What People Like

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.

The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane by John Quidor

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.

Washington Irving

WashingtonIrvingLess known now than he was in his own lifetime, Washington Irving is an odd literary character. Many writers, at least of tomes we now have our children read in school, were not necessarily stars in their time. Some were obscure, their genius only becoming clear when they were safely dead. Washington Irving, however, rocketed to fame fairly early in his life and became what Brian Jay Jones refers to as an icon. He was one of the most famous men in America in his lifetime. Although he was never properly a novelist, he pretty much earned his career by writing. Today he is best remembered for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” two tales from his Sketchbook. Those of us who work in Gotham may not realize that Irving gave New York City its famous nickname. He also coined the sobriquet “knickerbocker” that still describes New Yorkers and their basketball franchise.

Washington Irving: The Definitive Biography of America’s First Bestselling Author, by Jones, is a revealing look at the author. Irving was raised in a strict, religious family with a father known to many simply as “the Deacon.” As Jones makes clear, Irving did not accept the harsh religion of his father, moving on to become skeptical of religion itself. Like his attempt to make writing a profession, in his religious outlook Irving was ahead of his time. Having been raised with a deity who had no respect for humanity, it is no wonder that a mere mortal might turn his back on the divine.

This was during the flowering of the age of reason. Like his younger contemporary Edgar Allan Poe, Irving knew early losses yet did not call out for a supernatural deliverance. Although evangelical sentiment has never been far from the surface in America, it would not bubble through to anything like modern proportions until Irving had been dead for about sixty years. Indeed, he died the same year that Darwin’s Origin of Species was published. Jones does not go into detail concerning Irving’s religious affiliations during life, but he had his funeral among the Episcopalians, and found his final resting place in the cemetery at Sleepy Hollow. Today his legacy in that regard lives on. With a difference, however—in the most recent movie and television versions, religion has been injected in an obvious way into what Irving wrote as a merely secular tale.