Washington Irving
Washington Irving; drawing by David Levine

During the last year of W. H. Auden’s life, I sometimes had the luck to meet him in Oxford. On these occasions he would gradually place me as someone associated with literary biography, and would then inform me kindly but firmly that literary biography was no use. For its only purpose must be to display a relation of life and art, and either this relation—he would say—was obscure and impossible to detect, or else (and here his tone became triumphant) it was obvious and not worth mentioning. The verdict was chastening. But I found a little comfort in the fact that Auden defied his own rules. No one was more curious than he about the underpinnings of artistic careers. He wrote biographical poems about Housman’s furtive sexuality and Melville’s combat with Nobodaddy, and some of his essays, such as a long article on Oscar Wilde and Alfred Douglas, happily flouted by example his antibiographical precept.

In his will he nonetheless admonished his friends to destroy his letters with a view to rendering a biography impossible, and this clause is becoming almost standard for writers’ testaments, Orwell and Eliot having included it or one like it. Quite understandably, it is hard to accept that reticence can only last a lifetime. Writers are apt to feel that their biographers, if they do not merely drudge, will prosecute. Few are eager to submit posthumously to the whipping they have more or less ‘scaped during life, and the idea of one’s corpse lying on the analyst’s couch, with the analyst for once doing all the talking, and the patient prevented by rigor mortis from self-justification, is not fetching.

This aversion to biography is different from that of the structuralists and new critics who, coming from different postulates, agree in trying to clear the work of its creator. They take the view that there is an “exclusive interdependence of the objective elements which compose the work.” The author’s intention, if he had one, cannot be calculated, only miscalculated, and is irrelevant anyway. The intentional fallacy, which biographers are especially prone to commit, is a special case of the old offense, the genetic fallacy, which only Nietzsche among philosophers actively defended.

Still there is an opposite danger, the parthenogenetic fallacy that the text is a virgin birth accomplished without human intervention. “Look, mama, no hands!” Granted that purging a work of its originator may sometimes be useful and even virtuous, this ritual bath is not obligatory. Writers about whom we know most, those closest to our own day, have usually declined it; Flaubert seems not to have minded saying, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” or George Eliot to have avoided the admission that Mr. Casaubon was drawn from her own heart. Henry Miller even displays outrage at the suggestion that the Henry Miller in his novels is a fictional character, and W.D. Snodgrass, when he writes, “Snodgrass is walking through the universe,” also seems bent upon demolishing the fourth wall. Most critics have, like William Empson, cheerfully trespassed across the border that separates work and life, and have ransacked letters, journals, first drafts, interviews, and obiter dicta for details that might illuminate an author’s intentions.

Critical purists often cite Eliot against this procedure, but in fact Eliot turned against them. Though he declared early on, “The more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates,” this maxim survived only as long as did the antiromanticism he learned from Irving Babbitt at Harvard. In later life he began to talk about literature in a way much closer to that of the confessional poets who have held the scene in the second half of this century. It was then he made his famous remark that scouted the interpretation of The Waste Land as social criticism, objectively arrived at. “To me it was only the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life. It is just a piece of rhythmical grumbling.”

Even if we allow for his modesty, Eliot had clearly begun to veer toward the idea of poetry as what Yeats called “personal utterance.” The repercussions of the change are manifested in Four Quarters, where the spiritual struggle of his art is equated with the spiritual struggle of his life, and the pursuit of right words is made tantamount to the pursuit of right feelings. If his early ideal of the art object was the objective correlative of once personal emotions, his later ideal was parable—the presentation, with as much directness as possible, of the meaning of his experience as a man in the world.

Goethe was in the same mood when he said that all his works were “fragments of a great confession.” The word parable, meaning an illustration of something, is at once personal and representative. It suits the idea of a possibly clandestine yet certainly self-aware purpose. It is different from the attempt to detect unconscious purposes in art. Biographers will continue to look for these as well, but the successes to date in this field have been less encouraging than one hoped. That is the melancholy burden of a fine article by Frederick Crews, “Reductionism and Its Discontents,” in the March number of Critical Inquiry. The spread of psychoanalytic criticism has worn thin its tenets; Freud’s analyses had an air of the marvelous about them, but his followers have had to wrestle with stereotype.


