Anticipations of Poe: Washington Irving - Interregnum - Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014

Anticipations of Poe: Washington Irving
Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

With the possible exception of Hoffmann, the most distinguished figure in this interregnum period—post-Gothic but pre-Poe—is Washington Irving (1783—1859). Irving, more than Brockden Brown, deserves the title of Poe’s most noted American precursor, if only because he worked with the supernatural liberally in a manner that Brown appeared disinclined to do. Irving, born in New York but spending much of his life travelling throughout England and the Continent, is emphatically Anglo-American in his style, subject matter, and temperament. As is fitting for an author whose second book publication was A History of New York (1809), Irving was deeply knowledgeable in the Dutch legendry of the American continent; indeed, the frequency of his use of the word legend in the titles of his supernatural tales is of some significance. Given that Irving came to literary maturity during the later stages of the Gothic movement, it is likely that he had absorbed at least the more noteworthy contributions to Gothic fiction. The exact degree of Irving’s familiarity with Gothic is not, to my understanding, known, but on the basis of his tales and sketches it seems undeniable that he was well versed in the work of his predecessors in supernatural terror.

The array of Irving’s weird work is impressively large, going well beyond the celebrated tales in The Sketch-Book (1820) and Tales of a Traveller (1824). We find other weird specimens in Bracebridge Hall (1822), The Legends of the Alhambra (1832), the late collection Wolfert’s Roost (1855), and even an uncollected item or two. It is exactly the scattered nature of Irving’s supernatural work that has perhaps robbed him of the credit he deserves as a significant forerunner of Poe. A collection of all Irving’s horror tales would serve a valuable purpose.

The degree to which Irving was steeped in Gothic imagery is most clearly evident in a trilogy of linked stories in Tales of a Traveller, “The Adventure of the Mysterious Picture,” “The Adventure of the Mysterious Stranger,” and “The Story of the Young Italian.” This rather meandering account focuses upon a purportedly “haunted room” (75) with a curious portrait that (as in Melmoth the Wanderer) appears to follow the occupant of the room with its eyes. We are then given a long, rambling narrative of an Italian involved in a love triangle, murder, and so forth—all fairly stock Gothic stage properties, but the tale does occasionally generate a powerful atmosphere of terror.

In “The Mysterious Chambers” we find a nod to Clara Reeve in the protagonist’s remark, “Here was the haunted wing of the castle” (56). This is not so much a story as, apparently, a first-person narrative by Irving himself in his tour of the “Moorish halls” (56) of the Alhambra. The purportedly haunted nature of the wing is immediately dispelled, but there are nonetheless some vivid spooky effects. In “Legend of the Arabian Astrologer” the astrologer in question appears to use some Egyptian magic to ward off the foes of the Moorish king Aben Hazuz. There is a reference to a “Gothic princess” (114) who, after the astrologer has built a magic palace based upon the mysterious Arabian city of Irem, disappears with Aben Hazuz down a shaft to some underground realm.

The long tale “Dolph Heyliger” has a generally Gothic cast also. We are here introduced to the young Dolph, a mischievous boy who is apprenticed to a physician who owns a “haunted” house in the country. As with Clara Reeve’s protagonist, Dolph dares the physician to let him stay there at night. In fact, he stays three nights, during which the ghost of an “elderly man” (477) appears to him, at which point Irving reflects an ancient superstition: “he [Dolph] recollected to have heard it said, spirits have no power to speak until spoken to” (481). The ghost leads Dolph outside to a well, for reasons that are not explained, then disappears. In good Gothic fashion, Irving now indulges in a quite irrelevant digression whereby Dolph boards a ship sailing for Albany and encounters one Antony Vander Heyden, who speaks of “The Storm-Ship”—a story within the story that does little but tell of a strange ship that is seen just before or just after a storm. Eventually we learn that the ghost is that of an old Flemish man who had buried some treasure—in the well. (A later story, “The Haunted Ship,” is another nautical horror tale, dealing with the pranks of a ghostly crew on a ship. The ghosts then attempt to save the ship as it is caught in a tropical storm, but fail.)

In The Sketch-Book Irving is attempting—as far as his weird writing is concerned—to establish the young United States as a fecund venue for the supernatural. The difficulty of his task is epitomised by what the prominent British critic William Hazlitt would say a few years later in reference to Charles Brockden Brown:

… no ghost, we will venture to say, was ever seen in North America. They do not walk in broad day; and the night of ignorance and superstition which favours their appearance, was long past before the United States lifted up their head beyond the Atlantic wave… . In this orderly and undramatic state of security and freedom from natural foes, Mr. Brown has provided one of his heroes with a demon to torment him, and fixed him at his back;—but what is to keep him there? Not any prejudice or lurking superstition on the part of the American reader; for the lack of such, the writer is obliged to make up by incessant rodomontade, and face-making. (“American Literature—Dr. Channing,” Edinburgh Review, October 1829)

No doubt Hazlitt exaggerated the freedom from “ignorance and superstition” prevailing in the young nation; but his general point—how do you establish an atmosphere of mediaeval superstition in a nation that did not have a Middle Ages?—is well taken. In Hazlitt’s opinion, Brown failed in his attempt to lodge terror in the human psyche. Irving, for his part, draw upon the legendry of the Dutch—and of the native Americans before them—to create an ersatz mediaevalism that could allow for the full play of superstition. The Dutch presence in the American northeast extended two centuries prior to Irving’s day, and the native American presence uncounted centuries before that. In Irving’s mind, these lengths of time afforded a sufficiency of spectral heritage to develop.

