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The exigencies of the adult better world were all too apparent. But if America did not want to be very young, neither of course did it want to be very old. As a nation which lacked a past, which was beginning history again in a better way, America had to shrug off as it were the implications of history; antiquity, mystery, evil—all products of the process of history—were not a substantial part of the American vision. From one point of view shared by Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and others this was a good thing: getting rid of the past meant living more fully in the promise of the present.
From another point of view, however, the lack of a past had its lamentable side: the result was a cultural thinness and bleakness which left little for the writer to work with.
Henry James's disconcerting catalogue of what America lacked in Hawthorne's time is well known. Imaginatively cramped by the lack of a "poetic or fairy precinct" in America, he explains, in his preface to The Marble Faun, the difficulty of writing in the "broad and simple daylight" that "happily" prevails in the United States, with no shadow, antiquity, or mystery to mitigate the necessary insistence on actualities.
For Hawthorne, romance and poetry implied an atmosphere of ruin. That he could not write romance easily about America is significant, measuring his hope in an America free from the consequences of historic process. Romance would not thus seem to belong by nature to America. But with the primitive condition and what it appeared to offer effectively and unequivocally ruled out by the desiderata of American society, a number of our early writers Charles Brockden Brown , Irving, Poe, and Hawthorne among them did attempt to create an art based at least implicitly on an aesthetic of age or shadow.
They pretended shadow, ruin, decay as prerequisites of imaginative creation; at times they wrote as if America were very old. In view of the American self-image it was a massive pretense. But it produced a significant body of fiction which reflected the tension between what America wanted to be and what these writers had to pretend it to be. The work of Washington Irving reflects significantly the quality of this tension between imaginative endeavor and cultural tendency.
In Bracebridge Hall , Irving tells us that he had experienced England with "the delightful freshness of a child," but that he was "a grown-up child. In Bracebridge Hall he lamented that America "unfortunately cannot boast of a single ruin. Although and because they are known to all, "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" will repay a close analysis and reveal Irving's mode of literary creation in such a culture.
Early in his tale of Rip, Irving speaks of the "magical hues and shapes" of the Kaatskill mountains; next he calls them "fairy mountains. In beginning his account of Rip's famous adventure, Irving constructs his scene so as literally to remove it from "broad and simple daylight.
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In silence and wonder Rip helps the man carry a keg of liquor up a wild mountain: "there was something strange and incomprehensible about the unknown, that inspired awe and checked familiarity. Only after such careful preparation, after guiding us away from the commonplace practicality of everyday life, does Irving introduce, in four brief paragraphs, the purely marvelous element of the story—the company playing ninepins.
At the end of these paragraphs Rip falls into a sleep; when he awakens—on a "bright sunny morning," with the "birds hopping and twittering among the bushes"—we are back in the world of actuality. Rip returns to the village to find not only the people but "the very character of the people" changed. Irving has taken Rip out of the context of everyday reality, but then has deliberately put him back in it. The tale, in its beginning and end, has historical location.
And when Rip returns at the end of the tale he finds a metamorphosed community, no longer even the same country. The image of George Washington —the father of a new country—has replaced that of George III on the sign at the inn, and Rip has no way of orienting himself in terms of this new father image. Irving has had Rip sleep through the American Revolution , through what we might call the birth pangs of our country, and return to a "busy, bustling, disputatious," self-consciously adult United States of America. There his uncompetitive spirit, his predisposition to idleness, his inclination to imaginative indulgence are badly out of place; he is no more at home than he was with Dame Van Winkle, who prefigured the bustling, disputatious tone of this new world, though she at least knew him.
Irving does not exact the full penalty from Rip; he allows him to settle in a corner of this world, but with a function extremely limited and marginal. Nonetheless, the tale dramatizes Rip's loss of identity, and, by inference, the loss of identity of the imaginative function. Rip's miraculous sleep has left him ignorant of the American Revolution—the magical, the marvelous, the imaginative, and the indolent have had no place in the founding of the new republic.
And when these qualities return in the person of an antique but childlike man, there arises a sense of embarrassment overcome only when he is known to be harmless, one who will not interfere.
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In "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" Irving goes to even greater lengths in creating a never-never land to contain his tale: "a drowsy, dramy influence" hangs over the land and pervades the atmosphere; the people have trances and visions and entertain marvelous beliefs. Haunted spots and "twilight superstitions" abound in the neighborhood. All of this of course prepares for the bold reference to the Headless Horseman.
And, as if to urge a spirit of enchantment upon his readers, Irving states that even visitors to Sleepy Hollow become bewitched: inhaling the "witching influence" of the air, they begin to "grow imaginative, to dream dreams, and see apparitions.
