Tuesday, May 19, 2009

This Day in Literary History (Washington Irving Leaves for Life-Changing Trip to Europe)

May 19, 1804—Funded by his merchant brothers, who hoped a transatlantic voyage might clear up his lungs, 21-year-old Washington Irving sailed for Europe.

The trip ended up doing more than preserve his health, however: it also fired the burgeoning creativity and cosmopolitan spirit of America’s first professional writer—and confirmed his belief that the United States had no reason to feel inferior to those abroad who he felt were immoral, class-ridden, and, for all their pretensions, woefully ignorant of the New World.

William and Ebenezer Irving had other reasons for worrying about their beloved younger brother, the baby in the family of 11: he wasn’t showing much interest in commercial pursuits, such as the family’s then-thriving import business. Moreover, though he’d been clerking at a couple of law offices for a few years, he was showing little flair and even less interest in that profession. Though he’d eventually squeak by in his bar exam, he was showing no more than a desire to please his family by pursuing this.

What Washington (named, in a burst of parental patriotism, for the Father of His Country) did like was writing—an avocation to which he could give full vent to his charm and good humor.

Some letters he’d written for his brother Peter’s journal, The Morning Chronicle, under the pseudonym Jonathan Oldstyle, had attracted much favorable attention, with many readers—including Aaron Burr—not only passing it along enthusiastically to friends and relatives but engaging in a guessing game as to the author’s true identity. (Just before the young man sailed for Europe, the Vice-President—increasingly a marginalized figure in national and state politics, but not yet the pariah he’d become after his duel with Alexander Hamilton—had sat down to dine with him.)

After more than two centuries of Americans living abroad—including such literary giants as Henry James, Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway—creative types have instinctively sensed the catalytic effects this can have on their work. More recently, as reported in the May 16, 2009 issue of The Economist, a psychological study in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology has proved that there is in fact a link between creativity and dwelling abroad.

All of this was not so well-established when Irving toured France, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, Holland, and England. His exposure to the lore of other lands would, years later, affect his work directly.

When he visited the small Italian town of Cogoletto, he soaked up impressions of the birthplace of Christopher Columbus that would come in handy when he wrote his biography of the explorer a quarter century later. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was influenced by German folktales, including the Brothers Grimm’s “Karl Katz.”

In certain ways, Irving’s exposure to foreign sources has probably hurt him in the eyes of critics who would like something more allegedly original and American. Nearly two decades ago, for instance, I attended a lecture by the critic Alfred Kazin at my local library in which he spoke about James Fenimore Cooper. I asked why Cooper tended to be taught more in colleges and universities than Irving. “When was the last time you read Irving?” he asked.

If I had not been so surprised by the question, I might have replied that it was right about the same time that I’d read Cooper. When Kazin actually got around to answering my inquiry, he continued that with the Leatherstocking Saga, Cooper had, in effect, created a whole new genre—the western—while Irving remained indebted in form to European sources.

I’m not sure that I buy this argument. After all, Cooper started out writing novels with a pale imitation of Jane Austen, The Precaution. Even when he moved on to a métier that was arguably more native to him—The Spy and The Leatherstocking Saga—he still remained influenced, to some extent, to the reigning master of historical fiction, Sir Walter Scott. And you simply cannot compare Cooper's clumsiness (expertly captured in Mark Twain's sendup, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses") with Irving's deft use of language.

The preference for Cooper over Irving in American English departments is a trifle bit perverse, if you ask me—sort of like English courses that include Samuel Richardson’s godawful Pamela and Clarissa simply because they began the novel in the British Isles. These courses should be encouraging people to enjoy reading, maybe even take English as a major—not sending them to the bar to drown their frustration in Jack Daniels.

Andrew Burstein’s biography The Original Knickerbocker: The Life of Washington Irving goes a long way toward reclaiming the writer’s reputation as an American original—someone whose 1809 burlesque, A History of New York, gave birth to the terms “Knickerbocker” (named after a character in that book) and “Gotham,” and who later wrote acclaimed biographies of Washington and Columbus that made use of original sources. (More recently, Elizabeth Bradley of the New York Public Library appeared on WNYC-FM's "Leonard Lopate Show" to discuss how Irving’s “Knickerbocker History” provided the template for Jon Stewart by combining real fact and fake news.)

In later years, like Benjamin Franklin, Irving’s celebrity would stand him in good stead in a diplomatic stint—in this case, as an ambassador to Spain—and he would live for 17 consecutive years without returning home. Much of his later success might have been due to his penchant for holding his tongue and maintaining an amiable surface even as foreigners excited his disgust.

The French brought out his critical side the most—something that would bring nods of agreement not only from Fox News but from President Clinton’s Secretary of State, Warren Christopher (who, in his memoir, Chances of a Lifetime, took an uncharacteristic shot at the French foreign minister for putting the “gall in Gallic” with a contemptuous parting birthday gift).

Irving was shocked at the French sexual openness—not only dancers’ “shameless exposure of their persons,” but also an older man’s urging that he take a mistress for himself. He was also annoyed that the nation—then coming, in earnest, under the thumb of Napoleon Bonaparte—acted so suspiciously toward anyone (Americans included) who might be British agents, and that at least one person he met wondered if America “was not in the neighborhood of Turkey or somewhere there about!”

One other matter that might interest in today’s Americans: Irving had a close encounter at sea, between Corsica and the Italian shoreline, with a pirate crew who boarded the American vessel, the Matilda. (The pirates were only able to secure wine and brandy from the ship.)

Irving stayed in Europe until early 1806. As he reflected on his encounters, he not only displayed, as Burstein observes, “an honest curiosity about people and places,” but also a greater attachment to his native country:

“I shall, I think, never complain against government when I return to America. My fellow countrymen do not know the blessings they enjoy; they are trifling with their felicity and are in fact themselves their own worst enemies.”

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