PHILLIP FRENEAU & WASHINGTON IRVING
Freneau used to be commonly known as the "Poet of the American Revolution" and the
"Father of American Poetry," but those titles have faded considerably. His poetry
is polished and technically well executed, but focuses mainly on occasional themes.
At his best in treating themes of transient beauty and the common morality of
Nature, Freneau makes a significant link between the age of Franklin, Paine, and
Crevecoeur, and that of Irving, Cooper, and Poe.
"The Indian Burying Ground" is a representative example. Reading it, notice the
ballad-like stanzas, each four-beat line rhymed on an abab pattern: like
radio stations advertising "Easy Listening," this is the stuff of "Easy Reading"
and what made Freneau a popular writer in his time. It does conclude with an
interesting irony, however. Note that Freneau's last stanza has "timorous fancy"
(literally, a timid imagination) dominating over "Reason's self," which "shall bow
the knee" before the prior stanzas' imagined scene of upright Indian dead in their
burying ground. Clearly, Freneau's speaker thinks much of those Native Americans,
whose posture in death bespeaks a more active "soul" than our own. Yet if "fancy"
has evoked those images for us, and "Reason" rightly bends its knee before them,
then what happens in the last line? The phrase "shadows and delusions here" could
point to our world, not the world of the Native American but an Anglo-American
"here" in which Reason's representatives (ourselves) are too passive, in their
"shadows and delusions." But that "here" has never been referred to in the poem
itself, which imagines (or "fancies") for us the scene of seated Indians, a "Here"
(in line 21) connected to this "ruder race." If so, then the irony of the last
line is that the "Here" of active, seemingly better people, is dismissed, as mere
"shadows and delusions"--an interesting twist, if we pay attention.
Read the remaining two Freneau poems on our syllabus, looking for similar
complications; then answer the following two questions:
Beginning your work on Washington Irving, be sure (as always) to read the
biographical sketch of the writer (pages 934-936) and, if time, the "Author's
Account of Himself," an engaging self-portrait of the early-19th century literary
life. We will concentrate our work on "Rip Van Winkle," an enjoyable tale of
remarkable power, with respect to American political culture; then briefly turn to
"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."
- In the poem "On the Religion of Nature," where does Religion originate,
according to Freneau; and why does a Religion of Nature thus promise to
redress the errors of other, "grand systems"?
- The poem, "On Observing a Large Red-Streak Apple" is addressed, in fact, to
the apple itself. Write a paragraph or two discussing how doing so enables
Freneau to construct a kind of parable around this apple.
Rip Van Winkle is interesting to us as a character who is caught, confusedly,
between two worlds. There is the familiar, pre-Revolutionary culture of his New
York village, a world in which the figure of the explorer-adventurer Hendryk
Hudson (and Dutch influences, in general) predominate. This is the world of the
hunter, the frontiersman, who will be displaced by a rapidly growing America. It
seems, on first glance though, a non-political world, a place dominated by
legendary heroes. Measured against them, Rip seems lazy and no-account, at least
in the eyes of his nagging wife, Dame Winkle. Then he wakes up to the unfamiliar,
post-Revolutionary culture in which his village seems, initially at least, utterly
changed, so much so indeed that Rip exclaims to himself: "I was myself last night,
but I fell asleep on the mountain, and they've changed my gun and every thing's
changed." The story then asks readers to ponder those changes, and ask if they are
really very substantive. For example, the figure of King George III is changed,
but really only slightly: his red coat has been changed to blue, and George
Washington looks just like King George. There are numerous other signs of stasis.
Their effect is to invite the reader to look elsewhere for evidence of profounder
change. And where is it? Perhaps, in the fact that Dame Winkle is dead, and Rip
therefore free from her "petticoat government." Moreover, Rip has become a
storyteller; he has a history, and a ready audience of "all henpecked husbands in
the neighborhood" (page 947).
What is Irving driving at, then? These features of his well known story infer that
the 1776 revolt against British--which Paine and others had often referred to as
"mother England"--amounts to something like a domestic dispute, in which the real
nexus of power was to be found in gender politics. Reading the story, keep these
themes of history and domestic life in mind, and answer the following:
Turning now to "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," we take up the kinds of story that a
"writer" like Rip might tell. For it is just what the title announces: a local
legend. That is to say, it's an oral tale, one authored not by a single individual
but by a community of storytellers, each of whom adds to or embellishes the tale,
so that while its basic plot remains the same the joy in telling or hearing will
always come in the subtle but pleasing revisions that a particular teller achieves.
Such stories may, or may not, have a moral; and as an imaginary member of an
audience hearing it, Knickerbocker (Irving's alter-ego) had asked: "What was the
moral of the story, and what it went to prove?" It's a good question for us, as
well. The stated moral, at its end, would seem to be that while he failed to get
the girl, Ichabod Crane does win "high preferment in the state" and its bureaucracy.
What does that begin to suggest about Irving's view of the growing band of
professional politicians in America?
- What would Benjamin Franklin's character, Richard Saunders (of "The Way to
Wealth"), have to say about Rip? Why?
- When and how does Rip fall asleep; and who is all around him as he does so?
- Aside from the changed portrait of George III, what are the further evidences
of the 20-years change? What are the evidences of stasis, as well? Comment
briefly on their general significance.
- At the story's end Rip has found his profession: as one who is "a chronicle"
of events and a storyteller--in short, he's a figure of the writer. Using
the political facts, as well as the facts of Rip's changed domestic
situation (no more nagging wife), write several paragraphs discussing what,
in your view, Irving tells us about the emergence of creative writers in
Answer the following:
- Reading the story, compile a list of Ichabod's traits: where he's from, what
he does, eats, reads, and the like. Taken whole, what do these traits
infer about his social identity? How does his antagonist, Brom van Brunt,
contrast with Ichabod in the contest for Katrina van Tassel?
- One way of interpreting "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is to note that,
Ichabod Crane is a fellow who can't discriminate fancy (a severed head)
from reality (a pumpkin). First of all, why can't he? Second of all, what
does that inability to discriminate signify about both his domestic
failure (he loses Katrina to Brom) and his public success (he becomes a
lawyer and a politician)? [If you are inclined, you might well look up the
biblical origin of the name Ichabod in I Samuel 4.19- 22, the story of
Israel's defeat and the capture of the Ark of God by the Philistines. What
can that reference add to our understanding?]