Irving's introduction of Ichabod Crane defines a particular problem of the early American writer. That Irving could speak ironically about the poverty of the past in America did not make it less a fact for him to deal with.
Without a large, commonly shared, and hence more than personal past to work with and out of, the writer himself had to contain and be the measure of antiquity. Ichabod Crane personifies the protagonist as comic figure. No tale was too gross or monstrous for his capacious swallow. In a manifold sense he yearns to swallow the world and thereby realize an oral heaven. By fitting the notion of gullibility into the dominant metaphor of Ichabod's oral preoccupation, Irving emphasizes the childlike quality of his protagonist.
Ichabod can swallow and digest anything; therefore he is always and increasingly gullible. But growing up involves learning what not to swallow, in every sense of the word. Ichabod has failed utterly to learn this first lesson in the practical knowledge of survival precisely because of his extreme addiction to the imagination. Irving couples the oral stage and imaginative indulgence; both signify childhood.
There is, moreover, a price to be paid for continuing in childhood. In our natural laughter at the story, we often forget that Ichabod goes down to defeat because he is overimaginative. For he loses all chance for the double prize of Katrina and the wealth of the Van Tassel farm when, terrified by his excessive imagination, he is literally run out of the region by Brom Bones impersonating the Headless Horseman.
Brom Bones—the scoffer at superstition, who boasts that he has ridden a winning race against the Headless Horseman—triumphs, marries Katrina, and is the victor of the tale. It is a victory for common sense and hard-headed practicality over imaginative indulgence. In each of these tales Irving has created his setting as a writer of romance; he overcomes the difficulty of creating imaginatively in the "broad and simple daylight" of his America by positing shadow, mystery, superstition. He writes, in short, as if his settings had antiquity, as if America had a past.
Into each tale, however, he introduces a childlike protagonist, whom we may recognize as primitive if we allow for the fact that Irving would share the disbelief in contemporary primitivism and would create such a character out of that disbelief. Rip Van Winkle, with his "insuperable aversion to all kinds of profitable labor," delights in playing with children, and they in turn love him; he is a favorite among the village wives; not a dog in the neighborhood will bark at him.
Ichabod Crane spends much time telling ghost stories with the old Dutch wives of Sleepy Hollow; he is the "playmate" of his larger students. In bringing each of these protagonists to a kind of defeat, Irving is echoing James Gray's pronouncement that America must be mature, must call for "substantial food. They are would-be heroes, but would-be heroes of the imagination, who cannot withstand or successfully come to terms with the terror that is the lot of such a hero, the terror implicit in Rip's loss of identity, explicit in Ichabod's flight.
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They defeat themselves. It would appear that for Irving there is no place, or a very limited place, for the hero of the imagination in the culture of early America. A nation of Rips and Ichabods, Americans might reason, would soon be no nation at all. Not even the settings can endure in these tales. It is as if Irving must admit that this is not a real past, that he will not persist in playing with the imagination.
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In "Rip Van Winkle" the village is transformed from "drowsy tranquility" to a bustling disputatiousness. There are no more shadows in Rip's world. In Sleepy Hollow, to be sure, the people remain unchanged. But we have been shown who is master there: it is Brom Bones whose true name, Brom Van Brunt, also suggests the kind of strength Irving wants him to have , perhaps the first American bully, who can play upon fear and superstition to get what he wants.
His apparent audacity in impersonating a ghost shows how fully in control Brom Bones is. For this impersonation is audacious only if we see it from the point of view of the villagers of Sleepy Hollow. To Brom Bones, to the only authentic American in the tale, it must literally be child's play. Irving has thus shown his American readers images of themselves in the changed village of "Rip Van Winkle" and in the character of Brom Bones.
The manner of each tale suggests that Irving did not find these images entirely flattering, albeit necessary, and, indeed, readers have never found them attractive. Instinctively we sympathize with Rip and Ichabod; we laugh at them and in doing so at what there is of them in us; at the same time, we regret their failure. But what we regret is only what we had to give up to become what we are. Irving's most characteristic fiction involves variations on the basic pattern of victory for the practical and defeat for the impractical and visionary.
In "The Spectre Bridegroom," Herman Von Starkenfaust's bold decision to impersonate a dead lover wins for him a beautiful wife. The "very manly" aunt in "The Adventure of My Aunt" exposes a robber by her refusal to be frightened when the eyes of a picture on the wall begin to move, while the unfortunate Young Italian of "The Adventure of the Mysterious Stranger" confesses that he has always been "a visionary, imaginary being.
For the grown-up person, for the practical and bold, the prize is wealth and beauty; for the childish, visionary, imaginary being, the price is the same wealth and beauty.