Hughes, Robert. “Sleepy Hollow: Fearful Pleasures and the Nightmare of History.” Arizona Quarterly 61, no. 3 (Autumn 2005): 1–26.
Irving, Pierre Munro. The Life and Letters of Washington Irving. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1862–1864.
Jackson, Kenneth T., ed. The Encyclopedia of New York City. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010.
James, Henry. The American Scene. Collected Travel Writings: Great Britain and America. Richard Howard, ed. New York: Library of America, 1993.
Jones, Brian Jay. Washington Irving: An American Original. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2008.
Lepore, Jill. The Story of America: Essays on Origins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012.
McLamore, Richard V. “The Dutchman in the Attic: Claiming an Inheritance in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon.” American Literature 72, no. 1 (March 2000): 31–57.
Meyers, Andrew B., ed. The Knickerbocker Tradition: Washington Irving’s New York. Tarrytown, NY: Sleepy Hollow Press, 1974.
———, ed. The Worlds of Washington Irving, 1783–1859: From an Exhibition of Rare Books and Manuscript Materials in the Special Collections of the New York Public Library. Tarrytown, NY: Sleepy Hollow Press, 1974.
Panetta, Roger, ed. Dutch New York: The Roots of Hudson Valley Culture. Bronx, NY: Hudson River Museum in conjunction with Fordham University Press, 2009.
Patell, Cyrus, and Bryan Waterman, eds. The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Paulding, James Kirke. Stories of Saint Nicholas. Frank Bergmann, ed. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1995.
Reichart, Walter A. Washington Irving and Germany. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1957.
Richardson, Judith. Possessions: The History and Uses of Haunting in the Hudson Valley. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.
Rockwell, Charles. The Catskill Mountains and the Regions Around. New York: Taintor Brothers & Co., 1873.
Rubin-Dorsky, Jeffrey. Adrift in the Old World: The Psychological Pilgrimage of Washington Irving. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1988.
Sachs, Aaron. Arcadian America: The Death and Life of an American Tradition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013.
Schlueter, John P. “Private Practices: Washington Irving, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the Recovery of Possibility.” Nineteenth Century Literature 66, no. 3 (December 2011): 283–306.
Schuyler, David. Sanctified Landscape: Writers, Artists, and the Hudson River Valley, 1820–1909. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012.
Searling, A. E. P. The Land of Rip Van Winkle: A Tour Through the Romantic Parts of the Catskills, Its Legends and Traditions. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1885.
Smith, Greg. “Supernatural Ambiguity and Possibility in Irving’s ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.’” Midwest Quarterly 42, no. 2 (Winter 2001): 174–82.
Sondey, Walter. “From Nations of Virtue to Virtual Nation: Washington Irving and American Nationalism.” In Narratives of Nostalgia, Gender and Nationalisms, Jean Pickering and Susan Kehde, eds. New York: New York University Press, 1997.
Steiner, Henry. The Place Names of Historic Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown. Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 1998.
Sweeting, Adam W. “‘A Very Pleasant Patriarchal Life’: Professional Authors and Amateur Architects in the Hudson Valley, 1835–1870.” Journal of American Studies 29 (1995): 33–53.
Taft, Kendall B. Minor Knickerbockers. New York: American Book Co., 1974.
Thompson, Terry W. “Lively But Complicated: English Hegemony in ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.’” Midwest Quarterly 54, no. 2 (Winter 2013): 136–48.
Tomkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790–1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Trubek, Anne. A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.
Tuttleton, James W., ed. Washington Irving: The Critical Reaction. New York: AMS Press, 1993.
Wagenknecht, Edward. Washington Irving: Moderation Displayed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962.
Warner, Charles Dudley, et al. Studies of Irving. New York: Putnam, 1880.
Warner, Michael. “Irving’s Posterity” ELH 67 (2000): 773–99.
Wells, Robert V. “While Rip Napped: Social Change in Late Eighteenth-Century New York.” New York History 71 (1990): 5–23.
Williams, Stanley T. The Life of Washington Irving. New York: Oxford University Press, 1935.
