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Washington Irving’s “The Angler”

By Henry John Steiner

Historian of Sleepy Hollow

Title Page - Serial No. 1 of The Sketch Book

Title Page – Serial No. 1 of The Sketch Book

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was completed by Washington Irving 200 years ago, in 1819.  (2019 is its bicentennial year!) The larger work in which it appears, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. was published by Washington Irving in installments during 1819 and 1820.  Soon collected editions of the The Sketch Book appeared in Britain and the United States.  The next-to-last offering in that work is entitled, “The Angler,” which precedes “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

This was not always the sequence of the two sketches, but let’s not get too deeply into the historical “weeds” of their publication.  Suffice it to say that, at a later date (1848), Irving considered “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” to be the most compelling “finale” to The Sketch Book.

Brook Trout— Currier and Ives

Brook Trout— Currier and Ives

In “The Angler,” Irving neglects to mention his own earliest experiences on a trout stream in Sleepy Hollow.    Although, some of that first experience seeped into the pages of both “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “The Angler.”  These angling forays began in the summer of 1798, when Washington was the youngest and frailest child of the Irving family in New York City.  That summer waves of yellow fever that summer visited the port city of New York, a deadly side effect of its trade with the Southern States.  Irving’s family worried that one such wave of yellow fever might carry the fifteen-year-old boy away. 

James Kirke Paulding

James Kirke Paulding

Irving was sent for the summer to the Hudson River community of Tarrytown, New York.  A few years before, his oldest brother William had married Julia Paulding at the Paulding home on the Tarrytown waterfront.  Julia was the daughter of a formerly prosperous merchant, William Paulding, and she was the sister of James Kirke Paulding who would in time become one of Irving’s literary collaborators.  (Note, the many Paulding children were also the cousins of local Revolutionary-War hero, John Paulding, well known in Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow lore.)  The marriage of William Irving and Julia Paulding significantly linked the Irving and Paulding families.

Pocantico freshet and bridge

Pocantico freshet and bridge

That summer of 1798, James K. Paulding served as Washington Irving’s guide through the forests and along the streams of the Pocantico River Valley in nearby Sleepy Hollow.  Paulding was an experienced woodsman who when still a child had partly sustained his family by local hunting and fishing.  That was during the post-Revolutionary War years, while Paulding’s father languished in the county jail for debt.  Irving later remembered that it was during his 1798 visit that, “I first tried my unpracticed hand at fishing.”  He recalled, “A thousand crystal springs… sent down from the hill-sides their whimpering rills, as if to pay tribute to the Pocantico…. I delighted to follow it into the brown recesses of the woods; to throw by my fishing gear and sit upon rocks beneath towering oaks and clambering grapevines…. My boyish fancy clothed all nature around me with ideal charms, and peopled it with the fairy beings I had read of in poetry and fable.” 

A few years following the great success of The Sketch Book, James K. Paulding published his own book which included a friendly critique of Washington Irving’s angling ability: “He was the worst fisherman we ever knew…”

W.I. about ten years before The Sketch Book

W.I. about ten years before The Sketch Book

Irving’s essay, “The Angler, is loaded with tact and diplomacy.  His earlier sketches had already charmed both sides of the Atlantic.   He sought to maintain a cultivated American perspective that literally disarmed the British reader and informed Americans  about nuances of British character, but never at the sacrifice of a good laugh.  He also showed unique insight in the process of revealing aspects of British character to Britons!  Of course Irving succeeds in this while demonstrating uncommon literary ability and sophistication.  The American writer is entertaining, poking fun at Americans and Britons alike, but his humor never cuts too deeply.  Where he jokes, he is generally good-natured and agreeable.  An Anglophile and devotee of English Letters, Irving arrived in England only a few years after America’s conflict with Great Britain the War of 1812, making his enthusiastic reception by British readers and British literary critics all the more startling.  He seemed to show through his writings that he had come to Britain with an open heart.  His literary tone and style would have resonated well with this audience, as it “looked back” to the stylistic antecedents of British literature’s Classical Age and incorporated contemporary traits of English Romanticism.

