Kendra Steiner Editions (Bill Shute)

June 11, 2020

Washington Irving and Germany, by Walter A. Reichart (1957)

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irving germany


by Walter A. Reichart

University of Michigan Press, 1957


Professor Walter A. Reichart held a chair in German and Linguistics for many years (1925-1974) at the University of Michigan, and we Irving readers are fortunate that someone of his background and depth of knowledge took on a project regarding the relationship between Washington Irving and Germany. He is not the greatest admirer of Irving’s works, particularly the ones from the period the book covers, perhaps being too much of a classicist and having a natural aversion to works with an organic form, and he also tends to allow the circumstances of the often-rushed composition of the trilogy of major works under review here—-THE SKETCH BOOK OF GEOFFREY CRAYON, BRACEBRIDGE HALL, and TALES OF A TRAVELLER—-and Irving’s own self-deprecating comments about the works to color his view of them. Also, in 2020, we are much more apt to appreciate the form and function of a collage-based work, such as these three volumes are, than a professor who started teaching in 1925 might be.

irving bridge

Irving’s works and writing life do divide up conveniently into different periods.

There is the “early” period of political satire with SALMAGUNDI magazine (1807) and other magazine work, evolving into the satirical faux-history of Deidrick Knickerbocker’s HISTORY OF NEW YORK and his editing of the ANALECTIC magazine.

Irving then spent a number of years in England, culminating in his greatest popular literary success, in both North America and Europe, THE SKETCH BOOK OF GEOFFREY CRAYON, published in 1819-1820. The English years are dealt with in this book as an introduction to his time in Germany and Austria, 1822-1824, which are its focus.

THE SKETCH BOOK does rely on Irving’s adaptation of German stories and folktales in some of its sections, though Irving had not actually been to Germany yet, and Prof. Reichart’s encyclopedic knowledge of German language and literature insures that he has read multiple German versions of what are believed to be the source texts for Irving’s adaptations, and he’s also gone through Irving’s own personal library at Sunnyside (what survives of it), even to the extent of studying Irving’s annotations of the texts. This kind of primary research is a model of what literary history and analysis should be.

irving, traveller

The majority of the book, however, deals with Irving’s period in Vienna (he did not like it and never really made deep connections there) and Dresden (which he DID like a lot, and where he made very close friends and was part of the English-speaking literary social set). Reichart has studied the personal diaries of many of the people Irving interacted with, has checked the dates of events Irving was known to have attended and found contemporary news items regarding them, and regarding Irving, and he offers a  meticulously documented (through primary sources from the parties involved or present while it was happening) account of Irving’s brief romance with the lady considered the love of his life, Emily Foster, which happened in Dresden.

As a professor of German language and literature, Reichart knows exactly how much German Irving was able to master—-in reading, in translating, and in speaking—-and we could probably describe that level as “functional but not deep and not that aware of the complex subtleties of the German language”, though he was able to read and comprehend stories and tales much better than, say, philosophical or theological texts, but those (fortunately) did not interest him anyway.

Reichart then goes into detail on the creation of the two follow-up volumes, both filtered through the Geoffrey Crayon narrative persona, to the Sketch Book, BRACEBRIDGE HALL and especially TALES OF A TRAVELLER, the one which was expected to be Irving’s “German Book,” the way Bracebridge and its earlier cousin were “English books.” It did not turn out to be very German-based at all, and Reichart goes into that and the reasons why, and exactly what is WAS based on, in much detail.

Although Reichart is not a great fan of either book, feeling TALES is a relatively weak work, you will learn an incredible amount of information here about Irving’s sources, and also the then-common tradition (used a lot in Italian works that Irving had read) of a narrator-character who not only tells tales told to him by others, but who then allows other characters to both tell tales themselves and to have them go one step further and re-enact a tale told to them—-thus, you can be four or even five levels removed from the narrator at some points in the book! I’ve always been fascinated by that technique, which for an 1824 work seems very contemporary and foreshadowing techniques found in the twentieth century and beyond.

We also learn A LOT about Irving’s short-lived period as a co-translator of plays, which on some level seemed both a favor to his friend and a way of making quick money. I’ve read two of these plays elsewhere, but not knowing the source plays or the popular-stage tastes of the period, I’m not sure of what to make of them. They certainly are not of great value, except to the devoted reader who has to know everything.

Reichart’s literary detective work about Irving’s few years in Germany and Austria is a revelation for those who care. In the end, he does not find the works under review to be of much value, but he provides so much primary research for the reader that his conclusions rooted in his personal taste are not that important and are really just a small part of this scholarly work.

Ironically, as the book “fades out” near the end of the final chapter, Reichart discusses the many ways that Irving influenced German authors both of the day and later in the 19th century. If only he’d added another chapter on THAT, but I suppose it’s beyond the scope of the book, which is about Irving himself did that was related to Germany or things Germanic.

Irving moved on to Spain in 1825 and thus closed this chapter of his life and work. He moved on to books rooted in Spain and its history and later after going back to America became primarily an author of non-fiction works, which took advantage of his skills as a fiction writer. He’d experimented with narrative persona first through Jonathan Oldstyle, then through Knickerbocker, then through Geoffrey Crayon, so that by the mid 1820’s, he was ready to take on a new narrative persona….Washington Irving…. which (with some exceptions) he used for the rest of his writing life.

He did bring the Geoffrey Crayon persona back for a fourth book later, THE CRAYON MISCELLANY, which combined his TOUR ON THE PRAIRIES with studies he’d had in the can of the home of Lord Byron and the home of Sir Walter Scott, but that’s beyond the scope of this book.

As for myself, I consider the SKETCH BOOK an excellent work (still being read today), but BRACEBRIDGE HALL is a masterpiece, and as a fascinating and complex literary work, TALES OF A TRAVELLER is on an even higher level. I re-read all three in succession in a period of about 3 months last year, which is really the way to experience these. Not only are you reading them in the order composed, but you can experience Irving’s growth as a writer of complex full-length literary works with each book. A contemporary study of the form of each of these three works, viewing them as early versions of what later might be called a collage or assemblage method of organization, would be most welcome, but as I’m near retirement and have not been in a graduate-level class since 1990, I’m not the man to do it.

My hardcover original copy of Reichart’s book is another de-accessioned library discard, this time from Tacoma Community College, whom I thank. It only cost me $4, and I see at ABE Books that you too can get your own copy for under $10 today.

I’ve also acquired and started to read another specialized scholarly Irving volume, on the author’s longtime relationship with his British publisher, the John Murray publishing house (which went through multiple generations of Murray, a version of which still exists today). Perhaps I can perhaps discuss that later…..

bracebridge hall

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