Promoting, supporting and encouraging the study of the United States since 1955

British Association for American Studies


Issue 10, Spring 2007: Article 2


Issue 10, Spring 2007: Article 2

U.S. Studies Online: The BAAS Postgraduate Journal

Issue 10, Spring 2007

‘Sloughing off the Old Skin’: Ideology, Folklore and the Invention of Tradition in the Tales of Washington Irving

Michael Collins
© Michael Collins. All Rights Reserved

A culture is in decline when it submits to intellectual martial law, and a fresh understanding is denied in a denial of further controversy… a culture achieves identity not so much through ascendancy of one particular set of convictions as through the emergence of its peculiar and distinctive dialogue.

RWB Lewis, The American Adam (1955) [1]

Sometimes new traditions [can] be readily grafted on old ones, sometimes they could be devised by borrowing from well-supplied warehouses of official ritual, symbolism and moral exhortation – religion and princely pomp, folklore and freemasonry…

Eric Hobsbawm, The Invention of Tradition (1983) [2]

After Foucault, the near dominance of the left in the social sciences and humanities, facilitated by the rise of poststructuralism and the New Historical method, has created an intellectual climate sceptical of tradition and committed to exploring the historical action of power in literature through the understanding of ideology and its operation in the formation of texts. This has effectively debunked the New Critical persuasion towards hermetic analysis while the engagements of the old guard with ‘representative imagery and anecdote’ [3] have come to be understood as limited in scope and contentedly contained within the very conception of tradition that the exposure of ideology may conceivably undermine.

Both waves of criticism have unfairly overlooked Irving. The focus on representative democracy of the old myth and symbol school largely neglected Irving for his anti-American strain: poststructuralism, race and gender studies for his bourgeois ideological prejudices. However, it may be noted that symbolic readings do greater justice to Irving’s work than the current focus on race and gender in academia would allow for. As it stands his themes place him in a negative relationship to the contemporary process of nineteenth-century canon formation, despite his massive popularity, and for this reason, excluding his much overlooked aesthetic talents, he is notable. Rather than focusing on his quite remarkable talent in and of its self, what interest there is in Irving emerges from an understanding of him as a popular writer and therefore worthy of study, usually within the framework of the New Historicist reading of his era. Like the genteel, cloistered reading that New Historicism sought in its way to overturn, the project is essentially still based in a hierarchical reasoning, with many texts of an era being of especial value primarily for their supposed lack of quality and their impact on what remains a largely untouched canon since DH Lawrence. As Charles Neider states, ‘the prejudices against Irving… have been replaced by a kind of studied indifference to the work of an early American author worthy of our serious admiration, not our lip service.’ [4]

Self-confessed non-conservatives though they may be; Frederick Crews and Steven Watts variously espoused the limitations of the poststructuralist view in the nineteen-nineties, through their controversial critiques of ‘Left Eclecticism’ and ‘The Idiocy of American Studies.’ Whilst these two critics varied in tone and focus, they converged on the essential point that by allowing ‘only a small band of opinion to be considered tolerable,’ [5] the bulk of recent academia has ostensibly adopted a negative view of the past and received knowledge, limiting the intellectual potentialities of a fully maintained academic and political pantheon and arguably spelling the end of Crews’ own fantasy of a ‘pluralistic arena.’ For Crews and Watts at least, what the focus on ideology and discourse has resulted in has effectively been the ‘ideologisation’ of the academic forum, where ideology is defined as the internalised discourses of a steadily stagnating Leftist politics in addition to the interest in ideological concerns within the process of textual analysis performed. Watts evokes this change as centred in a specific historical epoch when he states that, ‘by the 1980s, what had once been a disgruntled political retrenchment gradually evolved into a sophisticated political disengagement.’[6]

As Edward Shils showed in Tradition, the commitment of academia in the late twentieth-century to rejecting tradition in favour of ‘discursive logic’ has come at the expense of an understanding of tradition as anything more than the operation and action of power through ideology. ‘Tradition,’ Shils observes ‘is a dimension of social structure which is lost or hidden by the atemporal conceptions which now prevail in the social sciences.’ [7] For the poststructuralist, discourse is abstract and based in an ‘authoritarian power structure that is vague and amorphous, yet absolutely defining and constituting of all discourse.’ [8] This view negates the possibility of tradition as offering a potentially useful and valid, non-Hegelian, non- teleological relationship to history.

