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.

In Memory of Jack Larkin

I learned some sad news today when I logged onto Facebook and saw an update from the American Antiquarian Society; early American scholar and retired chief historian of Old Sturbridge VillageJack Larkin passed away earlier this spring. I was a student of his in the fall 2008 American Studies Seminar at AAS. I owe my first introduction to archival research to Jack Larkin and his seminar on personal narratives in the pre-Civil War Northern US. Under his guidance, I developed a research paper on 19th century theater, which would eventually become the foundation of my Master’s thesis. Larkin’s expansive knowledge of early American history was truly remarkable and his enthusiasm for the subject was contagious. He was approachable and personable, and incredibly insightful as a professor. He took us seriously, even though we were undergrads and many had never done this type of research before, and pushed us to develop our ideas further. I didn’t know it at the time, but my experience in the American Studies Seminar had a profound impact on my studies and developing my research interests.

Publick Occurences has a wonderful tribute to Larkin’s long and distinguished career. I send my condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues.

Hysteria

The American Psychiatry Association recently released the DSM-5, and the latest incarnation has come under a great deal of criticism since the early stages of development. The DSM-5’s new diagnosis criteria, definitions, and disorders have raised concerns about over-diagnosing and over-medicating what used to be considered normal. I thought this would be a good time to examine the history of mental illness, particularly the hysteria “epidemic” of 19th century Europe and America. In many ways, the history of psychiatry can be traced through the history of hysteria; interpretations of the hysteric evolved as conceptions of the causes of mental disorders changed. As the name suggests, the earliest conceptions of hysteria centered on the uterus as the cause of the overwrought emotions and nervous delusions that defined the disease.

By the mid-19th century, however, psychiatry experienced a shift due to developments in medical technology and changing conceptions of consciousness. Rather than hysteria being a purely physical disorder, focus shifted to the “nerves” as psychiatry centered in the brain as the cause of mental disorders. Treatment for mental illness shifted away from the family and toward institutionalization at this time as well; prior to the late 18th century, mental illness was dealt with primarily within the family unit, but in the search for the origins of madness, the asylum system insisted on the patient’s separation from the family for treatment.

Women were more susceptible to being institutionalized in the 19th century; their economic dependence on men made them easy targets for institutionalization if they were unmarried or failed to perform their duties as wives, daughters, sisters, etc. These women were often classified as hysterical.

Michel Foucault interpreted the hysteric as a rebel against psychiatric (and therefore patriarchal) power. Foucault notes that hysteria and other nervous syndromes, or neuroses, could be simulated quite easily. Foucault calls hysteria “epistemologically bad” and “morally bad due to the ease with which [neurotic disorders] could be simulated and the fact that, in addition to this possibility, there was a constant sexual component of behavior” (Foucault, p. 307). The hysteric’s speech is vulgar, obscene, embarrassing, and her actions are deliberately scandalous. Throughout the 19th century, the cure for mental illness required an autobiography, a recounting of the patient’s history in order to reveal the origins of the illness. This autobiography had to be a complete confession of all of the mad and unacceptable thoughts the individual has had over the course of a lifetime. It had to be cohesive and orderly.

Resistance to the demand for confession requires “undoing the synthetic work of rhetoric and its tropes” (Tell, p. 114). One must subvert the dominant discourse, perhaps with a mad or hysterical discourse that refuses synthesis and stable identities. Feminist critic Luce Irigaray insists on the hysteric’s revolutionary potential: “Even in her paralysis, the hysteric exhibits a potential for gestures and desires… A movement of revolt and refusal, a desire for/of the living mother who would be more than a reproductive body in the pay of the polis, a living, loving woman” (Irigaray, p. 47-48). Hysteria does not speak in language, but in gestures and symptoms; it dramatizes woman’s relation to the mother, the self, and other women, and the desires that patriarchal systems force into silence, paralysis, and enclosure within the body.

The hysteric is a performer, an actress, and, perhaps, an artist of resistance. She is not, however, an author. Resistant discourse cannot adhere to the accepted forms, and especially not to psychiatric power’s demand for a cohesive autobiography, an author of madness. Obliterating the narrative voice, the “I” capable of relating an autobiography, renders confession impossible, and is therefore potentially liberating. Psychiatric power exerts its force by pinning individuals to identities through confession. Confession locates the origins and allows the disciplines, including the psychiatric system, to identify abnormal, mad, and delinquent individuals more efficiently, before the abnormal conditions even manifest.

The case of Catherine X, however, is a fascinating study of mental illness, gender, and the power structures that define madness and sanity, and the problems I have with Foucault’s interpretation of hysteria as meaningful resistance.

Catherine X was an inmate of Salpêtrière and patient of Leuret, “a woman whom he said he would never be able to cure… [because of] her inability to own to this biographical schema that carries her identity” (Foucault, p. 160). In interviews with the hospital staff, Catherine X did not use the pronoun “I,” but “the person of myself” instead. She lost touch with outer reality, claiming that invisible people conduct “physical and metaphysical experiments” on her, but more significantly, she had no sense of inner reality. Her identity completely dissolved and she became alienated from herself, thus making her incurable and any escape from the asylum impossible. A similar exile occurs for the disciplined subject in Foucault as it does for women’s lack of place in the symbolic order. The woman, the subaltern, and the madman are all exiled in language and exist on the outside of the symbolic order. In his notes, Leuret implies that the individual who does not take up the “I” is incurably mad and, resultantly, imprisoned in the asylum system. Within psychiatric power, the autobiography is a coercive tool of domination; the patient must accept the mad identity and confess his or her madness in the terms established by psychiatric discourse. An individual like Catherine X, however, did not admit to anything; she refused to fix her identity and thus did not participate in the power game of interview and confession. Catherine X is the absolute limit of psychiatric power and an assertion of the omnipotence of madness because she refuses to provide a self for the psychiatrist to examine.

