Or: Americans Don't Read
English major? Avid reader? Like to annoy people at parties? Read on. Others--beware.
When Television Was Called Books
Washington Irving, read Geoffrey Crayon, read Diedrich Knickerbocker--they were all the same man, being nom-de-plume, real name, and the nom-de-plume used by the first nom-de-plume--includes and creates in the postscript to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow a commentary on the current state of literature in the new United States. That commentary, which laments the apparent preference of histories and denial of literature's value as entertainment, adds substantial complication to the entire story, especially through its construction and placement. The content subtly subverts the conventions that Irving resists.
On With the Show
By its very presence, the postscript indicates that the author wishes to express ideas outside the fictional story already presented. Knickerbocker, having served to dictate the tale 'almost in the precise words in which he heard it', now steps back to stand in for Irving. He becomes a symbol for the author, whereas during the relation of Ichabod's tale Irving used him essentially as a stand-in for the original narrator--another fictional character. Diedrich, happily formed as a kind of gentleman amateur himself (his book only published to pay his post-disappearance bills), provides the ideal proxy by which Irving may render his criticisms beneath the mask of apparent, impartial sincerity relied upon by readers at the time.
If it's printed, it must be true.
Irving wastes no time in expressing the first of these criticisms. The difficulties this author and others like him have experienced in trying to live by writing do not escape expression. Literature as entertainment has not quite become acceptable at this time, as Brockden found out and Irving vehemently resented. Therefore, when Knickerbocker says of the original narrator:
'he was a pleasant, shabby, gentlemanly old fellow--and one whom I strongly suspected of being poor, he made such efforts to be entertaining,'
one, in the light of Irving-s subtextual agenda, can interpret the old man's poor condition as the direct result of trying to live as an entertainer. The tone of this passage, as it does throughout the postscript, indicates Irving's winking at his more informed readers.
There's Always One...
For the uninformed, a clearer lesson immediately follows. Those that prevent fictional literature from gaining value as entertainment have equal representation in the postscript. This spokesman's description, though disguised by a tone of objective observation from the deliberately inoffensive Knickerbocker, nonetheless belies Irving's pictorial assessment of the type: the only one not enjoying the tale is a 'tall, dry-looking old gentleman, with beetling brows,' the kind 'who never laugh but upon good grounds--when they have reason and the law on their side'.
He, unlike the others, takes issue with the story's moral, and 'what it went to prove; in short, its purpose. This gentleman, the antithesis to the storyteller--as a well as to Irving, who once again avoids direct opposition by keeping Knickerbocker a mere observer of the argument--does not feel satisfaction unless the story has some purpose outside itself. The shabby gentleman thus deigns to fabricate one, offering a ridiculous syllogism which ends by stating that 'for a country schoolmaster to be refused the hand of a Dutch heiress, is a certain step to high preferment in the state'.
In this moment, the shabby gentleman also symbolizes Irving, who (at this point in his career) similarly does not feel compelled to instruct or improve his readers--the raison d'etre of most 18th Century Literature.
As if this did not suffice, Irving continues to focus ridicule on the character by having him accept the logic.
'All this was very well,' he observed, after 'being sorely puzzled by the ratiocination of the syllogism'.
Irving indicates that to those readers who need it, any logic will do, no matter how obviously absurd.
Truth is Stranger Than Fiction
Having satiated the general public's desire for a moral, Irving has his symbolic antagonist turn to its other pressing misapprehension--historical objectivity.
'He still thought the story a little on the extravagant,' Knickerbocker writes. 'There were one or two points on which he had his doubts'.
More self-lampooning takes place by these words. Beetling Brows so readily accepts what he hears--and implicitly, what he reads--as historical Truth that it takes supernatural stories of a Headless Horseman to inspire doubt. The understatement in 'a little' furthers the criticism by amplifying his gullibility. It is extremely extravagant, and deserves more than a nitpicking doubt as to its verity, a point which Irving--through the storyteller--cleanly and terminally addresses with this reply:
'Faith, sir, as to that matter, I don't believe one half of it myself'.
He did not intend for anyone to take it as fact--just entertainment.
Location, Location, Location
Irving intended the same, which explains the placement of this passage at the end of the story. Renamed, the postscript could have prefaced it with the reveal of an original storyteller, and a skeptic in the crowd. By refraining until the end, Irving reinforces the points he there makes. Rendering criticism before the narrative would cause the reader to engage it on a different level. One would look for further indication of instruction, or sublimated authorial motivation, and might sacrifice reading for entertainment in the process.
After reading the separated, distinct postscript, one may return to the Legend of Sleepy Hollow to glean what one will; but, importantly, one had the opportunity initially to read it as an independent piece written for its own sake.
Irving stresses, by placing the postscript in the wake of an otherwise uninterrupted session of fancy, that fiction should have inherent value. Those that disagree with that notion are engaged after the fact, on a plane separate from the fanciful tale.
The precise construction of the postscript, as well as its deliberate placement, conveys Irving's assessments of the condition of the contemporary American author as well as the reader. The devices of understatement, intimation, and syllogism are simply placed but complexly employed. Readers to whom the criticism does not apply appreciate the statement, and those to whom it does have to credit the ingenuity of the delivery.
For Your Continued Enjoyment:
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
The Sketch Book
Irving, Washington. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol. I. Ed. H. Abrams. New York: Norton, W.W. and Company, Inc. 1995.
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