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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
How many Americans must have sympathized with Irving’s regret at the frenzied pace of “progress” and the change from old values to new! During his lifetime the territory of the nation as a whole at least tripled. His own beloved New York City multiplied more than ten times in population and changed from a friendly little provincial city into a hectic metropolis. Commerce and the industrial revolution swept away much of the calm old village life. The gentlemanly, almost feudal society of colonial New York changed, as James Fenimore Cooper so bitterly lamented in his trilogy of novels, Satanstoe, The Chainbearer , and The Redskins, to raw democracy. No wonder that Cooper fled either to Europe or, in imagination, to the depths of the wilderness with his frontiersman hero, Natty Bumppo—or that the poet William Cullen Bryant should seek the woods, where “calm shade” could “bring a kindred calm,” and “the sweet breeze” could “waft a balm” to his “sick heart.” But even beyond this general feeling of the time, Irving himself had perhaps even greater reason to dream fondly of the past. He had grown up in an atmosphere of comfort and security, had lived a gay, if somewhat spoiled life with the bright young literary group in New York, and had been indulged in his desire for a long, carefree trip through Europe. As a partner in his brothers’ firm, he had had to do little but draw his income. But in 1818, as a result of debts incurred during the War of 1812, the business had failed. Irving found himself stranded in Europe, with little money and the sudden need to support himself. With courage and good humor he turned the writing that had been his avocation into his profession. He was not a man to complain. But perhaps, in a story like “Rip Van Winkle,” when after twenty years’ sleep old Rip returns to find his Dutch village changed almost beyond recognition, his old friends scattered, and the new inhabitants suspicious and quarrelsome, Irving is expressing a reaction to a personal situation as well as to the swift change in the nation.
Closely related to this nostalgia for the past is Irving’s love of the picturesque. The moss-grown Creole village, the old Dutch farmhouses, the queer-gabled old mansions of New York appealed to him not only because they were old but because they made what he and his generation considered beautiful pictures. Irving always had a painter’s eye. Indeed, on his visit to Europe in 1805 the well-known painter Washington Allston, recognizing his talent as a landscape artist, tried to persuade him to join the American art colony in Rome. And though Irving resisted the temptation to turn to canvas and brush, much of his literary technique relies on pictorial effects.
In “The Author’s Account of Himself,” prefixed to The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon (Irving enjoyed a mild pun), he wrote of himself with his usual accuracy in self-criticism:
I have wandered through different countries, and witnessed many of the shifting scenes of life. I cannot say that I have studied them with the eye of the philosopher: but rather with the sauntering gaze with which humble lovers of the picturesque stroll from the window of one print-shop to another; caught, sometimes by the delineations of beauty, sometimes by the distortions of caricature, and sometimes by the loveliness of landscape. As it is the fashion for modern tourists to travel pencil in hand, and bring home their portfolios filled with sketches, I am disposed to get up a few for the entertainment of my friends.
From the beginning Irving was a master of picturesque caricature in an age that delighted in it. Diedrich Knickerbocker’s History of New York, for instance, presented a series of amusing scenes typical of Irving’s peculiar brand of humor: Wouter Van Twiller’s rotund city council--each alderman had been chosen by weight--snoring over the affairs of state; the ancient Dutch burghers smoking their pipes on the benches of their whitewashed houses under shade of giant sycamores, surrounded by clucking hens and cackling geese and grunting hogs; the parties at which many-petticoated Dutch damsels sat with their swains around tables graced with immense apple pies, dishes of doughnuts, and a huge earthen dish filled with slices of fat pork which the guests dexterously harpooned with their forks. Perhaps the most amusing scene of all is that of the storming of Fort Goed Hope by the Wethersfield Yankees, who in the middle of a sultry day, while the defenders slept soundly after a huge dinner, “inhumanly seized Jacobus Van Curlet and his sturdy myrmidons by the nape of the neck, gallanted them to the gate of the fort,” and dismissed each one with a hearty kick on the heavy seat of their enormous Dutch breeches.
Irving also displayed a talent for genre painting. Take, for instance, his sketch of the Van Tassel farm in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”