It must be like showing up at a party wearing a flashy shirt that somebody else is also wearing. Embarrassing, no? A few years back I read Brian Jay Jones’ biography of Washington Irving. As you may know, I recently finished Andrew Burstein’s. The two were published within a year of each other, but both after a seven-decade gap in such biographies. I suspect the renewed interest in Irving sprang up in the surge of public interest after Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow appeared. Movies have power. Books, especially big books, take a long time to write. I don’t know if Jones and Burstein were aware of each other’s efforts or not. Both are quite good, but they do stand as a testament to how fame can be fleeting. Irving is infrequently taken as a genius writer today but he started more than one big thing.
What I’m particularly interested in is how Burton’s film seems to have kickstarted a new millennium interest in this old story. I recently had a discussion with a couple of folks who felt that movies were too manipulative to be enjoyable. Of course, nobody forces you to watch a movie, but I have found that they are powerful ways of influencing people. And society. Movies have been one of the more impactful forms of fiction media, spawning ideas that can change society. Indeed, they may be modern mythology. I wouldn’t yet make that exalted claim for Sleepy Hollow, but for those who follow such things, it has influenced the way we look at things. And we can learn something from paying attention to them.
I suspect that is one of the perennial mistakes of higher education. Assuming that something is popular means that it shouldn’t be worthy of scholarly attention. If we want to understand what it means to be human, rather than just raping and plundering our planet until we choke it to death, we need to consider what it is that appeals to people. What are the Classics if not the popular literature of antiquity, dating back to the time before most people could read? What do we lose by trying to understand what motivates others? There are those who spend their money on such things, after all. Consider game developers. They rake in the money because that’s what people like to do. We don’t mind being manipulated, as long as we do so voluntarily. We’ve wandered away from Irving at this party, but it does seem that Burton’s movie kickstarted our interest in America’s early wit again. We ignore what interests hoi polloi at our peril.