Review: Washington Irving’s Sketchbook

Review: Washington Irving’s Sketchbook

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories: Or, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories: Or, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. by Washington Irving

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Prose writers are voluminous and unwieldy; their pages crowded with commonplaces, and their thoughts expanded into tediousness.

I am a child of Sleepy Hollow, New York, and I have lived in Irving’s shadow almost as long as I can remember.

Every Halloween, this town is inundated with tourists, who come to wander around the lovely old cemetery where the legend is set, and where Irving himself is buried. Behind my house is where they put on the “haunted hayride.” I went every year as a kid. A pickup truck drags groups of twenty in a trailer through a stretch of forest, where volunteers dressed in masks jumped out and scared the kids half to death. And of course no hayride was complete without the headless horseman himself, riding out of the shadows on a black horse with a jack-o’-lantern on his knee.

The town nextdoor is called ‘Irvington’ in Washington Irving’s honor, and it is there that his old house, Sunnyside, is situated. The house is a delightful little dwelling, a small jumble of architectural styles—gothic, Dutch, Spanish—overlooking the Hudson River. Irving was an amateur architect and landscaper, very much of the Romantic school, and re-made the old farm he bought into a charming park, with a little pond, a babbling brook, and paths that wind through the forest nearby. On the property is a sycamore tree that has been growing since 1776, seven years before Irving himself was born.

When Irving bought the property, he had unimpeded access to the river; but that changed when, ten years later, the Hudson Line railroad was built at the river’s edge. Nowadays, trains rattle by every ten minutes or so. All the old train cars have names printed on their sides; and as I sat there on a recent visit, I saw that one of the cars on the passing Amtrak was named “Washington Irving.” He is simply everywhere. There is a statue of Rip Van Winkle outside the Irvington Town Hall Theater. On the walk back to my house I passed by the Washington Irving Middle School, which I attended, the Tarrytown High School, where our football team is the Horsemen, and the Christ Episcopal Church, where Irving himself worshiped, and where his pew is still preserved.*

Right outside Philipsburg Manor—an old colonial farm that now serves as a historical site—is an ugly metal sculpture of the Headless Horseman. Right next to it is where the old bridge stood where Ichabod Crane met his fate. There is not much to see now, just a modern concrete construction. But if you keep walking into the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery you can see the Old Dutch Church, and, a little farther on, you will come across the man’s tombstone. Like his house, his grave is neither ostentatious nor grandiose, just a simple stone that lays in a family plot.

The man’s influence is inescapable. It was Washington Irving who originated the nickname ‘Knickerbockers’ (after an imaginary Dutch historian he used as a nom de plume) for the denizens of New York. The New York Knicks owe their name to Irving, and the word ‘knickers’ also derives, through devious channels, to this writer. It was Irving who popularized the myth that Christopher Columbus thought the earth was flat, which he included in a biography of Columbus that Irving wrote while living in Spain. It was Irving, too, who originated the nickname ‘Gotham’ for New York City.

We even owe our holiday celebrations to Irving, since it was he, along with Charles Dickens, who helped to make Christmas into the secular holiday of gift-giving and merry-making that it is today. Irving played a hand in the creation of Santa Claus, too, with a story about St. Nicholas in his first book. With his love of ghost stories, Irving is also one of the architects of Halloween—and thousands still make the pilgrimage to visit his tombstone in that ghoulish time of the year. I cannot even escape his influence in Spain, since it was Irving who helped to spread the exotic, enchanted image of Andalusia, and who thus helped make Spain a tourist destination; and it was also thanks to his book of stories about the Alhambra that people began taking an interest in restoring that old ruin.

Washington Irving was named after George Washington, and was born just a few weeks before the Revolutionary War was officially concluded. He was a new man for a new land. An often-told story—difficult to verify—has it that he was taken by his maid to visit George Washington when he was just six years old; there’s a watercolor drawing, still hanging in Irving’s hold house, of the old general patting the young boy on the head. Whether it happened or not, the story seems symbolic of the role that Irving would play in American literature—exactly analogous to George Washington in politics—as a pioneering leader. For it was Washington Irving who was the first American writer to be respected by his English peers. He showed that these unruly savages overseas could aspire to eloquence too.

This book is often marketed as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories; but its original title is The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., and was published under that pseudonym rather than Irving’s own name. The book, often merely called The Sketchbook, is a sort of parody of the sketchbooks that other wealthy American travelers made on their visits to Europe. It is framed as a travel book, and contains many vignettes about places Irving visited. But Irving does not stick to this theme very diligently. The book also contains some short pieces about Native Americans; and the two most famous stories, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” are both set in New York, and purport to be found among the old papers of Diedrich Knickerbocker, another of Irving’s pseudonyms.