Terry Eagleton’s conception of the Hegelian model, from which contemporary literary studies draws much of its narrative force, is as a formulation that ‘grants art a lowly status within [its] theoretical system.’ [9] Since Foucault, Derrida and others have demonstrated that ‘epistemes,’ or long-term structures shaped by patterns of ‘discursive regularity’ provide the key to linkage between language and cultural expression,’ [10] why then the reluctance to talk, except abstractly, about tradition? This is because the Foucaultian method, with all its nods to the Hegelian historical dialectic, expresses a tendency to equate ‘tradition,’ which may be opposed to the action of power, with ‘dogma,’ which is always projected through violence. Shils argues that the left has bequeathed a largely negative view of history whereby ‘the existent, and especially the inherited [have] suffered under a presumption of untenability; they had to be changed.’ [11]

In this climate of canon-formation centred on democratic inclusion of marginalised voices it is unsurprising that the work of Washington Irving has been so recently neglected, since Irving’s engagements settle more easily into the right-wing, ‘transfusion model of education, whereby the stored-up wisdom of the classics is considered a kind of plasma that will drip beneficially into our veins.’ [12] For most, currently, Irving’s work is at best diversionary and understood mostly at the level of whimsy, “Just childishness, on our part.” [13] However, Irving’s short stories should be understood as operating under the assumption of ‘tradition as normative models of action and belief,’ [14] which is not to say he views it as useless and burdensome or more nefariously, to be condemned for its maintenance through violence and oppression. Expressed simply as Watts does, ‘the incantation of “race, class and gender” that so dominate recent scholarly publications and conferences… establish a formula of repression with prosperous white men as villains.’ [15]

What may be missing in this analysis is the apolitical sense peculiar to Irving’s special formulation of Romanticism, which I will attempt to case for being most unusual and closer to the engagements of contemporary scholarship that may be initially obvious. The Irvingian sense is both simultaneously ‘conservative’ in its rejection of state intervention in the lives of the individual and active in its use of the folk as a technique with which the writer can dodge political engagement. This is a device enacted through Irving’s narrative method, which I will discuss more fully later. Irving’s use of the folk is far from counter-hegemonic, albeit focused primarily on a criticism of American national character, but this does not mean that it is not possible to reclaim Irving in some way for contemporary scholars. As Leslie Fiedler stated of the earliest American literature, ‘the new audience was middle-class, Protestant, and urban… uncertain of its status and alienated from older folk literature.’ [16] It is this estrangement from the subject matter that Irving engages with and which defines the method and preconditions that manifest themselves in Irving’s apolitical — or rather bourgeois ideological — stance.

To reject Irving’s analysis of post-revolutionary culture for its elitism is to open contemporary scholarship to criticism for precisely the close-mindedness that Watts’ has explored. Irving does, in fact, explore how power is implicated in the formation of texts, but at one remove, through exhibiting how writing, as a creative, imaginative and highly personal act can evade the political responsibility placed upon the individual in the new American republic. What figures in his writing is how a deliberately formulated apolitical stance- where politics is that of a larger system of sociality, such as the new Republic, and not the later micro-politics of Deconstruction, Wittgensteinian ‘language games,’ or Foucaultian historiography- can critique the character of a larger society without exposing the author to criticism in turn from the audience. Irving’s conservatism has a near unique, deconstructive and corrosive quality.

