Why Washington Irving?

BY TRACY HOFFMAN
Tuesday, August 21, 2018

On our first day back to school, I had a nice conversation with a student who waited to chat with me after class. She’s an English major and struggling with whether she should go British or American.

I tried to calm her fears and let her know that as a sophomore, she didn’t need to worry about such matters.

She asked me why I was an Americanist. She asked why I study what I study. Why do you teach American literature?

What I told her about settling into an English program and American literature, in particular, would take more space than this one blog allows, but I’ll elaborate on what I told her about Washington Irving.

September 11, 2001, happened when I was teaching high school and working on a master’s degree in English. I became fascinated with learning about Islam in early America. I wasn’t getting this information in classes, so I kept digging for it on my own.

When it came time to consider a doctoral program, Baylor’s Religion and Literature program seemed the best choice. My intent was to take courses in Arabic, religion, American literature, and American history. I loved the cross-listed offerings in the graduate catalogue. So off I went to Baylor in 2002.

My grand scheme didn’t unfold as I had anticipated. I eventually dropped the Religion and Literature concentration, and switched over to Early American Literature as my focus, with Nineteenth-Century Literature as my secondary field.

Back in my master’s program, a professor had assigned me Washington Irving’s “Adventure of the German Student,” so I knew this creepy sketch from Tales of A Traveller. I also read The Sketch Book in a graduate course at Baylor. No single author class was offered on Washington Irving, so I coordinated an independent study with my dissertation director. The dissertation, then, naturally flowed from the papers I wrote for independent study.

To bring it back full circle, Washington Irving studied Islam. He wrote a biography about the prophet Mohammad. Though I didn’t learn to read or speak Arabic, going off the charted path to study Irving has allowed me to consider and reconsider early America with a Muslim consideration, as well as other perspectives I hadn’t contemplated back in 2001.

Published in: on August 23, 2018 at 6:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

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