Although the collection is miscellaneous, Irving was not a writer of great breadth, and his distinctive style is consistent throughout. Thematically, Irving was a purebred Romantic. He has a taste for quaint customs, forgotten ruins, exotic places, and old yarns—in short, everything antique, out-of-the-way, and foreign, everything that allows his imagination to run wild with conjecture. These preoccupations lead him to investigate old English Christmas customs in the country, and to rail against their disappearance. It also leads him to treat the Native Americans as noble savages, the pure emblems of a disappearing culture, as well as to focus his eye on the old Dutch lore lingering about his native New York.

In truth there is not much substance to his writing. The closest he ever gets to philosophy is the Romantic, Ozymandian sentiment that all things yield to time. Rather, Irving is a stylist. His prose is fluent and easygoing—indeed, remarkably easy to read considering its age—so effortless that the prose practically reads itself. The subject-matter is usually a description of some kind—of what someone is wearing, of a farm or a tavern, of a funeral or a wedding—and he steers clear of all argument and dialogue, maintaining the fluid rhythm of his pen as it flies forward. When he is not describing a gothic ruin, an old curiosity, or a picturesque landscape, he is involved in some ghost story or traveler’s anecdote. Some of these, indeed many, involve love affairs between gallant soldiers and young women who possess “that mysterious but impassive charm of virgin purity in whose hallowed sphere no guilty thought can live”—it’s quite revolting.

But if Irving nowadays strikes one as lightweight and Romantic to the point of silliness, one should remember that he was a pioneer and an innovator—the first American man of letters, and one of the champions of Romanticism when that movement had hardly reached this country. And if he seems more style than substance, one should also remember that Irving wrote to amuse, not to instruct; and it is by that goal that he should be measured. Even now, Irving is a champion amuser; and even if he has some unfashionable tastes, he it still fresh and good-natured after all these years:

If, however, I can by any lucky chance, in these days of evil, rub out one wrinkle from the brow of care or beguile the heavy heart of one moment of sorrow; if I can now and then penetrate through the gathering film of misanthropy, prompt a benevolent view of human nature, and make my reader more in good-humor with his fellow-beings and himself—surely, surely, I shall not then have written entirely in vain.

Surely, surely, he has not.

*I recently went to visit this church. As luck would have it, I was about to knock on the door just as the rector, Susan, was on her way out of the building. When I asked about Irving’s pew, she very kindly gave me a quick tour. The old pew sits in a corner now, set aside to preserve it. The church also has Irving’s bible and prayer book—tattered old things in a glass case—as well as a copy of the 1859 issue of Harper’s Magazine that carried a front-page story about Irving’s funeral. “So many people came in, they were worried the floorboards would break,” Susan said.


View all my reviews

Review: History of Western Music

Review: History of Western Music

A History of Western MusicA History of Western Music by Donald Jay Grout

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The audience for “serious” music—art music of a certain complexity that requires some effort to understand—has never been more than a small fraction of the population.

What seems like a long time ago, I worked in a university music department as a professor’s office assistant. At the time, I was trying to improve my meager understanding of art history by reading E.H. Gombrich’s excellent Story of Art. Seeing art as an integral part of civilized society, in the context of historical change—rather than as decontextualized globs of color on canvass—really helped me to appreciate it in a way I could not before; and I wondered if the same might not be possible with music.

One day I asked my boss if there was a book similar to Gombrich’s about music, and he responded with one word: “Grout.” Finally I’ve gotten around to following up his recommendation.

A History of Western Music is the standard music history textbook in use on college campuses, at least in the United States. Its first edition was written by Donald Jay Grout; later editions were revised, first by Claude V. Palisca, and then by J. Peter Burkholder. I bought the fifth edition, mainly because it was cheap. Between the previous edition and this one, Palisca had entirely rewritten the book, removing the last remaining traces of Grout’s prose. So in this review I’ll being talking about Palisca.

Any author of a general music history textbook deserves some sympathy. First, it is proverbially difficult to write about music. The poor writer is forced to choose between a vague string of adjectives, metaphors, and images, discussing the music’s subjective effects; or he can resort to the technical language of music analysis, which at least allows him to be precise and objective, but at the cost of being inaccessible to music newbies.

