Best Washington Irving Stories

Bob Roberts
• Monday, 23 November, 2020
• 7 min read

Irving made his literary debut in 1802, publishing a collection of observational letters under the pseudonym Geoffrey Crayon. Irving continued to write regularly, returned from abroad and traveled deep into Indian territory, then accepted a post in Spain.

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(Source: americanliterature.com)


The younger, petulant officer demands to duel his older, graver colleague on Good Friday, despite the sacrilegious undertones. Horrified that he will die before the Easter holiday (and without last rites), he begs his killer to return his sword to his ancestral hall in France so that his soul might at least have some rest.

A fairly bawdy, sexy tale of desire and deception, “The Adventure of My Grandfather” is probably a ghost story in the same way that “Sleepy Hollow” is: it isn’t. A dashing Irish dragoon decides to spend the night in a Flemish inn where he flirts with and arouses the attentions of every female in sight (he has a favorite habit of slapping his buckskin-clad thigh when making a point that seems to melt the women’s hearts).

In the middle of the night the inn is aroused by a horrible cacophony coming from the dragoon’s room: his cabinet has fallen over and some chairs are strewn about. Easy-going in a way that would make Rip Van Winkle proud, Dolph encounters a ghostly figure in the ruined home, and continues to dream of the apparition leading him to a crock of gold.

Drawn by supernatural forces, the breakneck scamp stowaway on a ship sailing up the Hudson, is washed overboard in a storm, is saved by hunters, falls in love with their leader’s daughter, and learns the secret of the haunted house, the ghostly man, the buried treasure, and his own family history. Robert Louis Stevenson openly cited Irving’s piracy tales (Dolph Caliber, Gibbet Island, Tom Walker and the Devil, and this story) for influencing “Treasure Island.” Edgar Allan Poe also owed “Wolfe rt Webber” a debt for inspiring “The Gold Bug,” Irving can be credited with creating the modern concept of pirates as dashing, romantic figures of mystery and intrigue rather than slouchy cutthroats.

As a young man, Irving was on a ship that was captured by French pirates (he served as translator between the buccaneers and the captain) and suffered nightmares of the experience. The title character is engrossed by the bloody tales of a mysterious guest at his local inn: a foul-mouthed, hard-drinking, violent sailor with a scarred face and a sea chest, he seems to know too much about pirate culture and stories.

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(Source: thebestshortstories.wordpress.com)

Webber also relishes the stories of local buried treasure, ghost pirates, bodies that refuse to sink, and hobgoblins in sailor garb. Together with the alchemist from “Dolph Caliber” and a freed slave who witnessed murderers burying a chest, he embarks on a ghostly treasure hunt with very surprising results.

Unlike Wolfe rt Webber who has a degree of Rip Van Winkle’s lovable panache, Tom Walker is a treasure hunter whom we would rather not get to know. Stumbling upon Old Scratch in the ruins of an Indian fortress (hidden in the tangles of the Hockomock Swamp which is even today considered haunted, and is part of the Bridgewater Triangle, and area plagued with disappearances, murders, ghosts, devil worshipers, UFOs, and cryptids), Walker finds himself surrounded with trees inscribed with the names of powerful men.

Old Scratch claims responsibility for most of the community’s vices: the slaughter of the Indians, the human trafficking of African slaves, and the sale of mortgages with criminally high interest. As he ages, he hopes to back out of his bargain, but when Satan pounds on his door with an axe on his shoulder and a demon horse at his side, it seems like the loan shark is about to have his debt called.

In the morning the marquis (who, we are told, will be impaled on a peasant’s pike during the Revolution) nervously confesses that the ghost was probably that of the historical Princess Anne-Genevieve de Bourbon. Suddenly uneasy with the family history he couldn't help gushing the day before, he begs the uncle not to question him further: the ghost of the princess (who historically did stay at a Norman château during her flight, and lived the rest of her life in studious exile) remains on his property because of something horrible that his ancestors did to her.

None of Irving’s ghost stories are as popular or haunting as “The Adventure of the German Student.” It is so well-known and catchy that it became an urban legend, and has been updated several times. While “The Adventure of My Uncle” is a criticism of the conservative world view (lionizing the powerful and elite without recognizing the violations and excesses of the past) using French history as its background, “The German Student” attacks the radical world view (demanding sudden, rapid, and unflinching change in the name of unwavering idealism) with the French Revolution as its stage.

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(Source: www.mountainairevintage.com)

A né’er-do-well named Vanderscamp leaves his colonial New York town with a mysterious shipwreck survivor (a black man who speaks a foreign tongue, implied to be either a survivor from a slave ship, or the demonic personification of the evils of the slave trade) named Pluto, and returns with suspicious amounts of wealth and disagreeably vulgar friends in tow. While rowing beneath the gallows, Vanderscamp at first seems horrified, then stifles his fear and sarcastically invites his rotting friends to dine with him that evening.

The man who coined the nicknames Gotham for New York City, and Knickerbocker for New Yorker also enshrined the Hudson River village of Sleepy Hollow (formerly North Tarry town) and the Catskill Mountains in the collective American memory. His fictional characters Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane are recognizable to most of us today through various adaptations of their stories (some having very little relationship to the originals, as with the current Fox series Sleepy Hollow, a surprise hit just renewed for a second season).

In fact, after the village of North Tarry town lost its General Motors assembly plant in 1996, it actually changed its name to Sleepy Hollow to increase tourism, and the new TV series has furthered that goal. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is the longest of the 25 “sketches” that make up The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., Irving’s first international best -seller.

A small brook glides through it, with just murmur enough to lull one to repose; and the occasional whistle of a quail, or tapping of a woodpecker, is almost the only sound that ever breaks in upon the uniform tranquility. .if ever I should wish for a retreat, whither I might steal from the world and its distractions, and dream quietly away the remnant of a troubled life, I know of none more promising than this little valley.

According to Irving, Crane “was a native of Connecticut; a State which supplies the Union with pioneers for the mind as well as for the forest, and sends forth yearly its legions of frontier woodsmen and country schoolmasters.” Like other New England states, Connecticut had too many young men and too little free land for them all to inherit enough land to become farmers. Tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together.

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In contrast to Crane’s unattractive physique and grasping personality, native-born From Bones is admired as the strongest guy in town. Among these the most formidable was a burly, roaring, roistering blade, of the name of Abraham, or, according to the Dutch abbreviation, From Van Brunt, the hero of the country round, which rang with his feats of strength and hardihood.

He was broad-shouldered and double-jointed, with short curly black hair, and a bluff, but not unpleasant countenance, having a mingled air of fun and arrogance. I would argue that Ichabod Crane is neither a New Yorker nor a hero; he represents the pushy New Englanders who were moving into New York at a rapid pace, often resented by the earlier colonists.

The climax of the tale takes place when Crane, rejected by Katrina after a country dance, mounts a borrowed horse to make his way back home. The thoroughly frightened Crane then meets a gigantic, silent, headless horseman who chases him through the countryside, over a bridge, and into the churchyard where, instead of vanishing as Ichabod had hoped, the apparition flings his head at the schoolteacher, knocking him off his horse.

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