A Note on the Text
The text of this edition is that established by Haskell Springer for the Twayne edition (Boston, 1978) of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., volume VIII of The Complete Works of Washington Irving. Based on modern editorial principles, the Twayne text is certified by the Modern Language Association’s Center for Editions of American Authors. It is reprinted here with permission. The complicated publishing history of The Sketch Book made for many difficulties in establishing an authoritative text. For a complete explanation of the decisions made by Springer, the reader is referred to his “Textual Commentary” in the Twayne edition (pp. 340–79). Briefly, however, he has used Irving’s manuscripts, where they survive, as his copy-texts, except where a sketch was later so much revised as to become virtually a new work. Such copy-texts are the basis for almost one-third of the book. Somewhat more than a third is based on the first American edition (1819–20). And the first English edition (1820) provides the copy-texts for the remainder of the Twayne edition of The Sketch Book, except for a few small sections added in the Author’s Revised Edition (1848). The arrangement of the items in the book is that of the 1848 edition. As Springer observes, “This use of multiple copy-texts results . . . in some unevenness of texture in the book as a whole.” The variation in spelling and punctuation, however, is apt to be scarcely noticeable to readers who are not looking for it. The compensation is that the text for each sketch or tale comes as close to being what Irving originally intended as possible.
The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.
PREFACE TO THE REVISED EDITION
The following papers, with two exceptions, were written in England, and formed but part of an intended series for which I had made notes and memorandums. Before I could mature a plan, however, circumstances compelled me to send them piecemeal to the United States, where they were published from time to time in portions or numbers. It was not my intention to publish them in England, being conscious that much of their contents could be interesting only to American readers, and in truth, being deterred by the severity with which American productions had been treated by the British press.
By the time the contents of the first volume had appeared in this occasional manner, they began to find their way across the Atlantic, and to be inserted, with many kind encomiums, in the London Literary Gazette. It was said, also, that a London bookseller intended to publish them in a collective form. I determined, therefore, to bring them forward myself, that they might at least have the benefit of my superintendence and revision. I accordingly took the printed numbers which I had received from the United States, to Mr. John Murray, the eminent publisher, from whom I had already received friendly attentions, and left them with him for examination, informing him that should he be inclined to bring them before the public, I had materials enough on hand for a second volume. Several days having elapsed without any communication from Mr. Murray, I addressed a note to him, in which I construed his silence into a tacit rejection of my work, and begged that the numbers I had left with him might be returned to me. The following was his reply.
MY DEAR SIR,
I entreat you to believe that I feel truly obliged by your kind intentions towards me, and that I entertain the most unfeigned respect for your most tasteful talents. My house is completely filled with workpeople at this time, and I have only an office to transact business in; and yesterday I was wholly occupied, or I should have done myself the pleasure of seeing you.
If it would not suit me to engage in the publication of your present work, it is only because I do not see that scope in the nature of it which would enable me to make those satisfactory accounts between us, without which I really feel no satisfaction in engaging—but I will do all I can to promote their circulation, and shall be most ready to attend to any future plan of yours.
WITH MUCH REGARD, I REMAIN, DEAR SIR,
YOUR FAITHFUL SERVANT,
This was disheartening, and might have deterred me from any further prosecution of the matter, had the question of republication in Great Britain rested entirely with me; but I apprehended the appearance of a spurious edition. I now thought of Mr. Archibald Constable as publisher, having been treated by him with much hospitality during a visit to Edinburgh; but first I determined to submit my work to Sir Walter (then Mr.) Scott,1 being encouraged to do so by the cordial reception I had experienced from him at Abbotsford a few years previously, and by the favourable opinion he had expressed to others of my earlier writings. I accordingly sent him the printed numbers of the Sketch Book in a parcel by coach, and at the same time wrote to him, hinting that since I had had the pleasure of partaking of his hospitality, a reverse had taken place in my affairs which made the successful exercise of my pen all important to me; I begged him, therefore, to look over the literary articles I had forwarded to him, and, if he thought they would bear European republication, to ascertain whether Mr. Constable would be inclined to be the publisher.
The parcel containing my work went by coach to Scott’s address in Edinburgh; the letter went by mail to his residence in the country. By the very first post I received a reply, before he had seen my work.
“I was down at Kelso,” said he, “when your letter reached Abbotsford. I am now on my way to town, and will converse with Constable, and do all in my power to forward your views—I assure you nothing will give me more pleasure.”
