Friday, June 17, 2011

THE AMERICAN CHARACTER PART I

I thought there would be a 'Sacred Writing' Part III this week but as is sometimes the case, I just discovered it is not here to write. I do reserve the right to post more on Sacred Writing at some later date. Instead, join with me as we explore some of the earliest writing in our country's history, and how it reveals something about The American Character:
Jorge Luis Borges said of Washinton Irving and James Fenimore Cooper,"... we can skip over them without any consequence." Friends, their position at the very beginning of the history of American literature brings at least some relevance to their work. Here in their writings is found the first seeds of the American hero. Here is found the hero that is never quite at home in the world. The one who is unsure of his place. The one who is unable to ever completely fit in. Here is found the predecessor of Ahab, Snopes, Jake Barnes and Dean Moriarty.
It is, in fact, impossible to calculate just how much influence Washington Irving exerted over those who were to follow. He was the first belletrist of American Letters. He was the one who shaped and created the modern American short story - placing his tales on American soil. He was the first to write in the vernacular - the common language of the day. The first to bring humor into his work. The first in the Gothic tradition that would later influence Edgar Allen Poe. The first to set pen to parchment to create literature in America. What might have emerged if he had not written can never be known.
Because he was born shortly after independence in 1783, he was named for George Washington. He was a sickly kid - the eleventh in his family - but he dreamed of adventure and far-flung travels. His favorite book growing up was 'Robinson Crusoe'. One day his dreams would be realized and, as was reported in 'The Atlantic Monthly' "He recognized fully the advantages of a foreign life... in following up that career of belles-lettres study which he had marked out for himself. The free entree of European libraries and galleries and familiar association with a class of cultivated men of leisure (in countries where such class exists), offered opportunity for refining his taste, for enlarging his stock of available material, and for stimulating his mental activity, of which he was not slow to perceive the value, and of which he has given ample account." ('The Atlantic Monthly' Vol 13, Issue 80. Boston. June 1864).
Irving's two most famous stories appeared in 'The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.' (1819). Its publication won its author and American literature in general the respect and acclaim of European critics.
'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow' is told in the first person, presumably by the late Diedrich Knickerbocker. By claiming the manuscript was found among the papers of the deceased, and by saying in the Postscript that it had been "Found in the Handwriting of Mister Knickerbocker," Irving is doing everything he can to make the story seem a true one. The narrator gives details that he claims to be precise and authentic. At every turn he attempts to establish the story's veracity. "On my word of honor," is what is implied.
Having established the 'truth', then, Irving warms to his story. (One can almost see him rubbing his hands together with a mischievous and knowing smile on his full face). On the eastern shore of the Hudson River lies the small market-town of Greensburgh or, more properly Tarry Town. So-called because in it men used to tarry or hang around on market days while their wives were off shopping. Outside of town, some two miles away, is found a quiet and secluded spot. In fact the general characteristics of the entire area is of quietude, of repose, and retreat from the troubles of this world. There, in that little valley known as Sleepy Hollow one may find tranquility and a drowsy atmosphere. Some say the place is haunted or bewitched. There are many local tales about that enchanted region.
Copyright 2011 by James D. Sanderson. All Rights Reserved.
Let me tell you more about this Sleepy Hollow next week in Part Two of 'The American Character'. Jim

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