Edited with an introduction by Charles Neider, Da Capo Press, 1998.
(This book is only 798 pages, but I’ve been reading it for over a year. And you thought I’d just given up on posting about books.)
Washington Irving is known for a number of things: being the first professional literary writer of North America, creating of the character Diedrich Knickerbocker (for whom New York is called the Knickerbocker State), originating numerous popular legends (e.g., people though the earth flat until Columbus), and, of course, authoring a few famous stories such as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Rip van Winkel, and The Devil and Tom Walker. According to Neider, there was an anti-Irving backlash in the 1930s, which is probably why I was only familiar with the three tales mentioned above.
Irving is an amazing storyteller. Even given nearly two hundred years’ gap, his writing is still crystal clear and humorous and evocative and beautiful. He sketches out the Kentucky frontier, ghost-plagued swamps of New England, pre-Revolutionary War Dutch settlements in New York, medieval Spain, the mountains of Italy, and more with equal skill, each believable and very visually rendered. He tells rip-roaring adventures, satires, or fairy tales in those contexts. Some are simple — predictable, even, twee or corny to the modern reader — and yet the enthusiasm and charm with which he writes them makes it easy to forgive.
What really shines through in this collection of sixty some-odd tales, however, is how much Irving loves storytelling. He likes it so much that many of them are really framing stories, wherein the narrator meets up with some other character who tells a story — which may well itself be a framing story. Sometimes, I found myself popping out of a story-stack five or six deep.
Don’t let Hollywood’s pathetic interpretations sell Irving short. These are a lot of fun to read.