Friday, April 3, 2009

A Knickerbocker Birthday

Happy birthday to one of America's first men of letters, Washington Irving, who was born 226 years ago today on April 3, 1783. Other writers had existed before Irving and, truth be told, his writing lacks clear focus (sometimes comedy, sometimes sincere biography, sometimes pseudo-history full of inaccuracy and legend) and has not stood the test of time as amongst the most meritorious in the literary canon. Nonetheless, Irving was incredibly popular on both sides of the Atlantic — and, really, in the early 19th century, that's all that mattered. Just about every American writer contemporary to Irving and immediately following him owe him for some amount of inspiration — including Edgar A. Poe.

The first interaction between Irving and Poe was almost very early in Poe's life. In 1819, Irving was in London and making a major impact on the social scene. He dined with friends, certainly, but Irving was always looking to meet new people. One new person was a Scotland-born merchant who had recently moved all the way from Richmond, Virginia, to established a branch of his mercantile business. We can only imagine what John Allan and Washington Irving discussed — but it likely wasn't the 10-year old Edgar Poe, who was staying at a nearby boarding-school in Stoke-Newington at the time.

Years and years later, Poe was hoping to really get a foothold in the American literary scene. Like many young wannabes, Poe sought out the endorsement of Irving, by then known for his Sketch-book, a collection of short stories. In 1839, Poe sent him a couple stories of his own: "William Wilson" and "The Fall of the House of Usher." Both were a far-cry from the innocent, vaguely patriotic, tongue-in-cheek stories Irving wrote, like "Rip Van Winkle." Irving preferred "William Wilson," he wrote, but only offered faint praise overall. Poe got a kick out of it anyway, and proudly flaunted the letters and used quotes from Irving to promote Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque.

Poe would never get a better endorsement from Irving, and that's fine; By the 1840s, Poe was earning his own ground in American letters — especially as a critic. In that role, Poe wrote of Irving as being able to convey "a just idea of ... exquisite loveliness" and his Tales of a Traveler are "graceful and impressive narratives." Nevertheless, Poe thought Irving was riding on an old reputation that was slowly sullying. He is "much overrated," Poe wrote, "and a nice distinction might be drawn between his just and his surreptitious and adventitious reputation." Worse, he elsewhere wrote, Irving "has become so thoroughly satiated with fame as to grow slovenly in the performance of his literary tasks." The view wasn't solely Poe's — others began noticing that Irving's later writings weren't living up to the hype.

Overall, however, even Poe has to admit that Irving was an important influence. Parts of Poe's novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket were directly inspired by Irving's Astoria, for example. Most obviously, one can't read Poe's attempts at burlesque and other humor stories without thinking of Irving (try "The Devil in the Belfry"). So, I think even Poe would join me in wishing Washington Irving — overrated or not — a very happy birthday. If all goes according to plan, I'll be at Sunnyside and Sleepy Hollow Cemetery before the end of the day.


Amateur Reader said...

One place where Irving is still prevalent is southern Spain. Copies of Tales of the Alhambra are piled up everywhere. That book is enjoyable if you've been to Granada, but is otherwise pretty thin.

I think "Sleepy Hollow" is nearly perfect, and there are a lot of other interesting things in The Sketch-Book, but it's pretty hard now to undertand Irving's huge reputation.

Do you think Julius Rodman may have a connection to Irving as well, to Captain Bonneville, as well as with Lewis and Clark and so on? I guess it's so hard to tell where Poe was going with that story. said...

Well said, my friend. And enjoy Sunnyside (tell Dina I said hello!)

Rob Velella said...

I have to admit, I still love "Sleepy Hollow" (though he might have used a better editor to trim it down a tad... I say the same thing about "The Pit and the Pendulum").

It's hard to connection Julius Rodman and Captain Bonneville directly. I think they are both part of a 19th-century tradition of gung-ho adventure stories that are meant to be plausible. Poe tends to overshoot the "plausible" aspect though (Arthur Gordon Pym, anyone?).

Brian, your name came up while I was at Sunnyside. It may have had something to do with an unsolicited recommendation in the gift shop which sprung from my lips... The solicitation, not the gift shop. The gift shop was already there before my lips had anything to do with it. Was that Irving-like humor?