No Joke: You’re One Class Short of an English Degree

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A view of the Hudson during an October 2019 visit to Sunnyside. Photo by Tracy Hoffman

 

BY TRACY HOFFMAN

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Today, April 1, 2020, I was scheduled to be on a plane for New York. I was to speak at a symposium honoring the 200th anniversary of The Sketch Book.

Instead, I’m “sheltering at home,” keeping office hours. Rather than briefly escaping Texas for an East Coast adventure, I’m posting assignments, grading electronic papers, and messaging with my students. Chances are I’d be grading papers and messaging with students on a plane, too, but I’d be adding some new excitement to my regular routine.

Students keep telling me on their reading responses, “the party’s over.” I feel that way, too. In addition to the New York trip, I was scheduled to visit San Diego and Cabo this spring. All three trips–canceled.

Washington Irving’s birthday is Friday, April 3. My classes had planned to have a giant sheet cake with Irving’s pretty picture on it–an event I always plan with my classes. We can’t do that. We will do something to celebrate, but we won’t have our cake.

4-13-18 by Sarah Ford Pic One

Washington Irving birthday cake for 2018 spring classes  Photo by Tracy Hoffman

Rather than continuing with my pity party, I want to share a nugget with you. And I’m hoping to bring this new idea full circle with my original thoughts.

I’ve been working on a list of reasons why I research Washington Irving, since so many people ask me this question, and I want to share one with you today.

One of the reasons I study Washington Irving is because I was one class shy of an English degree.

After already graduating several years prior, I received a letter from my undergraduate institution informing me that I was one class away from an English degree. That was too tempting of a carrot to ignore, so I spent one summer session taking the one class. A few years later, I completed a master’s in English, and then quickly moved into a Ph.D. program at Baylor, where I earned a Ph.D. in English.

But until I received that letter, I had no intention of pursuing English studies. Washington Irving was not on my radar screen. My focus had always been journalism, but my perspective changed after taking the one remaining English class. The bottom line: I would not be researching Washington Irving today, nor would I be writing this blog, had it not been for that one letter–from out of the blue.

Here’s my spin. I think we humans make the best plans we can, knowing what we know. But sometimes those plans get interrupted. When it’s crucial to our destiny, I think God moves things in a different direction.

You might call such situations luck or serendipity; opportunity meets preparation. Regardless of our various vantage points, we all recognize these life-changing episodes which change the trajectory of our lives. We’re in such a pivotal moment.

I’ve lived long enough, experienced enough life-altering shifts, to know we’ll get on the other side of this. When I think about what previous generations experienced–including Washington Irving who survived pandemic, the loss of a fiancé, and bankruptcy—and how their lives were completely interrupted by events out of their control, it reminds me to settle down, buckle up, and remember that this moment in history will pass. Sunnier days, along dramatically new paths, await us.

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Until next week, stay healthy! And please 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 all Washington Irving Society-related email on Wednesdays, and I also update the WIS page on Washington Irving Wednesdays.

CB picture 2019

Published in: on April 1, 2020 at 10:02 pm  Leave a Comment  

Washington Irving: Mary Shelley’s Last Man?

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BY TRACY HOFFMAN

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Last Washington Irving Wednesday, instead of blogging, I drove from Fort Worth to Waco and back, about 200 miles, to gather my things quickly from the office.

In addition to pandemic, we were also dealing with an impending spring storm last Wednesday in Texas, so I was trying to get back to the Dallas-Fort Worth area before strong winds, hail, and more were scheduled to hit.

I could only grab the essentials at my Baylor office to tote back to Fort Worth, where I have been “sheltering.” I cleared out hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies, bottled water, and coffee stashes. I packed up student papers, notes for two research projects, and books—as many books as I could fit into my suitcases.

Ironically, the first book I thought of was not a textbook, nor was it a Washington Irving read. I did grab those, but I knew I’d remember to take them. Instead, I kept telling myself, “Do not forget Mary Shelley’s Last Man.”

I’m guessing few Washington Irving scholars have read the novel, although I would imagine most, if not all, Mary Shelley scholars know it.