Is this resistance? Or is Catherine X an example of the most oppressed, the most radical outsider and subaltern whose voice has been stripped away by the asylum?

I do see how the hysteric’s morphing symptoms out-maneuver the doctor’s treatments and possibly open new creative and linguistic avenues for self-expression, but it is problematic to view pathologization as true resistance. The hysteric in the asylum does not have true autonomy; she has to resort to self-obliteration to escape the analysis and control over her body and mind. Valorizing madness as a form of resistance has problematic implications of romanticizing it and inscribing it within a restrictive narrative of politics. Madness may only be a symbolic form of resistance and, according to Gilbert and Gubar, madness as a metaphor must be distinguished from clinical mental illness. Yet the use of these metaphors is still problematic; the metaphorical madness threatens to replace the lived experience of madness in the same way the confession in psychiatric power. Aestheticizing experience through representation is inevitably reductive; madness cannot be contained in a metaphor any more than it can be adequately explained by the metonymical replacement of symptoms. Treating madness or illness as a metaphor effaces the reality of madness itself. The experience of madness is often one of degradation and exploitation. Foucault describes the use of the hysteric as a “kind of functional mannequin” in the asylum (Foucault, p. 315). A mannequin is not even a human being; it is a prop, a speechless and powerless doll. This is not an adequate model for any real resistance to the psychiatric power structure.

The DSM is suppoesd to be free of all of these past issues of pathologizing otherness; homosexuality used to be considered a psychological disorder, after all, and the DSM removed that in an attempt to eliminate the cultural biases and arrive at a scientific understanding of psychological disorders. I am not well-versed in the DSM or psychopathology, so I will not offer any direct criticism of the latest edition. However, it is important to note that definitions of mental illness are always inscribed in a complex cultural context, so cultural biases and power dynamics are inevitable. Although we may believe we have escaped one power structure, as the hysteric who out-maneuvers and escapes the system of the asylum, we may find ourselves immediately incorporated into yet another power structure; for the hysteric, it is the concept of sexuality, and some critics of the DSM suggest that for contemporary patients, the pharmaceutical industry has replaced the asylum as the means of exerting control over the individual.

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. Psychiatric Power: Lectures at the College de France 1973-1974. Ed. Jacques Lagrange, tr. Graham Burchell. New York: Picador, 2006.

Irigaray, Luce. “The Bodily Encounter with the Mother.” Tr. David Macey.  The Luce Irigaray Reader. Ed. Margaret Whitford. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1991.

Tell, Dave. “Rhetoric and Power: An Inquiry into Foucault’s Critique of Confession.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 43.2 (2010): 95-117.

Domestic Dramas

Theater became a popular and socially acceptable middle class pastime around the 1840s, but before then, playhouses had quite the reputation. It was often portrayed as a symbol of the temptations and dangers of urban life as American cities grew in population and young people moved away from small, family-based rural communities in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Theater has historically been associated with the bodily passions; early 19th century sermons warned against the intoxicating effects of viewing the passions played out on stage. The most condemning argument against theater-going as a respectable pastime were the prostitutes known to work the third tiers (the cheap seats). Theaters’ location in urban centers, the melodramatic and often suggestive content of the plays, the presence of prostitutes, and the cultural imperative for feminine domesticity and privacy influenced perceptions of the theater as improper and morally questionable.

Performances were very common forms of domestic entertainment, however, particularly music and dance; fiddles, whistles and other musical instruments were available for even poor families, and the piano grew in popularity among wealthier families. Dramatic readings and play-acting were also popular parlor games and evening pastimes. For instance, Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women includes several references to domestic dramas; the four March sisters act out the Pilgrim’s Progress, and Marmee uses their play-acting as an educational opportunity. Alcott was an amateur actress, and though she had a very unconventional childhood influenced by her father’s Transcendentalist philosophy, the use of dramatic sketches in education was well-established. The Revolutionary-era author, actress, and educator Susanna Rowson composed textbooks for her Academy for Young Ladies in Boston. Her 1811 textbook, A Present for Young Ladies, included several short dramatic sketches for her young female students to perform for their classes and at semi-public assemblies. Rowson’s school book dramas were always overtly didactic; they presented the students with an ethical dilemma that the characters solved through the virtues she intended to instill in her students: compromise, wisdom, generosity, moderation.

These school assembly performances also prepared Rowson’s students for the type of speech they would likely encounter in social gatherings at the time. Early American culture was quite theatrical, even if it condemned the theater as an institution; the preachers of the Great Awakening were overtly dramatic, students of both sexes were taught rhetoric and oratory in the decades immediately following the Revolution, and exhibitions of oratory and debates were often part of social gatherings. So it is unsurpising that domestic dramas and plays, put on in family parlors, were a popular form of entertainment in early American social life. Situating theater firmly within the domestic sphere bypassed many of the objections to the stage, especially the growing objections to female public speech. Rhetoric and argumentation were highly valued aspects of post-Revolutionary society, especially in the upper and middle classes, and a proper young lady would be expected to exhibit good diction, witty replies, and above all, excellent reasoning. This mode of socialization fell away as the 19th century progressed, however, and notions of femininity shifted to value silence, tranquility, and angelic “niceness,” which would forbid any argumentation.

For further reading on early American theatricality, see:

Carolyn Eastman, “The Female Cicero: Young Women’s Oratory and Gendered Public Participation in the Early American Republic.” Gender & History 19.2 (2007)

Jeffrey H. Richards, “Susanna and the Stage: or, Rowson Family Theater.” Studies in American Fiction 38.1 & 2 (Spring and Fall 2011)