Because the uncovering of parables in artists’ work does not rest upon preformulated theory, depending rather upon intimate knowledge of their experience and, so far as available, thoughts about their experience, biographers now are moving in this direction. It can be demonstrated that large works, such as Yeats’s A Vision or Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice, were to some extent parables of their authors’ experiences, as both Yeats and Ruskin recognized. But I think the same claim may be made for less imposing works.

A convenient example is Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle.” Since its initial publication in 1819, this first American short story has become standard reading outside as well as inside the English-speaking world. In its elegant simplicity, it might seem wonderfully unambiguous, the story-teller delighting disinterestedly in his craft. Yet the circumstances of its composition, and certain elements within it, conduce to the belief that it was a parable, and largely a conscious one, of Irving’s life. One paragraph in it is perplexing enough: Rip, as everyone knows, goes off into the Catskills and encounters a silent man dressed in the Dutch fashion who leads him to an amphitheater among the mountains where a group of other men, similarly dressed, including one who appears to be their leader, are playing at ninepins. Though they have funny faces, one all nose, another with pig eyes, the scene is suddenly uncanny. As Irving writes,

What seemed particularly odd to Rip was, that though these folks were evidently amusing themselves, yet they maintained the gravest faces, the most mysterious silence, and were, withal the most melancholy party of pleasure he had ever witnessed. Nothing interrupted the stillness of the scene but the noise of the balls, which, whenever they were rolled, echoed along the mountains like rumbling peals of thunder.

As Rip and his companion approached them, they suddenly desisted from their play, and stared at him with such fixed countenances, that his heart turned within him, and his knees smote together.

A partial explanation of this terrifying scene is proposed later in the story, when it is said that every twenty years Henry Hudson, the first explorer of this region, and his crew of the Half Moon return for a vigil and play at ninepins. Yet they behave neither like ghosts nor like people, and what shakes Rip’s knees is the peculiar mixture of the jolly game of ninepins and the “lackluster” impassivity of their grotesque faces.1 Rip drinks a magic brew to overcome his fears, and he wakes up twenty years later to find beside him his rusted gun. He returns to the village to learn that in his absence the American Revolution has taken place, and that he, who had gone off in his prime as a British subject, has returned as an American senior citizen.

Irving’s biographers have had little to say about this story, in part because Irving borrowed the principal details of the plot from a German story about one Peter Klaus. Yet borrowing is a transaction and what one chooses, or feels obliged, to borrow is an act of decision. In any case, the story of Peter Klaus has no Dutchman but rather some knights, who are anachronistic and formidably bearded, but not otherwise so dreadful. The question remains why Irving was drawn to this particular tale, and why he represented its most intense moment—the game of ninepins—in a manner at once comic and shocking. Such a question may be asked in spite of the story’s impersonal surface, and the urbane and amusing, if sometimes arch, manner that Irving could brilliantly sustain. Many of the details lead nowhere. The name Van Winkle was that of a printer in New York whom Irving had employed, and, as he indicates in the story, was that of an early Dutch family in New York. Precise analogues between Rip’s life and Irving’s are not forthcoming, since Rip suffers from the nagging of his termagant wife, while Irving himself never married.2 As if to separate himself further, Irving sets the scene in an earlier age, so that Rip awakens from sleep about the time that Irving himself was born.


And yet some connections lurk behind. Irving seems to have been all his life a praiser of times past, as Rip, once his long nap is over, becomes. Irving knew and slightly mocked this proclivity in himself: he signed his most youthful productions, written before he was twenty, in which he nostalgically criticized current customs of marriage and current fashions, with the pseudonym “Jonathan Oldstyle.” The next pseudonym he adopted was “Senex.” In later life he devoted himself to chronicles of the dead. The burlesque History of New York, meaning its history under the Dutch governors, which he published when he was twenty-six, is represented as having been written by Diedrich Knickerbocker, and at the end of this book Knickerbocker announces that he is withering away in old age and has not long to live. This grim prognosis is confirmed in the story of “Rip Van Winkle,” which has for subtitle “A Posthumous Writing of Diedrich Knickerbocker,” and is represented as having been found among “the late” Knickerbocker’s papers. Irving’s sense of himself as an old timer was constant from early youth.

