- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 3, 2007

THE ORIGINAL KNICKERBOCKER: THE LIFE OF WASHINGTON IRVING

By Andrew Burstein

Basic Books, $26.95,

420 pages

REVIEWED BY JACK MATTHEWS

It is a genial irony that the man who created such legendary characters as Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane was profoundly insecure about his place in the history of letters. He was afraid that, like most writers, he was destined “to be lost, even to remembrance.”

From an Olympian perspective his fears were justified, of course, but to have his stories still read today, almost two centuries after Rip awakened, is a literary version of immortality. Indeed, the story of Rip Van Winkle has risen above the narrower channels of literature and now dwells in the realm of legend.

This irony is well stressed in Andrew Burstein’s solid, richly annotated biography, with a title that gives emphasis to Irving’s initial fame as the chronicler of old New York in “Knickerbocker’s History,” which seems appropriate for one who would one day be called “the Patriarch of American Letters.”

But as a historian? Hardly, for his “histories” are wonderfully emancipated from a craven enslavement to fact in that Irving was, instinctively, a teller of stories, a writer of fiction.

And although he was, indeed, an “American” writer, he was also a cosmopolite, with a special fondness for Spain and England, where many of his stories take place. Of course, the England he loved was not so much the England of his time as a Dickensian Britannia steeped in the vats of time as only the Brits can brew it.

An antiquarian romance with the Past was a defining characteristic of Irving, a sentimentalist in the 18th-century sense — one whose emotions are enriched by breadth of feeling, understanding and intellect, in contrast to the modern sense of one addicted to superficial and commonplace excitements.

Mr. Burstein convincingly demonstrates the strong affinities between Irving and Laurence Sterne, a writer who at first blush seems so different.

Mr. Burstein (who confesses to being a long-time collector of “Irvingiana”) writes that “Knickerbocker is a skeptic, but one given to dreaming” and calls him “a devout escapist;” these labels fit perfectly and no doubt explain Irving’s general neglect in university English departments committed to the gaudier infatuations of deconstructionist theory.

Not to mention the establishment’s politically correct obsessions with destroying the infamous “canon” only to replace it with the tinker toys of “relevance.”

Mr. Burstein also gives ample attention to Irving’s career as a friend of the mighty and a diplomat (he served as minister to Spain) as well as the author of lesser known books — biographies of Columbus and Washington, as well as accounts of Western explorations. Perhaps this biography will stimulate interest in these unjustly neglected works.

While much of Irving’s writing is satirical, his nostalgia for the picturesque and contentment with life as he found it have also worked to eliminate him from serious consideration by the contemporary literary establishment. He was temperamentally unlike those who cried “No! in thunder;” rather, he was very much a yea sayer, absorbed in the riches he mined from the past and the stories he found all about him, waiting to be told.

He was also a life-long bachelor, and one of the virtues of Mr. Burstein’s biography is his sensible presentation of this fact, which many writers of these politically correct times would have striven to convert into a closet homosexuality. But Irving cannot be understood by the cliches of today; rather, he was very much a familiar figure of his time — a fussy, proper, strait-laced bachelor who worshipped his ideal of womanhood so devoutly it would have driven a modern woman gaga.

“A woman’s whole life,” he wrote in “The Sketch Book,” “is a history of the affections.” Try telling that to a card-carrying Marxist/Feminist.

But his generation understood him, for he was a romantic, and after his beloved Matilda Hoffman died young he was able to worship her memory more than mere flesh could have tolerated, and for the rest of his life he kept her Bible and Prayer Book as keepsakes.

Still, he was not entirely faithful to her shade, for years later, when he fell in love with Serena Livingston, he wrote that she was “the heroine of all my poetical thoughts where they would picture any thing [sic] very feminine and lovely.” His seemingly sexless existence may cause us to wonder at his manhood, but his mutability in this regard reveals what is at least a thoroughly human inconstancy.

Despite Irving’s enduring fame, insofar as his stories are still being read, the situation is not altogether a happy one; Mr. Burstein reports that only a third of American college-educated men and women born after 1960 can identify Rip Van Winkle. In fearing for his reputation in posterity, poor Knickerbocker obviously did not anticipate the Dumbing of America, as manifest in our appalling ignorance of history and what it can teach us, even through its sentimental fictions.

Jack Matthews is Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.


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