I’ve given talks about this book and its connections to Washington Irving, though I haven’t published an article on it. Maybe I will, now.

The Last Man was the first book that came to mind when I started thinking about literature and pandemic. The story is about the last man to survive on earth, after a plague takes out everyone else.

In discussing Washington Irving’s relationship with Mary Shelley, I’ve argued that she influenced his Tales of a Traveller, and he influenced her Last Man. I’ve also presented the idea that Irving could have easily been the last man Shelley pursued before settling into a single life. Both Irving and Shelley remained single until their deaths, Shelley passing before Irving.

I’m not sure how important it might be to find traces of Irving in Shelley’s book, but for Irving studies, it’s important to know she influenced him–because Tales of a Traveller was a failure!

It was dark, depressing, offensive, the third in his trilogy of sketch books. This one book changed the trajectory of his writing, and if Shelley influenced his writing for ill, then perhaps he blamed her for his floundering career. That could be one reason he rejected her advances.

I’ve scoured The Last Man, looking for traces of Washington Irving, and I plan to pick up the task again, in light of all that’s happening.

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Until next week, stay healthy! And please 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 all Washington Irving Society-related email on Wednesdays, and I also update the WIS page on Washington Irving Wednesdays.

Published in: on March 25, 2020 at 5:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

Self-Quarantined Washington Irving

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BY TRACY HOFFMAN

March 11, 2020

Today, my university announced we would be extending Spring Break an extra week and we would then move to online classes for two weeks as we monitor the situation.

As universities deal with the coronavirus scare and academic conferences are being canceled, including the Washington Irving Seminar this April I had planned to attend, I can’t help but think about Washington Irving’s run-ins with pandemic and quarantine.

First on my mind is Elizabeth Bradley’s 2014 article published in the Smithsonian, “What ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ Tells Us about Contagion, Fear and Epidemics.” Retracing Irving biographer Brian Jay Jones’s findings, Bradley suggests young Irving spent time in Tarrytown to avoid the yellow fever raging in New York City. She says the 1798 escape may have inspired “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

Her article is a must-read. Check it out, if you haven’t already done so:

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/what-legend-sleepy-hollow-tells-us-about-contagion-fear-and-epidemics-180953192/

Secondly, I think about Irving’s ship being quarantined and also being taken over by pirates. Irving managed to survive the ordeals unscathed. According to Dudley Warner, the ship Irving was traveling on to Sicily was overtaken by pirates: “Off the island of Planoca it was overpowered and captured by a little picaroon, with lateen sails and a couple of guns, and a most-villainous crew, in poverty-stricken garments” (33).

In his biography of Washington Irving, Brian Jay Jones also discusses the pirate event and Irving’s quarantine aboard the Matilda.

Thirdly, Irving’s use of the word quarantine is unique. According to wordnik.com, Irving was the first to use the word quarantined: “While quarantine as a noun has been around since the 16th century, Irving seems to be the first to use it as a verb. The original meaning of the noun was ‘a period of 40 days in which a widow has the right to remain in her dead husband’s house,’ and comes from the Latin quadraginta, ‘forty.’ ”

Webster’s online says quarantine was first used as a verb in 1801, but it doesn’t give Irving as an example.

The OED gives Irving the following credit: “1804   W. Irving in Life & Lett. (1864) I. v. 89   Where I should be detained, quarantined, smoked, and vinegared.”

Finally, when I hear about people self-quarantining, it reminds me of how little most people spend time alone; alone as in days of never talking or seeing anyone. Single folks, like Washington Irving, usually have no problem with alone time. And writers crave this kind of time. What some would consider self-quarantine, others call writing retreats. Self-isolating isn’t traumatic or unusual for a small portion of the population, but for folks who have large families and work in group settings, isolating for a few weeks to avoid spreading germs must be an extraordinary experience.

In many ways, Washington Irving chose to self-quarantine himself on occasion: to avoid sickness, to write, to research, to think. He was certainly social and enjoyed family and friends, but he also knew the sacrifice required to be a fruitful writer. And I’m sure I’m stretching the definition of quarantine, but so did Irving.

