The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

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9781602704572: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
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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 ...

Présentation de l'éditeur :

This large format (6_9 "Trade Paperback") exceptionally faithful reference edition by Along About Midnight Press presents Washington Irvings' short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" as published in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gentleman, Revised Edition, by Thomas Y. Crowell and Co. in 1848. The story is presented complete and unabridged. This edition contains no interpretive essays, "modern perspectives," or other vanity content. Extremely thin! - Only 60 drowsy pages.

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Washington Irving/ Jeff Zornow
Edité par Abdo Publishing Company (2008)
ISBN 10 : 1602704570 ISBN 13 : 9781602704572
Neuf(s) Couverture rigide Quantité : 1
Revaluation Books
(Exeter, Royaume-Uni)
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Description du livre Abdo Publishing Company, 2008. Hardcover. État : Brand New. cdr edition. 7.50x5.25x0.50 inches. In Stock. N° de réf. du libraire 1602704570

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Frais de port : EUR 6,89
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