Washington Irving's Wistfully Anxious, Lonesome Ghost Stories
He was the greatest American writer of his time: he was a mentor to Poe, Longfellow, and Hawthorne, his country’s first professional author, and had met almost every president from Washington to Pierce. He transformed copyright laws to give writers and artists more representation, and cultivated a previously non-existent literary culture throughout the United States. He was idolized internationally, and adored by great authors of the day, including Byron, Walter Scott, and his greatest supporter, Charles Dickens. His idioms – “the almighty dollar,” “Gotham City,” “Knickerbocker,” “emotional constipation” – and traditions – the celebration of Christmas, anticipation of Santa Claus, and the popularization of Dutch-American customs – have left their mark on American and even global culture.
Largely misunderstood due to his moderate politics, courtly personality, and literary sentimentalism, Irving – once America’s most popular author – underwent a reversal of fortunes in the 1930s when Stanley T. Williams released a scathing biography accusing him of being indecisive and uninspired. It took seventy years for academics to shake Williams’ criticism and reevaluate Irving’s role in American history and literature. Modern biographers have begun to sort through the Irving mythology, unearthing the complex personality of an existentially anxious, emotionally complex man disturbed by his fame and haunted by loneliness. These themes course through his Gothic tales – tales haunted by spectres of anxiety.
A COMPLICATED LIFE
Although he was once most famous for his social satires and ironic humor, Irving’s fiction is primarily devoted to the Gothic: ghost stories, weird tales, fantasies, and horror. In fact, of the sixty-one short stories he penned, nearly forty of them (65%) involve the supernatural. And there’s far more than the Headless Horseman to frighten readers: ghost pirates, vengeful Doppelgangers, guillotined women, haunted treasure chests, hanged men’s ghosts, rural superstitions, dancing furniture, portraits with moving eyes, hellhounds, goblin horses, enchanted princesses, supernatural caves of wonder, haunted paintings, ghostly nuns, spectral crusaders, and possessed bedchambers are among his many bogeys.
Although most of these stories do have an admittedly wry, sly-smiling nature to them, some (“Guests from Gibbet Island,” “Adv. of the German Student,” “The Prior of Minorca,” “Adv. of My Uncle,” “The Eve of St. Mark,” “The Engulfed Convent”) can be downright dreary – even depressing. Irving – long written off as a merely “genteel” writer with no real substance – was nearly as gloomy as Hawthorne, in the privacy of his letters and journals, as cynical as Lovecraft, in his darkest moments, and as obsessed with death, mortality, and the fleeting nature of love as Poe – especially after he reached international fame (finding himself none the happier nor less the lonely).
Truly a lonely, introspective man, much of what has been said about his fiction by 20th century critics (that it is vapid and without message) has been based on a misreading of his nearly mythic biography. For decades we have been told that Irving lived a tidy bachelor life after losing his first and only love, the willowy Mathilda Hoffman, in 1809. Considering himself married in spirit, he never pursued another lover and lived a life of content celibacy. It is no wonder that Irving fell out of favor as a boring bard in the shadow of such stormy writers as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, London, and Vonnegut. By comparison the wistful hermit of Sunnyside struck postmodern critics as bland and fluffy. Since the 21st century, however, multiple biographers (Brian Jay Jones, Andrew Burstein) and critics (Michael Bronski, David Greven, Rebecca Knapper) have cracked through the carefully curated veneer of Irving’s personal life and seen an emotionally frustrated, sexually conflicted soul in torment. It is perhaps oversimplifying it to say that Irving was gay, but he can no longer be accurately depicted as a contented virgin, and what seems most likely is that Irving’s sexuality is complicated to say the least.
Probably bisexual, he seems to have fallen in love with several men – all of whom abandoned him (one to lead a conventional family life, one who followed his artistic career ahead of personal relationships, and one, a roommate, who died unexpectedly). He was also attracted to women, but only – as most biographers agree – to distant, unavailable women (not unlike his tepid admirer, Poe). Irving seemed to have a horror of sex and intimacy, and was drawn to inexperienced girls whom he viewed as unspoiled and (momentarily) preserved from the cynicism that weighed him down. As soon as they seemed to understand the ways of the world, he would politely detach himself. Sex genuinely seemed to frighten him, and his descriptions of French prostitutes during his early travels express skittish revulsion. He wasn’t morally prudish (he backed off his pursuit of his greatest love, Emily Foster, when he noted that she was becoming religiously zealous), but appeared to find tremendous anxiety in the unavoidable dependency that sexual intimacy would require.
