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Washington Irving (Ruland and Bradbury)

lunes, 2 de diciembre de 2013

Washington Irving (Ruland & Bradbury)

From Puritanism to Postmodernism: A History of American Literature, by Richard Ruland and Malcolm Bradbury (1991)

The quest for a native American novel progressed slowly. It moved from Philadelphia to other Eastern seaboard cities as Boston, Charleston and New York developed mercantile classes with intellectual asd artistic as well as economic and political aspirations. The Knickerbocker scene which had nourished the essay and poetry turned as well to the fictional forms, and found its voice in Washington Irving. The Golsmithian essays Irving wrote with Paulding as the Salmagundi papers established him as a New York wit, but his reputation was made with his "comic history of the city," A History of New York . . . by Diedrich Knickerbocker (1809), a work of mock-learning and literary parody much admired for its technical skill and wit by Scott, Byron and Coleridge. Irving's prose was neoclassical, but his sensibility half-Romantic. He was drawn by Scott and Campbell, excelled in inventing comic personae and yet had an appreciative sense of the melancholic and picturesque. His style was a search for a balanced voice that would let him be both American and European, let him comically report his own age yet reach for the "legends" of the past. A youthful Grand Tour through Europe educated him in Romantic sensations; and it was to Europe he returned, after the War of 1812, in an attempt to heal the widening political and literary breach, establish himself in the literary profession and resolve the manifest problems of the American writer.

In 1815 he sailed for Liverpool, settling in Britain first in an attempt to rescue the family business, then to try to live by writing in the world of the English Romantics. Scott received him generously, and at Abbotsford he read the German Romantic folktale writers. The British too were looking back to the Romantic past, as industrialism thrived during the peace that followed Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo. As the Battle of the Quarterlies raged, British magazines mocked American aspirations for an independent literature: "in the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?" demanded Sydney Smith. But almost single-handedly, Irving seized the moment and reversed the condescension with the essays, sketches and stories of The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-1820), Bracebridge Hall (1822) and Tales of a Traveller (1824), which appealed enormously to British and American audiences alike. Irving cast himself as a romantic traveler who makes his sketches, essays and vignettes, or collects his fables, as he passes from place to place, observing the picturesque and the historical, the ivy-covered ruin, the falling tower, the "mouldering pile." In Romantic fashion, he polarized the activities of the imagination, dividing them between Europe and America. Europe was the past, the poetic, the timeless, the mythical; indeed in a sense it was living Romanticism, a depository of the antique, the exotic, the traditional, "storied association." America was the present, rushing, potential, time-bound, political, it was in a state of literary promise, with its prodigious but still unwritten and unfelt grandeur of prairie, river, mountain and forest. In the center is Geoffrey Crayon, the traveler-painter hunting each nook and cranny that calls forth a sensation and a sketch, turning Europe's romanticism back on itself by giving European and American readers alike the history they were beginning to crave in an age of rising industrialism and entrepreneurship.

Irving was the American writer as ambassadorial expatriate. In May 1815, he began a seventeen-year Europan residence that would take him over the landscape of the new Romanticism in Britain, France, Germany and Spain and establish fresh links between American writing and European tradition. His response to this romanticism was half accepting, half ironic, but it led him toward a historical mythology of American life. In Volney's Ruins, translated by Thomas Jefferson and Joel Barlow in 1802 as a radical text, the French writer had associated moldering civilization with political decline. Irving associated it with art itself; the Europe he pains is a timeless human past, stable and engaging, a picturesque paradise rooted in custom and peasant ways and scarcely tourched by modern industrialism or expansion. His essays recognize political antagonism and social change but emphasize the need for the imagination as an aid to reconciliation, "looking at things poetically rather than politically." We can sense an element of evasion in this, and he himself admitted this was a "light" Romanticism, not much more than "magic moonshine." But America needed a legendary past, and he went on to collect it from many European sources, working deliberately to construct a new sense of world landscape for the American imagination. He gathered folktales from the Germany of Tieck and Jean Paul (J. P. F. Richter); in Spain, in addition to writing Legends of the Alhambra (1832), he rewrote the Columbus legend, thereby providing another triangulation for American experience. The influential American historians of the time—Prescott, Ticknor, Everett—were cosmopolitanizing themselves in the same way, turning to Europe to give the United States a significant history. Irving likewise defined a set of references that would relate the European Romantic past to a fresh American present, providing an imaginative geography that would shape much later American  writing, as well as much American tourism.