The hint, however, about a reverse of fortune had struck the quick apprehension of Scott, and, with that practical and efficient good will which belonged to his nature, he had already devised a way of aiding me. A weekly periodical, he went on to inform me, was about to be set up in Edinburgh, supported by the most respectable talents, and amply furnished with all the necessary information. The appointment of the editor, for which ample funds were provided, would be five hundred pounds sterling a year, with the reasonable prospect of further advantages. This situation, being apparently at his disposal, he frankly offered to me. The work, however, he intimated, was to have somewhat of a political bearing, and he expressed an apprehension that the tone it was desired to adopt might not suit me. “Yet I risk the question,” added he, “because I know no man so well qualified for this important task, and perhaps because it will necessarily bring you to Edinburgh. If my proposal does not suit, you need only keep the matter secret and there is no harm done. ‘And for my love I pray you wrong me not.’ If on the contrary you think it could be made to suit you, let me know as soon as possible, addressing Castle street, Edinburgh.”
In a postscript, written from Edinburgh, he adds, “I am just come here, and have glanced over the Sketch Book. It is positively beautiful, and increases my desire to crimp2 you, if it be possible. Some difficulties there always are in managing such a matter, especially at the outset; but we will obviate them as much as we possibly can.”
The following is from an imperfect draught of my reply, which underwent some modifications in the copy sent.
“I cannot express how much I am gratified by your letter. I had begun to feel as if I had taken an unwarrantable liberty; but, somehow or other, there is a genial sunshine about you that warms every creeping thing into heart and confidence. Your literary proposal both surprises and flatters me, as it evinces a much higher opinion of my talents than I have myself.”
I then went on to explain that I found myself peculiarly unfitted for the situation offered to me, not merely by my political opinions, but by the very constitution and habits of my mind. “My whole course of life,” I observed, “has been desultory, and I am unfitted for any periodically recurring task, or any stipulated labor of body or mind. I have no command of my talents, such as they are, and have to watch the varyings of my mind as I would those of a weather cock. Practice and training may bring me more into rule; but at present I am as useless for regular service as one of my own country Indians, or a Don Cossack.3
“I must, therefore, keep on pretty much as I have begun; writing when I can, not when I would. I shall occasionally shift my residence and write whatever is suggested by objects before me, or whatever rises in my imagination; and hope to write better and more copiously by and by.
“I am playing the egotist, but I know no better way of answering your proposal than by showing what a very good for nothing kind of being I am. Should Mr. Constable feel inclined to make a bargain for the wares I have on hand, he will encourage me to further enterprise; and it will be something like trading with a gipsy for the fruits of his prowlings, who may at one time have nothing but a wooden bowl to offer, and at another time a silver tankard.”
In reply, Scott expressed regret, but not surprise, at my declining what might have proved a troublesome duty. He then recurred to the original subject of our correspondence; entered into a detail of the various terms upon which arrangements were made between authors and booksellers, that I might take my choice; expressing the most encouraging confidence of the success of my work, and of previous works which I had produced in America. “I did no more,” added he, “than open the trenches with Constable; but I am sure if you will take the trouble to write to him, you will find him disposed to treat your overtures with every degree of attention. Or, if you think it of consequence in the first place to see me, I shall be in London in the course of a month, and whatever my experience can command is most heartily at your command. But I can add little to what I have said above, except my earnest recommendation to Constable to enter into the negotiation.”*
Before the receipt of this most obliging letter, however, I had determined to look to no leading bookseller for a launch, but to throw my work before the public at my own risk, and let it sink or swim according to its merits. I wrote to that effect to Scott, and soon received a reply:
“I observe with pleasure that you are going to come forth in Britain. It is certainly not the very best way to publish on one’s own accompt; for the booksellers set their face against the circulation of such works as do not pay an amazing toll to themselves. But they have lost the art of altogether damming up the road in such cases between the author and the public, which they were once able to do as effectually as Diabolus in John Bunyan’s Holy War5 closed up the windows of my Lord Understanding’s mansion. I am sure of one thing, that you have only to be known to the British public to be admired by them, and I would not say so unless I really was of that opinion.
“If you ever see a witty but rather local publication called Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, you will find some notice of your works in the last number: the author is a friend of mine, to whom I have introduced you in your literary capacity. His name is Lockhart, a young man of very considerable talent, and who will soon be intimately connected with my family. My faithful friend Knickerbocker is to be next examined and illustrated. Constable was extremely willing to enter into consideration of a treaty for your works, but I foresee will be still more so when
Your name is up, and may go
From Toledo to Madrid.6
————And that will soon be the case. I trust to be in London about the middle of the month, and promise myself great pleasure in once again shaking you by the hand.”
