Wednesday, August 13, 2008

World of Washington Irving

Van Wyck Brooks
E.P. Dutton & Compnay, Inc.

Why read it? To remind Americans of the struggle to define America, whether it would become just another imitation of a European state, or a country in which the people are responsible for its government. To remind Americans of the foundation for the American way of life, the period just beyond the "Declaration of Independence," the Revolutionary War and the constitution, 1800 to 1840. A new kind of history. Its title is deceptive, yet literal. The book is really about the WORLD of Washington Irving, rather than focusing on Irving himself. This book is about many people of Irving's time--writers, statesmen, naturalists, explorers and painters--who helped to open the American continent and define the government of America.

The author paints pictures of the times. The details are graphic and vivid. And he's also a name dropper and a gossiper. Almost anyone you have heard of or have not heard of from that period is in his book, usually accompanied by a brief biographical sketch with details you did not know. In addition to Irving, the following are the names of people and places that Brooks describes in detail in his history of American culture between 1800 and 1840:

Philadelphia; Parson Weems; Thomas Paine; Franklin; Benjamin Rush; Alexander Wilson (ornithologist); the Bartrams; Charles Brockden Brown (early novelist); New Jersey; New York; Lindley Murray (grammarian); Cooper; Freneau; Jefferson; Trumbull; Timothy Dwight; Connecticut; the South; South Carolina; Virginia; John Marshall; the frontier; Lewis and Clark; Paulding; Bryant; Charleston; South Carolina; Alabama; William Gilmore Simms; Poe; Davey Crockett; Schoolcraft (Indian lore); Ohio; the prairie; Andrew Jackson; NP Willis; the Hudson River Valley; Boston.

Man of the ideas of these Americans focused on politics: the enthusiasm of Americans for republics and democracy vs. those who admired European aristocracy. The Americans of that time knew what America was all about. Americans were "tired of kings." Between 1800 and 1840, America was defining itself, its people proud of their independence, their differences from European governments and proud of their society and geography. Many a writer of that period wrote travelogues to counter the negative messages about America from European visitors. But the essential political issue was the battle between the Federalists who did not trust the people to run their own government and the Republicans who did. Andrew Jackson, says Brooks, was the successor to Thomas Jefferson.

I found, as a reader, that with Van Wyck Brooks's style, I would begin to read his sometimes agonizingly long paragraphs and could not stop until the end of the paragraph. His paragraphs flow, uninterrupted, from beginning to end. Just as Emerson's style was the sentence, Brooks's style consists of the paragraph, mini-compositions within the chapters.

Brooks creates a tapestry of people, scenes, and ideas that help the reader to understand the culture of America between the 1800s and the 1840s. The struggle was between the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, who wanted to make America a duplicate of Europe, and the lovers of the republic, led by Jefferson. In those years, the direction of our government had not been finally decided.

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