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A Crisis of Identity: The Sketch Book and Nineteenth-Century American Culture

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 July 2009

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It is one of the commonplaces of our literary history that Washington Irving's Sketch Book put America firmly and finally on the cultural map by pleasing the British reviewers. These arbiters of taste and upholders of cultural standards had long been savaging American publications, and even when they found one to praise, they were reluctant to consider it anything but an anomaly. The Sketch Book “is the first American work,” wrote Francis Jeffrey in the Edinburgh Review, “of any description, but certainly the first purely literary production,” which rose to the level of the great English prose stylists. According to Jeffrey, it was quite “remarkable” that a book produced by an American, “entirely bred and trained in that country,” “should be written throughout with the greatest care and accuracy, and worked up to a great purity and beauty of diction, on the model of the most elegant and polished of our native writers.” Nevertheless, The Sketch Book was deserving of the praise, and the acknowledgment of the British literary establishment was one reason for its continued success. But as Jeffrey noted, even before Irving's sketches had charmed the British they had been “extensively circulated, and very much admired” among his own countrymen, so much so that two of our literary historians have claimed a place for The Sketch Book on the alltime American “best-seller” list. A close and careful scrutiny of the reasons for this success will reveal that Irving's famous book touched his American readers on a deep, subconscious level because Irving himself was an acute register of the anxieties of his age.

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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1987

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1. Review of The Sketch Book, Edinburgh Review 34 (1820): 160.Google Scholar

2. See, for example, the notices in the Quarterly Review (25 [1821]: 5067)Google Scholar, the Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany (new ser., 4 [1819]: 206–13)Google Scholar, and the Retrospective Review (9 [1824]: 304–26).Google Scholar

3. Mott, Frank Luther, Golden Multitudes: The Story of Best Sellers in the United States (New York: Macmillan, 1947), p. 72Google Scholar, and Hart, James D., The Popular Book: A History of America's Literary Taste (1950; rpt. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963), p. 83Google Scholar. Both Mott and Hart note that the public quickly bought up the first printing of two thousand copies of Part I (in about three months) and continued to buy future issues as they appeared, even calling for more editions. (The sales of The Sketch Book did not taper off until the 1840s when, according to Mott, the flood of “cheap reprints of English works apparently drove Irving's books out of the market” [p. 71].) This is even more significant when the cost is taken into consideration -75 for a pamphlet of about seventy pages (for the first edition) was a steep price in Irving's time.

4. Williams, Stanley, The Life of Washington Irving (New York: Oxford University Press, 1935), vol. 1, p. 190Google Scholar. Although he turns the humorous phrase, Williams underestimates the significance of this element, since he continues almost immediately by writing that “judged without reference to its source, [The Sketch Book] rivaled other books of its kind in English literature.” However, even a cursory glance at the British reviews shows that Irving's nationality was rarely, if ever, overlooked.

5. “His very sound,” writes William Hedges, “has affinities with the language of Addison and Goldsmith.” And he continues: “This is in part what it meant for Irving to be hailed as the first literate American — that he had mastered a familiar English prose style” (“Washington Irving: The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.,” in Cohen, Hennig, ed., Landmarks of American Writing [New York: Basic Books, 1969], pp. 5859).Google Scholar

6. Williams, , Life, vol. 1, p. xiv.Google Scholar

7. Hart, , Popular Book, p. 85.Google Scholar

8. The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., ed. Springer, Haskell (Boston: Twayne, 1978), p. 9Google Scholar; future references to this edition are included in the text.

9. The American Image of the Old World (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), p. 76.Google Scholar

10. Ibid., pp. 76, 80. Strout believes that such writers as Irving and Longfellow were able to achieve a “reconciliation of the American myth of the New World with their affection for the Old World” with little personal tension largely because they saw Europe in such a complimentary way. To a certain extent (though not entirely) this is true of Irving of The Sketch Book (18191820)Google Scholar, though he would soon show in Bracebridge Hall (1822)Google Scholar the virtual collapse of the old aristocratic order. Strout is right to emphasize that it was precisely because America “had defined itself as a fresh start in history” that it “produced such nostalgic hungers for a Europe made enchanted by the traces of an ancient past” (p. 83). Yet as I intend to argue, the American imagination was propelled toward European borders by a greater motivating force than romantic nostalgia.