The first volume of the Sketch Book was put to press in London as I had resolved, at my own risk, by a bookseller unknown to fame, and without any of the usual arts by which a work is trumpeted into notice. Still some attention had been called to it by the extracts which had previously appeared in the Literary Gazette, and by the kind word spoken by the editor of that periodical, and it was getting into fair circulation, when my worthy bookseller failed before the first month was over, and the sale was interrupted.
At this juncture Scott arrived in London. I called to him for help, as I was sticking in the mire, and, more propitious than Hercules, he put his own shoulder to the wheel. Through his favourable representations, Murray was quickly induced to undertake the future publication of the work which he had previously declined. A further edition of the first volume was struck off and the second volume was put to press, and from that time Murray became my publisher, conducting himself in all his dealings with that fair, open, and liberal spirit which had obtained for him the well merited appellation of the Prince of Booksellers.
Thus, under the kind and cordial auspices of Sir Walter Scott, I began my literary career in Europe; and I feel that I am but discharging, in a trifling degree, my debt of gratitude to the memory of that golden hearted man in acknowledging my obligations to him.—But who of his literary contemporaries ever applied to him for aid or counsel that did not experience the most prompt, generous, and effectual assistance!
THE AUTHOR’S ACCOUNT OF HIMSELF
I am of this mind with Homer, that as the snaile that crept out of her shel was turned eftsoones into a Toad, and thereby was forced to make a stoole to sit on; so the traveller that stragleth from his owne country is in a short time transformed into so monstrous a shape that he is faine to alter his mansion with his manners and to live where he can, not where he would.
I was always fond of visiting new scenes and observing strange characters and manners. Even when a mere child I began my travels and made many tours of discovery into foreign parts and unknown regions of my native city; to the frequent alarm of my parents and the emolument of the town cryer. As I grew into boyhood I extended the range of my observations. My holyday afternoons were spent in rambles about the surrounding country. I made myself familiar with all its places famous in history or fable. I knew every spot where a murder or robbery had been committed or a ghost seen. I visited the neighbouring villages and added greatly to my stock of knowledge, by noting their habits and customs, and conversing with their sages and great men. I even journeyed one long summer’s day to the summit of the most distant hill, from whence I stretched my eye over many a mile of terra incognita, and was astonished to find how vast a globe I inhabited.
This rambling propensity strengthened with my years. Books of voyages and travels became my passion, and in devouring their contents I neglected the regular exercises of the school. How wistfully would I wander about the pier heads in fine weather, and watch the parting ships, bound to distant climes. With what longing eyes would I gaze after their lessening sails, and waft myself in imagination to the ends of the earth.
Further reading and thinking, though they brought this vague inclination into more reasonable bounds, only served to make it more decided. I visited various parts of my own country, and had I been merely a lover of fine scenery, I should have felt little desire to seek elsewhere its gratification, for on no country have the charms of nature been more prodigally lavished. Her mighty lakes, like oceans of liquid silver; her mountains with their bright aerial tints; her valleys teeming with wild fertility; her tremendous cataracts thundering in their solitudes; her boundless plains waving with spontaneous verdure; her broad deep rivers, rolling in solemn silence to the ocean; her trackless forests, where vegetation puts forth all its magnificence; her skies kindling with the magic of summer clouds and glorious sunshine—no, never need an American look beyond his own country for the sublime and beautiful of natural scenery.
But Europe held forth the charms of storied and poetical association. There were to be seen the masterpieces of art, the refinements of highly cultivated society, the quaint peculiarities of ancient and local custom. My native country was full of youthful promise; Europe was rich in the accumulated treasures of age. Her very ruins told the history of times gone by, and every mouldering stone was a chronicle. I longed to wander over the scenes of renowned achievement—to tread as it were in the footsteps of antiquity—to loiter about the ruined castle—to meditate on the falling tower—to escape in short, from the commonplace realities of the present, and lose myself among the shadowy grandeurs of the past.
I had, beside all this, an earnest desire to see the great men of the earth. We have, it is true, our great men in America—not a city but has an ample share of them. I have mingled among them in my time, and been almost withered by the shade into which they cast me; for there is nothing so baleful to a small man as the shade of a great one, particularly the great man of a city. But I was anxious to see the great men of Europe; for I had read in the works of various philosophers, that all animals degenerated in America, and man among the number. A great man of Europe, thought I, must therefore be as superior to a great man of America, as a peak of the Alps to a highland of the Hudson; and in this idea I was confirmed by observing the comparative importance and swelling magnitude of many English travellers among us; who, I was assured, were very little people in their own country.—I will visit this land of wonders, thought I, and see the gigantic race from which I am degenerated.
