Friday, July 27, 2018

Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving

Source of book: Audiobook from the library.

But I should mention that I own - and have read - the complete Washington Irving short stories. We listened to Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

I have a short list of authors that I consider unjustly neglected. By definition, these are older writers, as the list consists of authors who were once popular, but whose star faded with time and changing taste. They generally share an archaic style, which serves as a barrier to appreciation by modern readers. This is, in my view, a shame, because once you learn to speak the language, the genius and psychological perception are ever so rewarding.

Just to mention some off the top of my head: Anthony Trollope (I am a total missionary for Trollope, my favorite Victorian), who inadvertently cratered his reputation by admitting he wrote a certain number of words a day - he approached writing as skilled labor, not as a brooding artist waiting for inspiration. P. G. Wodehouse, often dismissed as a “mere” humorist - even though humor is the most difficult kind of writing to pull off. Langston Hughes, whose populist style has meant scorn from many critics, despite the incredible resonance of his writing. Ursula Le Guin and Madeleine L’Engle, often dismissed because they wrote Science Fiction - as women no less. Sir Walter Scott, who basically invented Historical Fiction, but is little read today.    

But also on that list is Washington Irving.

Irving was the first professional author of the fledgling United States. The very first to support himself entirely by his writing. And also, widely recognized as the founder of the American short story tradition. Before Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, Eudora Welty, Sarah Orne Jewett, or the plethora of fine American short story writers, there was Washington Irving. It is easy to recognize his influence on later writers, particularly Twain. The combination of the legendary, supernatural, realistic, and sarcastic is already there.

So yes, the language is that of the early 19th Century - I rather like it, but your mileage may vary. But there is much to like. The regional flavor. (Mostly New York State for Irving.) The ambiguity about the supernatural versus the natural. The use of local legends. The “tall tales.” The slightly tongue in cheek attitude which is such an American characteristic. The unforgettable characters which everyone knows, although few have read the originals.

I already read the older kids The Legend of Sleepy Hollow a few years back. It was a bit over their heads at the time, unfortunately, although some parts got some laughs. Now, with them older and more widely read, I think it went better. We also listened to Rip Van Winkle, which is both shorter and a little faster to get to the point. Of course, my kids have developed a finely tuned sense of sarcasm and snark (with parents like us, well…), so Irving’s deadpan satire made more sense. 

Just a few fun things to mention about Rip Van Winkle. The idea that politics has changed completely in 20 years is a good one. Certainly, I would not have predicted our current situation back in my early 20s. Things change, alliances change, and generations change. I suspect that in 20 years, the Trump era will be looked on with as much puzzlement (and scorn) as loyalty to King George was viewed after the Revolution.

It was also kind of fun to view this story as having several potential meanings. Is it about the dangers of sloth? Or the peril of consumption of liquor? Or is it about the dream of freedom from a termagant wife? Or a paean to walks in the wilderness? You can find your own meaning, I guess.

These stories purport to be told by Dietrich Knickerbocker, the fictitious character invented by Irving. In fact, many of his stories are alleged to have been told to Irving by certain invented characters. But even though Irving did draw on local folklore, the stories are largely his own, written out of his own imagination.

These two stories are undoubtedly Irving’s most famous. But his other writings are delightful as well. I particularly recommend Tales of the Alhambra, the “Buckthorne” stories, and the Italian Banditti tales.


I think this calls for some Shannon and the Clams.

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