A Representative of American Romanticism
There is a serene and settled majesty to woodland scenery that enters into the soul and delights and elevates it, and fills it with noble inclinations.
- Washington Irving
Romanticism in America started as a revolt against the zealous rigidity of the neoclassical era and the strict Puritan practices revived during the Age of Enlightenment. The literature of the time delved into avenues not previously explored; these emphasised the creative and imaginative over the logical. However, as with any such transition between eras, the literature did not simply metamorphose overnight; change was slow, needing a driving force to progress. One such force in America was Washington Irving. Irving both experienced and influenced the early stages of Romanticism in America through his descriptions of Nature’s beauty, his utilisation of gothic imagery, and his belief that man was inherently good. All these traits were representative of Romanticism as a whole.
Indeed, descriptions of nature are common throughout Irving’s work, being particularly emphasized in such stories as "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." The former begins with a detailed description of the Catskill Mountains, and how they are considered perfect barometers through the "magical hues and shapes" that they exhibit to indicate the weather. Later, while climbing them, Rip sees the Hudson River moving on its "silent but majestic course, the reflection of a purple cloud, or the sail of a lagging bark, here and there sleeping on its glassy bosom, and at last losing itself in the blue highlands." This latter description does not further the story by helping to set the scene because the river is quite distant. Rather, it is included to instill a sense of communion with nature - something Irving felt was of paramount importance.
The supernatural (requiring a willing suspension of disbelief) also played a major part in Irving’s writings. In "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" there is a very strong supernatural theme throughout. The Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow was a spectral apparition that was physically impossible, yet was considered factual by the characters of the story - in fact, the "most authentic historians of those parts" told of "a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannon-ball," who "rides forth to the scene of battle in nightly quest of his head." Moreover, in "Rip Van Winkle," Rip entered an amphitheatre where "objects of wonder presented themselves" and where eventually he drank too much and "fell into a deep sleep" which lasted 20 years - another physical impossibility, yet one that was accepted in Irving’s story.
Though characteristics of the Romantic Period consisted largely of literary and artistic devices, a body of beliefs specific to the period was also pervasive. One such belief which manifested itself in Irving’s work was the supposition that all humans were inherently good, and so would act nobly without incentive to do so. In "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," Brom Bones was described as a "burly, roaring, roystering blade." So active was this rogue that "when any madcap prank, or rustic brawl, occurred in the vicinity, [the people] always shook their heads, and warranted Brom Bones was at the bottom of it." Since no means of income was mentioned, and considering his disposition, such a character would likely be forced to make his living by highway robbery and other such thuggery. However, in Irving’s story Brom was portrayed as a harmless prankster. Likewise, in "Rip Van Winkle," Rip had an "insuperable aversion to all kinds of profitable labour," and yet he "would never refuse to assist a neighbour in the roughest toil." While Irving’s stories had villains, they were outnumbered, and usually defeated by, the other characters - those who inevitably displayed inherent goodness and who exhibited consideration for their fellow man.
Elements of Romanticism pervade all of Irving’s writings. His love of placid scenes of nature, his sense of wonder, and his optimism all show through, even in his early work; these elements became progressively more pronounced as the freedom of expression which that era had fostered took root. Ultimately, Irving’s work has come to be viewed as emblematic of the Romantic era.
This page last updated on: Sunday, 18 January 2004
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