Fishing Creel

Fishing Creel

Washington Irving was on a tour of Wales from July 31, 1815 to August 14, 1815, during which he toured with a traveling companion (James Renwick), kept a journal, and enjoyed more than a few local trout and grayling dinners.  His journal sheds almost no light on the subjects in “The Angler.”  Irving appears to have had little interaction with Welsh country folk on that trip, although he recorded his impressions of the countryside and some figures in Welsh history.  After completing the tour, he arrived in Liverpool where he was confronted with family business problems.  Those troubles would continue to unsettle him until the bankruptcy of his brothers’ export partnership in 1818.  Irving was associated with the business as a kind of junior partner, but his personal finances and fortunes were bound up in it.  A year after the Wales excursion he would travel to Derbyshire with his brother Peter in August of 1816.  They sought to follow the “tracks” of early British angling authority, Izaak Walton.  Irving would take yet another excursion through the Welsh countryside in late June 1817, with his brother Peter and William C. Preston—an American lawyer and political figure.

Sir Henry Wotton

Sir Henry Wotton

“The Angler” begins with a verse motto by 17th century British diplomat and angler, Sir Henry Wotton, who enjoyed fishing a particular section of the River Thames with famed seventeenth-century English angling authority, Izaak Walton.  The work is a relatively short “sketch” of twenty-one paragraphs.  It suggests to us an idea of what a varied work The Sketch Book is as a whole.  “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “The Angler” have aspects in common.  They share a humorous tongue-in-cheek tone, and they both exhibit rustic backdrops and moments of Romantic Era sentimentality.  Astoundingly, both sketches include a charactacter or person who was maimed by a cannonball!  But, unlike “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” “The Angler,” is a work of nonfiction.  One might called it an essay or a short memoir.

Izaak Walton

Izaak Walton

The sketch begins with its narrator observing how the legacy of early British author/angler, Izaac Walton, and his book, The Compleat Angler (1653) have seduced and inspired young gentlemen in America.  The old book has ignited a vogue which Irving describes as, “angling mania,” a craze similar to that produced by Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, which inspired British boys to run off to sea.  We learn that “The Angler’s” narrator and a group of his friends were enthused one winter by reading The Compleat Angler.  By early summer the young men traveled together on a quixotic adventure along an American country stream.

A particular type of novice fisherman is introduced, one whose attention to the requisite dress and accoutrements of the sport absurdly outweigh his skill.  He is a common “butt” character-type of English literature, with precursors reaching back to and before the cross-gartered Malvolio of Shakespeare’s, Twelfth Night.  We see him in twentieth century American Westerns too, he is the “dude” or “tenderfoot,” the ludicrously tailored cowboy who arrives at the ranch never having “thrown” a rope in his life.

The Compleat Angler

The Compleat Angler

The narrator contrasts the typical English trout stream with one in his native United States.  The American stream is a rough, steep brook set in the terrain of the Hudson River Highlands.  It is contrasted with a typically placid English trout stream.  He later returns to the American stream, which presents itself as an angry torrent.  He describes how it runs its course, becoming agreeably peaceful as it descends to more level terrain.  The paragraph ends with a bit of unexpected and gratuitous misogyny.  The stream is likened to a housewife who is petulant and difficult at home, but who walks out in public with a phony air of sweet good-nature. 

There follows a short revery, invoking the memory of a cherished rural scene in the narrator’s home country.  He places before us a picture of peace and calm along a rustic brook, finishing with an earnest exclamation.

Cascade Pool at high water

Cascade Pool at high water

We next meet “the bungler,” a self-effacing portrait of the narrator as an angler.  He  lacks the “patience and adroitness” for angling and finally abandons the pursuit of trout to meditate and dream under the trees, submitting to the realization that it was the idea of angling that had bewitched him and not the actual practice.  The narrator watches his companions as they continue their hunt, secure in their delusions about the sport.  The creatures of the forest are alarmed and unsettled by this indelicate intrusion on their precincts.   

The narrator remembers that after a day of these inept efforts the squad of over-equipped gentlemen had little to show for their exertions.  Soon there appeared a young country boy, a proficient “urchin,” who equipped with the crudest equipment put to shame the older empty-handed  amateurs.

Gentlemen fishing

Gentlemen fishing

The narrator fondly remembers the special camaraderie in his group of friends, sitting about having lunch at stream-side, reading aloud passages from Walton.  He remembers the warm feelings they shared.  We learn that these thoughts and feelings are triggered by  the narrator’s more recent experience on the River Alun in Wales.  [The River Alun empties into the River Dee about twenty miles south of Liverpool in England.]

