- Historic Sites
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
It was one of those spacious farm-houses, with high-ridged but lowly-sloping roofs, built in the style handed down from the first Dutch settlers; the low projecting eaves forming a piazza along the front, capable of being closed up in bad weather. Under this were hung flails, harness, various utensils of husbandry, and nets for fishing in the neighboring river. Benches were built along the side for summer use; and a great spinning-wheel at one end, and a churn at the other, showed the various uses to which this important porch might be devoted.
The old farmhouse is situated on the banks of the Hudson. Over it a great elm arches. Beside it runs a sparkling brook. And hard by is a vast barn and an abundantly populated farmyard. This is rural life as Americans of the day loved to see it. No wonder Irving’s tales were popular.
Irving--who in the preface to The Sketch Book had patriotically lauded the beauties of American scenery; who had exclaimed, “No, never need an American look beyond his own country for the sublime and beautiful of natural scenery”; whose skill at landscape had so impressed Washington Allston in Rome--reproduced exactly in his prose the gentle yet grand tones of the best native American landscape painters. Rip Van Winkle might almost be Asher B. Durand or Thomas Cole as, “late in the afternoon,” he throws himself down on a green knoll “that crowned the brow of a precipice”:
From an opening between the trees he could overlook all the lower country for many a mile of rich woodland. He saw at a distance the lordly Hudson, far, far below him, moving on its silent but majestic course, with the reflection of a purple cloud, or the sail of a lagging bark, here and there sleeping on its glassy bosom, and at last losing itself in the blue highlands.
On the other side he looked down into a deep mountain glen, wild, lonely, and shagged, the bottom filled with fragments from the impending cliffs, and scarcely lighted by the reflected rays of the setting sun. For some time Rip lay musing on this scene; evening was gradually advancing; the mountains began to throw their long blue shadows over the valleys. …
Crag, river, glen, blue shadows, evening light, boat on the water—these are the very trademarks of the Hudson River school.
Irving’s age liked a vigorous emotional appeal, and Irving himself had reason to be sentimental. The beautiful young woman to whom he had been engaged as a young man--Matilda Hoffman, the daughter of his law teacher--had died before they could be married. Though it is not true (as contemporary biographers liked to say) that this tragedy broke his heart and forever put marriage out of his mind--later, in Germany, he became much interested in a Miss Emily Foster, and in France had a slight flirtation with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the poet’s widow--his youthful disappointment did cast a cloud over his life.
But Irving was too sensible a person to wallow in sentimentality. He was also saved by his humor, most of which is basically satiric. On various levels, the situations of the History of New York make fun of the phlegmatic Dutch and the overactive Yankees, of city authorities during Irving’s own time in New York, of the Puritan chroniclers who started every history with an account of the Creation and the Flood, of Jefferson and the policies of his Administration, and finally, of human nature in general. Book I of the History : “Containing Divers Ingenious Theories and Philosophic Speculations, Concerning the Creation and Population of the World, as Connected with the History of New York,” is a take-off on the early colonial historians like Increase Mather and his son Cotton (this was the original purpose of the History ). In describing how one of New York’s Dutch elders puts a patented windmill on the battlements and hires a trumpeter to defend the city, Irving is poking fun at the inventor Jefferson and his policies of nonintervention and peace before the War of 1812. Similarly, in “Rip Van Winkle” there is political satire in the questions thrown at poor old Rip when he comes down from the mountain. Ichabod Crane is a caricature of the Yankee schoolmaster, with his superstitious fear of witches and his avid desire to get hold of the Van Tassel farm, sell it, load his goods and Katrina on a wagon, and move west. It is not unsatiric that the foolish pedant ends up, as we are told, a member of Congress!
Yet, though the humor is satiric, nowhere does any note of bitterness creep in. Irving has no enemies; he makes one like even the persons he satirizes. Dame Van Winkle may have a sharp tongue, but she is otherwise a good wife, and her shrewishness is justified by Rip’s shiftlessness. Ichabod Crane is greedy and absurdly superstitious and conceited, but his very absurdity prevents him from doing any real harm. The several Dutch governors of old New York are stupid, inefficient, foolish, and incompetent, yet they live in a fairyland where no real evil can happen. True, Dutch government is supplanted by English, the comfortable old era must yield to the bustling new, but neither nostalgic Irving nor his reader resents the inevitable change.