It has been either my good or evil lot to have my roving passion gratified. I have wandered through different countries and witnessed many of the shifting scenes of life. I cannot say that I have studied them with the eye of a philosopher, but rather with the sauntering gaze with which humble lovers of the picturesque stroll from the window of one print shop to another; caught sometimes by the delineations of beauty, sometimes by the distortions of caricature and sometimes by the loveliness of landscape. As it is the fashion for modern tourists to travel pencil in hand, and bring home their portfolios filled with sketches, I am disposed to get up a few for the entertainment of my friends. When I look over, however, the hints and memorandums I have taken down for the purpose, my heart almost fails me at finding how my idle humour has led me aside from the great objects studied by every regular traveller who would make a book. I fear I shall give equal disappointment with an unlucky landscape painter, who had travelled on the continent, but following the bent of his vagrant inclination, had sketched in nooks and corners and bye places. His sketch book was accordingly crowded with cottages, and landscapes, and obscure ruins; but he had neglected to paint St. Peter’s or the Coliseum; the cascade of Terni or the Bay of Naples; and had not a single Glacier or Volcano in his whole collection.
Ships, ships, I will descrie you
Amidst the main,
I will come and try you
What you are protecting
What’s your end and aim.
One goes abroad for merchandize and trading,
Another stays to keep his country from invading,
A third is coming home with rich and wealthy lading.
Hallo my fancie, whither wilt thou go?
To an American visiting Europe the long voyage he has to make is an excellent preparative. The temporary absence of worldly scenes and employments produces a state of mind peculiarly fitted to receive new and vivid impressions. The vast space of waters, that separates the hemispheres is like a blank page in existence. There is no gradual transition by which as in Europe the features and population of one country blend almost imperceptibly with those of another. From the moment you lose sight of the land you have left, all is vacancy until you step on the opposite shore, and are launched at once into the bustle and novelties of another world.
In travelling by land there is a continuity of scene and a connected succession of persons and incidents, that carry on the story of life, and lessen the effect of absence and separation. We drag, it is true, “a lengthening chain” at each remove of our pilgrimage; but the chain is unbroken—we can trace it back link by link; and we feel that the last still grapples us to home. But a wide sea voyage severs us at once.—It makes us conscious of being cast loose from the secure anchorage of settled life and sent adrift upon a doubtful world. It interposes a gulph, not merely imaginary, but real, between us and our homes—a gulph subject to tempest and fear and uncertainty, rendering distance palpable and return precarious.
Such at least was the case with myself. As I saw the last blue line of my native land fade away like a cloud in the horizon, it seemed as if I had closed one volume of the world and its concerns, and had time for meditation before I opened another. That land too, now vanishing from my view; which contained all that was most dear to me in life; what vicissitudes might occur in it—what changes might take place in me, before I should visit it again.—Who can tell when he sets forth to wander, whither he may be driven by the uncertain currents of existence; or when he may return; or whether it may ever be his lot to revisit the scenes of his childhood?
I said that at sea all is vacancy—I should correct the expression. To one given to day dreaming and fond of losing himself in reveries, a sea voyage is full of subjects for meditation: but then they are the wonders of the deep and of the air, and rather tend to abstract the mind from worldly themes. I delighted to loll over the quarter railing or climb to the main top of a calm day, and muse for hours together, on the tranquil bosom of a summer’s sea. To gaze upon the piles of golden clouds just peering above the horizon; fancy them some fairy realms and people them with a creation of my own. To watch the gently undulating billows, rolling their silver volumes as if to die away on those happy shores.
There was a delicious sensation of mingled security and awe with which I looked down from my giddy height on the monsters of the deep at their uncouth gambols. Shoals of porpoises tumbling about the bow of the ship; the grampus slowly heaving his huge form above the surface, or the ravenous shark darting like a spectre through the blue waters. My imagination would conjure up all that I had heard or read of the watery world beneath me. Of the finny herds that roam its fathomless valleys; of the shapeless monsters that lurk among the very foundations of the earth and of those wild phantasms1 that swell the tales of fishermen and sailors.