Until next week, stay healthy! And please feel free to add to the conversation wherever you like: Twitter, Facebook, on this page. Comments are very much welcomed. Also feel free to message me at Tracy_Hoffman@baylor.edu. If you need a reply, please message me at Tracy_Hoffman@baylor.edu. I try to respond to all Washington Irving Society-related email on Wednesdays, and I also update the WIS page on Washington Irving Wednesdays.

Published in: on March 11, 2020 at 9:50 pm  Leave a Comment  

Casper the Friendly Hessian: Contemplating a Name for the Headless Horseman

person wearing jack o lantern face disguise

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BY TRACY HOFFMAN

March 4, 2020

Not too long ago, a few students in one of my classes started brainstorming, googling, and laughing about naming the Headless Horseman. We thought it ironic for him to be nameless and headless, so they took it upon themselves to help the guy out, by at least giving him a name.

First off, these two students wanted a name for the real headless horseman, a Hessian whose head was shot off by a canon during the Revolutionary War and buried, evidently without a name.

Secondly, students realized that the headless horseman in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” would most likely be Brom Bones, maybe even Katrina herself, so a name for the prankster isn’t necessary, only the name of the ghost haunting the Hudson Valley.

Thirdly, my students are humorously entertaining a name for a Washington Irving Society mascot. A headless horseman seems appropriate, but doesn’t Washington Irving High School in Tarrytown, New York, already use the headless horseman as a mascot? And what might his name be?

In fact, does anybody anywhere have a name for the famous headless one?

According to mountvernon.org, “The term ‘Hessians’ refers to the approximately 30,000 German troops hired by the English to help fight during the American Revolution.”

The National Park Service, at www.nps.gov, identifies the names of some Hessians who died in St. Paul’s Church: Heinrich Euler, Conrad Roth, Johann Heinrich Grein, Daniel Schaef, and Ludwig Juppert.

One website claims to be “The largest offering of Hessian Information on the Internet.” AMREV-Hessians on www.freepages.rootsweb.com provides some interesting data.

The site lists numerous names. Some first names listed include:

  • Johann
  • Franz
  • Wilhelm
  • Bartolomew
  • Adolf
  • Georg
  • Nicholas
  • Conrad
  • Peter
  • Casper
  • Barnard
  • Frederick
  • Adam
  • Anton

So far, my students think the Washington Irving Society Hessian should be named “Hoffman,” in honor of me, since it’s German. But I think we can come up with something catchier. Casper caught my eye, since we already associate ghosts with it. How about Casper Hoffman?

Let me know what you think, especially if you have insight into Hessian history. I didn’t dig too deep, but probably should probe some more before officially settling into a name. I see Washington Irving Society swag in the works.

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Until next week, please feel free to add to the conversation wherever you like: Twitter, Facebook, on this page. Comments are very much welcomed. Also feel free to message me at Tracy_Hoffman@baylor.edu. If you need a reply, please message me at Tracy_Hoffman@baylor.edu. I try to respond to all Washington Irving Society-related email on Wednesdays, and I also update the WIS page on Washington Irving Wednesdays.

Published in: on March 4, 2020 at 6:18 pm  Comments (2)  

When Your Washington Irving Panel Ghosts on You, Who Ya Gonna Call?

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BY TRACY HOFFMAN
President of the Washington Irving Society

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

The Washington Irving Society had grand plans for the American Literature Association Conference this May in San Diego. We had two awesome panels planned: “Washington Irving and the Theater,” along with “Washington Irving and Film.” We thought this was a great idea since we would be in California, much closer to Hollywood than our Boston venue for ALA.

Unfortunately, Tim Burton and his besties did not respond to our call for papers. Maybe next time, but not this year.

So who do you call when your planned panel doesn’t work out according to plan?

Well, to be brutally honest, author societies sometimes merge their efforts to present a concerted panel. If I had been a smarter Washington Irving Society president, then I would have taken this path. But by the time I realized our “theatrics” wouldn’t fly, it was too late to involve another group.

