Inventing Tradition: American Folklore

In the early 19th century, American literature still heavily drew from British literary traditions; in fact, there were very few American authors, and the books that most Americans read were European. As a new country, the United States had fewer economic resources for book production, and the Protestant work ethic looked askance at devoting time to reading and writing works of fiction.

Washington Irving was responsible for much of the existing American folklore, in tales like “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Like Sir Walter Scott, Washington Irving wove together a cultural history out a variety of oral traditions, legends, and his own imagination. Here I will examine Irving’s The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon and its relationship to the historical past, and visions and hopes for America’s future based on a poeticized past. Geoffrey Crayon creates an American mythology as he travels through Europe and he begins his narrative with an explanation for doing so far from his homeland:

My native country was full of youthful promise: Europe was rich in the accumulated treasures of age… I longed to wander over the scenes of renowned achievement—to tread, as it were, in the footsteps of antiquity, to loiter about the ruined castle, to meditate on the falling tower, to escape, in short, from the commonplace realities of the present and lose myself among the shadowy grandeurs of the past (Irving 14).

Crayon’s wandering involves a double removal; first, from his native country into a foreign land, and then from the “commonplace realities of the present” to the lyricism and poetry of the past (Irving 14). This removal is essential to contemplation, memory, and reflection, and for Irving, a retreat into the distant past is essential for the creation of cultural history and a self-consciously American identity.

Throughout Irving’s Sketch Book, fact mingles with fiction, the past with the present, and it is the task of the storyteller to weave them together in a tapestry, and subsequently, to “sit thoughtful like an old man, grey-headed, and in a low voice, almost a whisper, explain the pictures” of the tapestry (Kierkegaard, Either/Or 56). Many of Irving’s short stories are variations on German and Dutch fairy tales. These are not authoritative sources with a single, identifiable author. Folklore and oral traditions are communal texts that incorporate a variety of voices. They are eminently adaptable texts that change with each telling. Hundreds of different versions coexist; just as there is no one author, there is no single authentic text. These legends and stories also preserve a connection to a common past; they are usually transmitted from one generation to the next. The characters in The Sketch Book consider these legends and tales worthy of preservation. In “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Diedrich Knickerbocker laments that these stories are so carelessly “trampled under foot by the shifting throng that forms the population of most of our country places” (Irving 350).

America’s short memory is a major preoccupation of The Sketch Book; an entire culture evaporates with each passing generation, and this lack of national memory tends toward homogenization. American culture constantly becomes alien to itself, and when the past appears and enters into discourse with the present, it can only do so as a ghost, haunting the present. Rip Van Winkle is only absent for twenty years, but his significant incongruity with the present culture and his immediate access to the erased past create immediate unrest when he reappears from the mountains. His reentry into a radically changed society is unquestionably uncanny, causing considerable anxiety to both him and others. Crayon, Knickerbocker, and other narrative voices in The Sketch Book are critical of this instant forgetting, and the constant presence of ghosts in their tales suggests the dangers of forgetting too easily and quickly.

That short memory is also an occasion for the author to create a past as a foundation for a better future. Crayon seeks legends and the grandeurs of the past for inspiration, as a means to supplement the paltry existence in the transient, mundane concerns that comprise the present and continuously usurp one another. The present thus becomes a homogenizing force as each moment consumes the one that came before, and all distinctions are lost in thoughtless oblivion. Irving implies that America is need of a poet, a “spirit of remembrance,” for the sake of building community and maintaining the visibility of cultural multiplicity. The forgotten past becomes a part of the living culture again through narrative, and for Irving, an important feature of America’s “remote past” is its diversity and the coexistence of multiple narratives. “Rip Van Winkle,” for instance, resurrects the effaced Dutch-American culture and serves as a reminder that America was not always anglicized. This remembrance of past cultural diversity and counter-histories undermines the authority of the dominant culture, in this case, Anglo-America. A multiplicity of narratives resists the hegemony of any one voice over the others, and instead welcomes the input of other narrators. Irving’s pseudonyms in the Sketch-Book incorporate voices from the forgotten past into the present. Knickerbocker’s papers recount the folklore of Dutch New York in the early colonial period in the United States. Knickerbocker himself also cites other, usually older sources, including Native American legend; the reader is continually further removed from the story through multiple narrators and sources, giving the stories a complex and varied lineage.