Irving is not the American writer one may presume him to be as his oeuvre sits uncomfortably in the canon of European and American Romanticism despite sharing many its associated correlations with profligate excess and later, academic fascism. As Charles Neider stated in his introduction to Da Capo’s The Complete Tales of Washington Irving, ‘The romantic side of Irving revered Scott.’ [17] However, he also challenges his mentor by exploring, through an early form of metafiction informed by Lawrence Sterne and the British tradition, the modernity of folk texts. It is here that Irving is able to create something uniquely American in his writing, because the age of his country allows references to timelessness and the romance of antiquity to be self-consciously facetious. As Eric Hobsbawm states ‘traditions which appear or claim to be old are often quite recent in origin and sometimes invented.’[18]

Irving’s stories reek of a kind of elite distrust of the masses and reverence for true antiquity of the immediate pre-Emersonian, but post-Revolutionary era. His writing however shows little respect for folk traditions that he so ably constructs and is suggestive of a view of the world that is largely opposed to his new native scene. In ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’ Irving’s scepticism of the invented traditions of the new America, ‘the great torrent of migration and improvement,’ [19] science and the self-reliance of Jeffersonian democracy are as vehemently opposed as the ‘the dominant spirit” [20] of the townspeople, that of superstition and provincial folk consciousness, is decried for its thoughtlessness. As symbols of the idiocy of American folk consciousness and the author’s own perception of the danger of too great a reliance on empiricism and positivism in the new American republic, ‘the apparition of the figure on horseback without a head,’ [21] and the dandyish figure of Crane stand impressively tall.

In David Greven’s recent reading of ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’ ‘it is the story of Ichabod Crane’s murderous removal from the ranks of the homosocial sphere by a fraternity deeply interested in maintaining its own purity.’ [22] I argue however, that whilst the figure of Brom Bones disguised as the horseman provides the narrative impulse for Crane’s flight, or in Greven’s materialistic reading facilitates his murder and the subsequent cover-up, the genuine battle in the text is the author’s battle with the ideological and symbolic. Irving’s resistance to democracy is informed by a non-Hegelian and essentially static view of history. For Irving, a sense of newness may pervade the cultural scene, but his educated mind rejects the possibility of newness informing progressive social change.

It is the character of the ‘ghost of the Hessian trooper,’ [23] which has the greatest agency in the text, since it operates materially and symbolically at numerous levels of social interaction. Firstly, it is a material, ‘invented tradition’ performed by the townsfolk, ‘which seek[s] to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with [an imagined] past.’ [24] It is at this level that it affects Brom Bones, whose character is largely inviolate before being subsumed into the horseman myth and becoming fused with a more violate and stable entity.

Until Brom enacts the role of the spectre his exploits are related after the fact as form of machismo and all are supposedly apocryphal and boasting. As the narrator states of Brom at the dance, a marvellous story by ‘old Brouwer,’ ‘was immediately matched by a thrice marvellous adventure of Brom Bones.’ [25] This suggests that his actions and boasts are governed by the prior actions of others, leaving a question as to what agency Brom, as a man and Katrina’s primary suitor, actually has. When Brom becomes the ghost however, Irving’s style of writing alters to reflect the newfound activity and agency of Brom that the ghost figure has facilitated. The tense of the story changes to the present and the action is described minutely. The same is true of Crane, whose activity is related in the past tense until the attack. The figure of the ghost therefore, is the inspiration of all the male characters in the story, governing their actions almost totally. This is Irving showing the power of history and ideology in controlling men in the age of the American Revolution. Since ideology operates to inspire violence in the suggested murder of Crane, the story is Irving’s criticism of ideology and the American mind.

The second role of the horseman is as a corporeal and material truth that, although a ghost, is as ‘real’ in Irving’s fictional world as any of the other characters. Irving demonstrates how traditions and ideologies are not merely performed but internalised. These then become an actual governing factor in the lives of men. As such the ‘Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow’ is given a routine by Irving, which reflects the routines of the townsfolk and the division of time established by the expectations of liberal democracy; what Foucault explores as the ‘technique of power proper to disciplinary partitioning.’ [26] He is as comical as any one of Irving’s living characters and the author takes great pains to demonstrate that the ghost is a peculiarly modern spirit. He is restless, often ‘belated, and in a hurry’ [27] and, hilariously, always late for church. He is actually almost the model citizen of Tarry Town.

