The Booky Man: Breaking news from Washington

Books Features Washington
Share Tweet Submit Pin

This week (April 3) is the birthday of a writer you don’t hear mentioned much in these post-modern, metafictive, solipsistic literary times.

Maybe it’s because so many people nowadays are scared of what comes out of Washington.

Washington Irving turned out funny, scary stuff. Enduring too. You still find The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle in bookstores nearly 200 years after they first appeared in print.

All of us who write should be so lucky.

But Irving doesn’t get the love that our darker angels—Poe, Hawthorne, Melville—seem to claim. I’ve turned on a radio twice this week and heard the names of Poe and Hawthorne float out into the car. They live in our culture in ways Irving doesn’t.

Today, The Booky Man raises an ink-stained hand to endorse Washington Irving and urge a new visit to his pages.

I grew up among story-telling Southerners. Most summer nights of my childhood in the 1960s, neighbors or relatives gathered in what passed for the cool of the evening down in the Alabama woods. We chatted in the front yard around a big turpentine-oozing pine tree, six or eight of us, sometimes more. Many nights we hand-churned home-made ice cream, which to this day is the greatest proof in life that hard work has its own reward. My daddy smoked cigarettes that glowed in the dark, and the grown-ups passed around stories that glowed in the dark too.

We heard funny tales, like the one about my second cousin Horace, who once drove a car from south Florida to Alabama with a cage in the back seat full of live squirrel monkeys he planned to sell to tourists. We delighted to hear, again and again, of the moment the monkeys got loose in Cousin Horace’s car … and the animal rights catastrophe that followed.

We also gulped down sad stories. As a boy in Troy, Alabama, my father witnessed a man idling his car by a little community lake. After a few minutes, the man left the car with the door open and the engine running. He slipped down a grassy bank to the lake. He waded out waist-deep in the water, then pulled a pistol from somewhere and shot himself right in the heart with it. “Right in the heart,” my daddy always emphasized—the sad punch line that told us the story ended there for that poor stranger … though the story lived on under our pine tree those summer nights.

It usually happened, as the evening deepened and the hour grew late, that our summer stories got more and more supernatural. There is a deep taproot among the Scots-Irish, a connection to some Celtic pagan past that thirstily channels up the ghosts. Get Southern people together out-of-doors after the sun goes down, and you’ll sooner or later hear spooky stories.

South Alabama ghost stories, especially those from Barbour County around Eufaula, have a distinct tang. Think of the bloody Grimm Brothers fairy tales, chopped and blended with more fanciful, lyric stories from Ireland and Africa, and you’ve got the idea.

Many are very dark, edgy tales that often leave children wide-eyed and unable to sleep. Perhaps the term is Gothic, if that word can be used to describe stories of country farm women who slipped out of their skins beside their sleeping husbands at night to fly up the chimney and cavort with Satan … or of Little Three Eyes, the eerie child born with a third eye in her forehead that could see bad things about to happen to people.

Also, we heard stories of fantastic creatures. One such beast of the Alabama Wiregrass was the wampus cat. No adult I knew could ever really describe a wampus cat, but an active and fevered imagination could fill in the blanks after a storyteller mentioned it had “eyes as big as headlights.” About this point, naturally, a screech owl would scream from the dark woods, and kids would huddle near the adults in delighted terror, suddenly heedless of heat or mosquitoes or the falling ashes from unfiltered Camels.

True or not, ghost stories and folk tales brocade American literature, especially its fiction. The enduring reputation of Washington Irving depends today almost wholly on this kind of tale.

Irving was born the week the American Revolution ended, in 1783. He came partly from a Scots heritage, a tradition where fierce warriors painted themselves blue and fought naked in battle and played harps to heal their wounds, and where giants and fairies and talking animals and tree spirits and all other sorts of supernatural folk lived side-by-side among real ones.

