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Characteristics of American Romanticism in Washington Irving novels

Article By: cliff1974
Literary fiction



Wrote this for my American Romanticism class. Since I generally keep everything I write, figured I would post this here.


Submitted:Mar 26, 2008    Reads: 17,052    Comments: 3    Likes: 2   


This essay is about the selection of five characteristics of American Romanticism present in Washington Irving's The Sketch Book. I will try to show how man and nature are the chief subjects in "Rip Van Winkle," "Westminster Abbey" shows Irving's interest in the medieval past, that expressive theory of literature is shown in "The Mutability of Literature," and in the "Legend of Sleepy Hollow", shows how Irving's subjective point of view got in the way of the story, and how the story appeals to the reader's imagination.

In the story, "Rip Van Winkle," the character Rip Van Winkle is the chief subject and the Kaatskill Mountains in the Hudson River Valley is the chief nature subject. The Kaatskill Mountains are part of the Appalachian chain and west of the Hudson River. Irving says of them, "When the weather is fair and settled, they are clothed in blue and purple, and print their bold outlines on the clear evening sky; but, sometimes, when the rest of the landscape is cloudless, they will gather a hood of gray vapors about their summits, which, in the last rays of the setting sun, will glow and light up like a crown of glory (pg 38)." Later on in the story, before Rip sleeps for 20 years, Irving describes what Rip saw as he was sitting down on the ground, "He saw at a distance the lordly Hudson, far, far below him, moving on its silent but majestic course, with the reflection of a purple cloud or the sail of a lagging bark here and there sleeping on its glassy bosom, and at long last losing itself in the blue highlands. On the other side he looked down into a deep mountain glen, wild, lonely, and shagged, the bottom filled with fragments from the impending cliffs, and scarcely lighted by the reflected rays of the setting sun. (43)"

Rip Van Winkle is the main character of the story, described as a "simple and good natured man . . . . a kind neighbor, and an obedient, henpecked husband. (pg 39)" Rip was a favorite amongst the townsfolk because he helped everyone with their activities, but had, "an insuperable aversion to all kinds of profitable labor. (39)" He refused to work on his own house and property because everything would fall apart no matter what he did. He felt like all his wife did was nag him and felt like his dog, Wolf, was the only one on his side. Once Rip awoke after 20 years and found out everything had completely changed, he only cared about not being yelled at his by his wife, and the story says, "-the change of states and empires made but little impression on him; but there was one species of despotism under which he had long groaned, and that was petticoat government. Happily that was at an end; he had got his neck out of the yoke of matrimony, and could go in and out whenever he pleased, without dreading the tyranny of Dame Van Winkle. (pg 53)"

The story "Westminster Abbey" shows Irving's interest in the medieval past, since the Abbey was built in 1065 A.D. As Irving says at the beginning, "There was something congenial to the season in the mournful magnificence of the old pile, and, as I passed its threshold, seemed like stepping back into the regions of antiquity and losing myself among the shades of former ages. (pg 169)" Irving takes a tour through the Abbey and sees a mixture of glory and decay among the tombstones, sees statues of Shakespeare and others erected to their memories in Poet's Corner, and the architecture of the old building. He sees the tombs of Queens Elizabeth and Mary, then says, "Two small aisles on each side of this chapel present a touching instance of the equality of the grave, which brings down the oppressor to a level with the oppressed, and mingles the dust of the bitterest enemies together. In one is the sepulcher of the haughty Elizabeth; in the other is that of her victim, the lovely and unfortunate Mary. (175)" Irving soon wonders what will become of the Abbey, if it will eventually fall to pieces, and says at the end, "Thus man passes away: his name perishes from record and recollection; his history is as a tale that is told, and his very monument becomes a ruin. (pg 179)"

