IRVING, WASHINGTON - American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

IRVING, WASHINGTON (1783-1859). The first American to succeed as a professional author, Washington Irving was born in New York City in the last year of the American Revolution. Although he is best known today as the author of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1819-1820), short tales that depict landlocked life in the sleepy Dutch villages of the Hudson River valley, Irving’s literary interests ranged widely. A seasoned traveler, he was especially attracted to narratives of sea voyages, shipwrecks,* and pirate* treasure.

Irving made three round-trip voyages across the Atlantic. His first European tour, 1804-1806, was to London, Bordeaux, Genoa, Messina, Naples, Rome, Geneva, and Paris. In 1815 Irving sailed again to England to oversee family business investments. While there, he wrote most of the pieces for The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-1820). In “The Voyage,” the second sketch in the volume, he compared daydreaming to taking a sea voyage. The most famous nautical reference in The Sketch Book is the figure of Hendrick Hudson, bowling with the silent crew of the Halfmoon in a Kaatskill glen. Hudson and the crew figure, too, in the “Storm Ship” frame tale within “Dolph Heyliger” in Bracebridge Hall (1822).

Returning to England from a year’s tour of Germany and France, Irving wrote Tales of a Traveller (1824). “The Money Diggers” section of this collection contains five connected stories about pirates* and buried treasure. In the first tale, “Hell’s Gate,” Irving’s narrative persona, Diedrich Knickerbocker, recalls the thrills and terrors of sailing through “Hell’s Gate” channel in Long Island Sound. At flood tide the passage was flat and calm, but at half tide “Hell’s Gate” lived up to its name. Associated in local lore with shipwrecks, murder, and pirates’ gold, “Hell’s Gate” sets the scene for the next tale, “Kidd the Pirate.” Kidd starts out as a pirate hunter, then turns pirate, and comes to a pirate’s end in London, where he is hanged at Execution Dock. Before he is arrested and hanged, Kidd buries his gold.

Kidd’s treasure also figures in “The Devil and Tom Walker.” To learn the location of the gold, Walker strikes a bargain with the devil, who demands Walker’s soul. The devil makes Walker promise that the gold will be put to the devil’s use by being loaned out at usurious rates. In “Wolfert Webber, or Golden Dreams,” Webber, who stubbornly farms on Manhattan as the city presses in around him, digs up his land searching for Kidd’s treasure. At the local inn, a stranger, perhaps the ghost of one of Kidd’s buccaneers, mesmerizes the habitues of the place with tales of freebooting adventures. The final tale in the collection, “The Black Fisherman,” returns to the Hell’s Gate setting of the first tale. Black Sam has seen a party of ruffians burying what might have been a treasure. Webber talks Sam into taking him to the site, but they are scared off by the sudden appearance of the mysterious buccaneer. At the end of the story, Webber finds that his worthless land is the real treasure, in that it will fetch a handsome price once it is parceled out in city lots.

In 1826 Irving sailed to Madrid, where he researched and wrote A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828) and The Voyages and Discoveries of the Companions of Columbus (1831). Irving saw Columbus* as a quixotic figure: part poet, part realist. He acknowledged Columbus’ shortcomings but admired his determination. In Voyages and Discoveries, he referred to Vasco Nunez de Balboa’s discovery of the Pacific as one of the most important events in the age of exploration.

After returning to America in 1832, Irving continued to write narratives and tales based on voyages or island life. “The Haunted Ship” (1835), subtitled “A True Story as Far as It Goes,” is about a ship found adrift off the Bahama banks, its cargo rifled, its decks covered in blood. While the ship is being towed to Boston for refitting, the ghosts of its murdered crew bedevil their living replacements. After refitting, the unlucky ship is sent on a trading mission to South America. During the voyage south, the phantom crew is again seen on the decks and in the rigging. While the ship is riding at anchor off a South American port, and the captain and crew are ashore, a fierce tropical storm comes up. Despite the efforts of the phantom crew, the ship is driven onto the rocks and breaks up.

In Astoria: or Anecdotes of an Enterprise beyond the Rocky Mountains (1836) Irving shows how Captain James Cook’s accounts of sea otters found along the Northwest Coast* of North America and the fortunes to be made in the fur trade set off a rush of expeditions to the fur-rich coast. Among the most famous of these were the voyages of the Tonquin* and the Beaver.

Financed by John Jacob Astor, the Tonquin expedition left New York on 8 September 1810, with a crew of French Canadian* voyageurs, anchored in the Sandwich Islands the following February, reached the Oregon coast in March, and then sailed to Vancouver Island on a trading voyage. The captain’s irascible treatment led to bloody fighting; eventually, an explosion of the ship’s powder magazine destroyed the vessel, killing all on board. Unaware of the fate of the Tonquin and its crew, the Beaver sailed from New York on 10 October 1811. Unsure of the status of the settlement at Astoria, Astor ordered Captain Sowle to proceed cautiously. After arriving in the Sandwich Islands without incident, the Beaver sailed for Astoria, anchoring off Cape Disappointment on 9 May 1812, safely outside the treacherous bar at the mouth of the Columbia River. In August 1812 the Beaver put to sea again on what was supposed to be a voyage up the Northwest Coast to Russian Alaska, arriving in New Archangel (Sitka), where Sowle spent forty-five days “boosing and bargaining” with the Russian commander of New Archangel. Taking on a cargo of sealskins and other furs, the Beaver sailed for Canton rather than risk a winter voyage to Astoria. In Canton Sowle’s stubbornness caused him to hold out for a higher price than had been offered for his cargo. When prices subsequently fell, and word of the British war with America reached him, Sowle was forced to sit out the war in Canton.

Woolfert’s Roost and Other Papers (1855) contains three sea stories: “The Bermudas,” “Guests from Gibbet Island,” and “The Phantom Island.” “The Bermudas,” with its frame tale of the “Three Kings of Bermuda,” is based on “The Bermuda Pamphlets,” a compilation of shipwreck* stories from Jacobean times that may have influenced The Tempest (1623). The idea for the tale about the three kings came from Irving’s readings in Samuel Pur- chas’ Purchas His Pilgrimes (1625). Irving adapted “Guests from Gibbet Island” from a German tale by Jakob Grimm, adding accounts of pirates hanged in chains and hidden treasure. The protagonist of “The Phantom Island” is a romantic Portuguese cavalier who becomes obsessed with discovering the Island of the Seven Cities. [See also GHOSTS AND GHOST SHIP LEGENDS; PIRATE LITERATURE]

FURTHER READING: Bowden, Mary Witherspoon. Washington Irving. Boston: Twayne, 1981; Hedges, William. Washington Irving: An American Study, 1802-32. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1965; Roth, Martin. Comedy and America: The Lost World of Washington Irving. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat, 1976; Rubin-Dorsky, Jeffrey. Adrift in the Old World: The Pilgrimage of Washington Irving. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.

James J. Schramer