So I called on my Baylor colleagues. That’s who! Sic ‘Em, Bears!

I’ve attempted this kind of feat previously, but to no avail. Fortunately, this year, a few Baylor colleagues were already presenting papers on regular panels, and I twisted a few more arms to fill our roundtable. I knew that I could form a roundtable, sponsored by the Washington Irving Society, even if others were presenting on regular panels. So that’s what we did.

I’m excited to say, for the first time ever, I have a group of Baylor colleagues joining me on a Washington Irving Society sponsored roundtable. We’re calling it:

Hauntings in American Literature Roundtable: Celebrating the 200th Anniversary of “America’s First Ghost Story”

One of the main questions I often get from journalists/podcasters is something like: “Is the Headless Horseman America’s first ghost story?” and “Is Washington Irving America’s first ghost story writer?” My gut reaction has always been, “No,” simply because I can think of earlier American texts with ghosts.

But if you consider Washington Irving the Father of American Literature, and if he included ghosts in his writing, then the conclusion makes sense. Is he the Father of the American Ghost Story?

Between now and the end of May, I’ll be digging up research to introduce this most fascinating discussion. Colleagues joining me are experts on the Haunted South, Detective Fiction, and Toni Morrison, so putting our heads together on “hauntings” should be fruitful.

If you happen to dabble in Irving or other ghostly American Literature and would like to join us on the roundtable, to mix up the Baylor vibe, please let me know. I think we can have a few more on a roundtable, but I need to know in the next week. Any changes to panels are due by March 1, since they like to finish a rough draft of the program in March.

Between now and the next Washington Irving Wednesday, be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter. I’ll try not to ghost for more than a week or two before my next blog. Until then….

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I love receiving feedback from readers! Please feel free to drop comments wherever you like: Twitter, Facebook, on this page. If you need a reply, please message me at Tracy_Hoffman@baylor.edu. I try to respond to all Washington Irving Society-related email on Wednesdays, and I also update the WIS page on Washington Irving Wednesdays.

Published in: on February 26, 2020 at 12:32 pm  Comments (1)  

Washington Irving Drama: Twelve Screenplays Needed by Mid-April

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BY TRACY HOFFMAN
President of the Washington Irving Society

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

2020 has taken some dramatic turns for Washington Irving fans and scholars. I’ll try to cover some of those theatrics in upcoming blogs, but for today, I’ll stay on point with the most pressing matter.

The City of Irving’s Heritage Society needs to locate or write twelve plays based on Washington Irving’s writing–before mid-April.

In honor of the 200th anniversary of The Sketch Book, which includes “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” the Parks and Recreations Centers of Irving, Texas, would like students to perform one-act plays in honor of Washington Irving for Summer 2020.

The Irving Heritage Society proposed the idea to Parks and Rec for the annual, one-act play event. According to Mary Higbie with the Heritage Society, “plays are done by six rec centers as a competition for youth.” She said the age range is “6-18 with most of them 8 or 9-14 years of age.”

Scripts must follow these specifications:

  • About 15 minutes in length
  • Touch of humor
  • Flexible/adaptable in amount of cast members
  • No background, except a slide projected as back drop
  • Limited costumes to what students can find at home
  • Limited props to what students can find at home

If you would like to write a play or have access to some Washington Irving plays, please contact Mary Higbie at the Irving Heritage Society: irvingheritagesociety@yahoo.com

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I love receiving feedback from readers! Please feel free to drop comments wherever you like: Twitter, Facebook, on this page. If you need a reply, please message me at Tracy_Hoffman@baylor.edu. I try to respond to all Washington Irving Society-related email on Wednesdays, and I also update the WIS page on Washington Irving Wednesdays.

Published in: on February 19, 2020 at 12:47 am  Comments (1)  

“Sleepy Hollow”: Unearthing the Legend

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A headless horseman roams the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in October 2019. –Photo by Tracy Hoffman

By Caroline Loop

January 29, 2020

Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” now hailed as an early American folklore classic, has an interesting origin story. Drawing influences from Norse mythology, the Dutch tales of his youth, and the writings of fellow writer Francis Scott Key, Irving created a haunting tale which continues to capture the imagination of readers today.