11. Irving's accounts of his experiences in England, both in fictional and journal form, largely ignore the social and political acrimony that existed in the country just after the War of 1812 ended in 1815. The English people knew some troubled times then: There were bad harvests in 1816 and 1817, the “Corn Law” of 1815 and a severe famine made life even more unpleasant for the poor, and in 1819 there were riots and laws were passed restricting civil liberties. Irving did not openly acknowledge this confusion (though he briefly alluded to it in his sketches of “John Bull” and “Little Britain”), nor did he refer to the poverty and other unfortunate social conditions created by industrialization in Liverpool, where he spent a good many of his earlier days in England attending to the family business. He never saw children working in the factories and the coalpits, mostly because he did not visit the sweatshops and the collieries. (For some of the responses of English writers to these uneasy social conditions, including the tensions and hatreds among the classes, see Woodring, Carl H., “The British Literary Scene in the 1820s,” in Myers, Andrew B., ed., Washington Irving: A Tribute [Tarrytown, N.Y.: Sleepy Hollow Restorations, 1972], pp. 3741.)Google Scholar

12. Strout, , American Image, p. 79Google Scholar. Strout does not say exactly that Americans were “escaping” from their own lives, but that is the implication of his argument. And in terms of this argument, it is interesting to note the extent to which Americans championed the present and disavowed the past within their own society. The lack of respect they showed for their monuments is a case in point. “It is the common remark of travellers,” wrote the American expatriate painter (and illustrator of Irving's works) C. R. Leslie, “that in Amerca there are no antiquities-no objects of veneration belonging to times past. Americans themselves feel this, and yet they make little effort to preserve or secure those they might. To the stranger visiting Philadelphia, how interesting it would be to be shown the houses of Penn and Franklin” (Autobiographical Recollections, ed. Tom Taylor [Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1860], p. 122Google Scholar). Van Wyck Brooks has called attention to the fact that “travellers noted for forty years the shocking neglect and decay of the house and tomb of Washington at Mount Vernon” (The World of Washington Irving [New York: Dutton, 1944], p. 158nGoogle Scholar). Perhaps the caretaking and preservation of these sites would have been too powerful a reminder to Americans that their society no longer embodied the values for which these men stood and no longer was actively dedicated to the goals for which they had fought.

13. Unquiet Eagle: Memory and Desire in the Idea of American Freedom, 1815–1860 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1967), pp. 34.Google Scholar

14. Ibid., pp. 34, 7; my italics.

15. See, for example, Croly, Herbert, The Promise of American Life, ed. Schlesinger, Arthur M. Jr., (1909; rpt. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 1965), p. 454.Google Scholar

16. Wood, , The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969), p. 47Google Scholar; see also Hedges, William, “The Myth of the Republic and the Theory of American Literature,” Prospects 4 (1979): 108.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

17. Franklin, , “Information to Those Who Would Remove to America,” in The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, ed. Smyth, Albert Henry (New York: Macmillan, 19051907), vol. 8, p. 614Google Scholar; see also Sanford, Charles L., Quest for Paradise: Europe and the American Moral Imagination (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1961), pp. 125, 133–34.Google Scholar

18. Willard, , An Address to … the Legislature of New York Proposing a Plan for Improving Female Education (Albany, 1819)Google Scholar, rpt. in Sanford, Charles L., ed., Quest for America, 1810–24, Documents in American Civilization (New York: New York University Press, 1964), doc. 58.Google Scholar

19. Baldwin, , Considerations for the American Patriot: A Sermon Delivered on the Occasion of the Annual Thanksgiving, December 12, 1827 (New York, 1828)Google Scholar, quoted in Somkin, , Unquiet Eagle, p. 17.Google Scholar