Irving grew up in New York, where he began writing satirical pieces for local newspapers when he was only 19. Those pieces made an early name for the young man … though which name might be a question. One Irving pseudonym, Deidrich Knickerbocker, would evolve into a nickname for all New Yorkers, including a professional basketball team, the New York Knicks. Irving was also the first writer to use the name “Gotham” for New York City … a nickname popularized by the comic book series Batman, set in Gotham City. (The Caped Crusader might be surprised to know that the name Gotham actually comes from an Anglo-Saxon word for … Goat’s Town.)

Washington Irving actually met George Washington, his namesake, and at the end of his life Irving produced a six-volume biography of the Father of our County. Irving also wrote a biography of Christopher Columbus, setting into the American mind—falsely—that all Europeans before Columbus thought the world to be flat. (Yes, blame Washington Irving for this piece of phony mythology.) Irving also lived in the great Moorish castle The Alhambra. He wrote a history of Spain there, and he worked for Martin van Buren, who would one day become U.S. President.

With James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving was the first American writer to be seen as respectable and become widely read in Europe. And while Cooper’s pulpy tales of frontiersmen and Indians have aged poorly, especially after Mark Twain dismantled them in a famously scathing review in the late 1800s, Washington Irving still holds his charms—thanks almost entirely to the enduring strength of those two stories of the supernatural.

Each gave us famous characters in American literature. Rip Van Winkle is a simple, slightly lazy man who wanders off from his sharp-tongued wife into the Catskills one afternoon with his dog and a squirrel gun. Rip hears rumbling noises in a canyon, investigates … and finds a group of curiously dressed Dutchmen playing nine-pins and drinking something delicious from a keg. He naturally nicks a sip of elixir, then another … then keeps drinking like a Georgia frat boy until he passes out. When he wakes up, 20 years have passed.

The second leg of Irving’s reputation stand on a ghost story likely heard from the same Dutch settlers who sat under beech trees in the Hudson Valley on summer nights and passed down the story of Rip Van Winkle.

Here’s how Irving introduced the legend of a little place called Sleepy Hollow.

The sequestered situation of this church seems always to have made it a favorite haunt of troubled spirits. It stands on a knoll surrounded by locust trees and lofty elms, from among which its decent white-washed walls shine modestly forth, like Christian purity beaming through the shades of retirement. A gentle slope descends from it to a silver sheet of water bordered by high trees, between which peeps may be caught at the blue hills of the Hudson. To look upon its grass-grown yard, where the sunbeams seem to sleep so quietly, one would think that there at least the dead might rest in peace. On one side of the church extends a wide woody dell, along which raves a large brook among broken rocks and trunks of fallen trees. Over a deep black part of the stream, not far from the church, was formerly thrown a wooden bridge: the road that led to it and the bridge itself were thickly shaded by overhanging trees, which cast a gloom about it even in the daytime, but occasioned a fearful darkness at night. Such was one of the favorite haunts of the headless horseman, and the place where he was most frequently encountered. The tale was told of old Brouwer, a most heretical disbeliever in ghosts, how he met the horseman returning from his foray into Sleepy Hollow, and was obliged to get up behind him; how they galloped over bush and brake, over hill and swamp, until they reached the bridge, when the horseman suddenly turned into a skeleton, threw old Brouwer into the book, and sprang away over the tree-tops with a clap of thunder.

So, good reader, want to be remembered more than 200 years after you yourself have turned into a skeleton, or disappeared … with or without a clap of thunder?

Spin a good yarn like this one about a headless horseman. Add one skinny school-teacher, the famously crane-like Ichabod Crane. Make this social-climbing schoolmaster a suitor for a fair maiden’s love, and make his rival a very capable local good-old-boy, a mischief-maker and fine horseman named Brom Bones … then put the two men together on a lonely stretch of road near a pumpkin patch on a dark and stormy night.

All hell … and much hilarity … will break loose.

Irving’s stories, like the ghosts cracking their knuckles in the corner of your attic at night, seem titillating still.

Honestly, they’re now 200 years old and counting. But they still get you. Right in the heart.

Happy birthday, Washington Irving.