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.

Notes on a Centuries-Old Scandal

English writer, philosopher and feminist pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft was born on April 27, 1759. Her most famous work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, was published in 1797 but it remained highly influential and controversial throughout the 19th century. Her contemporaries largely respected her. Wollstonecraft’s influence on British-American author and educator Susanna Rowson’s approach to girl’s schooling is obvious, although Rowson embraced sentimentality and used it as an educational tool, rather than rejecting it outright as Wollstonecraft does in Rights of Woman.

Wollstonecraft’s reputation took a turn for the worse in 1798, however. Her unconventional personal life was revealed shortly after her death, oddly through her widower William Godwin’s biography of her, 1799’s Memoirs of the Author of Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Godwin did not intend to destroy his late wife’s reputation; he looked to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions as a model, and wrote in a very frank manner about Mary Wollstonecraft’s personal life. This caused a backlash of vituperative criticism and moral outrage against Wollstonecraft. The revelation of her mental health struggles, her suicide attempts, her affiars with Henry Fuseli and Gilbert Imlay, the adulterous nature of the former and especially having a child out of wedlock with the latter, ruined her reputation for the next 100 years.

The effects of the Memoirs were far-reaching and devastating, even beyond Wollstonecraft’s posthumous reputation. Her sisters, who ran a school in Ireland, lost many of their students after the publication of the Memoirs. Her personal scandals were used as arguments against the “Woman Question” of the 19th century; she was seen as depraved, unnatural and unfeminine, despite Godwin’s attempts to appeal to middle-class morality by claiming that she “worshipped” domesticity. Throughout the 19th century, Mary Wollstonecraft was publically considered more of a cautionary tale and an outrageous figure of scandal, rather than a feminist icon. 

Godwin also came under criticism, particularly for publishing what many read as a “Manual of speculative debauchery.” In the early 19th century, the status of women’s education was a cause of considerable public anxiety, especially women’s exposure to the passions through novels. Godwin’s explicit detail of Wollstonecraft’s sexual choices and unconventional morals caused panic that young women would read this book and look to Wollstonecraft as a role model, rather than more appropriate feminine figures. Several novelists used her as the template for fallen and scandalous women, and suggested that respectable women would have nothing to do with Wollstonecraft’s writings, in an attempt to undermine the education such impressionable readers could receive through Godwin’s book and Wollstonecraft’s own writings. The early 19th century was the heyday of the morality tale, largely due to the concerns over women’s informal education through literature. Girls academies were established in the late 18th and early 19th century, but many did not complete a lengthy formal education, even among the middle and upper classes, and instead supplemented their education by reading novels. Although novels often presented themselves as edifying texts, the public was very wary of novel-reading as potentially immoral by stimulating the senses and sentiments to excess and drawing women away from domestic duties. The criticism of Wollstonecraft, however, reveals the strong prejudices against women reading philosophy as well; her intellectual interests were used as evidence of her moral depravity and generations of girls and women were discouraged from reading her work. Many still did, despite the general consesus that Wollstonecraft was a wildly inappropriate addition to any respectable person’s library– George Eliot and Elizabeth Barrett Browning are two notable authors who read Wollstonecraft and were influenced by her views on women’s education and gender equality. Of course, these authors came under criticism and harsh public judgment, as conceptions of gender roles became more restrictive and severe through the mid-19th century. Even after Wollstonecraft’s reputation was ruined, she was as unavoidable as the Woman Question itself.

Inventing Tradition: Valentine’s Day

For most of the 19th century, Americans did not celebrate Valentine’s Day; it was a saint’s day that was marked by some folk traditions that were largely left behind in the Old World. However, by 1849, Valentine’s Day was enormously popular and uniquely American. Medieval (or rather, 19th century imaginings of medieval) traditions mingled with new commodities, fashions, and Victorian sentimentalism to create a new cultural ritual.

In the early church and medieval period, Saint Valentine was only renowned as a martyr and had no connection with lovers or romance. The source of this legend is poetry, not church doctrine; Geoffrey Chaucer and other 14th century poets mention Saint Valentine as the divine overseer of lovers, matchmaking, and courtship; presumably, this was not the martyr Valentine celebrated on February 14, but a lesser-known saint from Genoa, whose feast day is celebrated in early May, thus explaining the link to themes of blossoming romance and spring. By the 15th century, the connection between Valentine and love was an established literary convention, and the two Valentines were conflated, so that February 14 became a celebration of love and Saint Valentine an intermediary between lovers. The popular story of lovers sending valentines to one another in homage to the saint, supposedly renowned as an example of Christian love, attempted to join the two narratives of Christian martyrdom and romance, but the emphasis on matchmaking eventually overshadowed the austere religious narrative. In 17th century England, valentines were chosen by chance at parties, following a tradition of nuptial prediction games. The lovelorn Ophelia mentions St. Valentine’s Day in Hamlet, just before she commits suicide, evincing the established associations between the holiday and lovers. She sings, “To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s Day, / All in the morning betime, / And I a maid at your window, / To be your Valentine. / Then up he rose, and donn’d his clothes, / And dupp’d the chamber door; / Let in the maid, that out a maid / Never departed more.”