20. Beecher, , “The Gospel the Only Security for Eminent and Abiding National Prosperity,” National Preacher 3 (1829): 147.Google Scholar

21. “Notebook 1818, Number 2,” in Irving, Washington, Journals and Notebooks: Volume II, 1807–1822, ed. Reichart, Walter A. and Schlissel, Lillian (Boston: Twayne, 1981), p. 294.Google Scholar

22. “Notes and Extracts, 1825,” in Irving, Washington, Journals and Notebooks: Volume III, 1819–1827, ed. Reichart, Walter A. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1970), pp. 668, 669Google Scholar. For excerpts on “virtue,” see, for example, pp. 672–73.

23. Unpublished “Memoranda” notebook in the Berg Collection, New York Public Library, quoted in Rust, Richard D., “Washington Irving's ‘American Essays,’Resources for American Literary Study 10 (1980): 8Google Scholar. Although the notebook is undated, through internal evidence Rust has determined its year as 1825.

24. “‘A Time of Unexampled Prosperity,’” in Irving, Washington, Wolfert's Roost, ed. Rosenberg, Roberta (Boston: Twayne, 1979), pp. 9596Google Scholar. The essay is one of several Irving collected in 1855.

25. The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Gilman, William H. et al. , (Cambridge: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 1960-), vol. 4, p. 257Google Scholar. The entry is dated January 21, 1834.

26. Ibid., p. 344 (November 26,1834).

27. William Charvat makes this point in his discussion of Emerson's responses to the economic panic of the late 1830s in “American Romanticism and the Depression of 1837,” Science and Society 2 (1937): 7879.Google Scholar

28. Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks, vol. 5, p. 23 (03 23, 1835)Google Scholar. Emerson also used this material in “The Senses and the Soul,” The Dial 2 (1842): 378–79.Google Scholar

29. Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks, vol. 7, pp. 431–32 (04 20, 1841).Google Scholar

30. Ibid., p. 268 (October 11, 1839).

31. Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks, vol. 5, p. 332 (05 21, 1837)Google Scholar. This was the year of the great depression and economic panic, and Emerson has these “black times” in mind as he records thoughts in his journal.

32. [James Russell Lowell], “Self-Possession vs. Prepossession,” Atlantic Monthly 8 (1861): 763Google Scholar; see also Forgie, George B., Patricide in the House Divided: A Psychological Interpretation of Lincoln and His Age (New York: Norton, 1979), pp. 7376.Google Scholar

33. “The Kansas Question,” Putnam's Monthly 6 (1855): 431–32.Google Scholar

34. I quote Donald Weber's description of the Revolution from his essay reviewing Michael Colacurcio's The Province of Piety: Moral History in Hawthorne's Early Tales; see “A True Sight of History: Hawthorne and the Sense of the Past,” The New England Quarterly 58 (1985): 97.Google Scholar

35. Woodward, Robert H., “Dating the Action of‘Rip Van Winkle,’New York Folklore Quarterly 15 (1959): 70Google Scholar; original italics.

36. Gross, Barry, “Washington Irving: The Territory Behind,” Markham Review 10 (1981): 5Google Scholar. Gross writes that, “myth aside, it is his own voice he hears, his own desire for permanent escape.”

37. See Sanford, , ed., Quest for America, docs. 18, 19, 20, 21, 26, 71.Google Scholar

38. “Tour in Scotland 1817,” in Journals and Notebooks, vol. 2, pp. 153–54.Google Scholar

39. Ratner, Lorman A., “American Nationalism Fifty Years After the Revolution,”Google Scholar in Myers, , ed., Washington Irving: A Tribute, p. 45.Google Scholar

40. Adams, , The Diary of John Quincy Adams, 1794–1845, ed. Nevins, Allan (New York: Longmans, Green, 1928), p. 360.Google Scholar

