Washington Irving is still a master

Washington Irving is still a master January 2, 2018

While I don’t closely follow what’s being taught in our schools these days (despite regularly bemoaning it, whatever it is), I understand that some of the classics are no longer taught in American secondary (‘lower’?) education. If what has happened to Longfellow has happened to Washington Irving, that is truly a shame. I read a selection of Washington Irving’s works last year, and they were simply fantastic. If nothing else, Irving is a wonderful writer and should be read for that alone. Consider the following from his short satire ‘Salmagundi’

“The experience of ages has demonstrated, that in all nations, barbarous or enlightened, the mass of the people, the mob, must be slaves, or they will be tyrants; but their tyranny will not be long: some ambitious leader, having at first condescended to be their slave, will at length become their master; and in proportion to the vileness of his former servitude, will be the severity of his subsequent tyranny. Yet, with innumerable examples staring them in the face, the people still bawl out liberty, by which they mean nothing but freedom from every species of legal restraint, and a warrant for all kinds of licentiousness…” (Washington Irving, ‘Salmagundi’)

Seriously, this guy is a fantastic writer and you should read his stories!

The Headless Horsemen Source: Wikipedia

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle” are of course both classics and ought to be read by every red-blooded American. But equally excellent are “Adventure of the Mysterious Picture”, “Hell-Gate,” “The Devil and Tom Walker,” and “The Spectre Bridegroom” are also excellent, as are many, many more of Irving’s stories. In addition to being a founder of the horror/weird genre (along with Hawthorne and, later, Poe), Irving is one of the founders of American literature in general–a fact of which he himself was cognizant. He spent a lot of time thinking about questions like: what should the fiction of the new nation look like? Among other things, it should be different from European fiction, but it should also be respectful of its roots. It should be of the highest quality by European standards, but not intentionally conforming to European standards. It should be a reflection of the spirit of the American people, but it should also encourage them to mature and grow in the spirit of the Founding. All of this Irving set out to accomplish, and by any reasonable standard he did so with spectacular success.

There are a couple of interesting illustrations in this project for Christians. For example, one obvious parallel is with the beginning of Christianity. In the New Testament and in the later writings of the Apologetic and Apostolic Fathers, we see believers working through the question of their relationship to the past. Christianity is something new, but it is also something that is clearly tied to Judaism and the surrounding Greco-Roman culture. How much of the Old Testament laws should remain in effect (hint: Paul’s pretty clear that the answer is ‘none‘, which is not a vote for antinomianism!). Likewise, how much of the surrounding Greco-Roman culture should Christians continue to hold on to? Paul tells us not to be conformed to this world, and then cites pagan poets when speaking in Athens.

We see yet another parallel with Irving’s project in the great doctrine of conversion. When we are born again, when we repent of our sins and believe the Gospel, we eventually have to face the question of what we keep and what has to go. Obviously sins must be increasingly rejected (not that we’ll ever be free in this life) and the fruit of the Spirit cultivated, but what about all the grey-area/in-betweens of life? The alcoholic has to give up drunkenness, but does he have to give up smoking? The glutton has to give up his worship of food, but does he also have to give up a glass of wine with dinner? The citizen must give up putting his country first in all things, but must he give up patriotism completely? And so on.

The answer to all of these questions is complicated, and beyond the purview of this review. The short version is that the Christian should take nothing of the old world into his new life, but still has to live a new life in the old world. In conversion, the old man dies and the new man is born, and the new man sees the old world with new eyes–including both the common grace goodness that God in His kindness runs through the old world, and the deep depravity that man in his rebellion has shot through all things. Irving’s struggles to create an American literature free from (but still connected to) the European culture of the day provides a useful point of comparison.

Of course, at the end of the day the reason to read Irving is not to take spiritual lessons, but rather to delight in his prose. His works are available all over the place online, but the Library of America has also put out a nice edition with an excellent introduction. However you find his writings, be sure to go read something from Washington Irving, you won’t regret it!

Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO, where is not really a Knickerbocker but also definitely not a Southerner. 

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