The Sketch-book of Geoffrey Crayon by Washington Irving: a review

The Sketch-Book of Geoffery Crayon, Gent. by Washington Irving was revolutionary in its time, and I’ve meant to read or listen to it for a few years, but I feel its main appeal factors have been occluded by cultural change. I’d argue that it is not broadly interesting to a modern reader. It’s certainly a competently written work, with some sections that are highly appealing, but there are many such works, so it is better merely to sample the best parts, and to leave the others, unless a particular reader finds Irving’s style engaging.

Originally I became aware of this book because it had many admirers among authors. Various other writers, at the time it was published, claimed that it was their favourite book, or that  it made them weep, or that it was beautiful, and I’ve read the works of several of those authors and enjoyed them, so it seemed an acquaintance with this book should prove interesting. The problem, for a modern reader, is that the elements it demonstrated are now so obvious to us that they are invisible. They do not move us as they moved its contemporaries.

That Americans can write literature, considered stunningly revolutionary at the time in Britain, seems a trite observation now. That American literature is infested with people who drone on and on about themselves and their slightly banal experiences of dealing with first-world problems is unfortunate, and makes much of it unreadable, but that it exists shocks non-one. People do not stop Jonathan Frazen in the street and ask “Are you really an American?” as they are reported to have asked Irving.

That books can be written purely to entertain, with no moral message — also claimed as novel for this book — is also not, to a modern reader, a particularly interesting observation. The Sketch-Book fails to deliver on this, because there is quite clear polemic intent in some sections, and because it’s not the first book written for the reader’s pleasure. Many classical authors have had morals ground into them by later criticism, which may make Irving’s approach seem fresh, but it isn’t. To pick an example from my own favourites: if you read Lucian, you may be tempted to think “Ah Lucian: He was attempting to elaborate on the unreliability of textual authorities, hence, that is his moral.” I don’t agree. I think he was spinning a yarn and later people who have said:

  • Lucian is a good wrter.
  • Good things are spiritual.
  • Lucian must be spiritual.
  • We, being good, must also be spiritual.
  • All good things are morally enlightening.
  • Lucian must have a moral.
  • We can see Lucian’s moral.
  • We are better people than those who cannot see the moral, for we are more spiritual.

are actually drawing quite a long bow. Irving is simply the first American author, widely read, to not try to defend the quality of his work on anything other than aesthetic grounds. That is: he thought his book was fun to read, so you should buy it. Again, to the modern reader, that’s not a new pitch, so his brazenness in this regard is invisible to us.

Beyond the great claims for the book, let us consider its style, and Irving’s recurring motifs.

The book was originally published as a series, in which a few chapters, clumped together, would go out as a sort of journal or pamphlet. Irving claimed he always intended for the book to be published in a single volume but, that being the case, the book has a very uneven tone. As he wishes to put in anything amusing, almost at random, we are treated to folklore repackaged from German origins, literay criticism on the love poetry of a Scottish king, his thoughts on native Americans, and meanderings through the poorer parts of London, all packaged together. In his later edits, he jumbles these deliberately: rather than placing The Spectral Bridgegroom and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow together, they are spaced out through the book. This makes it seem like he feels the book should not be read at one sitting, but rather than you should read a chapter, go off and do something else, and the next day read another, spreading his work over a month or so.

Irving is remarkably morbid. This struck me most forcefully when reading his section about Westminster Abbey. Now, I’ve had the great fortune to see Westminster Abbey. As I wandered about I was first struck by the architectural beauty of the internal space, and then by the curious way that commemorations have been jumbled in, so that it looks like a Gormenghastian attic. My wife and I wandered about, admiring the memorials to various kings, and talking about the works of the various poets. I had a brief argument with the verger, who insisted that Australia was founded on Australia Day, and then annoyed him further by being rather more impressed by the grave of Thomas Cochrane than of some of the other worthies. All in all, a very rewarding day, in which not once did I feel the need to weep, or point out that all things are as dust, or reflect on my own inevitable death. Perhaps this is a lack of deep feeling in me, because Irving apparently deliberately seeks out places which make him feel this way. I thought Westminster Abbey was a feast for the mind, contrasting with Saint Paul’s, which is a torture for the legs. Irving likes it bleak, but sometimes I feel the desire to slap him and say “You are a man of independent means in a city you love, touring sites you’ve only read about. Other people are sweating in factories, or leading oxen in fields. Get a grip, man.”

He is also, for a founding light in American literature, so enthralled by British subjects that he reads as more English than James Herriot. That’s not a bad thing per se: it’s an expectation I’m bringing to him as a leading American author. It’s just something readers need to be aware of. He seems to idolize Britain in a way familiar from Australian colonial authors. This feeling is perhaps emphasised by his writing about the native peoples of America, which reads similarly to some of the material written about Aboriginal Australians. I’m not going to review that part, because I don’t feel qualified to judge its factuality, beyond noting that his idea that Native Americans never went to war with each other is a bit noble savagish.

I listened to the excellent Librivox recording of this book. Click this cover image for the download page.

His book does accidentally say something glorious about Americans. In early America, you really could make a living selling pamphlets about the obscure love poetry of little-known Celtic monarchs. People were interested in reading and thinking to an extraordinary degree. It contrasts with the recent SOPA hearings, with the various politicans all taking pride in “Not being a nerd” and therefore not knowing how the internet worked, while deciding how to control it. In Irving’s time, a routine about how you are a common man, not an intellectual, would have had you treated with contempt, and made you unelectable. Citzens used to read. Indeed – anyone who was a respectable adult read deliberately difficult things and talked about them. We used to have the same thing here in Australia: there was something wrong with a man who couldn’t recite a bit of poetry when asked. I’m sorry we’ve lost that.

Irving likes to write very long stories. If I asked you the plot of Rip van Winkle, could you, telling me, do it justice in under half an hour? Irving doesn’t. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which is the best section of the book, is also incredibly long for the little that happens in the story. I accept that horror needs space to work with atmosphere, so in that case there’s some excuse, but the rest of his lengthy exercises in atmosphere require a patience which is less pronounced in modern readers than in those of his own time.

In short, rewarding, but perhaps not rewarding enough. Rewarding as material for review and discussion (certainly the longest review we have ever published on book coasters, for example), but not thoroughly entertaining.  Later this month I’ll follow up with book club discussion questions for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which, Irving seemed to think and I agree, is the best part.