The Sketch Book takes the ironist’s stance to refrain from committing oneself seriously to the past or the present. Crayon’s narratives preserve aspects of a variegated past threatened by the homogenizing forces of a contemporary society, which too easily forgets its heritage. The Sketch Book also illustrates the danger of inflexibility in exclusive commitment to the past. For instance, Sleepy Hollow keeps legends alive, unlike the rest of this “restless country,” but it is insular and doomed to extinction as a community that will only exist in narrative, although that narrative itself can foster communal bonds. Ichabod Crane’s approach to narration, however, is consigned to failure because of the rigidity of the texts he quotes. At the gathering at Van Tassel’s house, the other guests tell increasingly inventive and exaggerated ghost stories, but Crane alienates himself by relying on Cotton Mather’s accounts of the Salem witch trials, an authoritarian text that admits no other voices than that of the Author.

An excessive emphasis on history leads to static authoritarianism; instead, Irving promotes a fluid relationship between past and present, emphasizing continuity and play. Part of Katrina Van Tassel’s attractiveness lies in her style, “which was a mixture of ancient and modern fashions, as most suited to set off her charms” (Irving 337). She does not simply dress in antiquated fashion, which would produce an uncanny effect like that of the Dutch settlers Rip Van Winkle encounters on the mountain; instead, she incorporates both, creating something individual and new out of the relationship between the present and the past.

The Sketch Book treats the past as art, rather than history. The older men in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” trade war stories and reminisce about former times, and “just sufficient time had elapsed to enable each storyteller to dress up his tale with a little becoming fiction, and, in the indistinctness of his recollection, to make himself the hero of every exploit” (Irving 349). These engaging storytellers remember poetically, embellishing their experiences, weaving tapestries out of the past. Diedrich Knickerbocker also revises history in “Rip Van Winkle,” recreating the English explorer Henry Hudson as a Dutchman, Hendrick Hudson, in order to emphasize the forgotten Dutch American culture of the colonies against early nineteenth century Anglicization. Knickerbocker is a historian, but “a highly suspect” one with regards to factual accuracy (Ferguson 530). Knickerbocker pays homage to the past, but he alters the details to accommodate his story and provides numerous endings and rewritings of his own texts to incorporate a multiplicity of voices. The postscript of “Rip Van Winkle,” for instance, rewrites the story’s origins into Native American tradition, adding yet another layer to American history, complicating the cultural narrative. Fiction is in discourse with fact, constantly forming new hybrids and incorporating others.

As a traveler, Geoffrey Crayon occupies the most liminal position in the societies he observes. Crayon plays on the English view of “the depravity of nomadic Americans lacking ‘those local attachments and fixed habits which make it in Europe so painful a task to separate from those objects which time and memory have endeared,’” further emphasizing his lack of a stable place in society (McLamore 37). Rather, his position in the social order is incidental and temporary. The role of the writer is flexible, driven toward movement in order to reach out to as many as possible. An implication of this flexibility, however, is a detachment from the community and a resistance to any binding commitments, particularly marriage. Full participation in the work and domestic spheres appears to be incompatible with the poetic life. Marriage, children, and business enforce conformity to the community’s expectations of how an individual should fulfill these social roles, thus limiting freedom and independence. The individual who embraces and lives within the boundaries of social roles and community expectations lacks the necessary detachment for poetic creation.

This is why Irving defended bachelorhood, at a time when the bachelor was a morally suspect figure in American society. I will write another post on Irving, bachelors, and early American ideals of masculinity; this is a complex topic that deserves greater detail. It is closely tied to Irving’s wariness of excessive devotion to the past and authority, given the cultural imperative for marriage and fatherhood at the time. The storyteller’s relationship to the community is a complex, delicate matter that entails constant negotiation, and the story itself, with its multiplicity of voices and viewpoints, is often elusive for Irving. His wanderer Geoffrey Crayon spreads his tales and gathers stories from others as he stops by their doors, making neighbors of them all, building a community as he goes.

Works Cited

Ferguson, Robert A. “Rip Van Winkle and the Generational Divide in American Culture.” Short Story Criticism 40.3 (2005): 529-544

Irving, Washington. The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon.

McLamore,

Kierkegaard, Soren. Either/Or.

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