On one hand he loved company dearly (he could be accused of being a clingy friend and uncle), but on the other, he loved being able to go to bed alone, rise when he wanted, do work when it suited him, and leave from place to place without responsibility. Much like British ghost writers M. R. James, Algernon Blackwood, and William Hope Hodgson, bachelorhood suited his independent disposition, but unquestionably fed his imagination with the horrors of loneliness. James explored spiritual isolation in nearly all of his ghost stories (just as Hodgson found inspiration in the heartless sea and Blackwood in the homeless wilderness) and Irving was no exception. His ghost stories are haunted by spectres of anxiety: headless horsemen who taunt their victims with anonymity, loitering ghosts who intoxicate their guests with the alienating liquor of idleness, mocking ghost pirates who taunt treasure hunters.
A MAN WITH A MESSAGE
Accused of being “a man with no message,” this mischaracterization continues to be an overreliance on Williams’ reactionary biography, missing the deep themes of community, fellowship, and contentment that mark his tales and sketches. Politically, Irving was an unshakable centrist: an open-minded man who sought the common good over partisanship, and despised fanatic radicals on either side of the aisle. At various points in his life he could have been called a Federalist, Republican, Democrat, or Whig. But, other than a youthful support of Federalism, he spurned party loyalties. Unlike the firmly Democratic Hawthorne or the roundly Republican Emerson, Irving disappoints critics who demand partisan commitment, and accuse him of apathetic conservatism. While Irving was certainly more conservative than, say, Emerson, he was hardly a conformist.
He repeatedly criticized Americans’ treatment of Native Americans (in both his letters and his books), was revolted by slavery (damning it as an “accursed” national embarrassment), and preferred open borders and globalism to protectionist nationalism. Brian Jay Jones called Irving a “progressive conservative” – a fiscal libertarian with a cosmopolitan appreciation for a multicultural society. He had little patience for politicians who didn’t share his laissez-faire values, and had no tolerance for tribal politics. This has left conservatives annoyed by his lack of American nationalism, while liberals are disgusted by his lack of political activism. So what was Irving’s message? He regularly warned against political extremism, intellectual hubris, and religious fundamentalism; he favored the sort of cautious moderation that infuriates conservatives and progressives alike. Throughout his career he lampooned traditionalists as hopelessly out of touch, and radicals as arrogant elitists blind to their own hypocrisies.
Irving feared purges and purity tests like those used in the French Revolution (and today on Facebook), which strive to ensure intellectual homogeny. The political elitism of the Jacobin fanatics in “The German Student” is in direct contrast with Baltus Van Tassel’s warm-hearted, welcoming ethos of tolerance. Irving loathed intellectual fundamentalism and political extremism of all sorts, and saw the French Revolution as a warning against being overly confident in one’s opinions (far better, he felt, to be like Baltus: liberal-minded, open-hearted, easy-going, back-slapping, and generous to a fault).
The French Revolution, like its American predecessor, was born from the intellectual idealism of the Enlightenment, which proclaimed Reason as its new deity, and pronounced Truth to be scientifically certifiable. Any such extremism was a threat to American multiculturalism, Irving felt: the sort which accepted Quakers, Native Americans, free blacks, pirate captains, Dutch burghers, English soldiers, German alchemists, and lazy loiterers alike. Irving was prone to the cultural racism of his time, and was hardly a liberal icon, but he openly reviled the hubris of highborn elitists and bigoted nationalists alike, and his fiction consistently pleads for tolerance, cosmopolitan sensibilities, easy-going manners, and genteel fellowship between people of different backgrounds. “We’re all in the same boat,” he seems to cry, “so don’t take life – or your opinions – to seriously.”