Welcome to Washington Irving Wednesdays!

BY TRACY HOFFMAN

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

I’m back to blogging on the Washington Irving Society page. As you might have noticed, I was very active in September, writing often, but then” fell off the face of the earth.” Sometimes, that’s how it goes during a semester. We start strong, but then other priorities in academia take over our lives.

Feedback about the blog and other improvements we’ve made to the WIS page has been very positive, so we will keep up the good work. But rather than attempting to post every day, the goal is to blog and update the website on Wednesdays: Washington Irving Wednesdays! If you want to stay updated on what’s happening, then you might consider having a Check the Washington Irving Page Thursday! (since it might be 11:59 p,m. on Wednesday, on occasion, to put things in order).

Here’s what I’m considering for the next handful of blogs. Irving Independent School District in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex has included “The Devil and Tom Walker” in its curriculum. The story has been highly anthologized, so the plan is to think about and blog about this story to develop ideas and resources which might be useful to teachers there and elsewhere.

Though my undergraduate classes have read portions of the story as a teaser into Irving’s writing, I have not spent quality time with “The Devil” in the classroom. I tend to use the Norton Anthology, and it doesn’t include the story.

Unless it were a graduate seminar or a one-author class, I can’t imagine teaching all of the stories from Tales of a Traveller, the collection from which “The Devil and Tom Walker” appears. Providing background information about the collection, however, might be of interest to students.

The book was the third in what I would call Irving’s sketchbook trilogy, with The Sketch Book and Bracerbridge Hall as the first two installments. Both books were well-received, but Tales of a Traveller was not. Critics claimed the book was obscene, and even by twenty-first century standards, portions of the book are disturbing. How much an instructor would want to delve into the obscenities would, of course, depend on age bracket, school culture, your personal comfort level, etc.

Because the book didn’t go well, Irving left England to spend quality time in Spain: a decision which changed the trajectory of his writing. Talk about a really bad situation working into something really, really interesting! The book, therefore, marks a pivotal change in his writing career. Tales of the Alhambra, The Conquest of Granada, and Mahomet and His Successors came from his time in Spain, and we wouldn’t have the wonderful assortment had it not been for “The Devil and Tom Walker” and Tales of a Traveller.

Another “fun fact” about the short story collection has to do with Mary Shelley. Irving remained single his entire life, and Mary Shelley remained single after the death of her husband Percy. While Irving was working on Tales of a Traveller, we know that Mary Shelley had a crush on Washington Irving. They spent time together at the theater, Mary threw tea parties and invited Irving, and we have letters from Mary Shelley and others revealing her feelings for him.

During the time that these two were potentially “an item” Mary Shelley had published Frankenstein, and Washington Irving had published “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “The Specter Bridegroom,” both from The Sketch Book. What a gothic connection! He was already experimenting with creepy topics before he entered Mary Shelley’s world, but I think their “dark encounter,” and other factors, took Irving’s writing to a more disturbing space.

I’ll cut the blogging off for now, but would like to come back next week to continue the conversation about reception history, context, and more–involving “The Devil and Tom Walker.”

Published in: on January 16, 2019 at 6:57 pm  Leave a Comment  

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