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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Gothic Undercurrents Washington Irving (c. 1783-1859)

[7243] Currier & Ives, Washington’s Head-Quarters 1780: At Newburgh, on the Hudson (1856), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC2-3161].

America’s first international literary celebrity, as well as its first fully professional writer, was born in New York City, the eleventh child in a close-knit family. After writing satirical sketches and essays for his brother’s newspapers for some years, Washington Irving captured the nation’s attention with the fictitious A History of New York, supposedly written by a curious old gentleman named Diedrich Knickerbocker. In this work, which was accompanied by a publicity campaign involving newspaper reports on the putative whereabouts of the fictitious Knickerbocker, Irving made fun of the pretensions of bourgeois culture and democracy (including Thomas Jefferson), as well as American parochialism and history writing. In May 1815, Irving left the country for what would be a seventeen-year sojourn in Europe, where he worked first as an importer in Liverpool, then as an attaché to the American legation in Spain, and finally as secretary to the American legation in London. His diverse works range from The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus(1828) and The Alhambra (1832), both written during his stay in Spain, to A Tour on the Prairies (1835) and The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, U.S.A. (1837), studies of the American West written on his return from Europe, to a five-volume life of George Washington.

Irving’s Sketch Book (1819-20), which included “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” remains his most recognized and influential contribution to American literature (he is often credited with inaugurating the modern genre of the short story). He is sometimes read as a political reactionary, nostalgic for European aristocratic culture and disgusted with the American rabble. His work and life, however, complicate this view; for example, it is true that he seems to have preferred that art remain aloof from commercialism and beyond the world of utility, but he also was America’s first commercially successful writer, who not only was very popular but depended for his living upon the mass consumption of his writing. Stories like those from The Sketch Book often display this tension, pitting an aesthetically oriented pre-Revolution America against a crass and utilitarian post-Revolution one–yet it is not always clear that the former is meant to be morally superior to the latter.

Teaching Tips

  • You might begin exploring “Rip Van Winkle” through the “reader response” approach. Ask students which characters are sympathetic and why. Some students will see Rip’s flexibility as admirable and his oppression by Dame Van Winkle as pitiable, while others will see Rip as a good-for-nothing. Explore how these different points of view change interpretations of the story: is it good or bad to sleep through catastrophic historical change? To what extent should the masses actively be involved in the construction of society?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Describe Rip Van Winkle as husband and as citizen. As you articulate his relationship with his wife, consider whether you think Irving means us to feel more sympathy for Rip or for Dame Van Winkle.
  2. Comprehension: How are we supposed to feel about Ichabod Crane? To what extent should we feel sympathy for him? On which of his characteristics or habits do you base your judgment?
  3. Context: Note that Rip sleeps through the Revolutionary War; that is, he sleeps through America’s transition from colony to nation. Why does it matter that Rip sleeps through these particular eighteen years? Describe his village before and after his fateful nap: which do you think Irving prefers? What is different and what is the same in the village before and after Rip’s sleep?
  4. Context: Like “Rip Van Winkle,” “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” suggests a distinction between Dutch colony and American nation (in the figures of Brom and Ichabod, respectively). What is Irving saying about the difference between the two communities?
  5. Exploration: In 1820, Sydney Smith asked, “In the four corners of the globe, who reads an American book?” In The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1820), Irving responds by formulating America–and Americans–as a site of interest and inspiration. As you read “Rip Van Winkle,” consider how Irving formulates national identity, particularly in relation to Europe. How do race, culture, and historical context figure into this formulation?

Selected Archive Items

[3108-not found] John Plumbe, Washington Irving [Half-length portrait, three-quarters to the left] (1855),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-110044 DLC]. 
Daguerreotype portrait of popular American author Irving. Best known for stories in his Sketch Book (1819-20), namely “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Irving is recognized as America’s first professional writer.

[3694] Thomas Cole, The Falls of the Kaaterskill (1826), 
courtesy of the Warner Collection of the Gulf States Paper Corporation. 
Cole was one of the first American landscape artists and a founder of the Hudson River School of painting. Romantic depictions of wilderness became popular as the United States expanded westward.

[5932] Thomas Doughty, In the Catskills (1835), 
courtesy of Reynolda House, Museum of American Art. 
Landscape painting of river and boulders framed by trees in the foreground. A member of the Hudson River School, Doughty painted the vast American landscapes that writers such as Washington Irving described in their novels.

[7242] John Plumbe, Washington Irving (1861),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs [LC-USZ62-4238]. 
Portrait of Irving. Irving’s work suggests nostalgia for European aristocratic culture over early-nineteenth-century American commercialism, but his position as America’s first commercially successful writer complicates this view.

[7243] Currier & Ives, Washington’s Head-Quarters 1780: At Newburgh, on the Hudson (1856), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC2-3161]. 
Painting of stone farmhouse and bucolic surroundings along the Hudson River. General George Washington, his wife, officers, slaves, and servants occupied this modest house during the Revolutionary War. Washington Irving set many of his stories in this area.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6