It is significant that, in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” the narrator emphasises the prevalence of ghostly lore in a long-settled region. After recounting several anecdotes of a general sort relating to the older Dutch inhabitants of the area (the Hudson River valley north of New York City), Irving goes on to say:

But all these were nothing to the tales of ghosts and apparitions that succeeded. The neighborhood is rich in legendary treasures of the kind. Local tales and superstitions thrive best in these sheltered long-settled retreats; but are trampled under foot by the shifting throng that forms the population of most of our country places. Besides, there is no encouragement for ghosts in most of our villages, for they have scarcely had time to finish their first nap, and turn themselves in their graves, before their surviving friends have traveled away from the neighborhood; so that when they turn out at night to walk their rounds, they have no acquaintance left to call upon. This is perhaps the reason why we so seldom hear of ghosts except in our long-established Dutch communities. (309—10)

Had this not been written a decade before Hazlitt’s comment, it could have been considered a direct rebuttal of it.

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is in fact one of Irving’s most powerful forays into the supernatural—or, perhaps, the pseudo-supernatural. After a tremendous atmospheric build-up in which Ichabod Crane finally encounters the headless horseman, who then throws his head at Crane, knocking him out, we are then given an elaborate naturalistic explanation of the events: the horseman was actually one Brown Bones, Crane’s rival for the affections of Katrina van Tassel; the “head” was in reality a pumpkin; and so forth. Quite frankly, this “explanation” fails to convince; and a postscript that purports to supply the moral of the story—“That there is no situation in life but has its advantages and pleasures—provided we will take but a joke as we find it” (319)—is so preposterous that it makes us suspect that the story really has no “moral” at all, and no other purpose but to convey terror.

Irving’s emphasis, in the passage quoted from “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” on the supersitition dominant in the rural regions is of direct relevance to the other celebrated tale in The Sketch-Book, “Rip Van Winkle.” This story—based on a German folktale—has suffered, paradoxically, from being too well-known; by which I mean that the standard conception of it—that Van Winkle merely falls asleep and wakes up twenty years later in a world rendered entirely unfamiliar to him by the rapid social changes that have occurred—overlooks the central reason why (or, rather, how) Van Winkle fell asleep in the first place. At the outset it is told that Van Winkle had met a strange band of people in the Catskill Mountains and was enticed into taking a drink offered by them. This, in reality, is the genuine supernatural component of the story, for Van Winkle’s falling asleep—really his lapsing into a state of suspended animation—is only a product of the apparent magic potion he has drunk. The exact nature or origin of the strange people he encountered in the mountains is never clarified, but they seem somewhat along the lines of trolls or elves.

Irving, regrettably, repeats the tactic of the explained supernatural in what would otherwise be a powerfully atmospheric tale, “The Spectre Bridegroom.” Here a man riding to a castle to meet his fiancée is set upon by robbers and mortally wounded, whereupon his friend pretends to be a “spectre bridegroom” before admitting to the deception. “The Adventure of My Aunt” is similar: the aunt appears to notice that the portrait of her dead husband moves, but it is in fact a man hiding behind the portrait.

Wisely, however, Irving eschewed the explained supernatural in a number of his most gripping tales. Perhaps the acme of his work in this vein is “The Adventure of the German Student,” far and away the best horror story in Tales of a Traveller. Set in the midst of the French Revolution, the narrative tells of a student, Wolfgang, who meets a young woman near the guillotine—a woman he had dreamed about. Taking her back to his room (for sexual purposes, as Irving states in an unusually frank manner), Wolfgang is horrified to find that she is a headless corpse, thereby revealing the truth of the dialogue he and the woman had had earlier:

“I have no friend on earth!” said she.

“But you have a home,” said Wolfgang.

“Yes—in the grave!” (70)

The student goes mad. This tale features an unwontedly grim atmosphere of terror in contrast to the great majority of Irving’s other works.

Rather less effective is “The Bold Dragoon,” in which it is suggested that the “haunting” of a room in an inn where a dragoon is staying—the furniture madly comes to life—was caused by a previous tenant, an epileptic who apparently infected the furniture with his malady. “The Adventure of My Uncle” is a simple tale of an apparition: a woman walks into the tower room where the uncle of the title is staying, and he later comes upon her portrait, which establishes her as long dead. But the woman’s story, especially the crucial point of why she is now a ghost, is never fully explained. As for “The Devil and Tom Walker,” this is merely a moral sketch with no sense of horror at all, even though the supernatural is obviously involved: Walker, encountering the Devil, becomes a usurer in exchange for great wealth, but the Devil snatches him away the moment he is about to foreclose a mortgage on a friend.

The generally light-hearted, genial, whimsical, and even occasionally flippant tone that Irving affects in the great majority of his tales would seem to work against the creation of an effective atmosphere of supernatural suspense; but—as, in a somewhat different manner, with M. R. James a century later—this tone frequently has the effect of causing readers to let down their defences so that the supernatural incursion becomes the more powerful and terrifying. The overall looseness and, at times, needless verbosity of Irving’s narratives contrasts strikingly with the best of Poe; nevertheless, the impressive array of Irving’s supernatural and pseudo-supernatural work makes him a worthy predecessor to his distinguished countryman.