41. Webster, , “Adams and Jefferson” (08 2, 1826)Google Scholar, in The Works of Daniel Webster, 10th ed. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1857), vol. 1, p. 115Google Scholar; see also Butterfield, L. H., “The Jubilee of Independence, July 4, 1826,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 61 (1953): 136.Google Scholar

42. Wirt, , A Discourse on the Lives and Characters of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams … (Washington: Gales and Seaton, 1826), p. 64.Google Scholar

43. Loveland, Ann C., Emblem of Liberty: The Image of Lafayette in the American Mind (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971), pp. 1718, 4344Google Scholar; Somkin, , Unquiet Eagle, pp. 149–51.Google Scholar

44. Ticknor, , “Lafayette”Google Scholar (Review of Mémoires pour sevir à la Vie du Général Lafayette …, by M. Regnault-Warin, and Memoirs of the Life of Gilbert Motier Lafayette, by Gen. H. L. Villaume Ducoudray Holstein), North American Review 20 (1825): 179.Google Scholar

45. Loveland, , Emblem, p. 49Google Scholar; Somkin, , Unquiet Eagle, p. 163Google Scholar; Ticknor, , “Lafayette in America”Google Scholar (Review of Lafayette en Amérique en 1824 et 1825 …, by A. Levasseur), North American Review 30 (1830): 220.Google Scholar

46. Niles, Editorial: “La Fayette,” Niles' Weekly Register 26 (08 28, 1824): 426Google Scholar; original italics; also quoted in Somkin, , Unquiet Eagle, p. 134Google Scholar, and Loveland, , Emblem, p. 40.Google Scholar

47. Franklin, Wayne, The New World of James Fenimore Cooper (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), p. 44Google Scholar. Franklin makes some acute observations on what Lafayette's tour meant to America in the context of discussing Cooper's response to the general's New York visit in September 1824.

48. Franklin to Joseph Galloway, London, February 25, 1775, in The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, ed. Labaree, Loenard W. et al. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959-), vol. 21, p. 509Google Scholar; Jefferson, , “First Inaugural Address” (1801)Google Scholar, in Richardson, James D., ed., A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 1789–1897 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1896), vol. 1, p. 323Google Scholar; see also Sanford, , Quest for Paradise, pp. 120–21, 126–27.Google Scholar

49. William Hedges observes that whenever “Irving is trying to use the theme of Americanism” seriously, “he's not the real Irving, or he's not the Irving who is worth reading.” He seems to be giving his readers not what he really feels, but “what he thinks [they] expect.” See “The Theme of Americanism in Irving's Writings,” in Myers, ed., Washington Irving: A Tribute, p. 34.Google Scholar

50. Leary, Lewis, “Washington Irving: An End and A New Beginning,” in his Soundings: Some Early American Writers (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1975), p. 308.Google Scholar

51. Hedges, , “Washington Irving: The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.,” p. 63.Google Scholar

52. In The American in England During the First Half Century of Independence (New York: Holt, 1926)Google Scholar, Robert E. Spiller has suggested that Irving's explorations were for a “true England,” which might sooner be found in its “quiet eddies” than in the busier, more populated areas of the country. He also notes that “the heart of the city was not in the rush of traffic on the Strand, but rather in the Templars' Chapel or in the shadow of St. Paul's, the ‘Little Britain’ where Franklin had stayed” (p. 298). But he is misleading when he claims that the England Irving described never really existed “outside the storehouse of his own whimsical imagination” (p. 291). In fact, Irving's notebooks and journals reveal that he saw and experienced most of what Crayon sketches. Spiller fails to understand that in recreating this England, Irving heightened and intensified the tone, feeling, and texture of his material in order to highlight the significance of Crayon's adventures. The England delineated in The Sketch Book was real; what Crayon wants to locate within it, however, exists only in his conceptualizing imagination.

53. The inscription on the title page of The Sketch Book (from Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy) reads “I have no wife nor children, good or bad, to provide for. A mere spectator of other men's fortunes and adventures, and how they play their parts; which methinks are diversely presented to me, as from a common theatre or scene.” While Irving may have thought of himself as a homeless wanderer during the years he was writing The Sketch Book, Crayon is not nearly as detached a figure as the “spectator” characterization would imply.

