What really goes on in somebody else’s mind? At best we can guess, and when that person’s been dead for a long time that guessing involves some reasoned speculation. I enjoyed Jeffrey Rubin-Dorsky’s reasoned speculation in Adrift in the Old World: The Psychological Pilgrimage of Washington Irving. The book itself is a few decades old now, but it does raise many relevant issues. For me personally, it was, in parts, like reading my own psychological profile. Irving is an interesting study. (Unlike me) he had early success as a writer but he was a continual self-doubter. He was also a poor investor, making money on his writing only to lose large sums investing in ventures that failed. He also had a sense of not belonging which would seem strange for a New Yorker today. Although he finally felt he fit in when he settled, as a famous writer, in Tarrytown, this book really only covers his European years.
While traveling for seventeen years in mainly Britain, France, Germany, and Spain, Irving wrote four very different “Sketch Books.” These weren’t really short stories as we’ve come to understand them, at least not always, but they affirmed his place in the literary firmament. Adrift in the Old World covers these four books while bringing incidental mention of several others into the picture. Irving must be a difficult writer to cover. He was not only prolific, but he wrote about diverse topics and sometimes at great length. Of course, he was trying to make a living as a writer and people in those days had more time to read. Breaking out a set of only four of his books makes this more digestible.
Even though I learned a lot from this book, it wasn’t always easy reading. It gets a bit academic in parts and the paragraphs are far too long. Still, there’s good information here. I’ve been trying to wrap my head around Irving for some time now, as a glance at the books I’ve covered recently ought to suggest. Although he’s not ignored by literary scholars, there aren’t many general interest books written on him. There are other writers that more capture the modern imagination. Still, literary history of the early United States is a fascinating venture in its own right. For those who like to try to figure out what other people are thinking (and I have to admit to that avocation) this is a good entryway into what may have been the mental world of Washington Irving.