Washington Irving and Sexism

June 25, 2019

Where I live, in Irondequoit, there is a very nice public library. In addition to the books, DVDs, and other items that you can borrow, there’s also a “For Sale” section near the front where you can purchase such items that have been donated by the patrons.

I sometimes go there to check out what’s for sale because you can get the books quite cheaply. I’m still resistant to reading books on tablets or other mobile devices, so if it’s a good day then I can sometimes get eight or ten books for something like six or seven dollars.

Recently, I went there and got a book of Washington Irving short stories for the cost of twenty-seven cents. It’s a paperback, in pretty decent condition, which was originally published in 1968. I’ve been reading it, and I’m most of the way through at this point.

I believe that this is the first time I’ve ever had occasion to read Washington Irving. I know that he’s most famous for his two short stories “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” and both of those are included in this collection, along with “The Devil and Tom Walker” and many others.

I know that Irving is considered one of the greatest fiction writers of the 19th century and beyond, and a master of the short story form. As such, I was looking forward to getting into this collection and familiarizing myself with an acknowledged master.

Here’s what I’ve noticed about Irving so far. I’m quite willing to concede that he’s a master of the short story form. His tales are sometimes funny, sometimes scary or chilling (or at least what passed for such things in the middle of the 19th century), and the language is quite approachable even in modern times. This sort of thing certainly wouldn’t be for everyone, as it’s a distinctly outdated style, but I often like reading older works by famous authors, and this is no exception.

Many of the stories take the form of character sketches of sorts. There’s very little dialogue. Instead, he often writes about “common people” who enjoy things like fishing, and there’s lots of description of the lands in which they dwell, usually in upstate New York or New England. Some of the stories do take place overseas, as in the case of “The Specter Bridegroom,” where the action happens in Germany, and “The Adventure of the German Student,” which occurs in Paris during the Revolution.

On the whole, they’re earthy stories that get to where they’re going quickly and make salient points about the human condition that are as valid today as they were 200 years ago. Each one doesn’t wear out its welcome, being perhaps 15 or 20 pages long.

The one other thing that I’ve noticed about them, though, is how frankly and consistently sexist they are. The men in Irving’s stories are often bold, robust adventurers, or at least that is the depiction of how men “should be.” There are exceptions, like Ichabod Crane in “Legend of Sleep Hollow,” who as the schoolmaster is depicted as a kind of bookish nerd. Generally speaking, though, it is the men of his literary world that are imbued with a spirit of exploration and discovery. They are born to “make something of themselves” and their role could not be more clear: they are the breadwinners, the ones who go out and test their mettle while the women stay behind, rear the children, and tend to the house.

Those women are all shrinking, blushing violets, and if they are jilted they are expected to simply pine away because now they shall become spinsters, and that is regarded as the worst thing in Irving’s world. They seem to take simple pleasure in things like knitting, cooking, and arranging furniture. In several of his stories that are more character sketches than they are proper narratives, Irving ruminates about what he perceives to be the nature of the “fairer sex,” this term, of course, telling us all that we need to know about the prevailing attitudes of the time.

In Irving’s mind, men and women have characteristics which are intrinsic to their natures. For men, it is that spirit of adventure, and for women, there is nothing that makes them happier than domestic bliss. The women are mysterious in their motives other than their wishes to keep a happy home. The men sometimes find them inscrutable; it is almost as though they are a different species entirely.

As I said, this is something that I noticed, but I’m not saying that you shouldn’t read Irving because of it or that he was somehow out of line for saying the things that he did. After all, this was 200 years ago, and his was completely the common belief. It’s not just him that thought this way; most people did. What’s interesting, though, is how progressive he was in some of his other views. There is a story (although strictly speaking it’s more of an essay) called “Traits of Indian Character” which examines what the colonists did to the Native Americans and beautifully speaks out against the atrocities that were committed.

The reason, of course, that men acted as they did during Irving’s time and women acted as they did was because society told them that is how each of their genders should behave. People really did think that women were simply by nature shrinking violets and men were all bold adventurers filled with wanderlust.

Of course, these days, we have a much better understanding that women and men were consigned to these roles not so much because each gender is truly like that, but rather because this was the narrative that we assigned to each of them. In reality, trying to assign common traits to men and women is idiocy. Each person, regardless of the their gender, is different. Even now this is a concept with which some people grapple, but it is true none the less. You can’t expect a person to be a certain way because they were born female or male. It is through social prompts that they learn how to act, and that’s something that was totally lost on Irving and those from his time.

I’m still enjoying reading this collection. Irving is, beyond a doubt, a master writer and one of the best when it comes to the short story form. The last thing I’ll say on the subject is that, while I’m getting every bit of my twenty-seven cents out of these stories, I can’t help but roll my eyes a bit every time Irving starts waxing poetic about the delicate, flowery nature of womanhood and the bold swashbuckling that we men-folk can’t help but engage in every chance we get.

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