In "The Mutability of Literature," Irving tries to show how literature can be expressive. As Irving wanders around Westminster Abbey, he comes upon the library, where there are quite a few old, dusty, and moldy books. Irving writes, "I could not but consider the library a kind of literary catacomb, where authors, like mummies, are piously entombed and left to blacken and molder in dusty oblivion. (pg 128)" He accidentally opens a book and finds the book trying to talk to him in an old form of English. The book complains about languishing in obscurity, since books are supposed to be in circulation and read. It complains about being "clasped up for more than two centuries and might have fallen a prey to these worms that are playing the very vengeance with my intestines. (pg 130)" Irving tries to tell the book about other works written throughout the ages that have been lost, but the books says that these books deserved to be forgotten because they were written before its time, and were in Latin or French. Eventually, they get to talking about Shakespeare, and the book gives its opinion, "I presume he soon sank into oblivion. (135)" Irving tells the book that the written works of Shakespeare are still read over 300 years later and are as strong in the modern world as ever. The book starts laughing, and says, "Mighty well! And so you would persuade me that the literature of an age is to be perpetuated by a vagabond deer stealer! By a man without learning; by a poet, forsooth a poet!" (135)" Irving tells the book that poets have the best bet for immortality and tries to convince the book. Unfortunately, Irving is interrupted by one of the Abbey's staff and finds the book with its clasps closed, and could never figure out later if it was just a daydream.

The story, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," has a bit of the author's point of view getting in the way of the story and is also a story that appeals to the imagination of the reader. In the first couple paragraphs, Irving wanders into the town of Sleepy Hollow, New York, and is told of the story of the Headless Horseman, also known as the Galloping Hessian. Irving interrupts the story when introducing Ichabod Crane, saying, "I would not have it imagined, however, that he was one of those cruel potentates of the school who joy in the smart of their subjects; on the contrary, he administered justice with discrimination rather than severity, taking the burthen off the backs of the weak, and laying it on those of the strong. (pg 333)" As Crane is trying to woo Katrina Van Tassel, Irving again interrupts the flow of the story with his thoughts, "I profess not to know how women's hearts are wooed and won. To me they have always been a matter of riddle and admiration. (pg 342)" A few pages later, as Crane is seeing the Headless Horseman for the first time, the action is again interrupted by the author describing how it was a fine autumn day, with all the birds flying to their respective destinations or just tree to tree and making all the noise birds generally make. The story is interrupted about platters of carious kinds of cakes at the Van Tassel mansion, making a big deal about what there is to eat at the gathering the Van Tassels' are hosting.

Finally, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" also appeals to the imagination of the reader. The story describes in detail what Ichabod Crane physically looks like, pretty much stating that his last name suited his looks. He is also described as a bad singer and someone who knows all the gossip in town. The townsfolk pass the time by telling stories, especially about the Headless Horseman, and how all the shadows and shapes at night were frightening for someone if they were walking alone. Irving describes Baltus Van Tassel's farm and how Crane wanted it all, including the food at the gathering, "The pedagogue's mouth watered as he looked upon this sumptuous promise of luxurious winter fare. (pg 338)" Brom Bones was also described in detail, saying he was strong and hardy, and pretty much the complete opposite of Ichabod Crane, yet they competed for the attention of Katrina Van Tassel. After a dance, the townsfolk told ghost and war stories, describing places where the Headless Horseman was haunting, then it turned into a competition of tales among some of the men. In one instance, Brom Bones and the Horseman came to the church bridge, " the Hessian bolted and vanished in a flash of fire. (pg 351)" This affected Crane's imagination and he started seeing things on his way home from the dance, then he encountered the Headless Horseman, who was, "of large dimensions, and mounted on a black horse or powerful frame. (pg 355)" Crane and the Horseman raced through the woods on horseback, and Crane tried his best to get away. The townsfolk could find no trace of Cranes' body after their search, then they just stopped worrying about him because "he was a bachelor, and in nobody's debt. (pg 358)" The story ends with the housewives convinced that Crane was "spirited away by supernatural means. (358)"

The stories in this essay are meant to convey how Washington Irving used elements of romanticism in The Sketch Book. Irving used man and nature as the chief subject, his interest in the medieval past, the expressive theory of literature, how one story appeals to the imagination of the reader, and how his subjective point of view got in the way of the flow of the story.

Work Cited
Irving, Washington. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and other stories in The Sketch Book. Ed. Perry Miller. New York: Signet Classic, 1961.





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