By Henry John Steiner
Historian of Sleepy Hollow
2019 is the bicentennial year!
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was completed by Washington Irving 200 years ago, in 1819. The work in which it appears, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. was published 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 what we know as Washington Irving’s, The Sketch Book, is entitled “The Angler.” It is the “sketch” which precedes “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” But, to be “precise and authentic,” there is a short, final, three-page epilogue entitled, “L’Envoy,” which follows “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and ends The Sketch Book.
“The Angler” did not always precede “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” only from 1848 onward when Irving issued the “Author’s Revised Edition” of The Sketch Book. Though written in England, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was first published in the United States. It appeared on March 15, 1820, in serial issue “No. VI.” The first appearance of “The Angler” came later in that year, in serial issue “No. VII.” and it was the closing “sketch” of the first edition. But, posterity knows it now as the “the curtain-raiser” to “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” due to the fact that, in 1848, Washington Irving considered “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” to be the most compelling “finale” to The Sketch Book.
In “The Angler,” Irving neglects to mention his own very earliest experiences on a trout stream in Sleepy Hollow, although some of that first experience certainly 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 of New York City. Waves of yellow fever that summer visited the port city of New York, a regrettable side effect of its trade with the Southern States. Irving’s family worried that one such wave of the fever might carry the fifteen-year-old boy away.
Washington Irving’s family sent him for the summer to the Hudson River community of Tarrytown, New York. There, 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.) The marriage significantly linked the Irving and Paulding families.
That summer of 1798, James K. Paulding served as 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 had in part sustained his family (when still a child) through his hunting and fishing acumen. 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.” Irving 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 aside 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 chimed in with a friendly critique of Washington Irving’s angling ability: “He was the worst fisherman we ever knew…”
Irving’s purpose in “The Angler” may have something to do with tact and international diplomacy. His earlier Sketch Book numbers had already charmed both sides of the Atlantic. In many of the sketches, Irving sought to maintain a charming and disarming American perspective on aspects of life in Britain. Of course, he accomplishes this while demonstrating uncommon literary sophistication. He is entertaining, poking fun at Americans and Britons alike, but he never “cuts” too deeply. Where he jokes, it is generally good-natured fare. An Anglophile and devotee of English Letters, Irving arrived in Britain only a few years after America’s conflict with Great Britain in 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, and, surely, much of his literary art and style resonated well with this audience, as it “looked back” to antecedents of British literature’s Classical Age and incorporated contemporary traits of English Romanticism.
Washington Irving was on a tour of Wales from July 31, 1815 to August 14, 1815. He toured with a traveling companion (James Renwick), kept a journal, and recorded having enjoyed a number of local trout and grayling dinners. The journal sheds almost no light on the subjects covered 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 beset with family business problems. Those troubling issues 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 were apparently bound up in it. A year after the Wales excursion he would travel to Derbyshire with his brother Peter (August of 1816). They were following the “tracks” of early, British, angling authority, Izaak Walton. Irving would take yet another excursion through the Welsh countryside with his brother Peter and William C. Preston, in late June, 1817.
“The Angler” begins with a motto in verse. The poem runs eight lines and is credited to Sir Henry Wotton. This man was an early-seventeenth-century English diplomat who, late in his life, enjoyed fishing on a particular section of the River Thames with famed, seventeenth-century, English, angling authority, Izaak Walton.
“The Angler” is a relatively short piece, consisting of twenty-one paragraphs. It suggests to us how varied a work The Sketch Book actually is. If we believe that the “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is representative of The Sketch Book as a whole, we mistake its nature. Nor is the “The Angler” typical of the collection, although the two pieces do have aspects in common. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and “The Angler” share a humorous tongue-in-cheek tone. The two also exhibit rustic backdrops and occasional moments of sentimentality. Astoundingly, both sketches include a charactacter or person who was maimed by a cannonball! But, “The Angler,” unlike “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” is a work of nonfiction. One could called it an essay or a short memoir. Let’s examine it more closely.
The “sketch” begins (paragraph one) as the narrator observes how the legacy of seventeenth-century author/angler, Izaac Walton, and his book, The Compleat Angler (1653) are popular among young gentlemen in America. The book has seduced many American young men into, what Irving describes as, “angling mania.” It is much the same kind of allure created by the book, Robinson Crusoe, and the manner in which that story inspired boys to run off to sea. “The “Angler’s” narrator, and a group of his friends, were inspired by reading Walton’s The Compleat Angler one winter, and by early summer they were ready to venture together on a quixotic adventure along one of America’s country streams.
We then meet (paragraph two) the novice fisherman. In this case, one whose attention to the requisite dress and accoutrements of the sport greatly outweigh his skill, causing him to appear absurd. He is a common character type in English literature with precursors reaching back to the cross-gartered Malvolio of Shakespeare’s, Twelfth Night. In twentieth century American Western cinema, the “dude” or “tenderfoot” is the newly-tailored and ludicrously-bedecked cowboy who arrives at the ranch, never having “thrown” a rope in his life.
Washington Irving contrasts (paragraph three) the typical English trout stream with one in his native United States. In this case, the American stream is a rough, steep brook set in the terrain of the Hudson River Highlands. The narrator then contrasts his impressions of that stream 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 and becomes agreeably peaceful as it descends to more level terrain. The paragraph ends with, perhaps, a bit of gratuitous misogyny. The narrator likens the stream to a housewife who is petulant and difficult at home, but who walks out in public with the phony air of sweet good-nature.