The fact that Irving used Knickerbocker as author of both the History of New York and the history of Rip Van Winkle also indicates that he wished to connect them. In the History he had described Henry Hudson and his crew of the Half Moon as historical personages, not as absurd-looking creatures with “lackluster faces” playing at ninepins. Given these connections, perhaps there are others. Irving’s early life bears some inspection. As I mentioned, he showed himself a writer at a very youthful age. A career as literary man was what he aspired to, but he needed a more predictable means of support, and so read law. This study was not agreeable; he pursued it with as much truancy as Rip Van Winkle exhibited toward other responsibilities. He bumbled his way through the bar examination, and friendly judges pretended he had passed. But his real interest was in writing a History of New York: he began it in collaboration with a brother, but when the brother went into business, Irving proceeded with the book on his own.

Ostensibly he was practicing law in the office of a man named Hoffman, with the aim of establishing himself so he could safely marry Hoffman’s daughter. But clandestinely Irving worked on his History. Then a most unfortunate event altered all his plans. Matilda Hoffman, in whose household he had been a constant visitor for three years, caught what was first assumed to be a cold, but what was quickly rediagnosed as tuberculosis. Within two months, by April 1809, she was dead. This love story is one of the most affecting in a century distinguished for affecting love stories. Matilda Hoffman died at seventeen, Irving being then twenty-six.

Her death and especially her dying did not fade. “For three days and nights,” he wrote later in an autobiographical fragment, “I did not leave the house & scarcely slept. I was by her when she died…. I was the last one she looked upon.” He remembered “The last fond look of the glazing eye, turned upon me even from the threshold of existence!” A dozen years later he could still feel almost the same pain. “I cannot tell you what a horrid state of mind I was in for a long time—I seemed to care for nothing—the world was a blank to me…. Months elapsed before my mind resumed any tone: but the despondence I had suffered for a long time in the course of this attachment, and the anguish that attended its catastrophe seemed to give a turn to my whole character, and threw some clouds into my disposition which have ever since hung about it.” As a young man Irving had been known for his high spirits. These were now lowered.

In the circumstances it seemed pointless to go on with the law, which he had pretended to accept only to buttress his then impending marriage. He returned instead to his History of New York, the broad humor of which could scarcely have been less suited to his new grief. Yet the hope of a profession lay there, and he drove himself on. The book was published in December 1809, about eight months after Matilda Hoffman’s death, and gave him a reputation: but as he said, “the time & circumstances in which it was produced rendered me always unable to look upon it with satisfaction.” As if to confirm this depression of mind, his attempts to continue his work as a writer proved abortive, apart from editing a magazine; in fact, for almost ten years Irving was virtually silent. During this period he was taken into his brothers’ business, though he had no head for the work and was not expected to do any. But since the firm had headquarters in England, he traveled there in 1815, arriving just a day or two after the war with Napoleon ended, while the victory bells were still ringing.

Irving recognized the voyage over as momentous, and made it the subject of a chapter called “The Voyage” in The Sketch Book, where “Rip Van Winkle” appears in close conjunction. “The Voyage” confirms Irving’s lifelong sense of the separation of his life into distinct parts, such a sense of separation as Rip also was to experience. On Irving’s way to England, he felt that “I had closed one volume of the world and its contents, and had time for meditation before I opened another.” “I stepped upon the land of my forefathers but felt that I was a stranger in the land.” Rip’s experience after his nap was cognate to this.

Irving’s sojourn in England did not rouse his creative powers. His brothers were sick, he nursed them, and then there occurred a second crisis in his affairs. This crisis was as material as the previous one had been spiritual. His brothers’ firm went into bankruptcy, and Irving, though an inactive partner, shared in the disgrace. “I underwent ruin in all its bitterness and humiliation—“ he wrote, “in a strange land—among strangers…. I shut myself up from society—and would see no one. For months I studied German day & night by way of driving off horrid thoughts. [This idea had probably been put in his mind by a visit to Sir Walter Scott.] The idea suddenly came to return to my pen….”

