The European Influence on Irving’s the Sketchbook

Published: 2023/07/06 Number of words: 1487

In The Sketch-Book, we are presented with a set of sketches with which Washington Irving is attempting to define American literature, and solidify its place on the world stage. However, we almost immediately run into a contradiction, in that despite being a set of sketches meant to heighten interest and respect for American literature, Irving firmly aligns the sketches with Europe, both in setting and stylistically. In particular, the theme of the supernatural is one which bleeds throughout several of the sketches, despite the Gothic mode that is used to underpin it being a very European mode.

In order to understand the way in which the Gothic is deployed by Washington Irving, it is firstly crucial to understand that “the canonical British gothic serves as the reference point for readers attempting to locate the less identifiable American version”[1]. In other words, observing the way in which the gothic mode is presented within American literature cannot be done without recognising the ties it has to the already defined European gothic mode. As stated above, this is therefore an interesting stylistic choice by Irving, as in trying to define American literature as a form of literature in its own right, he is still very much using a mode which is heavily European. Teresa Goddu goes on to say that “the American gothic’s problematic status: it is an historical mode operating in what appears to be an historical vacuum”[2], and this is certainly something which Irving is forced to grapple with in The Sketchbook. The gothic mode is a mode which has been defined through a long history within Europe, yet in The Sketchbook is being deployed in a very new context. Thus, “the form is thus itself a Frankenstein’s monster, assembled out of bits and pieces of the past”[3] – within the American literary context, and therefore Irving’s context, it is trying to present itself as fresh and new whilst being unable to shake off the European connotations, and “represents itself not as stable but as generically impure”[4]. Due to it being a European mode, it was simply not possible for American writers to take the gothic mode and immediately change it into a purer, American format – the links to Europe were too great.

Therefore, it can be argued that the use of the gothic mode by Washington Irving ties The Sketch-Book to a wider transatlantic literary medium; a set of sketches written by an American, and partly set within America, but yet using tropes that are European and setting significant portions of the book in Europe. In using a mode which is so recognisably European, Irving is not in fact trying to sever ties with Europe in his defining of American literature; moreover, he is taking a familiar mode and simply Americanising it. Indeed, Elizabeth Mancke argues that “The Atlantic served as both a buffer against the metropolitan government and a conceptual marchland between Europe and the extra-European world”[5] (the “extra-European world”[6] here meaning America). The genuinely vast geographic distance between America and Europe, in the form of the Atlantic, naturally created a space both literally and metaphorically between the two; but it also was a space which connected the two, and it is that complex area between difference and similarity which Irving is playing with in The Sketch-Book. Whilst many stylistic choices he makes within The Sketchbook are familiar to those acquainted with the gothic mode, there are minor differences of note which show us that what Irving is truly trying to do is define American literature through tightly connecting it to its European counterparts.

A very obvious way in which this is done by Irving is in his determination to tightly connect the stories of ‘Rip Van Winkle’ and ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ to Europe. These are stories which are both set in America, yet Irving makes a consistent effort to remind the reader that these stories are set in Dutch settlements in America, with him telling us that the village in ‘Rip Van Winkle’ was “founded by some of the Dutch colonists”[7] and that the inhabitants of the town in ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ “are descendants from the original Dutch settlers”[8]. In many ways, within these stories Irving is framing these settlements as a second Europe; but at the same time, reminding the reader that they are in America, thus further reiterating his attempt to define American literature through still tying its roots closely to Europe.

Looking more closely at ‘Rip Van Winkle’, Irving takes this a step further, not only saying that the village has Dutch heritage but that “It is a little village, of great antiquity”[9] founded in “the early times of the province”[10]. He continues on to say that “there were some of the houses of the original settlers standing with a few years, built of small yellow bricks brought from Holland”[11]. These quotations show us that Irving is trying to create a feeling of history within this area, despite it being a relatively new settlement. By using words such as “antiquity”[12] and very clearly drawing its connection to the Netherlands – both by referencing it as being settled by Dutch colonists, and by the buildings themselves being built with materials from Holland – Irving is trying to create a strong sense of Europe, despite this settlement not actually being European. This is an important thing to recognise, as it tells us the extent to which European influence is still deeply present in America (and therefore American literature). It also further reinforces the argument that Irving is defining American literature by continuing to tie it to Europe; by reiterating how old this village is, Irving is trying to hold up American settlements as being just as worthy of note and importance as their European counterparts, as they too have a history. It is almost overcompensating in doing so, in a slightly fragile egotistical sense; as at this point, it is worth briefly remembering that, in the first sketch of The Sketch-Book ‘The Author’s Account of Himself’, Irving writes how “Europe held forth the charms of storied and poetical association”[13] and that “My native country was full of youthful promise: Europe was rich in the accumulated treasures of age”[14]. Part of why Europe seems so wonderful to Irving’s narrator, Geoffrey Crayon, is the fact that it has such a long history to it. Therefore, to compete on the world stage with Europe, Irving pushes forward the history within America in The Sketch-Book.

However, alongside this closeness to Europe, Irving does also remind us that whilst this village has ties to Europe, it is still not Europe, thus once again he is defining American literature through tying it closely to European literature but also diverging where needs be. He writes how Rip had “an insuperable aversion to all kinds of profitable labor”[15] and owned “the worst conditioned farm in the neighborhood”[16]. This presentation of Rip comes across as neither overtly European nor American; laziness is certainly not an association readers would have with Europeans, but this behaviour is also the polar opposite of the stereotypical self-made, hardworking American man. In many ways, this presents Rip Van Winkle as a character who is somewhat between worlds – which fits extremely well with the story of him vanishing for several decades – and no longer fits the European image, but does not quite fit the American image yet either.


Goddu, Teresa A., Gothic America: Narrative, History, and Nation, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997)

Irving, Washington, The Sketch-Book, (Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 1998)

Kilgour, Maggie, The Rise of the Gothic Novel, (London: Routledge, 1995)

Mancke, Elizabeth, ‘Empire and State’. In The British Atlantic World, 1500-1800, edited by David Armitage & Michael J. Braddick (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)

[1] Goddu, Teresa A., Gothic America: Narrative, History, and Nation, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997) p.3

[2] Ibid. p.9

[3] Kilgour, Maggie, The Rise of the Gothic Novel, (London: Routledge, 1995) pp. 3-4

[4] Goddu, Teresa A., Gothic America: Narrative, History, and Nation, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997) p5

[5] Mancke, Elizabeth, ‘Empire and State’. In The British Atlantic World, 1500-1800, edited by David Armitage & Michael J. Braddick (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) p.213

[6] Ibid.

[7] Irving, Washington, The Sketch-Book, (Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 1998) p.34

[8] Ibid. p.292

[9] Ibid. p.34

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Irving, Washington, The Sketch-Book, (Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 1998) p.12

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid. p.35

[16] Ibid. p.36

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