Washington Irving at the Center of 2020: What’s Wrong with this Picture?


By Christian Schussele (16 April 1824 – 1879) – Flickr, Photographer: cliff1066, 26 August 2008, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7361478

President of the Washington Irving Society

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

For the past two semesters in my American Literary Cultures classes, I’ve launched the first week of lectures with this famous painting of Irving and other outstanding writers of his day.

In honor of the 200th anniversary of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” I began my course with these two short stories. After Irving, we moved back into the 1600s with writers such as Mary Rowlandson, and we finished with contemporaries like Sandra Cisneros and Toni Morrison.

Over the past several weeks, as I’ve been trying to think of something useful to say on this Washington Irving Society platform, the Sunnyside painting keeps coming to mind. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and I’ve found this to be true for the Sunnyside painting. What might normally take me fifteen or twenty minutes to set up in a lecture can be said by flashing this one painting, telling students it represents American writers, and asking them: “What’s wrong with this picture?”

They quickly tell me these writers are all white men, and it shakes some of them, I think for the first time, into the reality of the white narrative we’ve all been given. What comes next in the class discussion is the kind of discussion, it seems to me, we need to have in larger contexts. What would a better representation of American writers be, and what would we like it to be? What does America currently look like, and what’s our grand vision for the future?

If I were a skillful painter and if I were an expert on contemporary American literature, my first instinct would be to repaint an updated version of the Sunnyside painting, detailing a female of color at the center, surrounded by a diverse group of American writers currently in vogue. As the recent phenomenon of recreating old family photos has taken hold of us during this pandemic, I have a vision of this painting being recreated with a better representation of America’s current writers.

But after thinking things over, as an expert on Early American Literature and Washington Irving, I’m pretty sure my first instinct is off-base.

Should we instead keep some of these old writers like Irving in our “new painting” and add more diverse writers to the template? On the other hand, instead of reimagining this painting or adding to it, should we delete such scenes from our memory and start afresh?

America has some things to figure out: as we work through the hurtful past and repair current injustices, we also need to think about the future. As I’ve often said, I’m stuck in the past when it comes to scholarship, so brainstorming about the future of American literature and America is tough for me.

I have taken several weeks off from blogging and Washington Irving Wednesdays for a number of reasons: eye strain after an online semester, computer monitor flashing like a disco light, and two lengthy episodes of no Internet service. I was making plans to return in June after a late-May getaway for my birthday. But after May 25, my Irving blogs seemed unimportant. After George Floyd’s tragic death, I decided it would be better for me to listen for awhile, rather than jump into a conversation about Washington Irving. I also recognize that my fatigued mindset pales in comparison to the hurt many Americans are experiencing today. 

At our last Washington Irving Society panels in 2019 at the American Literature Association conference in Boston, we heard from scholars who brought compelling and thoughtful commentary about race in Irving’s writing. If you are such a scholar, and would like to use this space to discuss your research, please let me know. We would be happy to open up this forum to more guest bloggers. 

After checking on our Twitter feed, I noted several tweets about Washington Irving’s treatment of Columbus. Every year on Columbus Day, I have opportunity to address the misinformation spread about Irving, and I attempted to address comments made recently.

All of my exchanges were productive. Along with pointing out errors, I also thanked people for their consideration of research in light of current debates and let them know we weren’t trying to defend Columbus, but only directing people to Irving’s texts for further insight. If such discussions continue, we might want to address that topic, too, in some blogs. If you’ve been researching Irving and Columbus and would like to share in a blog or post, please let me know and feel free to add to the conversation on social media.

Until another Washington Irving Wednesday, please take care of yourselves and stay healthy.

According to Wikipedia, here’s the key to the painting of “Washington Irving and his friends at Sunnyside,” from left to right. I bulleted them for your easy perusal. Wikipedia gave them in paragraph form:

  • Henry T. Tuckerman (1813-1871)
  • Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894)
  • William Gilmore Simms (1806-1870)
  • Fitz-Greene Halleck (1790-1867)
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)
  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)
  • Nathaniel Parker Willis (1806-1867)
  • William H. Prescott (1796-1859)
  • Washington Irving
  • James Kirke Paulding (1778-1860)
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
  • William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878)
  • John Pendleton Kennedy (1795-1870)
  • James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851)
  • George Bancroft (1800-1891)

– – – – –

Feel free to add to the conversation wherever you like: Twitter, Facebook, on this page. Comments are very much welcomed. If you need a reply, please message me at Tracy_Hoffman@baylor.edu. I try to respond to Washington Irving Society-related email on Wednesdays, and I also update the WIS page on Washington Irving Wednesdays. If things get hectic, my email responses might be a few weeks in the future, but I will eventually get around to reading and responding.

Published in: on June 25, 2020 at 12:47 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. One thing I notice recently reading “The Alhambra” (sorry don’t know how to italicize on a phone), Irving has an extraordinary sympathy for The Spanish-Moorish culture in Granada. I suppose that is partly due to the Romantic tendency to pine over a lost cause, but it seems more than that. Irving was a genuinely cosmopolitan person. Sometimes people criticize him for a so-called 18-century style. But the Enlightenment taught westerners to see the common humanity of all people regardless or religion or ethnicity. His favorite writer Goldsmith aspired to be a “citizen of the world.” This Enlightenment legacy is not such a bad thing, and my impression is that Irving felt a kinship and sympathy with a wide range of people, from Native Americans to French traders, to mixed race peoples, to African-Americans like Sam the expert River-man in “The Money-Diggers.” He did not want to live in a strictly Anglo-Saxon world, as suggested in that painting.


  2. I don’t see what is “wrong” with the painting. It reflects a perfectly accurate picture of that time in America, when the majority of writers were white men.


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