The third role of the horseman is purely symbolic. He becomes throughout the text the force of history around which Irving’s fictional models of American ideology, Crane and the Van Tassels operate. The ghost provides impetus to the narrative and its aesthetic centre. Formally therefore, Irving unfolds the tale intelligently, with its central message of ideology and the ‘American’ way of life being established in the central figure of the text, the ghost, in his various guises. [28]

The comparative recentness of the ‘nameless battle during the Revolutionary War’ [29] from which first springs the figure of the Headless Horseman and the ‘bewitching power that holds a spell over the minds of the good people’ [30] of Tarry Town symbolises the ideology of the newly fought for democratic America, not a timelessness of the Old World. When the narrator speaks of the ‘dominant spirit’ being the Headless Horseman he is engaging the reader in a three-way pun. The ‘ghost’ may semantically also be a ‘spirit’, the spirit may also be the ‘zeitgeist’ and the headlesseness of the Sleepy Hollow spectre a reference to the instability of folk traditions based in a modern consciousness, as well as Irving’s snobbery towards those that believe in them. The lack of a head is a comic device to demonstrate the unquestioning regularity that an internalised ideology places upon the lives of the average man. Collectively the ghost is therefore a criticism of the American mind and the modernity of American tradition, since the spectre is the centre around which the rest of the tale moves.

Crane, rather than being the figure of a modernity that the town fails to accept is another figure based in the ideological constructions of the new America and by Irving, if not Diedrich Knickerbocker, he is justly punished. As Martin Roth states, ‘Ichabod Crane is definitely the enemy. Crane is not only a Yankee of Franklin’s stamp; he also possesses many of the qualities of his earlier Puritan ancestors.’ [31] From the first introduction of Crane we can see that he is a figure whom Irving particularly despises. His motivations as teacher stem from his feeling that he stands to gain financially or personally from his vocation rather than genuine zeal. As the narrator states, ‘on holiday afternoons [he] would convey some of the smaller [boys] home, who happened to have pretty sisters.’ [32] Irving finds Crane morally reprehensible and locates half of the criticism he has with America in ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ with him.

The ambiguity in Irving’s work is best summed up in the phrase from Lawrence’s critique of Cooper that serves for my title, ‘sloughing off the old skin.’ [33] On one hand the title relates to the process of inventing traditions in America by removing the old, but also my own process of newly revising Irving’s contribution to American letters and making account for the unusual comedic tradition in which he is placed. The irony of the title is that in coming to an understanding of Irving’s ideological investment in replacing the old skin with the new, what emerges in his writing is an exact replica of the first skin, that of old world ideology. The moral of his tales is often the Pyrrhic nature of fighting to achieve democracy. As DH Lawrence expressed it, ‘Democracy was a form of self-murder, always… or of murdering someone else.’ [34] Just as Rip Van Winkle passes into old age demonstrating that ‘the changes of states and empires made but little impression on him,’ [35] so Irving’s seemingly bland detachment from political or ideological concerns is a deliberate form of resistance to democracy. Irving, as well as establishing ‘the real beginnings of [American] national literature,’ [36] is a reluctant American and an even more reluctant democrat.

Much of the intelligence of Irving’s work comes from his use of oral history. By separating the tale from the teller the story becomes even further removed from Irving himself, allowing the true moral of the tale to be obscured by several levels of narration. For Charles Neider, ‘One of the effects of this “distance” between author and subject is to suggest a sense of tradition as well as counteract the greenness of immediacy.’ [37] The effect however deliberately belies the covert purpose, which is to veil a subtle criticism of the democratic impulse through comedy, and demonstrate Irving’s rejection of his country’s national character by distance and separation of narrative voice. Irving effectively removes his stamp from the tale almost as if he refuses to equate the experiences fictionalised in the tale with anything worthy in the America of the early nineteenth-century.

