Washington Irving: evolution, nostalgia and imaginary compensation
Irving was not under the influence of sentimentalism or romanticism, the two big influences of that time. In a way, he was the perfect incarnation of the American early literary development. He was a figure of literary transition in a society where American literature was still a hybrid.
Irving’s artistic opinions and his style changed dramatically over time but we can detect certain opinions and thematic elements that dominate his early as well as his later works.
One of the most important things about Irving is the nostalgic consciousness of change and the evanescence of things and people. This melancholic sensibility is to be found in all his works.
Other distinctive aspects of Irving’s writings are:
- The transformation of material reality through fantasy and imagination. Such a transformation allows the author to represent reality as a fable.
- The use of humour: human enterprises as trivial and ridiculous (cynicism and bitterness).
- The use of sentimentalism to describe scenes and characters.
On the whole, Irving emphasizes narration and description rather than analysis and criticism. This choice can be explained for he did not consider his prose as an expression of political or cultural positions (consciously).
Irving started his literary career writing satirical pieces of journalism about the New York cultural and social scene, especially about the Theater circles. We can see that his humour and his early satire were a collage of rational criticism, nonsense humour and irony.
In his satirical works, he turned all human beings into fools including the writer himself: that’s self-reference (makes funny comments about himself as a writer), a very modern way of writing.
He gave full expression to the sense of his satires and historiographies (history in a novel or historical books); it showed his sharp sense of satire.
In 1809, he wrote A History of New York from the Creation of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, which is a parody of the New York Dutch descendants and an ironic questioning of objective historical facts and historiographical scepticism.
The narrator is Dietrich Knickerbocker. It’s not a monumental but an ironic history. Behind the irony, there is a very serious historical effort on the part of Irving. He rewrites history from his point of view: it’s very modern.
As he develops these two themes, the narrator of the book sees this historical monument of human accomplishment as a monument of human ridicule: he turns it upside down.
In 1815, Irving sailed to Liverpool and travelled extensively in Europe. His English travels inspired The SketchBook of Geoffrey Crayon, a collection of 33 essays and stories. The narrator of his book is the sentimental G. Crayon who expresses his attachment to British culture and its old monuments.
The SketchBook is essentially an homage to English scenes and English writers. It is conservative in its cultural views and antiquarian in its aesthetic inspirations. Indeed, Crayon doesn’t hesitate to express his preference for tradition, aristocracy, and rurality rather than for innovation, democracy, and urbanization.
Rip Van Wikle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow are his most distinguished pieces. These excellent short stories present a mixture of fantasy and realism, of fable and fact.
As far as the use of fantasy is concerned, the short stories already announced the narrative art of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. Presently, the legendary opposition between New York and New England, Sleepy Hollow, is a comic variation on Gothic fiction (develops an atmosphere of terror, horrifying, macabre and where strange events happen).
Throughout the narrative, Irving metamorphoses the setting of the story (the Hudson River Valley) into a fabulous landscape where we can follow his analysis of American history, although we know that the images of history are the product of his wild imagination and fantasy.
The historical context of Sleepy Hollow is that of a rapidly changing American in the face of America: it reflects Irving’s profound fear of America’s territorial expansion and its rapid socio-economic transformation. In this sense, Sleepy Hollow is found on a profound sense of melancholy and nostalgia, as an ideal rural past.
In this, Irving proved to be an author with profoundly American impulses. He faced a country plunging into change, development, and expansion but at the same time, when he’s trying to understand this country; he expresses his nostalgic desires to preserve the eternal arcadia of the colonial vision. His paradox is the American one.
During his diplomatic service in Spain, Irving turned to biography: The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus represents an important change in his literary life.
In this biography, he kept using the narrative techniques that he used in his novels, mixing history and fiction. In his historical books, he abandoned his ironic tone: it became more serious and formal even though he kept using narrative techniques.
All his novels are the products of very precise research. However, Irving did not define such works as purely economic literature.
In The Conquest of Granada, he described Granada as somewhat “between history and romance”. From this period, The Alhambra is the only book that can be compared with the SketchBook.
In 1832, after 17 years in Europe, Irving returned to the USA which was in full expansion and he realized that the New Frontier was a big source of literary inspiration. During that period, he travelled extensively in the West. Results:
- A Tour of the Prairie (1835)
- Asteria and The Adventure (1836)
Irving has always been interested in the Frontier. Like James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers, in a way, Irving thought of his Western books of the 1830s not just as literary experimentations but also as a concrete contribution to the Western world expansion of the USA and the realization of his “manifest destiny”.
James Fenimore Cooper: the voice of the Frontier as a general critique
Jacksonian democracy’s rise and its effect on the Frontier represent the most important elements in the historical background of Cooper’s fiction. 1829-1837: democratic populist campaign based on a fight for poop people (land, farms and realization of the American dream) but no place for Indians.
For Cooper, realizing your dreams is a good ideal. But it does not come without the extermination of Puritan entities: Indians and Nature.
Cooper’s role in this history of American literature: his representation of the Frontier certainly appears as his greatest contribution to authentically American literature. Cooper transformed the American Frontier into a symbol of a national myth.
Among the general public, Cooper is known for his Leatherstocking tales (main character: Natty Bumpo):
- The Pioneer (1823)
- The Last of the Mohicans (1823)
- The Prairie (1827)
- The Pathfinder (1840)
- The Crater (1847)
The Last of the Mohicans
Compared with the other Leatherstocking novels, Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans is the most complex and dramatic.