There follows (paragraph four) a short reflection about “home.” It is an earnest and tender revery, invoking the memory of a cherished rural scene in the narrator’s country. He places before us a scene of peace and calm along a rustic brook, with a final exclamatory note to convey the strength of his affection for it.
The next angler “type” is introduced (paragraph five), “the bungler.” Here we have a self-effacing portrait of the narrator as an angler. He believes he lacked the required “patience and adroitness” for angling, and he finally abandoned the pursuit in favor of meditating and dreaming under the trees, coming to the realization that it was the idea of angling that had bewitched him and not the actual practice. The narrator watches his companions continue their hunt as they remain comfortable in their delusions. The creatures of the forest are alarmed at this unsettling intrusion on their domain.
The narrator remembers (paragraph six) that, after a day of these inept efforts, the squad of over-equipped gentlemen had little to show for their exertions. Then appeared a young country boy to illustrate the contrast of the proficient “urchin,” who, equipped with the crudest equipment, puts the older, empty-handed amateurs to shame.
The narrator (should we say Irving?) remembers (paragraph seven), there was a special camaraderie in the group as the friends sat about in the woods having lunch. This beautiful scene was completed by readings aloud of passages from Walton. He remembers the warm feelings they shared as the group rested by the stream. We learn that the narrator’s memory was triggered by his more recent experience on the River Alun in Wales.
The storyteller relates (paragraph eight) his experience on that Welsh stream. [The River Alun empties into the River Dee about twenty miles south of Liverpool in England.] He encounters a weathered old man with a wooden leg coaching his “two rustic disciples” in the art of angling. One of these followers could be typed “the poacher” from his slightly cagey manner. The other is labeled “a tall, awkward country lad.” Our narrator refers to an old treatise on fishing which bespeaks the pure and unoffending nature of the average fisherman and touts the spiritual and moral benefits of the sport. The old man’s clothes are covered with many neat patches, and his face looks weathered though easygoing. The narrator claims that, since reading Izaak Walton, he has a “kind feeling” for those who fish. [In a footnote at the end of this paragraph, the narrator remarks on how Walton turns the accustomed image of the idle and perhaps uncouth fisherman on its head, gracing the angler with an image of industry and spiritual devotion.]
The storyteller believes (paragraph nine) he can read into the character of the old man an attractive, “cheerful contentedness.” This energetic and skilled instructor declaims to his listeners 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 (paragraph ten) 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 spurred on to provide details about his life in general.
The old angler tells the narrator (paragraph eleven) that he spent many of his youthful years in America, where he was ruined by an unscrupulous business partner. He tells 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, which funds his (to his mind) comfortable retirement. 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.
The old man, too, has an appreciation (paragraph twelve) of Walton’s famous book on the subject of angling. 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—was the son of a stout widow who kept the village inn. No doubt the old man hopes that this will secure a favored place for him at the inn’s fireside and an occasional free drink in years to come.
Anglers, while exacting cruel torments (paragraph thirteen) on the live bait they use, tend to be, by nature, gentle and serene. The English are adept and systematic at “softening” nature. Walton refers to the beneficial religious ministrations which are received by the dedicated angler as he walks in a “meadow along some gliding stream.” To him, it is a God-affirming experience.
[We are here offered fourteen lines (paragraph fourteen) of poetry credited to “J. Davors.” In The Sketch Book, Irving supplies a footnote to that effect. These lines are extracted from Walton’s Compleat Angler, where they are attributed to “J. Davors, Esq.” The lines can be more accurately attributed to British author John Dennys and his 1613 book, The Secrets of Angling. “Let me live harmlessly [[…etc.]]” The source of the poem is said to have been misattributed for 198 years.]
The narrator (paragraph fifteen) seeks the old man out in his country village, arriving at the one-room cottage a few evenings later. The modest home is described in detail. This section of the sketch seems intended to show the wholesome, simple lifestyle of a humble Briton.
We meet the man’s cat (paragraph sixteen) and his parrot. The reader hears of the orderly interior of the cottage, and the ingenuity with which the modest home is arraigned. The old man is regularly mopping and sweeping it to keep it tidy.
The narrator describes (paragraph seventeen) the simple pleasures the man enjoys. The old angler speaks of his fishing activities that day—the big trout he caught. He tells of sending the fish to the woman who keeps the inn—presumably to enhance whatever good will he enjoys there.
The narrator praises the man (paragraph eighteen), approves his peaceful contentment, and admires the happiness he carries within him. He hails the old angler’s good nature.
We learn that the old man (paragraph nineteen) is a “universal favorite in the village and the oracle of the tap-room…”. To that is added, “his life was quiet and inoffensive…”
The angler is a regular (paragraph twenty) 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.
The narrator speaks (paragraph twenty-one) of ending his story, fearing he has wearied his readers. He loves the idea of fishing, but the practice of it will always elude him. He closes with a tongue-in-cheek blessing on the reader, adapted from Izaak Walton, who hopes that the reader will trust in God, “and be quiet [peaceful], and go a-angling.”
In “The Angler,” Irving is certainly entertaining, and his style is as proficient and cultivated as any author writing in English at the time. But he is not brilliant. The piece is illustrative of where Irving’s whimsy might carry him. Still, the sketch sets the scene for the final story of The Sketch Book. 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]