Sometimes a distant sail, gliding along the edge of the ocean would be another theme of idle speculation. How interesting this fragment of a world, hastening to rejoin the great mass of existence. What a glorious monument of human invention; which has in a manner triumphed over wind and wave; has brought the ends of the earth into communion; has established an interchange of blessings,—pouring into the sterile regions of the north all the luxuries of the south; has diffused the light of knowledge and the charities of cultivated life, and has thus bound together those scattered portions of the human race, between which nature seemed to have thrown an insurmountable barrier.
We one day descried some shapeless object drifting at a distance. At sea every thing that breaks the monotony of the surrounding expanse attracts attention. It proved to be the mast of a ship that must have been completely wrecked; for there were the remains of handkerchiefs, by which some of the crew had fastened themselves to this spar to prevent their being washed off by the waves. There was no trace by which the name of the ship could be ascertained. The wreck had evidently drifted about for many months: clusters of shell fish had fastened about it; and long sea weeds flaunted at its sides.
But where, thought I, is the crew!—Their struggle has long been over—they have gone down amidst the roar of the tempest—their bones lie whitening among the caverns of the deep. Silence—oblivion, like the waves, have closed over them, and no one can tell the story of their end. What sighs have been wafted after that ship; what prayers offered up at the deserted fireside of home. How often has the mistress, the wife, the mother pored over the daily news to catch some casual intelligence of this rover of the deep. How has expectation darkened into anxiety—anxiety into dread and dread into despair. Alas! not one memento may ever return for love to cherish. All that may ever be known is, that she sailed from her port, “and was never heard of more!”
The sight of this wreck, as usual, gave rise to many dismal anecdotes. This was particularly the case in the evening when the weather, which had hitherto been fair began to look wild and threatening, and gave indications of one of those sudden storms which will sometimes break in upon the serenity of a summer voyage. As we sat round the dull light of a lamp in the cabin, that made the gloom more ghastly, every one had his tale of shipwreck and disaster. I was peculiarly struck with a short one related by the captain.
“As I was once sailing,” said he, “in a fine stout ship across the banks of Newfoundland, one of those heavy fogs which prevail in those parts rendered it impossible for us to see far ahead even in the day time; but at night the weather was so thick that we could not distinguish any object at twice the length of the ship. I kept lights at the mast head and a constant watch forward to look out for fishing smacks, which are accustomed to lie at anchor on the banks. The wind was blowing a smacking breeze and we were going at a great rate through the water. Suddenly the watch gave the alarm of ‘a sail ahead!’—it was scarcely uttered before we were upon her. She was a small schooner at anchor, with the broad side toward us. The crew were all asleep and had neglected to hoist a light. We struck her just a mid-ships. The force, the size and weight of our vessel bore her down below the waves—we passed over her and were hurried on our course. As the crashing wreck was sinking beneath us I had a glimpse of two or three halfnaked wretches, rushing from her cabin—they just started from their beds to be swallowed shrieking by the waves. I heard their drowning cry mingling with the wind. The blast that bore it to our ears swept us out of all further hearing—I shall never forget that cry!—It was some time before we could put the ship about; she was under such headway. We returned as nearly as we could guess to the place where the smack had anchored. We cruised about for several hours in the dense fog. We fired signal guns and listened if we might hear the halloo of any survivors; but all was silent—we never saw or heard any thing of them more!—”
I confess these stories for a time put an end to all my fine fancies. The storm encreased with the night. The sea was lashed up into tremendous confusion. There was a fearful sullen sound of rushing waves and broken surges. Deep called unto deep. At times the black volume of clouds over head seemed rent asunder by flashes of lightning which quivered along the foaming billows, and made the succeeding darkness doubly terrible. The thunders bellowed over the wild waste of waters and were echoed and prolonged by the mountain waves. As I saw the ship staggering and plunging among these roaring caverns, it seemed miraculous that she regained her balance or preserved her buoyancy. Her yards would dip into the water; her bow was almost buried beneath the waves. Sometimes an impending surge appeared ready to overwhelm her, and nothing but a dextrous movement of the helm preserved her from the shock.
When I retired to my cabin the awful scene still followed me. The whistling of the wind through the rigging sounded like funereal wailings. The creaking of the masts; the straining and groaning of bulk heads as the ship laboured in the weltering sea were frightful. As I heard the waves rushing along the side of the ship and roaring in my very ear, it seemed as if death were raging round this floating prison, seeking for his prey—the mere starting of a nail—the yawning of a seam might give him entrance.