While Irving’s tale is Americans’ most well-known headless horseman story, many other cultures, including Scandinavians and Celtics, have their own versions as well.  In fact, some scholars speculate that headless horseman stories written by the Brothers Grimm, as well as the Irish legend of the Dullahan, may very well have inspired Irving to write his story.

According to legend, the Dullahan is a headless horseman who calls out the name of someone about to die, often someone who he is chasing. He uses a human spine as a horsewhip, and the head he carries has the consistency of molded cheese. The Brothers Grimm wrote two similar headless horseman tales based on this monster, including a tale of an unlucky woman who sees the monster and the tale of a headless horseman whose hunting horn warns hunters of impending doom.

All of these influences considered, the most likely direct inspiration for Irving was probably Sir Walter Scott’s “The Chase.” After meeting Scott in 1817, Irving came to respect him as a lifelong friend and mentor, looking to Scott’s writing for influence. “The Chase” was translated by Scott from “The Wild Huntsman,” a German poem written by Gottfried Burger about an evil hunter who is hunted by the devil forever for his crimes. Elements of this particular German poem, influenced directly by Norse mythology, can be seen in the headless horseman’s chase of the unfortunate Ichabod Crane.

Combined with Scott’s influence and his own historical knowledge, Irving’s exposure to Dutch folklore adds an authentic, distinctly American element to a rewriting of a myth present in many Northern European cultures. In 1798, Irving moved to a rural area to escape a yellow fever outbreak in New York City. While in rural New York, Irving listened to Dutch American ghost stories and gained a regional knowledge of places like the Old Dutch Church and Major Andre’s Tree. Irving also visited a graveyard, where he saw actual Dutch family names such as van Tassel, names which he would eventually use in his stories.

In addition to Dutch influence, Irving further drew from specific historical happenings  which took place in the New York region. In particular, his headless horseman is actually based off of a Hessian soldier who lost his head to a cannonball in the Battle of the White Plains in October of 1776. It is this historical connection, meshed neatly with mythology, folklore, and other literary connections, which makes Irving’s story such a classic. Like the early United States, Irving’s tale reflected Americans’ need to forge a unique identity as an independent nation. According to historian Bradley, Irving’s story “cleverly weaves together factual locations.and a little bit of Revolutionary War history with pure imagination and fantasy…It’s a melting pot of a story, and thus totally American.”


Caroline Loop is a special guest blogger this week. In Fall 2019, Caroline wrote this blog specifically for the Washington Irving Society page. She submitted the blog as an optional assignment for Dr. Tracy Hoffman’s 3380 American Literature class at Baylor University. This was not a formal paper assignment, but a casual blog response to the reading. Please feel free to leave comments about Caroline’s response here on the website.

Published in: on January 29, 2020 at 4:40 pm  Comments (1)  

I Want to Read More Washington Irving – But How and Which?

Pic One by Steve Sears

 –Photo by Steve Sears

 

By Steve Sears

Okay, so I have this great dilemma.

Stay with me. If you are a Washington Irving literature lover, this will be good.

You see, I have always pondered ways to create for myself a “Washington Irving Reading Plan”. Bear in mind that I have read many of his works: Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., Tales of the Alhambra, Astoria and The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, Wolfert’s Roost, and parts of The Crayon Miscellany,. My reading list would include revisiting these, as well as for the first time venturing into Mahomet and His Successors, and the “Columbus” duo of offerings, in addition to Pierre Munro Irving’s classic 3 or 4-volume (depending on which you can locate) biography of his famous uncle, and Irving’s career (and perhaps life ending; he exhausted himself while writing it) Life of George Washington.