"Brook Trout Fishing"— Currier and Ives

“Brook Trout Fishing”— Currier and Ives

There he encountered a “weathered” old man with a wooden leg who was coaching “two rustic disciples” in the art of angling.  One of these followers he typed “the poacher,” from his slightly cagey manner.   The other he labeled “a tall, awkward country lad.”  Our narrator refers to an old treatise on fishing which touts the pure and unoffending nature of the average fisherman and the moral benefits of angling.  The narrator claims that, since reading Izaak Walton, he has a “kind feeling” for those who fish.  Walton manages to turn the accustomed image of the idle, uncouth fisherman on its head, crediting the angler with industry and spiritual devotion. 

Our storyteller believes he can read into the character of the old man an attractive, “cheerful contentedness.”  This energetic and skilled instructor demonstrates to his students how best to hold the rod and the proper use of the other equipment.  The beauty of the Welsh countryside is noted.

The narrator then joins the old angler for the better part of a day, encouraging him to speak broadly on angling.  For, “who does not like now and then to play the sage?”  The angler is also spurred on to provide details about his life in general.

Stream and mill dam, Sleepy Hollow

Stream and mill dam, Sleepy Hollow

The old man tells the narrator that he spent many of his youthful years in America, where he was ruined by an unscrupulous business partner.  He relates the story of how he lost his leg—carried away by a cannonball when he served in the British Navy.  [Note that, in the story which follows “The Angler,” there is a character—the Headless Horseman—who has also lost a body part through the agency of a cannonball!]  Due to this wound, the old man enjoys the benefit of a pension amounting to nearly forty pounds-per-year.  In the words of the narrator, “This was the only stroke of real good-fortune he had ever experienced…”  It enabled him to retire to his native village and live the life of an avid fisherman of modest means.

Welsh country village

Welsh country village

The old man, too, has an appreciation of Walton’s famous book.  His manner is generally outgoing and positive by nature.  He does not appear to carry any ill will toward the United States for his business misfortune in America.  One of the old man’s “students”—the tall awkward one—is the son of a stout widow who keeps the village inn.  No doubt the old man hopes that this will secure him a favored place at the inn’s fireside and an occasional free drink for years to come.

Anglers, while exacting cruel torments on the live bait they employ, nevertheless tend  to be, by nature, gentle and serene.  The English are adept and systematic at “softening” nature.  The dedicated angler receives beneficial religious ministrations as he walks in a “meadow along some gliding stream.”  To him, it is a God-affirming experience, or so Walton asserts.  A short poetic interlude about fishing follows.

Pocantico River, a pool

Pocantico River, a pool

The narrator seeks out the old man in his country village, arriving at the one-room cottage a few evenings later.  The description of his modest home seems intended to endorse the wholesome, simple lifestyle of a humble Briton.  The man lives with a cat and a parrot in the well-ordered modest cottage amid simple pleasures.  He is  regularly mopping and sweeping it to keep it tidy.  He speaks of his fishing activities that day—the big trout he caught—and tells of sending the fish to the woman who keeps the inn, presumably to enhance his good will there.

The scenic Pocantico River

The scenic Pocantico River

The old man is praised and approved of for his peaceful contentment and good nature.  He is a “universal favorite in the village and the oracle of the tap-room…”. To that is added, “his life was quiet and inoffensive…”. He is a regular attendee at church services (sleeping during sermons), and he desires to be buried in the churchyard where the remains of his parents lie.  He can see that very gravesite as he looks out the window from his seat in church.

Young Alex Steiner of the Sleepy Hollow "Rock Rollers"

Pocantico stream improvements

The narrator fears he has wearied his readers and must end his story.  He loves the idea of fishing, but the practice of it will always elude him.  He offers a tongue-in-cheek blessing on the reader, adapted from Izaak Walton, who hopes that his own reader will trust in God, “and be quiet, and go a-angling.” 

In “The Angler” Irving is entertaining and his style proficient and cultivated.  Admittedly, he is not brilliant.  Still, the sketch is preparatory to the final story of The Sketch Book.   There we will find the voice and tone of “The Angler” employed in one of the truly brilliant works of American Literature, the virtuoso performance of Irving in ”The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” 

 

 

[Copyright © 2019 Henry John Steiner]

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