As a boy, Washington Irving describes how he rambled about the countryside and “made myself familiar with all its places famous in history or fable. I knew every spot where a murder or robbery has been committed or a ghost seen. I visited the neighboring villages, and added greatly to my stock of knowledge.” His later travels abroad, those west of the Mississippi, and his literary ambassadorships lent much to his accumulation of folklore and story skill. Irving loved to hear a good story, and it is everything to his way with words.
His Sketch Book of short stories, however, was written after a ten-year lapse in his writing and published in 1820. Irving admits he “attempted no lofty theme, nor sought to look wise and learned. I have preferred addressing myself to the feeling and fancy of the reader, more than to his judgment.” Often tongue-in-cheek, the friendly and entertaining tone of this collection of stories is clear, and it charmed an international audience, especially the famous “Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” More than the public poetry readings of his day, Irving read-alouds became a popular pastime in Europe.
In these tales, Irving’s stock characters are some of his absolute best. But the word stock is by no means an insult. In “The Spectre Bridegroom,” the Baron Von Landshort himself is short and squat, “the greatest man in the little world about him,” a little oracle and monarch among his horde of poor relations. He is indeed Landshort. Irving’s dry humor continues. The Baron’s only daughter and heir remains nameless throughout the entire story. Nameless, and what a prodigy she is! It is said she can write her own first name large enough for her two spinster aunts to read without glasses. And those aunts. Once upon a time, they were presented at a small German court and were great flirts, so great that they never married, and yet they are in charge of the Baron’s daughter. Every single character is laughable.
Even our suitors’ names are suitable. The first, Count Von Altenburg, or translated “count of the old castle,” is the named fiance, but he is mortally wounded by robbers in the German forest and dies in a hilarious deathbed scene while his veteran friend Herman Von Starkenfaust is set to deliver the bad news. Starken does mean to strengthen, but I do wonder about faust. Did Irving mean fist, and thus strong-fisted? Or did he lightly allude to the German tale Faust, a much darker meaning? Regardless, Starkenfaust’s family has been in an ancient feud with the Landshorts, and he is the one who must journey to the castle to say the Count is dead. The humor of the story continues with a case of mistaken identity and a timely ghostly tale.
To tell a tale well is a skill, but to weave and worm into the reader’s mind and heart is another ability entirely. Setting, character, humor, and a taste of fear—Washington Irving blends all in ample portion to fasten the power and influence of superstition upon our human minds. Perhaps this is why his Sketchbook became a bestseller overseas. He was the first American author in fact to break the barrier of the American stereotype. He was no ignorant colonist or rough settler as assumed, but rather the best of tale spinners.
Editor’s Note: Irving’s stories are funny, historical, strangely innocent, and yes–scary. Enjoy them yourself before you give them to your younger kids.
Featured image by American painter John Quidor (1801–1881), via Library of America.
She is the author of Till We Have Faces: A Reading Companion (2017) and writes regularly at her blog Thy Lyre and at The Imaginative Conservative.