There is both a challenge and joy in reading Irving, depending on which side of the fence you live on. He, via his own career choice, was never pigeonholed into one type of writing, which can dampen the spirits of those who would prefer his fiction, recognizing that after 1824’s Tales of a Traveler, works of fiction by him are almost obsolete. Also, if you like biographies, you’ll have your pick of, yes, George Washington and Christopher Columbus, but also those of poet Margaret Miller Davidson and Oliver Goldsmith. So, the variety can keep things interesting, but also could curtail reading pleasure when you realize the great author’s work in certain areas is limited.

So, back to my “Washington Irving Reading Plan”. How to do this when in the throes of a full-time writing career, or when also desiring to read the works of other authors or topics as well? The latter more than the former is what is dogging me.

Since the beginning of my love of Irving’s writings – soon to be 29 years — it was not so much the topic he wrote about, but his gorgeous word usage. But that usage makes the subject start to rise slowly to the surface, making it important in life. Somewhere out there, if there’s a piece of Irving’s that just speaks to a barren field in whatever many pages, no doubt, for me, he has made it both an exciting and interesting read.

And barren fields are something I drive by almost daily with not a glance.

Where am I going with this? I guess it apropos to say that I need more than want to read Irving. He is a contrast with the other authors I favor, and although maybe saturation of the lauded man’s writings might seem best here, I’m thinking that, perhaps, pairing Abbotsford or Newstead Abbey with a work of fiction and essays or even poetry courtesy of another writer will suffice.

The Washington Irving Society would like to thank Steve Sears for writing this week’s blog. Feel free to comment here to communicate with Steve. You can also contact him at:

www.stevesearswriter.weebly.com.

Published in: on January 22, 2020 at 1:52 pm  Comments (1)  

A Sprinkle of Washington Irving

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BY TRACY HOFFMAN
President of the Washington Irving Society

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

During Thanksgiving week, my students will be reading Irving’s Christmas stories from The Sketch Book: “The Stagecoach,” “Christmas Eve,” “Christmas Day,” and “The Christmas Dinner.”

Because I teach until 4:45 on Tuesday, November 26, and the Thanksgiving holiday starts at 5, I’m giving students a writing assignment to be submitted electronically. If students need help, then I’m available to meet with them in my office. If not, they’re free to travel and post from elsewhere.

I imagine students reading about Bracebridge Hall and writing about it, from all over the country; a sprinkle of Washington Irving, here and there, all across the United States.

On their short drives up to Dallas or down to Austin, they could be thinking of Geoffrey Crayon on the stagecoach: “They were returning home for the holidays in high glee, and promising themselves a world of enjoyment. It was delightful to hear the gigantic plans of the little rogues, and the impracticable feats they were to perform during their six weeks’ emancipation from the abhorred thraldom of book, birch, and pedagogue” (191).

One student will be flying into O’Hare, perhaps with wassail on her mind: “The old gentleman’s whole countenance beamed with a serene look of indwelling delight as he stirred this mighty bowl. Having raised it to his lips with a hearty wish of a merry Christmas to all present, he sent it brimming around the board, for everyone to follow his example, according to the primitive style…” (229).

My California students could be landing at LAX with thoughts of peacock pie: “I could not, however, but notice a pie, magnificently decorated with peacock’s feathers, an imitation of the tail of that bird, which overshadowed a considerable tract of the table. This, the squire confessed, with some little hesitation, was a pheasant pie, though a peacock pie was certainly the most authentical…” (227).

I look forward to reading their online papers. Perhaps I’ll pass along their insight when I post next Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving.

I suggested in my last blog that I might leave a voice recording soon, since students are working on podcast packages for a presentation assignment. Between now and Thanksgiving, I’ll be in an audio studio editing their submissions, and I’ll try to record something for the blog.

Until next Wednesday…

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I love receiving feedback from readers! Please feel free to drop comments wherever you like: Twitter, Facebook, on this page. If you need a reply, please message me at Tracy_Hoffman@baylor.edu. I try to respond to all Washington Irving Society-related email on Wednesdays, and I also update the WIS page on Washington Irving Wednesdays.

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Works Cited

Irving, Washington. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories from The Sketch Book. Signet, 2006.

