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.

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

Inventing Traditions: White Wedding

White has become an essential symbol of everything bridal, culminating, of course, in the requisite white wedding dress. Wearing white on one’s wedding day has been subsumed into a cultural narrative of timeless tradition; we associate the white gown as a symbol of the bride’s sexual purity before consummating her marriage, a color of hope and peace. In reality, the color white’s association with brides, and especially with the wedding gown, has much more to do with conspicuous consumption and spectacle than virginity. Renaissance wedding dresses were usually green, a symbol of fertility, and throughout the 18th and most of the 19th centuries, wedding dresses came in a wide variety of colors. Some were white, but it wasn’t the exclusively expected color for a bride to wear; purple, deep blue, brown, red, and gold were also popular colors. The white wedding first became a sensation, and was then quickly incorporated as a tradition rich with symbolism, with Queen Victoria’s 1840 nuptials.

Detail of George Hayter’s painting of Victoria and Albert’s wedding

Queen Victoria’s white gown and her attendants’ white formal attire sparked admiration and imitation in the upper classes; newspapers emphasized the elegance of the all-white wedding. The white formal wear of Victoria’s wedding was more of a show of extravagance White dresses were more obviously luxury items; dirt, stains and age show quickly on light, non-patterned fabrics. This trend would grow in popularity among the middle classes as mass-produced textiles lowered clothing prices. More brides could purchase ready-made white gowns from major retailers in the latter half of the 19th century, and so the white wedding gradually became the standard.

For most of the 19th century, the majority of American brides wore their Sunday best on their wedding day, a dress that was often worn several times throughout a woman’s life for special occasions. Early 19th century Americans typically had very few clothes, especially before the technology of the Industrial Revolution made cotton easier to harvest and spin, so a separate dress to wear on a single occasion was extremely impractical. Even by mid-century, the wedding dress was not worn exclusively for the wedding, and colored dresses were still very popular.

Wedding dress

1812 wedding dress

Wedding dress

1860 wedding dress

 

Wedding dress

1869 wedding dress

Clearly, the two dresses from the 1860s are much more elaborate and formal, even if one is darker in color. This reflects a change in the formality of the wedding ceremony. Several women’s magazine articles from the 1880s and 1890s are dedicated to creating elegant wedding decor (often including elaborate floral arrangements, intricately crocheted doilies, special lighting, and false walls to cover fireplaces and wood stoves). The purpose of these home decorative elements in the wedding were to remove the practical aspects of the home for the wedding. Early 19th century weddings usually took place in the church and included the entire congregation; exclusivity did not become an issue until home weddings grew in popularity in the postbellum era. This was a source of criticism and lamentation from the older generation that viewed these more private, but also more spectacular, ceremonies as excessive.  An extravagant and romanticized wedding day was seen as a mockery of the marriage vows’ solemnity and poor preparation for the drudgery of running a household, the impending possibility of childbirth, and the responsibilities that came with the change in social status. The elaborate scenery (most periodicals offer suggestions for transforming a parlor into a romantic “bower” complete with trees, copious amounts of flowers, fairy lights, and flower-studded netting to cover the walls) and the obviously luxurious dress intended for single use sharply separate the wedding day from the life into which the newlywed couple is entering. The white wedding is another step toward specialty and luxury, but was quickly incorporated into a narrative of purity and tradition, so that by the turn of the century, nearly all brides wore white, even poor brides. For example, William Dean Howells’ 1895 novella The Day of Their Wedding follows a Shaker couple who escape from their celibate community with the intent of eloping. They have virtually no money, but the young bride Althea is able to purchase a white dress.  Althea balks at the extravagance of purchasing a new dress strictly for the purpose of the ceremony, but her groom Lorenzo insists; he is well aware of the social standards and throughout the story, he convinces Althea to adhere to these expectations, in order to do things “right.” The white wedding was one of those assumed cultural standards to which all brides were expected to conform. Today, a non-white wedding dress is considered “alternative”; even Jessica Biel’s pale pink gown was seen as a daring and unique wedding gown choice, though such a color would have been commonplace in the 1820s. The mass-production and standardization of clothing through the late 19th century, compounded by the increasingly elaborate standard for wedding ceremonies, resulted in white being the one and only color for a bride.

Image sources:

Victoria painting: http://thedreamstress.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Victoria_and_Prince_Alberts_wedding.jpg

1812 wedding dress: http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/80013183

1860 wedding dress: http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/80035678

1869 wedding dress: http://www.metmuseum.org/collections/search-the-collections/80005673

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.