Its complexity and dramatic powers come from the ambiguities of the Frontier itself. Similar to Captain Smith’s vision of nature, The Last of the Mohicans represents the Frontier as the scene of constant struggle.
His characters are more characterized by action than reflection. In Cooper’s fiction, action and struggle very often degenerate into violence and absurd tragedy.
This representation of the Frontier shows an understanding of American history in general as an ambiguous and complex process in which the people struggling to possess and keep the land are subject to natural and historical forces they can not control: Nature is seen as bigger than Man in tragic view.
Indeed, The Last of the Mohicans often describes scenes of a devastated Nature, scenes that powerfully suggest the theme of what America has lost, the grace of primitive natural beauty.
Nature is humanized: we can’t remain indifferent. Along with the poetry of its natural scenes, The Last of the Mohicans also reflects Cooper’s sense of realism.
Indeed, judged by the standards of his time, his wilderness fiction as the whole follows very closely the best sources of Indian studies that existed in the early 19th century.
Moreover, Cooper met and spoke with the most important Indian chiefs of this period. He pictured that general picture we get in his narratives: the tragic, dramatic and ambiguous change. Even his most courageous and energetic characters find themselves incapable of facing the forces of Nature and History.
According to Cooper, the phenomenon of settlement is the ideal metaphoric expression of the tragedy of American civilization. But, in Cooper’s narrative vision, the Frontier is also an image of the sense of opportunity that comes from change.
In this description of the process of settlement, Cooper describes with eloquence the hopes and aspirations of the pioneers and simultaneously the Indians’ feelings of loss and displacement.
The vastness of Cooper’s historical vision, the complexity and tragic sense of this Frontier can be seen in his first Frontiers novel, The Pioneers, which shows Cooper’s profound attachment to the Frontier as a philosophy of life based on hope, with its suggestion of autobiographical nostalgia.
More than anything else, the autobiographic element shows the eloquence with which Cooper described the Frontier. Again, as in his other narratives of Nature, Cooper’s conception of the Frontier is never simplistic.
On the one hand, he describes the daily life of the pioneers and their relations with Nature in idyllic terms. On the other hand, behind the Frontier idyll, there is the irreversible march of the historical process.
The settlers’ irresponsible destruction of natural resources is a dramatic reminder of human intrusion upon the wilderness. The complexity of Cooper’s narratives of a Frontier resides in the ambiguity of his feelings toward the settlement process.
In The Pioneers, one has certainly the sense of his enthusiasm concerning America’s conquest of Nature; however, we also feel his profound anxiety as an unstoppable march of civilization. In this sense, his works are the first expression of an ecological consciousness.
Although the question of ecological danger was a serious subject for Cooper, he found the social disorder that comes with economic changes even more problematic. In this sense, the social themes of his novels have a prophetic quality. They tell of the limits and dangers of Jacksonian democracy and its proclamation of the possibilities of the individual.
He saw in it the future destruction of America’s sense of community and responsibility. In the final analysis, The Pioneers and its contrast between Nature and civilization is less pessimistic than some of Cooper’s later novels.
Indeed, The Pioneers offers a harmonious synthesis between the European and Indian past. The American Frontier is supposed to be the neutral ground where the synthesis is supposed to happen.
This trend to make a synthesis of the past and the present, development and wilderness, the American people and Native Americans, seems to be the result of a division within Cooper himself. This particular aspect of his fiction reflects his role in the settlement of America, which is full of contradictions.
On the one hand, Cooper grew up in a Frontier community, and believed in the ideal of success through progress: his imagination was influenced by the beauty of Nature and by the hopes of building a civilization.
On the other hand, for he grew up in a Frontier community, he knew more than anyone else about the ecological and ethnic disasters that the Frontier communities created. So, his fiction can be considered the product of his contradiction.
Cooper placed the settlement setting on a fantasy island in the Pacific. The Crater is perhaps America’s first allegorical novel. It offers a symbolic representation of America’s evolution from a hopeful past to a chaotic present to an apocalyptic future.
As in Cooper’s other settlement novels, the settlement on his imaginary island is confronted with the outside dangers of Indian tribes.
Eventually, the community succeeds only to realize that the most danger to the development of the settlement comes from the community itself.
Cooper’s change from the ambiguous optimism of The Pioneers to The Crater‘s vision of disorder is also personal. This change marks his move toward an increasing position in the social order.
Cooper’s later novels show how deeply he felt the necessity to put a sense of order into his social vision, the vision of a society developing beyond control. Despite his conservatism, Cooper was not extremely conservative but moderate.
However, his positions were misinterpreted: his argument for a reconsideration of the principles of American democracy, his criticism of mad development, and ecological irresponsibility were considered conservative.
His opinions were seen as an expression of unhappiness with the very existence of democracy as a system. The negative things that Cooper associated with Jacksonian Democracy were not just the negative aspects of a political system but of an entire philosophy, of an entire society.
Through his novels and political writings, Cooper wanted to expose several social and economic symptoms:
- The explosion of cities aligns with the accumulation of capital.
- Superficial press.
- Disintegration of civility and social coherence.
- Generalized materialism and the collapse of small communities.
In the final analysis, Cooper’s greatest accomplishment as a novelist does not reside in his criticism of the abuses of Jacksonian Democracy but in his transformation of his personal contradictions into an imaginary scene of a truly mythical dimension.
His works remained as essential models for an American literary sensibility and its mystique of Nature.
They also represent the first model for a sensibility committed to ecological responsibility and cultural tolerance.