Of Irving’s many fictionalised narrator’s, few obscure the tale so totally as Diedrich Knickerbocker, the deceased author of The History of New York, for whom Irving’s own persona and Geoffrey Crayon oftentimes act as literary executors. As Martin Roth notes:

Knickerbocker is the first narrative voice in American literature that rings true… the voice of a mad egoist, unable to order the story in his mind, unable to exert any control over the story he wishes to tell, unable to decide whether the story is fact, myth, actual or marvellous. [38]

It is in this character that Irving locates the American attitude in literature, as Knickerbocker becomes the exemplar for the American national character, the liberal interest in the folk and, for Irving, the perversity of using the tall tale as official history. As Irving writes concerning Knickerbocker in ‘Rip Van Winkle,’

His historical researches… did not lie so much among books as among men; for the former are lamentably scanty on his favourite topics; whereas he found the old burghers, and still more their wives, rich in that legendary lore so invaluable to true history. [39]

His voice drips in this passage drips with the ironic, scornful tone so characteristic of his writing. He later labours the point with references to Knickerbocker’s ‘scrupulous accuracy’ and how his work ‘is now admitted into all historical collections as a book of unquestionable authority.’ [40] Irving’s tone is as peculiarly opposed to a certain liberal model of social history, as it is critical of American liberalism more broadly. Folk knowledge, so Irving reasons, is incommensurable with actual reality, because it is ‘legitimated’ exclusively by the action of power, which in this case is the institutions of liberal democracy in which social science finds its logical home. As Lyotard adduces, ‘this is how legitimation by power takes place… It legitimates science and the law on basis of their efficiency, and legitimates this efficiency on the basis of science and law.’ [41]

Unlike his mentor, Sir Walter Scott, ‘who was showing how the sentiment of nostalgia for the past could infuse fiction and become its informing principle,’ [42] Irving demonstrates a reservation in elevating the folk to the condition of representing the true American consciousness. Irving’s own narrative voice in ‘Rip Van Winkle’ becomes fused with that of Knickerbocker and is designed to reflect the author’s own contemporary moment and the growing interest of the new America in its own native history. When Irving writes, as Knickerbocker, that ‘the story, therefore, is beyond the possibility of doubt,’ [43] the irony is clear and the deception is completed. The whole process of establishing and inventing a new tradition in America, by recourse to the ‘history of the province during the reign of the Dutch governors’ [44] is shown to be inherently flawed and liberalism blind to the limited nature of its own vision.

The literary sketch, with its fleetingness and smallness of scope is the perfect model to evoke this idea, since the end of most of Irving’s tales facilitates the beginning of another that is usually of a similar structure and remarkably similar narrative. The tall tale becomes in Irving, not the last vestige of apparent truth in a confusing age but the very embodiment of the spirit of that age. The author therefore uses the short story to explore his vision of an immobile or cyclical history and the ‘new consciousness,’ created by the conditions of modernity and explored by Wordsworth in 1800. Wordsworth stated that modern consciousness, ‘can only find interest in the way in which each moment differs, grossly and violently, from previous moments. It can only find pleasure in the perpetual liberation from the context and continuity that an “extraordinary incident” provides.’ [45]

This loads Irving’s work with scepticism towards the Enlightenment in its entirety. The form that the Diedrich Knickerbocker tales take is self-reflexive, often absolving the teller at the end from the moral weight of the tale, alluding to the ‘pure immanence of positivism [where] nothing may remain outside, because the mere idea of outsideness is the very source of fear.’ [46] Inherent in this is also a critique of bureaucracy, whose systems diffuse the weight of effect over a wide area. This effect in itself is something peculiar to the diffusion of systems of power in liberal democracies. As such Irving uses several narrators to explore how the work of writers has been affected by the condition of modernity and the bureaucratisation of the artistic process. Irving’s statement that ‘I am no politician… the more I have considered the study of politics, the more I have found it full of complexity,’ [47] points to his disaffection with the current scene. In this way Irving demonstrates his anti-liberal tendencies by critiquing the process of documenting history scientifically, the bureaucracy of the process, and the provincialism of the American folk consciousness.