Somewhere between these two extremes is the narrow path that Palisca tries to tread, sometimes precariously—veering too much in one direction, and then too much in the other—but for the most part ably. Even so, this middle path carries its own cost: dryness. Since Palisca can neither describe his own tastes and aesthetic responses, nor make any incisive analyses with music theory, he is forced to be a somewhat unexciting guide—the fate of most textbook writers.

The other major challenge is compression. How do you fit 2,000 years of music history into 800 pages? How do you give a decent overview of medieval plainchant, Italian opera, German romanticism, and American minimalism, while also providing the names, biographies, and accomplishments of the major composers, as well as integrating the relevant cultural history—all in enough time to teach it in two semesters? The obvious answer is that you can’t, and Palisca doesn’t. There is simply too much material to do justice to it all. But he does succeed in giving his reader a generous spoonful of all the main dishes.

If I measure this book by my own progress, I must deem it a success. Beforehand, I had only a scattered and incidental knowledge of the major composers. I could rattle off a few names, but I didn’t know who influenced whom, who lived when, who was part of what movement; and I could only name about two composers who lived before J.S. Bach. Now, not only do I feel much more knowledgeable, but the chronological framework will make it easier to learn more.

One of my most pleasant discoveries was the wealth of wonderful music that was written before J.S. Bach even took his first breath, in 1685. There was Leonin and Perotín, Guillaume de Mauchaut, Guillaume Dufay, John Dunstable, Henry Purcell, Claudio Monteverdi, and Arcangelo Corelli, to name just a few of my favorites. Most surprising for me was how much I enjoy sacred music. Like the shadowy interior of a gothic cathedral, the music is tranquil, meditative, and otherwordly—pregnant with tragedy and hope.

So this book does its job. What prevents it from being as great as, say, E.H. Gombrich’s history of art, Kenneth Clarke’s history of civilization, or Bertrand Russell’s history of philosophy, is the lack of authorial personality. In all three of those works, the author is not afraid to opine and speculate. Palisca, by contrast, rarely offers his own judgment, and does not venture to make any theories. His writing is neutral and plain, simply serving up information. There is nothing wrong with this, of course; and many would think that it’s the correct approach. But I think that when you’re dealing with an art form, it is neither possible nor even desirable to be “objective.” Gombrich, Clarke, and Russell are experts, and thus have refined taste. Seeing how they think about their subject, and how they feel about it, is as much an education as the information they present.

As I went through this book, I downloaded and listened to most of the representative pieces discussed in each chapter. I ended up with a long playlist (which you can see here), which I replayed over the course of few weeks before writing this review. I recommend that any curious listener do the same. Several historical trends seem apparent when you do this.

First is the obvious rise of instrumental music, as music shifts from purely vocal, to vocal with instrumental accompaniment, to mainly instrumental. The second is the rise in the prestige associated with secular music, and the attendant fall in the importance of sacred music. The composer becomes increasingly important as time goes on, exerting ever more control over the performance, while the performer becomes merely an executor rather than a collaborator. With many notable exceptions, art music also seems to grow in harmonic and rhythmic complexity, at least in the time since Haydn and Mozart, until the traditional rules of harmony break down entirely.

Something strange happens in the twentieth century, especially in the second half. Music—along with literature and art—seems to split into a dichotomy: erudite and inaccessible, and popular and oversimplified. The first camp, represented most perfectly, perhaps, by Milton Babbitt, write music that does not make sense to the untrained human ear, while popular songwriters make catchy tunes with little depth. This division seems to correspond to sources of income: the university patronizes experimental music; while popular music is obviously commercial. To me it seems that neither of these extremes are desirable, but I don’t know a way out of this dilemma.

Now that I know more about European history than ever before, I can’t help drawing connections between composers’ styles and their cultural moment. The impish, dancing, and perfectly balanced melodies of Mozart now remind me of Voltaire’s prose, suffused with Enlightenment ideals of harmony and wit. I also mentally associate the fall of religious vocal music, and the concomitant rise of secular instrumental music, with widespread changes in attitude towards nature: Nature went from being conceived as animated by intelligence and oriented around humankind, to an impartial force, indifferent to humanity, driven only by mechanical laws.

I also wonder why so many first-rate composers—Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Brahms, to name only some—are from German-speaking countries? (And I might also ask why relatively few first-rate painters have arisen from these same countries.) Is this something to do with language? With the Protestant Reformation? I’m sure there are a few monographs about this, somewhere.

To bring this review back to its purported subject, I think that this book is a competent, well-researched, and intelligent overview of the history of western music. And with this rather bland statement, and with this song, I will make my final bow.

View all my reviews