54. Interestingly enough, “Little Britain” is the only sketch other than “John Bull” in which Crayon alludes to occurrences that were a source of trouble and dirsuption to contemporary England. (See Springer's explanatory notes to “Little Britain” in the Twayne edition [pp. 328–39] for a detailed list of the “sinister events” Crayon has in mind. Among them are radical meetings in support of reform issues and a conspiracy plot against the members of the English Cabinet.) Perhaps by alluding to so many unfortunate and disturbing events here, Crayon was making a connection between the decline of “John Bullism” and the rise in instances of unrest and dissension in the country. However, since this is Crayon's only real recognition of what might be deemed a “troubled” England (mentioned in just a single paragraph of the sketch), it in no way can be construed as typical of his attitude toward the mother country, nor does it discount the admiration he expressed on other occasions.

55. Hedges, , “Washington Irving: The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.,” p. 63.Google Scholar

56. Ringe, Both Donald A., in The Pictorial Mode; Space and Time in the Art of Bryant, Irving and Cooper (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1971), pp. 102–3Google Scholar, and Hedges, William, in Washington Irving: An American Study, 1802–1832 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1965), p. 133Google Scholar, discuss the effect of changing light in “Westminster Abbey.”

57. Cf. Hedges, who writes that in the Abbey Crayon “begins to sense the past as also a potential trap for.the imagination” (Washington Irving: An American Study, p. 133).Google Scholar

58. “Notebook 1818, Number 1,” in Journals and Notebooks, vol. 2, p. 255.Google Scholar

59. A few years after The Sketch Book's success, Irving planned an “American Sketch Book,” a series of essays and sketches on such topics as “American Character,” “American Scenery,” and “Manners in America.” Although he actually began work on these, he never completed the project; all that remain are two notebooks containing outlines of essays and fragments of ideas. For a discussion of the projected contents, see Rust, , “Irving's ‘American Essays,’” 327.Google Scholar

60. See, for example, the essays by Martin, Terence, “Rip, Ichabod, and the American Imagination” (American Literature 31 [1959]: 137–49)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Bone, Robert A., “Irving's Headless Hessian: Prosperity and the Inner Life” (American Quarterly 15 [1963]: 167–75)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ringe, Donald A., “New York and New England: Irving's Criticism of American Society” (American Literature 38 [1967]: 455–67)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Dawson, William P., “‘Rip Van Winkle’ as Bawdy Satire: The Rascal and the Revolution” (ESQ 27 [1981]: 198206).Google Scholar

61. “Traits of Indian Character” appeared in Analectic Magazine 3 (1814): 145–56Google Scholar; “Philip of Pokanoket” was published in the same volume (“Traits” in February, “Philip” in June), 502–15. According to Haskell Springer's textual commentary in the Twayne edition (pp. 360–64), both essays were heavily revised for inclusion in The Sketch Book. Significantly, Irving deleted some of his more virulent attacks on the white man's cruelty to the Indians, while at the same time he added passages that, in Springer's words “prais[ed] the Indians for their prime virtues.” Also, it is clear that the narrative voice of these pieces is Irving's own; there is no painful personal experience to distance himself from and thus no need for his Crayon persona.

62. Analogously, Channing, Walter, in his “Essay on American Language and Literature” (North American Review 1 [1815]: 307–14)Google Scholar, pointed to the native tongue of the Indian as the source of an original American literary expression. Channing especially appreciated the uniqueness and boldness of the Indian's language, which “was made to express his emotions during his observance of nature,” and-in contrast to Americans, who were too enamored of and dependent on foreign writings-the Indian's contentment with his “literary condition.”

63. Hedges, , “Washington Irving: The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.,” p. 60.Google Scholar

64. Our Old Home, ed. Simpson, Claude M. (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1970), p. 7Google Scholar. Our Old Home was originally published in 1863.

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