Saturday, February 03, 2007

Washington Irving

Some writers for Middle American News and the Occidental Quarterly have asserted that the United States is not a propositional nation. They say the country is not based on an idea but on European traditions. I would agree that America should not be a propositional nation, but I do not think it is entirely accurate to say it is not founded on propositional premises. Surely the majority of the founding fathers did not view the U. S. Constitution as the French Jacobins viewed their constitution, as a ‘brave, new world’ document, but at least three Americans, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin, did. And it is the propositional view of the nation, which means we do not have a real nation, that has prevailed.

The acceptance of one’s nation as a non-nation, as a propositional nation, does not come unless one has accepted that existence itself is of a propositional nature. The Gnostic, “I think, therefore I am” premise has to become part of the common man’s view of life before a Gnostic’s concept of nation can become the reigning one. The line from Aquinas to Descartes to George Bush signing over the country to Mexico is a straight line.

As America the nation fades into the dust bin of history, it is somewhat of a cathartic experience to go back and look at a man who viewed America as a nation rather than as a New Tower of Babel.

Washington Irving’s success is the very reason that he is often held in slight regard. “He wrote some humorous tales, but nothing profound.” But Washington Irving was the first American writer to enunciate the proper, the genuine American patriotism. In Irving’s view America was European. Europe’s faith was America’s faith, and European customs were American customs. According to Irving, all that was different was the habitation and the names. And in many cases not even the names were very different – New York, New England, etc.

Irving was born in New York City in 1783. He had little formal schooling but came from a family of big readers. Like Walter Scott he studied law as a young man but gave it up to write fairy stories. He spent much of his adult life abroad, first in England and later in Spain. During one trip to Britain he visited Walter Scott at Abbotsford. It was Scott who encouraged him to transfer the folk tales of Europe to American soil. The results of that advice can be seen in Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

It is a shame that few Americans read more than “Rip Van Winkle” and “Sleepy Hollow”; Irving’s tales of Christmas in England, Old Christmas, his commentaries on Shakespeare, and his numerous biographical works reveal a man who saw not a brave, new world here in America, but a world that gave European men and women a chance to spread European traditions across a new continent. It is more than just a pity that Americans have chosen the propositional America of Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin and rejected Irving’s European America.

From Irving’s “Christmas Day”:

On our way homeward his heart seemed overflowed with generous and happy feelings. As we passed over a rising ground which commanded something of a prospect, the sounds of rustic merriment now and then reached our ears: the squire paused for a few moments, and looked around with an air of inexpressible benignity. The beauty of the day was of itself sufficient to inspire philanthropy. Not withstanding the frostiness of the morning, the sun in his cloudless journey had acquired sufficient power to melt away the thin covering of snow from every southern declivity, and to bring out the living green which adorns an English landscape even in mid-winter. Large tracts of smiling verdure contrasted with the dazzling whiteness of the shaded slopes and hollows. Every sheltered bank, on which the broad rays rested, yielded its silver rill of cold and limpid water, glittering through the dripping grass; and sent up slight exhalations to contribute to the thin haze that hung just above the surface of the earth. There was something truly cheering in this triumph of warmth and verdure over the frosty thralldom of winter; it was, as the squire observed, an emblem of Christmas hospitality, breaking through the chills of ceremony and selfishness, and thawing every heart into a flow. He pointed with pleasure to the indications of good cheer reeking from the chimneys of the comfortable farmhouses, and low thatched cottages. “I love,” said he, “to see this day well kept by rich and poor; it is a great thing to have one day in the year, at least, when you are sure of being welcome wherever you go, and of having, as it were, the world all thrown open to you; and I am almost disposed to join with Poor Robin, in his malediction on every churlish enemy to this honest festival

“Those who at Christmas do repine
And would fain hence dispatch him,
May they with old Duke Humphry dine,
Or else may Squire Ketch catch ‘em.”

From Irving’s “Stratford-on-Avon”:

As I crossed the bridge over the Avon on my return, I paused to contemplate the distant church in which the poet lies buried, and could not but exult in the malediction, which has kept his ashes undisturbed in its quiet and hallowed vaults. What honor could his name have derived from being mingled in dusty companionship with the epitaphs and escutcheons and venal eulogiums of a titled multitude? What would a crowded corner in Westminster Abbey have been, compared with this reverend pile, which seems to stand in beautiful loneliness as his sole mausoleum! The solicitude about the grave may be but the offspring of an over-wrought sensibility; but human nature is made up of foibles and prejudices; and its best and tenderest affections are mingled with these factitious feelings. He who has sought renown about the world, and has reaped a full harvest of worldly favor, will find, after all, that there is no love, no admiration, no applause, so sweet to the soul as that which springs up in his native place. It is there that he seeks to be gathered in peace and honor among his kindred and his early friends. And when the weary heart and failing head begin to warn him that the evening of life is drawing on, he turns as fondly as does the infant to the mother’s arms, to sink to sleep in the bosom of the scene of his childhood.

How would it have cheered the spirit of the youthful bard when, wandering forth in disgrace upon a doubtful world, he cast back a heavy look upon his paternal home, could he have foreseen that, before many years, he should return to it covered with renown; that his name should become the boast and glory of his native place; that his ashes should be religiously guarded as its most precious treasure; and that its lessening spire, on which his eyes were fixed in tearful contemplation, should one day become the beacon, towering amidst the gentle landscape, to guide the literary pilgrim of every nation to his tomb!

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