March 11, 2007


A Storyteller's Life Story: The man behind "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." : a review of The Original Knickerbocker by Andrew Burstein (RICHARD BROOKHISER, February 27, 2007, Opinion Journal)

Bookish and dreamy, he never went to college. After several false starts, he found himself in a literary life. The details of magazines, book contracts, agents and publishers inevitably fill Mr. Burstein's account: The newness of popular fiction in America and the many kinks that had to be worked out--there was no international copyright in Irving's day--recall our adjustments to the Internet. Irving was well-paid, well-regarded--Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott admired him--and generous to younger writers. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow testified to his "entire absence of all literary jealousy."

Irving was also steeped in politics without being absorbed in it. He was named for George Washington, who blessed him when he was a six-year-old boy. As a young journalist, he wrote in support of a very different founding father, the wily New Yorker Aaron Burr--an experience, says Mr. Burstein, that fortified Irving's lifelong sympathy for losers. As an adult, he hobnobbed with Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren. Irving could cross partisan lines, from Federalists to Democrats, without taking or giving offense.

Finally, he was a restless man. He traveled constantly, never married and did not buy a home of his own until his 50s. "His smile is one of the sweetest I know," wrote a woman friend, "but he can look very, very sad." Was he gay? Mr. Burstein examines the question without prurience or presentism and concludes that he doesn't quite know. There are no deeply intimate relationships between men and women in Irving's fiction; what he lost in realism, though, he made up in myth.

Irving accomplished three things as an author, besides writing his greatest tales. He was the first celebrant of New York's Dutch heritage. (Van Winkle is a Dutch name; so is Van Brunt, the surname of Ichabod Crane's tormentor.) By writing about Dutch celebrations of St. Nicholas Day, Irving helped create the modern American Christmas. Contemporary scholars like Russell Shorto are just now digging back through Irving's stories to discover the real New Amsterdam, but for decades his stories were the only memorial the Dutch had.

In middle age, Irving fell in love with Spain and Spanish. He praised the language for its "power, magnificence and melody"; political friends gave him a diplomatic appointment that allowed him to live in the Alhambra palace in Granada. Irving wrote biographies of Columbus and Mohammed and a history of the Moors. His storyteller's concerns are miles away from today's debates on Mexican immigration and Islamist terror, but he had the tools of preliminary knowledge long before most Americans.

Irving's last great work, completed in 1859, the year he died, was a five-volume biography of his namesake. As a biographer of George Washington myself, I own a modern condensed edition of Irving's work, and I can testify that his scenes of action are still vivid (his description of the Battle of Long Island is a great read) while some of his insights into character are still useful. I am not alone in thinking so. In "Washington's Crossing," historian David Hackett Fischer gives prominent place to one of Irving's details: eyewitness testimony that Washington wept "with the tenderness of a child" after the British captured 2,800 of his men in northern Manhattan.

Tales of the Alhambra is particularly good.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 11, 2007 12:00 AM
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