Washington Irving, Berlin

In which I ruminate on an eerie visitation and the man behind it

Excuse me while I congratulate myself on that terribly clever title. A writer I love overlapping a composer I love overlapping a city I love which happens to be where I live? Oh, Cecilia, you crack-up. *pats own back*

Just kidding. (Sort of.) If I refine half the charm and wit of the inimitable Washington Irving, I can die a happy woman. Or maybe, if I’m lucky, I can be spirited away a happy woman. Who knows?

Anyway. The point being that something happened to me last week. One night, totally unbidden and unprovoked, I vividly dreamt the events of Irving’s famous short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” An entirely unoriginal dream—it struck me odd that it should occupy the space where my plenty active imagination usually made up its own stuff. But it prompted me to give it (and some of his other stories) a reread, and remember how much I liked his narrative voice, and…feel quite unnerved the more I dwelt on it, really. A tale of a Connecticut native who is an interloper in a strange community, distinguished for both knowing/teaching things and singing, and who rather takes pride in being erudite, trying to insert himself where he doesn’t belong? Subsequently run out of town by a sly opponent who knows just how to manipulate his fears and weaknesses? Whyever should that make me nervous?

(Put another way: the only thing separating me from Ichabod Crane is about a foot and a half in height. And while I do fancy myself the well-intentioned heroine of my own story, I am forced to reconsider this self-perception when I question whether Ichabod is a hero—a protagonist, yes, but his intentions don’t necessarily seem pure, and not only because he keeps comparing women to food. Whatever. Let’s just say I haven’t gone out at night lately.)

But it’s more than that. It’s the fact that this particular vision should visit me on the two hundredth anniversary, just about to the month, of the story’s publication. 1820. Compounded by the fact that I too am a writer who is getting more ambitious with her fiction…who has in fact described a character as a “scarecrow escaped from a corn maze,” incidentally evoking Irving’s description of Ichabod as a “scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.” Am I being possessed? Have I been SINGLED OUT?

Hold it. What am I saying? It’s all coincidence. No reason to suspect a larger force at work. No need to be superstitious. Right?

Come to think of it, I wouldn’t put it past this author fellow. Playing tricks on people from beyond the grave? Typical. As will soon be demonstrated.

Irving (1783-1859) was a Manhattan native and a real city kid, at least for a while. His father (also a Scotsman) and mother (an Englishwoman) named him after the general, who actually had just been inaugurated as President when he met and gave a blessing to six-year-old Irving. Like many people of eventual renown, Irving was no star student, but that was okay by him because he preferred going to the theatre anyway. Remember how you and your fellow truants would hop down to the playhouse to snag tickets to the latest comedy with your own money when you were thirteen? Man, those were the days.

He was first published at age nineteen under the pen name “Jonathan Oldstyle” with a series of humorous social observations in the New York Morning Chronicle, whose co-founder was none other than…Aaron Burr, sir! Besides having commendable taste, Burr apparently overlooked the young writer’s Federalist leanings—tying him to Burr’s frenemy A-dot-Ham—enough to forward clippings to his dear daughter Theodosia. (Irving and Theodosia Burr were born a matter of months apart; my cherished alternate history is that that they fell madly in love, married, and had a giant family, and Theodosia never boarded the ship that was lost at sea. Why let the truth get in the way?)

From there he did what it seems like all men of means did at the time: study law and pass the bar (by the skin of his teeth, mind you). But he had also taken up the infinitely more engaging practice of fiction writing; and why bother with a legal career when he could mess with his growing readership by inventing a character, treating him as real, and developing his personality to the point that he all but crossed the veil? Not to mention he had caught the travel bug, touring Europe, veering from the beaten path, honing a uniquely savvy and conversational persona which put him in demand among the courts of society. Irving’s priorities were cemented, however, on a journey closer to home: up through the Hudson River Valley, where the communities—Tarrytown, Sleepy Hollow, etc.—brimmed with old folktales and ghost stories, the stuff of a writer’s dreams, just begging his transcription.

