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The Sunny Master Of Sunnyside
Blending satire and nostalgia, Washington Irving taught his readers both to love the past and chuckle over its absurdities
December 1961 | Volume 13, Issue 1
But it is in his Astoria--a book written in large part out of patriotic pride--that Irving told his most exciting story of heroic American adventure. After his return from Europe in 1832, Irving had wanted to demonstrate that, despite his literary delight in the antiquities of England and Spain and Germany, his first loyalty was to America. Thus when John Jacob Astor offered him access to the records of the great fur-trading house which he headed, Irving jumped at the chance. The book that resulted is an exciting account of the treacherous and bloody competition of American and British fur companies, of the pageantry of life and death among the wild savages of the plains, and the incredible hardships of the mountain men who braved starvation, Indians, and wild animals among the defiles of the Rockies. Especially graphic is the account of the capture by Indians of the ship Tonquin, the massacre of all on board, and the subsequent explosion of the ship in which most of the Indians were killed.
Irving’s heroes and adventurers, unlike those of most earlier American writers, are human. He likes them, and so does his reader. Irving could see the good not only in his namesake George Washington (who once, when Irving was an infant, patted his head and gave him a patriarchal blessing) but also in the fierce half-pirates and conquistadors of early Spanish America. He had a kind word to say for Aaron Burr after his trial and for Napoleon after Waterloo; he praised King Philip for his coinage, his fidelity to his race, and his love of his family.
Perhaps living was able to understand his characters because he relied as much as possible on his own personal experiences in writing his stories of adventure. Not that Irving himself--despite his calmness when the ship on which he was voyaging was captured by Mediterranean pirates, despite his rambles through robber-infested Spain and his adventurous tour through the Shawnee and Osage country--was heroic. Far from it. In reality, he was a mild little man who dreaded even to give a speech in public--he broke down at the public dinner in New York for Dickens in 1842--and during his western trip was so unnerved when a false alarm of a Shawnee attack was made that he tangled himself in his trousers and could not get them on. He also studied locales and historical sources carefully. Much of the feeling of authenticity of the History of New York, for instance, was the result of Irving’s thorough knowledge of the city gained from boyhood rambles about the streets and docks, as well as his meticulous research--Irving was one of the first to consult these records--into the old Dutch documents. If the strange adventure of Brom Bones and Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow is vivid, it is partly because as a young man Irving had again and again visited the area. Similarly, the biography of Columbus was based in part on original research into long-neglected Spanish archives; Irving’s intimate knowledge of Spain, where he lived from 1826 to 1829 and again (as United States minister) from 1842 to 1846, gave it added color. The western books, too, grew out of personal knowledge.
Irving’s love for an adventurous past is at all times tempered with a nostalgic sadness that the beauty of old-time Spain and the heroism of the American frontier has yielded or is about to yield to the harsh commonplaces of modern existence. In the History of New York, for instance, he pictures the mythical Golden Age of the city before “Yankee” efficiency destroyed the comfortable Dutch phlegm. He liked to imagine, as he remarks in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” “a retreat whither I might steal from the world and its distractions, and dream quietly away the remnant of a troubled life.” Perhaps the clearest statement of his nostalgia is in a little-known sketch, “The Creole Village,” which was published in 1837. Here Irving, with very obvious criticism of the American civilization he sees around him, contrasts the calm, comfortable, peaceful, though poverty-stricken French Creole village in Louisiana with a bustling, speculating, ugly, businesslike “Yankee” town rising just down-river.