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Sketch Book by Washington Irving

Updated on December 24, 2009

The Sketch Book is a collection of miscellaneous writings by the American author Washington Irving. "The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent", was published in New York in seven numbers during 1819 and 1820. The collected edition brought out in 1820 in London contained two earlier essays, Traits of Indian Character and Philip of Pokanoket, which have been included in all subsequent editions. The entire collection was revised and given its final form in 1848. "I have preferred," Irving later explained, "adopting the mode of sketches and short tales rather than long works, because I choose to take a line of writing peculiar to myself." More explicitly, he wrote brief pieces to avoid the contagious and overwhelming influence of Sir Walter Scott.

Washington Irving
Washington Irving


In a miscellany like The Sketch Book, Irving was able to attempt several varieties of manner. The Wife, The Broken Heart, The Widow and Her Son, and The Pride of the Village fell in with a lachrymose tendency of the day and were long popular, but they have since lost most of their power to move. Rural Life in England, The Country Church, Rural Funerals, and The Angler are based upon actual observation; while not without sentimentalism, they have still a pleasant faded charm. The charm has not faded from such essays as Westminster Abbey and Stratford-on-Avon, clear, affectionate pictures of honorable places. But Irving is at his best as essayist when, his eye keenly on the object, he discards sentimentalism and speaks in his natural idiom - humor: this he does in The Boar's Head Tavern, Eastcheap, Little Britain, John Bull, and above all in the dainty series recounting the Christmas ceremonies at Bracebridge Hall.


About the whole book there is a delicate flavor of the past which has led some readers to tliink that past and present were confused in Irving's mind. The truth, however, is merely that his imagination was highly susceptible to history and tradition, and he was as naturally a maker of legends as a humorist. This is borne out by the tales in The Sketch Book: The Spectre Bridegroom, a merry parody, even to its bungling plot of the horrific narratives then lately brought from Germany; and the masterpieces of the volume, Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

Irving did not invent the central incidents of Rip and the Legend; one came from a German, one from an American source. Yet the two stories are as firmly localized in the Hudson Valley as if they had been founded on indigenous folk legends. Both are ascribed to Diedrich Knickerbocker. Both are mellow and rich in style, kindly and chuckling in humor, happy in characterization, and picturesque in description.

The Elots move with the accomplished ease of perfect leisure, and the landscapes have the golden look of perpetual autumn. Easily the two best short stories in English for the first three decades of the 19th century, they still unquestionably stand, after a 150 years busily given to the development of the short story type, among its undimmed triumphs.


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