So in 1817, eight years after the death of Matilda Hoffman, Irving began to make notes for The Sketch Book, which was published in installments in 1819 and 1820, with “Rip Van Winkle” as the capstone of the first installment. His notebook has also been published, and its central entry indicates that in the new grief over financial ruin his old grief over emotional ruin was sharpened. There is a moving passage apostrophizing Matilda Hoffman: “How lovely was then my life—How has it changed since—what scenes have I gone through since thou has left me…. The romance of life is past.” The sense of empty, eventless years and of a rude awakening seems comparable to Rip’s experience.

I think we can now risk an explanation of the awe-striking jollity of the Dutchmen in “Rip Van Winkle.” Bankruptcy caused Irving to relive, in the new ruin of his affairs, the old ruin of eight years earlier. The paradox of his life at that earlier time, of which he was acutely conscious, was that he had to write amusingly while feeling funereal, to resurrect with forced animation the dead Dutchmen as figures of fun while bearing always the memory of the glazed last look of Matilda Hoffman, “on the threshold of existence.” These elements combined and merged into the “lackluster” gaiety, that incongruous medley which so terrified Rip Van Winkle when he observed it in the dead but very lively Dutch bowlers. And following her death, Irving could look back on long years in which he moved like a somnambulist, alienated by grief in his native America, then by nationality when he became an American in postwar Britain, as Rip was a Briton in postwar America.

When at last he returned, as he said, to his pen, the pen was as rusty as Rip’s gun. “I have suffered several precious years of youth and lively imagination to pass by unimproved,” he wrote to his brother when sending him the manuscript of The Sketch Book. Two of his friends have left an account of how Irving wrote “Rip Van Winkle” in a fever of activity, staying up all one night in June 1818 as he filled and threw aside one page after another. This sense of being seized by the story came from its being a parable of his own monstrous dual vision, in which the history of New York took shape as farce, and the history of his own life took shape as tragedy, a vision followed by years of depression, and then by his reawakening, an artist once again, but a young man no longer.

If this account of Irving’s involvement in Rip Van Winkle’s career is accepted, the baffling passage in the story ceases to baffle. And it may help to explain the subterranean power of this work which made Rip Van Winkle rather than Peter Klaus one of the great figures of the nineteenth-century imagination. The parabolic value the story had for Irving came from the sifting of his personal emotion through a lighthearted tale. Its pages are, after all, noisy with Rip’s termagant wife and with his own recollections, noisy also with chat, with foreseeable stock emotions; but against these elements is the otherness of that scene of the bowlers, its invocation of an emotional plane far different from the rest, a plane where garrulity becomes dumb, conventional feeling is absent, the comic spirit is suddenly challenged by faces devoid of expression, mouths that will not speak, as if in the midst of the festive act of writing Irving could only recall Matilda’s glazing eyes and chilling body. It was only by assimilating this experience into a new context that he could resume his literary career. And it was this particular passage, where the fantasy becomes suddenly frightening rather than funny, that raised the story into an unforeseen memorability.

Parables may be motivated in many ways, not only by a desire to put one’s affairs in order but by a desire to carry experiences or feelings to limits which they did not actually attain, or perhaps to exorcise them, since what is not there may constitute part of the parable, or to serve other functions. What is illustrated need not be especially moral, but has been subjected to the economy of reflection. The parable may have varying degrees of self-sufficiency, and its meaning is often a trade secret, to be fathomed only on long and close critical association. This view of art may seem more contemporary than the puristic view of the work as an aesthetic object set in the void to burn by its own light. The work appears now less as an object than as a convergence of energies, a momentary delay of forces that come from the individual and from society as well as from the literary tradition. The void is peopled by works, lives, circumstances, pressures. As the work loses the autotelic privacy which purist critics have sought to ascribe to it, it enters an interfusion of art and life. Or as Yeats said in a slightly different context, the stallion eternity mounts the mare of time.

This Issue

February 5, 1976