A fine day, however, with a tranquil sea and favouring breeze soon put all these dismal reflections to flight. It is impossible to resist the gladdening influence of fine weather and fair wind at sea. When the ship is decked out in all her canvass, every sail swelled, and careering gaily over the curling waves, how lofty, how gallant she appears—how she seems to lord it over the deep!
I might fill a volume with the reveries of a sea voyage, for with me it is almost a continual reverie—but it is time to get to shore.
It was a fine sunny morning when the thrilling cry of Land! was given from the mast head. None but those who have experienced it can form an idea of the delicious throng of sensations which rush into an American’s bosom, when he first comes in sight of Europe. There is a volume of associations with the very name. It is the land of promise, teeming with every thing of which his childhood has heard, or on which his studious years have pondered.
From that time until the moment of arrival it was all feverish excitement. The ships of war that prowled like guardian giants along the coast—the headlands of Ireland stretching out into the channel—the Welsh mountains towering into the clouds, all were objects of intense interest. As we sailed up the Mersey I reconnoitered the shores with a telescope. My eye dwelt with delight on neat cottages with their trim shrubberies and green grass plots. I saw the mouldering ruin of an abbey over run with ivy, and the taper spire of a village church rising from the brow of a neighbouring hill—all were characteristic of England.
The tide and wind were so favourable that the ship was enabled to come at once to the pier. It was thronged with people; some idle lookers-on, others eager expectants of friends or relatives. I could distinguish the merchant to whom the ship was consigned. I knew him by his calculating brow and restless air. His hands were thrust into his pockets; he was whistling thoughtfully and walking to and fro, a small space having been accorded him by the crowd in deference to his temporary importance. There were repeated cheerings and salutations interchanged between the shore and the ship, as friends happened to recognize each other. I particularly noticed one young woman of humble dress, but interesting demeanour. She was leaning forward from among the crowd; her eye hurried over the ship as it neared the shore, to catch some wished for countenance. She seemed disappointed and agitated; when I heard a faint voice call her name. It was from a poor sailor who had been ill all the voyage and had excited the sympathy of every one on board. When the weather was fine his messmates had spread a mattress for him on deck in the shade, but of late his illness had so encreased, that he had taken to his hammock, and only breathed a wish that he might see his wife before he died. He had been helped on deck as we came up the river, and was now leaning against the shrouds, with a countenance so wasted, so pale, so ghastly that it was no wonder even the eye of affection did not recognize him. But at the sound of his voice her eye darted on his features—it read at once a whole volume of sorrow—she clasped her hands; uttered a faint shriek and stood wringing them in silent agony.
All now was hurry and bustle. The meetings of acquaintances—the greetings of friends—the consultations of men of business. I alone was solitary and idle. I had no friend to meet, no cheering to receive. I stepped upon the land of my forefathers—but felt that I was a stranger in the land.
—In the service of mankind to be
A guardian god below; still to employ
The mind’s brave ardour in heroic aims,
Such as may raise us o’er the groveling herd,
And make us shine forever—that is life.
One of the first places to which a stranger is taken in Liverpool is the Athenæum.2 It is established on a liberal and judicious plan; contains a good library and spacious reading room and is the great literary resort of the place. Go there at what hour you may, you are sure to find it filled with grave looking personages, deeply absorbed in the study of newspapers.
As I was once visiting this haunt of the learned my attention was attracted to a person just entering the room. He was advanced in life, tall, and of a form that might once have been commanding, but it was a little bowed by time—perhaps by care. He had a noble Roman style of countenance; a head that would have pleased a painter; and though some slight furrows on his brow shewed that wasting thought had been busy there, yet his eye still beamed with the fire of a poetic soul. There was something in his whole appearance that indicated a being of a different order from the bustling race around him.
I inquired his name and was informed that it was Roscoe. I drew back with an involuntary feeling of veneration. This then was an Author of celebrity; this was one of those men, whose voices have gone forth to the ends of the earth; with whose minds I have communed even in the solitudes of America. Accustomed as we are in our country to know European writers only by their works, we cannot conceive of them, as of other men, engrossed by trivial or sordid pursuits, and jostling with the crowd of common minds in the dusty paths of life. They pass before our imaginations like superior beings, radiant with the emanations of their genius, and surrounded by a halo of literary glory.