And transcribe he did…but not before fleeing the country again. Well, ‘fleeing’ in the sense that the War of 1812 impoverished his family and he went to stay with his sister and brother-in-law in England. (Birmingham, to be precise, best known for these lads.) It was here of all places that, a decade after Knickerbockering his hometown into his own personal fandom, he crafted The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. A great name befitting a great collection: it featured both “Rip Van Winkle” (whose action takes place overnight—well, not exactly, but that’s the point of the story—and which Irving wrote overnight) and “Sleepy Hollow.” His New York publisher would release it in seven installments, the last of which would appear in mid-1820; meanwhile, the collection would leak in London due to lax international copyright laws, prompting Irving to consult his friend Walter Scott’s publisher, who took on the collection in two installments as well as the British rights to all of Irving’s subsequent works. Much of our modern copyright legislation is thanks to Irving.

I wonder if Geoffrey Crayon is considered an ancestor of the Purple Crayon of “Harold” fame. As usual, I digress.

The Sketch Book made Irving more popular than ever. He rode its coattails, gallivanting between continents (he was more of a Dresden guy than a Berlin guy, for which I will not judge him), attempting to woo some ladies (eighteen-year-old Emily Foster, whom he pursued indefatigably despite what should have been a major takeaway from one of his own stories) and inexplicably ignoring others (among his admirers was Mary Shelley—the Mary Shelley! If only he had appreciated what a power couple they would have made!). But bachelorhood served him in the end: it freed him up to dash off travel essays, assist the American minister in London in negotiating a trade deal with the British West Indies, and serve as Minister to Spain under President John Tyler. Couldn’t tie this one down, no sir!

Upon his long-anticipated return to the United States, he somehow found the energy to complete a multi-volume biography of his beloved namesake, which required several trips between his Tarrytown estate Sunnyside and Mount Vernon. In retrospect, this appears a fair use of that remaining energy, because he died less than a year after finishing the final volume, aged seventy-six and ensconced at Sunnyside. He was mourned and revered by friends, contemporaries, and imitators like Charles Dickens, Lord Byron, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville (the critical-but-probably-just-jealous Edgar Allan Poe was already dead). Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, unofficial keeper of collective memory, didn’t let the funeral go by without a proper elegy.

That Irving became the first true American Man of Letters without a full-length novel to his name is, in my opinion, the biggest flex in the New World. This man carved a permanent niche in the public imagination on essentially a series of short stories alone. Okay, and an unmatched talent for naming things. And a dynamic personality. Pretty powerful–almost unheard of to this day. He has been somewhat eclipsed by, say, Mark Twain, his successor in American documentation and humor; but it was his trailblazing which gave Twain that forum to begin with. He proved that a person could write for a living, the echoes of which plague today’s university creative-writing programs. He seems not to have done anything outright cancel-worthy, or at least not to be guilty of individual vices so much as societal ones. He understood, in life and in work, the necessity of an elaborate prank. Most importantly, he helped secure a young nation’s place on the world literary stage and spread the word that its artists had something meaningful to contribute.

And now, a nice round two centuries after the story I led with, he haunts my dreams and/or waking thoughts. Oh well. I suppose I could do worse. Now, if you’ll excuse me once again, I am going to go eat a Katrina Van Tassel, which is my recently-adopted name for a peach.

Image: watercolor by George Bernard Butler, Jr., commissioned by Irving to commemorate the time he got #blessed by the Prez

Published by Cecilia Gigliotti

Cecilia Gigliotti (she/her) lives in Berlin with a beloved ukulele named Uke Skywalker. She co-hosts and produces the music commentary podcast POD SOUNDS. Her free time goes toward dancing, reading books new and old, drawing cartoons, taking city walks, and devoting too much thought to the foibles of her heroes. Connect with her on Instagram (@c_m_giglio, @ceciliagphotography, @pod_sounds_podcast) and see what else she's up to (linktr.ee/ceciliagigliotti).

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