In the mid-19th century, valentines were so popular that many paper companies began selling pre-made valentines. The first mass-produced, lace-embossed valentines were made in Worcester, MA in 1847, and a new industry was born, the greeting card business. These pre-made, mass-produced valentines quickly replaced the earlier hand-written versions. The holiday also became more elaborate and highly sentimentalized through the late 19th century.

In the 19th century there was a lot of hand-wringing over emotional excess, public crazes and spectacle, and Valentine’s Day was an object of criticism. Some newspapers described Valentine’s Day as a “social disease,” and saw it as an indicator of moral deterioration and loss of sincerity, especially in matters of love (Schmidt). The excessive sentimentlity of the Victorian era coupled with increased commercialism caused many people to worry that love was eroding into frivolity and courtship was morphing into a flirtacious and ephemeral game. Victorian-era Americans were concerned that society was becoming disingenuous, and Valentine’s Day with all its associations with commercialism, the focus on fashion, and the loss of religious fervor, was an apt symbol of the falseness that threatened to break down social bonds.

The February 1856 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine includes a full-page comic of “Valentines Delievered in Our Street,” which lampoons the sentimentalism that surrounded the holiday by exposing the crass, self-indulgent undertones.

valentine 1856

This comic exaggerates the breakdown of propriety in Valentine’s Day through brutally honest, occasionally crass, letters. For instance, the fourth cell depicts Peter Squeezum, Esq.’s peculiar valentine of a devil with the text “How are you old boy.” While Squeezum wonders “What can it mean?” the reader would easily recognize the insinuation of greed and dishonesty. Similarly, Doctor Pergeum’s valentine is an accusation of quackery and Rev. Narcissus Violet receives a $500 check from his parishioners, suggesting his greed and hypocrisy. Miss Wigsby’s valentine is rude and hints at the criticisms of Valentine’s Day that the holiday disrupts the usual restraints on courtship and standards of propriety between the sexes.

The commercialization of mass-produced cards with pre-written messages, elaborate gift-giving of jewelry in the late 19th century (as the jewelry industry expanded due to mining of precious gems in Africa), and advertisements meant to hype up the holiday and expectations led to criticism of the holiday for its insincerity and exaggerated sentimentality and sensualism. Although Valentine’s Day is not exactly a “Hallmark holiday” when we examine its beginnings, in the 19th century, it became the occasion for Hallmark to even exist.

References:

Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 12.69 (February 1856)

Schmidt, Leigh Eric. “The Fashioning of a Modern Holiday: St. Valentine’s Day 1840-1870.” Winterthur Portfolio 28.4 (1993): 209-2445

Native Americans on the Stage

In the last couple of years, certain elements of various Native American cultures have been used as fashion statements; a Paul Frank fashion show last fall featured models wearing war bonnets and war paint, and it has apparently become trendy to claim celebrities and cartoon characters as one’s “spirit animal.” These are all instances of cultural appropriation and stereotyping, though many participants in these trends believe that they are honoring Native American culture.

This post will  focus on the history of portrayals of Native Americans in popular culture. I want to be clear that this is not exactly my story to tell; I am not Native American. I do not presume to speak for Native Americans or to know their experience of living in a white-dominated culture when I am part of the privileged majority. I have learned considerably more about Native American culture and history through my work with a professor of social work who specializes in Native American wellness and education, and I make an effort to be conscious and to educate myself.

In the 19th century, Native Americans were forced to assimilate to white culture, via boarding schools, loss of tribal lands, among other oppressive institutions. Yet American Indian characters were a constant presence on the stage in 19th century American theater, even as the American government forced tribes from their homes and demanded assimilation to white culture. Several acting manuals from the 1820s and 1830s include instructions for “red face” make-up and how to play Native American characters. Ironically, white playwrights relied on oppressed minority groups to distinguish their plays as American. American playwrights used stock figures like the American Indian and the black slave to differentiate themselves from their European counterparts. Both of these character tropes are frequently victims of violence, and thus objects of pity, on the stage. White American theater transformed the American Indian into a symbol of America’s heritage and past, a mythological figure that perpetuated a false history that justified the contemporary wars waged against indigenous peoples.