Published in: on November 20, 2019 at 12:11 am  Comments (1)  

A Few Great, Not-So-Great Men: Washington Irving’s Biography Choices

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BY TRACY HOFFMAN
President of the Washington Irving Society

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

This past week, I graded an extraordinary paper about the short story form Irving selected for his “Philip of Pokanoket,” which appears in The Sketch Book (1819-1820). Since then, I’ve been thinking about the men Irving chose to sketch loosely and those he opted to flesh out fully in thick volumes.

Irving wrote about Native-Americans in the sketch of Metacomet (King Philip), and he also wrote lengthier books that included Native-Americans, such as A Tour on the Prairies (1835), but he never devoted a single book-length project to one noteable Native-American.

Biographies written by Irving include:

  1. A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828)
  2. Adventures of Captain Bonneville (1837)
  3. The Life of Oliver Goldsmith (1840)
  4. Mahomet and His Successors (1849)
  5. The Life of George Washington (1855-1859)

What do these choices say about Irving?

In many instances, I’ve given Washington Irving credit for considering the plight of natives. In fact, I’ve even argued that his strong stance on the freedom of natives could easily be transferred to slaves, since he doesn’t openly concern himself with the plight of African-Americans in his lengthy nineteenth-century writing career. His clear choice, however, to never publish a book on a single native is troubling.

Rather than simply stewing over Irving’s choices, I want to think through what may have affected his writing decisions. Scholars don’t always agree with the writers they study, and I can’t be expected to always side with Irving’s stance. Most nineteenth-century writers make our skin crawl at times.

Making writing choices can be tough. For those of us who currently write, present, publish, podcast, give talks, and such, coming to a subject can take seemingly unplanned turns and twists. For instance, this blog originally started out as a commentary on Major Andre’s tree, and it drifted into biographies. Should I blame God? My Muse? Irving’s ghost? I can’t fully explain how I choose what to write, but what’s deep in my heart eventually comes out in my writing.

The same had to be true for Irving. It wasn’t in his heart to write a book about Metacomet or any other native. Oh, if he had only taken up Pocahontas!

Early in his career, Irving wrote a “sketch” book, where he readily confesses to doing people and places injustice due to his lack of detail. He sketches scenes like an artist would doodle on a sketch pad, so his intent of skimming the surface remains clear.

After Irving’s three collections of sketch books, after moving over to Spain, he devotes himself to an intense study of Christopher Columbus and publishes a hefty study of his life. Spain was in his heart, and that came out in books about the Alhambra, the Conquest of Granada, Christopher Columbus, and much later, Mahomet.

I’ve already written about and given talks about the irony of George Washington and the prophet Muhammad coming together at the end of Irving’s writing career. In some ways, the selections make sense. Irving saw a connection between the decline of Islam in Europe and the rise of America. Because Ferdinand and Isabella pushed the Moors out of Spain, they could then send Columbus off to explore.

However, Irving was on a trajectory to write more stories about the West, after his trilogy of A Tour on the Prairies, Astoria (1836), and Captain Bonneville (1837). The West was in his mind’s eye, and Bonneville and Astor stole his allegiance. Of course, we know the love of John Jacob Astor’s money may have been in his heart at that point.

Other events may have cut off his western writing. Irving wanted to write about Mexico, but William Prescott beat him to it, with the History of the Conquest of Mexico in 1843. Maybe Irving’s heart moved eastward, back home to Sunnyside and even back over to Europe, after missing such an opportunity.

Living in Spain inspired The Alhambra, The Conquest of Granada, and Columbus, and it looks like his ambassadorship to Spain from 1842-1846 affected his writing choices once again. After serving as ambassador, he never writes another book-length project set in the West.

That’s about all the time I have for this subject today, but I’ll no doubt revisit Irving’s biography choices when flipping through his journals in the future. This week, my Early American Lit students are recording podcasts for a presentation grade, so I may decide to record my next blog for an audio post, too. Here’s hoping a great topic, which lends itself to audio, will hit my heart in the next week.

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Published in: on November 13, 2019 at 1:27 pm  Comments (1)  
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