In The American Adam RWB Lewis claims that in the eighteen-fifties ‘the image contrived to embody the most fruitful contemporary ideas was that of the authentic American as a figure of heroic innocence and vast potentialities, poised at the start of a new history.’ [48] Irving, writing some thirty years before this myth took hold, evokes a morally and historically barren America, which must invent its own traditions in order to survive but whose traditions in their modernity reflect not new truths but the old fictions of Europe. I place him in a great tradition of writing by Americans against the American scene. As an example of the oppositional tendency, his work sits as well next to Hawthorne as Hemingway, whilst his cosmopolitanism and occasional snobbery, seem to suggest the very best in James. With liberalism in crisis, is Irving’s comedy not now worth taking seriously?

University of Nottingham


[1] R. W. B. Lewis, The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy and Tradition in the Nineteenth-Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 1955), p. 2.

[2] Eric Hobsbawm ‘Inventing Traditions’ in The Invention of Tradition, ed. by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 1983), p. 6.

[3] Lewis, p. 1.

[4] Charles Neider, ‘Introduction’ to Washington Irving, The Complete Tales of Washington Irving, ed. By Charles Neider (New York: Da Capo: 1975), p. xxxvii.

[5] Frederick Crews, ‘The New Americanists’, New York Review of Books Vol. 39, No. 15 (Sept. 24th 1992) p. 32.

[6] Steven Watts, ‘The Idiocy of American Studies’, American Quarterly Vol. 43, Issue 4 (Dec. 1991), p. 631.

[7] Edward Shils, Tradition (London: Faber and Faber: 1981), p. 7.

[8] Watts, p. 633.

[9] Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Gateshead: Blackwell Publishing: 1990), p. 1.

[10] Watts, p. 631.

[11] Shils, p. 2

[12] Crews, p. 1.

[13] DH Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (London: Penguin: 1977), p. 7.

[14] Shils, p. 3.

[15] Watts, p. 653.

[16] Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (Chicago: Dalkey Archive Press: 2003), p. 41

[17] Neider, p. xiii.

[18] Hobsbawm, p. 6.

[19] Washington Irving, ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’, in The Complete Tales of Washington Irving ed. Charles Neider (New York: Da Capo: 1975) p. 33.

[20] Ibid. p. 32.

[21] Ibid. p. 32.

[22] David Greven, ‘Troubling Our Heads About Ichabod: ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’ Classic American Literature, and the Sexual Politics of Homosocial Brotherhood’, American Quarterly Vol. 56, No.1 (March 2004), p. 86.

[23] ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’, in The Complete Tales of Washington Irving, p. 31.

[24] Hobsbawm, p. 1.

[26] The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’, in The Complete Tales of Washington Irving, p. 49.

[27] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Penguin, 1991), p. 199.

[28] The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’, in The Complete Tales of Washington Irving, p. 32.

[29] Ibid. p. 32.

[30] Ibid. p. 32.

[31] Martin Roth, Comedy and America: The Lost World of Washington Irving (London: Kennikat Press, 1975), p. 163.

[32] The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’, in The Complete Tales of Washington Irving, p. 34.

[33] Lawrence, p. 58.

[34] Ibid, p. 59.

[35] The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’, in The Complete Tales of Washington Irving, p. 14.

[36] Roth, p. ix.

[37] Neider, p. xxiv.

[38] Roth, pp. 169-170.

[39] Washington Irving, ‘Rip Van Winkle’, in The Complete Tales of Washington Irving ed. By Charles Neider (New York: Da Capo: 1975) p. 1.

[40] Ibid. p. 1.

[41] Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Manchester: Manchester University Press: 2005), p. 47.

[42] Daniel Hoffman, Form and Fable in American Fiction (New York: Oxford University Press: 1965), p. 83.

[43] ‘Rip Van Winkle’, in The Complete Tales of Washington Irving, p. 15.

[44]Ibid. p. 1.

[45] Dana Brand, The Spectator and the City in Nineteenth Century American Literature (Cambridge: CUP: 1991), p. 4.

[46] Theodor W Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment (London: Verso: 1994), p. 16.

[47] Washington Irving, The Complete Tales of Washington Irving, p. xvii.

[48] Lewis, p. 1.