4 Reasons to Stop Blaming Washington Irving for Christopher Columbus

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BY TRACY HOFFMAN
President of the Washington Irving Society

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

This blog is my response to Twitter posts referencing Washington Irving that I sifted through on Columbus Day.

On Monday, I kept thinking we Washington Irving scholars need to put together a book addressing recent comments and questions about Irving and Columbus, but before we can finish a book, I need a link to something somewhat substantial to send along to those who consistently share misinformation and shallow interpretations.

My cause today is not Christopher Columbus. I’m not trying to argue for or against his legacy. Greater experts on Christopher Columbus than I should guide that discussion. My purpose is to defend Washington Irving. Because I know Irving’s writing and biography, my blood boils when I read nonsense about him.

To sum it up, I’ve got four nuggets, which should send smart tweeters back to the library. So here it goes. I will be passing along this information to social media “influencers” in the future, until we have a more in-depth response in book form.

#1 Christopher Columbus was a thing before Washington Irving wrote about him.

I wish Washington Irving were as influential as some people make him out to be, not for the sake of Columbus, but for the new heights the Washington Irving Society could soar if our man of letters were such a big deal.

Too many folks post that America cared nothing about Christopher Columbus until Irving wrote about him. This simply is not true. False. Incorrect. If you’re posting this sort of thing, please stop, and go back to check some reliable sources.

I often tell people to read some literature before Washington Irving. Writers referred to America as Columbia: Phillis Wheatley and Royall Tyler are two writers from the 1700s who quickly come to mind.

Irving’s Sketch Book helped mend fences between England and America after the Revolution, but it wasn’t the only thing. Irving’s Alhambra increased interest in visiting Spain, but it wasn’t the only thing. Irving did not create a Christopher Columbus presence in America. He certainly contributed to America’s reading of Columbus, but he did not introduce Columbus to nineteenth-century Americans.

#2 Few people have read the original Christopher Columbus papers in Spanish. Irving did.

Instead of focusing on one tiny segment of his Columbus biography, where he mentions the world being flat, please consider the rest of Irving’s writing for context. Irving was fluent in Spanish, and he spent quality time digging through the archives while living in Spain. He did some heavy translation work to present information on Columbus to the English-speaking public, and he’s slammed for one comment.

Experts in the publishing business will tell you they’ve never printed a perfect book, writers will tell you they’ve never written a perfect book, and not a single one of Irving’s books is perfect.

Because no perfect text exists, we must have skills to sift through flawed texts to get as close to the truth as we can. That’s what I teach my students, and that’s a lesson many tweeters need, too. We have so many gaps in our early American literature and history, so we must trudge through bias to get at the truth best we can. Irving gives us insight into Columbus we wouldn’t have otherwise.

#3 Irving wrote satire.

Most educated people have only read “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” but a complete collection of his writing looks like an Encyclopedia Britannica set from my childhood. Those two stories represent a few thin pages of the thousands of pages he published.

Scholars who know Irving chuckle at his comments about the earth being flat in Columbus, because we know his History of New York, a spoof on the founding of New York, and we know the pen names he hid behind in his other “histories,” which he admitted to doctoring. When you present a complaint about one of his books not being 100% factual, you’re putting ignorance on display. Please read more from him.

#4 Irving needs to be rediscovered.

To argue for Irving’s relevance, I want to place his work in the context of The 1619 Project.

Rather than trying to sum up the Pulitzer-Prize winning study, created by Nikole Hannah-Jones, I will quote from the source: “The 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine that began in August 2019, the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative” (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-slavery.html)

After President Trump’s recent suggestion of eliminating Critical Race Theory from our classrooms, and launching a 1776 Commission to replace 1619 Project perspectives, I have been brewing over this matter. My thoughts about the project merged with my frustrations about Columbus.

My conclusion about both: The 1619 Project and Irving’s writing suggest other frameworks for seeing America’s past.

Irving’s prolific body of work presents frameworks, which were not mainstream in his day and are still controversial. His writing reimagines ways of viewing America’s history and literature.

Irving’s writing makes the case for a much stronger connection between America and Spain in contrast to the traditional road we’ve paved back to the Puritans. By writing of Christopher Columbus as an American hero, he attempts to place him at the center of American values. Americans may not want a greater attachment to Spain, but Irving still makes the case.

Irving also considers the Dutch perspective in A History of New York, “Rip Van Winkle,” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Again, Americans may not want a greater attachment to the Dutch either, but Irving still makes the case.

Like The 1619 Project, Irving’s shaping attempts to adjust our thinking of the Pilgrim narrative.

In fact, Irving begins Book I of A History of New York with the following introductory note: “Being, like all introductions to American histories, very learned, sagacious, and nothing at all to the purpose; containing divers profound theories and philosophic speculations, which the idle reader may totally overlook, and begin at the next book” (Library of America 383).

Irving’s satire on Dutch settlement gave him room to explore all kinds of theoretical possibilities for reshaping the way we look at America’s literature and history, and we should give ourselves room to reconsider him as well.

And that wraps up my four nuggets. Until my next post, please stay healthy, and vote.

– – – – –

Feel free to add to the conversation wherever you like: Twitter, Facebook, on this page. Comments are very much welcomed. If you need a thoughtful 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 and other jobs and responsibilities take precedence over author society business, my email responses might get backlogged, and therefore be delayed by weeks or months. However, I will eventually get around to reading and responding to all messages, most likely on Wednesdays.

Published in: on October 14, 2020 at 7:08 pm  Leave a Comment  

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