Back With the Same Old Style

The Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent.
Washington Irving
(History, Tales, and Sketches–A LIbrary of America Volume)

In the last century, when my love of reading was born, I early on discovered the tales of Washington Irving. Here was a guy I could really sink my teeth into, and a local to boot.

Though I spent my formative years on Long Island, the Hudson River valley is as important to me as the beach. And, as a kid, the discovery that stories are about places nearby was world-shaking. Sleepy Hollow is a place? Really?

I suppose I always intended to jump more deeply into Irving’s work , but you know how it is. You grow older, your fascinations change, life gets in the way and suddenly you’re using phrases like ‘in the last century.’ All of which means there’s no time like the present to start rectifying the situation and start work on the Irving corpus. Like Glinda said, there’s no better place for that than the beginning.

Washington Irving 1783–1859

Irving’s first work, the matter here at hand,  was published when he was 19 years old. You might draw from that the inference that there have always been prodigies and that then, as now, the most talented are brought forth to the benefit of all. Or you might do a little digging and discover that the publisher investing in this remarkable youth was none other than his brother, Peter.  Nepotism, how 19th century.

In all seriousness, though, we wouldn’t be collecting the works of a teenager between hard covers unless he went on to some renown and, although this isn’t always a fact beloved by the literati, in these United States renown and some commercial success almost always go hand-in-hand. Nepotism is no guarantee of longevity (or sales).

What, then,  are we to make of Mssr. Irving’s first published works? One thing struck me immediately: tone. If New York’s attitude was, as I’ve suggested, apparent almost from the outset, so is a certain written tone.  It’s no stretch for me to imagine Irving fitting right in at the Algonquin Roundtable or helping start, say, Spy magazine.

For a little perspective, this was what Manhattan looked like in the late 18th century.
Click on the photo to visit Ephemeral New York and see more.

In many ways, he also seems to have established the appropriate targets for satire and fun-making. Those last two collections of writers liked to take on Manhattan’s movers and shakers. In these letters, at least, Irving is focused on a distinct slice of Manhattan’s population, the theatre-goers. And if the fun he pokes is more gentle than more recent styles, the posturing targets, angling to see and be seen, are no less left in tatters after he’s done.

There are but nine of these missives, originally published over a span of little more than half a year. That’s enough time to take on the audience, fashion, playwrights, theatre-owners/producers and actors.  Most of these observations are directed at a play performed in New York at the time, a romantic comedy entitled The Battle of Hexham set at the time of the War of the Roses. He does so in two voices. Our primary correspondent is the aforementioned Jonathan Oldstyle.

That surname is your first clue that something’s afoot.  Irving published these letters in 1802, essentially at the turn of a new century. It’s a time period in which change is starting to accelerate and a distinctly American style is beginning to emerge. Periwigs and knee-breeches were slowly yielding to one’s own hair and trousers.

Jefferson’s grave with his birth date clearly labeled OS.
Photo by Christopher Hollis for Wdwic Pictures, courtesy of Wikicommons.

Even the way of marking the passing of days has changed. Though not made much of now, I clearly remember that Washington’s birthday as we know it–February 22–is not the date on which he was born. The then British colonies, like the mother country, did not adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1750. For quite some time afterward earlier dates were often rendered with OS (literally Old Style) to indicate things had changed and could not be taken at face value.  Our scribe, it would seem, has been foreordained to find the ridiculous in the new.

The other voice we hear from is Andrew Quoz, introduced as a close friend of Oldstyle. Quoz is, according to Oldstyle, a “knowing man,” and that emphasis appears in the original. If Oldstyle wonders aloud at the behaviors of various parties Quoz offers explanation upon explanation. Mind you, there’s often not much more to these explanations than there is to Oldstyle’s dismissals, but at least they bear the appearance of an enlightened approach.

Excerpting the text really doesn’t do the letters justice. In their entirety, they fill a scant 45 pages or so. If the only Washington Irving you ever wind up reading are these letters and a couple of the tales you’ll be amply rewarded and still have plenty of time on your hands.





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.