Sympathetic American Indian characters were almost always tragic heroes entailed in a narrative of death and loss. The 1829 play Metamora makes this narrative of the death of the Indian clear in its subtitle: The Last of the Wampanoags. The play is a five-act tragedy of the downfall of the chief of the Wampanoags upon the arrival of Puritan English settlers. Metamora has an unusual history; actor Edwin Forrest commissioned the play after he spent two months with the Choctaw Indians in southwestern Missouri (at that time, this area of the state had few white settlers). Forrest returned to the theater and offered a $500 prize for the best five act tragedy “in which the hero, or principal character, shall be an aboriginal of this country” (Old Sturbridge Visitor, Summer 2003). John Augustus Stone won the contest and his play, based loosely on the life of Metacomet (also known as King Philip to Puritan settlers), became an instant success and remained in nearly constant production for decades.

Although Forrest intended for the play to be a tribute to the Choctaw tribe he so admired, the play exemplifies many problems in white culture’s portrayal and use of American Indians. The play ends with Metamora’s death and the marriage of a Wampanoag woman to a Puritan man. The play assumes that indigenous culture is firmly situated in the past, that the Wampanoags ended with Metacomet’s death in 1675.  Plays like Metamora and the popular “historical” reenactments performed by traveling troupes of American Indian actors reinforced the existing cultural narrative that American Indians were doomed by fate. This theme of foretold extinction is overwhelmingly present in Metamora. Of course, the hero’s fatal tragic flaw is part of the traditional structure of a five-act tragedy, but the fact that Forrest requested a tragedy indicates how Anglo-Americans typically viewed American Indians. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, Metacomet was seen as a cruel villain, but the narrative changed through the 19th century to erase the history of war between American Indians and white settlers; instead, the narrative was framed as a tragedy. The fatalism in 19th century popular entertainment erases white America’s culpability in the past wars, and more importantly, it overshadowed the violence of the Indian Removal Act.  Such a narrative removed any hint of white guilt over the increasingly violent policies against indigenous peoples throughout the 19th century; as Metamora soared in popularity through the 1830s, millions of Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muscagee Creek, Seminole and other indigenous people were dying of starvation, frostbite and smallpox on the Trail of Tears. The present tragedy was ignored, the outrage was tacitly accepted, while audiences lamented a fictionalized tragedy set well over a hundred years in the past.

 

This post draws from the information available from Old Sturbridge Village’s document collection. See the website for more details (or better yet, visit Old Sturbridge Village!): http://www.osv.org/explore_learn/document_viewer.php?DocID=2068

What’s all this then?

This is a lifestyle blog for the 19th century, a history of pop culture, an exploration of daily life 200 years ago: what people did for entertainment, what they wore, what they ate, how they celebrated, how they mourned. I hope to show that these everyday details can make the past simultaneously familiar and foreign. We’re not so distant from our 19th century predecessors, and they influence us still today. Many of the “timeless” traditions and inherent elements of American culture were actually invented in the 19th century, when Americans often worried about being too European in their sensibilities, styles, and traditions. And yet the 19th century was such a different world.
When Rip Van Winkle woke up after a twenty-year nap, he was astonished by how much his small town in the Adirondaks had changed, how easily his community had forgotten the recent past. At first, he was disoriented and dismayed by all the changes that had occurred after the Revolution, shocked by how homogenized and Anglicized his community had become. But the story resolves with Rip becoming an oral historian, the voice of the past and remembrance for the ever-changing community. He is an uncanny character, blurring the line uncomfortably between past and present. In “Rip Van Winkle” and throughout The Sketch-Book, Washington Irving emphasized the heterogeneity of American culture and history, at a time when American culture was becoming homogenized and dominated by British influences; in Irving’s native New York, German and Dutch cultural practices were giving way to English customs, and Native American cultures, the great tribes of the Iroquois League, were suffering from cultural (and physical) genocide. Authors like Irving and James Fennimore Cooper feared that America was becoming too hmogenized and too English, that Americans had already forgotten the nation’s French, German, Dutch, and Native American heritage. These authors gave considerable preference to preserving European cultural influences, but they did acknowledge the importance of and many threats to Native American culture (although it is crucial to note that, in the early 19th century, they already considered Native American culture to be part of America’s past and their representations of Native Americans are problematic to say the least). I will write about 19th century views on Native Americans often, because I’m simultaneously intrigued and infuriated by the recent popularity of Native American imagery and contemporary issues of cultural appropriation (which, in many ways, echo 19th century orientalism). This is just one instance of the persistent influence of 19th century views in contemporary America.

This blog will cover many of those traditions and rituals (like weddings, funerals, and holidays), as well as pop culture and fashion, looking for the places where the past invades the present in Rip Van Winkle uncanniness, and the places where the past is unfamiliar and strange. Fear not, my posts will not always be this verbose and dull–I hope this blog will be a fun way of looking at some issues in pop culture and entertainment that span two centuries.