Most of Irving's writing was about Europe—as if this had become the required material for the American artist seeking to recover the Romantic past from whence art sprang—but he did set a few tales, now his most famous, in the United States. "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," both in the Sketch-Book, have become classics of American folklore. They were in fact conscious endeavors to transport elements of the European folk tradition to American soil and are adaptations of German folktales, transposed to a "timeless" European part of America, the Dutch-American villages of the Hudson River Valley, the heart of the American picturesque. He sets them there, as he says in his own voice in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," because

population, manners and customs remain fixed; while the great torrent of migration and improvement, which is making such incessant changes in other parts of this restless country, sweeps by them unobserved. They are like those little nooks of still water which border a rapid stream, where we may see the straw and bubble riding quietly at anchor, or slowly revolving in their mimic harbor, undisturbed by the rush of the passing current.

 It is this ahistorical and apolitical sleepiness that, to Irving,  offers the possibility of legend, a view he shared with the German Romantics he imitated. Even so, the "passing current" does enter the stories. Rip Van Winkle steps out of society into twenty years of timelessness when, in the Catskill Mountains, he meets the ghostly drunken revelers from Henry Hudson's crew who lull him into a long slumber with a flagon of magic wine. His sleep takes him through the greatest American change of all, the Revolution; and when he returns to his village its old sleepiness has gone, replaced by disputation, politics and historical motion. But Irving's theme is not political; what the Revolution frees Rip from is "petticoat government," for his shrewish wife has died. Like Irving himself, Rip can now become a legend-maker, telling tales of the world before the war, transmuting history into myth. Rip makes legends; Ichabod Crane, in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," becomes their victim. This classic Yankee entrepreneur chases a rich heiress and her prosperous farm but is, ironically, cheated into seeing a ghost and losing his fortune through the belief in magic he has drawn from "Cotton Mather's history of New England witchcraft."

For an America without a written folk tradition, Irving provided essential material, the stuff of much future tall tale; here were stout Dutch burghers, backwoodsmen, Yankee peddlers, henpecked males and their garrulous wives, male dreams of freedom and space. His tales—he planned one novel but never wrote it—were his main contribution, a durable invigoration of the Romantic and the popular tradition of American fictional writing. But it was European distance that had added glow to his materials, as he found when, in 1832, he came back to America, a fêted author with a great European reputation, to face contemporary American history in the changed world of Jacksonian, westward expansion and commercial specualtion. In this world the eastward Grand Tour was being replaced by a Western one which led not to civilized but to natural wonders, an American scene being written in many literary languages. William Bartram's influential Travels (1791) had explored American landscape as romantic grandeur. Timothy Dwight's Travels in New England and New York, 1769-1815 (1821-22) had seen nature as the field of improvement and subjected the regrettable prevalence of forest to the standards of clearing and cultivation. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had, in their record of an adventurous continental exploration, Journals (1814), added new language of description and scientific report. John James Audubon was giving an extraordinary narrative and visual record of the birds and animals of the continent. And so this America was now available to Irving's touring, his sentimental associationism, his sense of the sublime.

This native landscape became the theme of his later books, his "Westerns": A Tour of the Prairies (1835), Astoria (1836) and The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, U.S.A. (1837). The first is his Geoffrey Crayon tour to the "untrodden" frontier where the Indians were being driven from their homelands, but the book simply reveals how hard it was to render the West and the prairies—"For shich the speech of England has no name," Bryant had written—in the language of the European Grand Tour. Indians romantically became Arabs and gypsies, the unwritten mountains European Gothic cathedrals, and though the North American Review parised Irving for "turning these poor barbarous steppes into classical land," they remain, for Irving, in a state of curious vacancy. Something of the reason for this is apparent in the other two books, which were commissioned works. This nature is not innocent, but space for entrepreneurship, and Irving was never interested in the paradoxes and contradictions, the present troubles of history. Astoria really celebrates New York commercial intervention and the development of the West in its account of John Jacob Astor's monopolizing of the fur trade in the Pacific Northwest, and Captain Bonneville is the similar story of the famous soldier-explorer staking claims to American lands. These are minor works, and Irving seemed to know it, returning to Europe again as minister and ambassador in high government posts and doubting the durability of his talent. What these late works show is the difficulty faced by those seeking the tone and shape of American narrative in the opening world of American nature, exploration and mercantilism. They reveal the West not only as a social and political but as a linguistic and literary frontier.

It was a quite different writer who was to take on those social and narrative implications most directly and thereby point the direction of American fictional maturity. (...)

James Fenimore Cooper

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