Irving was the first American writer to achieve an international literary reputation. He was a Romantic with a great sense of tradition, looking to the old world (Europe) for models.
A History of New York This book was a parody of another popular history of the day. The book was launched by a charming publicity campaign. First, a newspaper noted the disappearance of a “small, elderly gentleman, dressed in an old black coat and cocked hat, by the name of “Knickerbocker,” adding that there were “some reasons for believing he is not entirely in his right mind.”
Framing Device After further “news” items, the old man’s fictitious landlord announced that he had found in Knickerbocker’s room a “very curious kind of written book” which he intended to dispose of to pay the bill that was owed him, and the book at last appeared, ascribed to Diedrich Knickerbocker. With its publication, Irving became an American celebrity.
The Sketch Book • While working on this book, Irving met the famous English writer Sir Walter Scott, who directed Irving’s attention to the wealth of unused literary material in German folktales. There Irving found the source for “Rip Van Winkle.” • For this book, Irving adopted the new pseudonym Geoffrey Crayon. • The book included “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
Irving’s Contributions to the Short Story Form From F.L. Pattee’s essay on Irving in Development of American Short Story
1. He made short fiction popular. After the sensational triumph of The Sketch Book, a success that stirred greatly the imagination of the younger seekers for literary recognition, sketches and tales became the literary fashion in America, and in such volume did they come that vehicles for their dissemination became imperative. The various popular magazines that sprang up in the 1830’s and 1840’s were indirectly the fruit of Irving’s success as a sketch writer.
2. He was the first prominent writer to strip the prose tale of its moral and didactic elements and to make of it a literary form solely for entertainment. “I have preferred addressing myself to the feeling and fancy of the reader more than to his judgment . . . . My writings, therefore, may appear light and trifling to our country of philosophers and politicians.”
3. He added to the short tale richness of atmosphere and unity of tone.
4. He added definite locality, actual American scenery and people. He was a pioneer in that new school which demanded an American literature, an art that would work in native materials in an original manner.
5. He was the first writer of fiction to realize that the shorter form of narrative could be made something new and different, but that to do it required a peculiar nicety of execution and patient workmanship. “. . . In these shorter writings every page must have merit . . . . Woe to [the author] if he makes an awkward sentence or writes a stupid page; the critics are sure to pounce upon it.”
6. He added humor to the short story and lightness of touch, and made it human and appealing.
7. He was original. He constantly avoided, as he expressed it, the “commonplace of the day.”
8. His characters are always definite individuals and not types or symbols.
9. He endowed the short story with a distinctive and beautiful style.
In many respects, Irving was a detriment to the development of the short story. So far as modern technique is concerned, Irving retarded its growth for a generation. He became from the first a model to be followed by all. To him may be traced the origin of that wave of sentimentalism and unrestrained romance that surged through the annuals and the popular magazines for three decades.
Edgar Allan Poe was powerless in the 1830’s and 1840’s in his attempts to change the technique of the form. Poe’s careful analysis was either unread by his generation or else unheeded because it was a revolt from Irving.
1. Of form as we know it today, the tales of Irving have little. • His genius was not dramatic. He delighted to saunter through his piece, sketching as he went, and chatting genially about his characters. • There is lacking sprightly dialogue, movement unimpeded by description or exposition, additional characters with more collisions and more contrasts, and finally a swift culmination involving all the characters and factors at work in the story.
2. To Irving, plot seemed unessential. • “Rip Van Winkle” has six pages of material before there is any movement. • “For my part, I consider a story merely as a frame on which to stretch my materials.” • Of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” he said, “The story is a mere whimsical band to connect descriptions of scenery, customs, manners, etc.”
3. Irving was gentle to the verge of squeamishness. • A friend of his said, “He looks upon life as a picture, but to catch its beauties, its lights--not its defects and shadows. On the former he loved to dwell. He had a wonderful knack of shutting his eyes to the sinister side of anything.” • This lack of robustness in Irving is one cause of the timid softness that characterized so much of American fiction during the greater part of the century.
4. Irving did not attempt anything serious. Irving finally wrote history; he was not interested in saying anything unique about the human condition.
Irving’s influence • Irving introduced to American literature the form that has become its most distinctive literary product, the short story. • As schoolboys, Hawthorne and Longfellow were inspired by the success of The Sketch Book. • Irving was generous to younger writers all his life, supervising the London publication of William Cullen Bryant’s poems in 1832. • The southwestern humorists of the 1840’s learned from him that realistic details of rural life in America could be worked memorably into fiction.