Penguins on Parade: The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.!
Some Penguin Classics just automatically prompt a smile – because some classics are just happy occurrences, free of somber overtones, free of the burden of interpretation, free of the obligation to be anything other than entertaining (which hasn’t stopped academics and English departments from beavering away at them, but even so). And one of those classics is surely The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent by Washington Irving.
The little book was a huge success, the first secular American bestseller of them all and a great explosion of revelation to Irving himself. He was that rarest of rare birds, a natural-born literary man, and he’d had some taste of the satisfaction such a life could bring him when, in 1809, while still a teenager, he came out with A History of New York by Diedrich Knickerbocker and promptly became the United States’ first hot young author.
There were very few literary critics in the country yet (O blessed day – they’ve multiplied like locusts since), so there was hardly any simpering or cool-following on Twitter. And there were no older, established literary lions to get up on a box in the pages of Ye Olde New York Revue of Books and say A History of New York “shows great promise” or “isn’t entirely without merit.” Instead, poor young Irving had to discover his celebrity the old-fashioned way: he found he couldn’t pay for a drink in the Bowery.
He did do one thing exactly the same as his much later hot young author counterparts, however: after his smash debut, he became creatively paralyzed, and he stayed that way for a good long time. Since there weren’t yet any “I once wrote a book” sinecures at City College, he took up a series of real jobs and slipped away from the dizzying heights.
It wasn’t until twenty years later, while he was living in England, that he wrote The Sketch Book, a collection of carefully nostalgic vignettes and tales of both old-time England and old-time America (including such immortal stories as “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”). The resulting book was exquisitely calculated to appeal to two nations that had only recently, almost in a daze, realized that they were also two nationalities – and now always would be. Irving would later refine this technique to the absolute, almost insubstantial perfection of Bracebridge Hall, but The Sketch Book is a far more muscular example of the same thing – as narratively irresistible today as it was when it was written (just as A History of New York is still genuinely funny).
The editor of this Penguin volume, William Hedges, understands all this perfectly in his masterful Introduction. He’s eager for his readers not to underestimate how aware Irving himself is of the game he’s playing:
To reduce The Sketch Book to the testament of a crypto-aristocratic anglophile and political conservative, as is sometimes done, is to miss its finer points and misunderstand Crayon. His England is admittedly only touristic, the product of “idle humour” and “vagrant imagination,” something he half-laughs at himself in offering the reader.
And he keeps the reader aware of the delicate balancing-act behind Irving’s seemingly effortless prose:
Fighting for his literary life, and fearful of British critics, Irving had no incentive to go far in exhibiting the harsh realities of contemporary English life, the hardships, social dislocations, and class conflicts being generated by the industrial revolution.
It’s amazing how many of the two dozen or so sketches in this book are really quite perfect little gems. Whether you’re reading such delights as “The Spectre Bridegroom” or “Christmas Eve” or “Stratford-on-Avon” or especially “The Boar’s Head Tavern, East Cheap” for the first time or the fiftieth time, the sheer charm of them will be just as bright. The thing swept through both England and the United States like wildfire. For mirror-image reasons, it was just what huge numbers of people in both countries were yearning to read in their studies at night.
Irving had a long and very productive writing life for the next thirty years, and although his little book about the Alhambra was much talked about and his enormous life of George Washington was, given its subject, immensely captivating (now there’s a volume that deserves a fat, annotated Penguin Classic of its own), a certain element of that free happiness in the Sketch Book had gone out of his writing, replaced by the more ponderous furniture of the Grand Old Man. That happiness (cannily mixed with just the right amount of fireside sighing) is on full display in this earlier work. It’s the common literary heritage of all Americans, one of the first such gems in the country’s literary crown – and yet most Americans today haven’t even heard of it, much less read it. That’s a shame – and one this Penguin Classic tries valiantly to correct.