Friday, October 16, 2015

"A stately squadron of snowy geese..." (Reading Washington Irving)

Jedi Teen and I have been reading Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," first published in 1820. This is one of those stories that I could have sworn I must have read somewhere along the line in my literature studies, but apparently I missed it.

The headless horseman is such a deep part of our American literary landscape that the story and its characters feel very familiar. I think I must have seen the Disney version (their Ichabod Crane is the visual that kept playing in my brain as I read) and I am guessing I read some sort of abridged version in grade school or middle school. I also came across inferences to the story in my beloved Trixie Belden mysteries that I read over and over as a child, stories that happened to be set in the Hudson River valley.

I don't know why I never read much Irving, given that his collected works was one the books that my grandmother, an inveterate re-reader, read regularly. It was one of the beloved books she brought with her from her home in North Carolina when she moved into our home in Virginia when I was nine. I caught onto some of her other reading loves, but somehow I mostly missed Irving.

I'm glad I found him now. I had a delightful time wending my way aloud through his dense prose, deliciously thick with description. There's something substantial about biting down on 19th century literature: when you finish a novel or a story (or sometimes even a page, paragraph, or sentence!) you feel you've eaten something hearty and filling, like a good creamy potato soup with a dark grain bread.

It's not surprising I mention food here. Irving delights in showing us how much Ichabod Crane, skinny as a scarecrow, loves to eat. One of the funniest scenes in the story, and there are many, is when he goes to the Van Tassel home to woo his sweetheart. He's enamored of her family's wealth as much as he's enamored of her, and the way he notes that wealth is to note how much there is to eat. Every animal he sees in the barnyard, alive and kicking, he envisions on a platter:

"The pedagogue's mouth watered as he looked upon this sumptuous promise of luxurious winter fare. In his devouring mind's eye, he pictured to himself every roasting-pig running about with a pudding in his belly, and an apple in his mouth; the pigeons were snugly put to bed in a comfortable pie, and tucked in with a coverlet of crust; the geese were swimming in their own gravy..."

We were both impressed with so many turns of phrases. The sweet girl couldn't help chuckling over some of them, like the phrase "sleek unwieldy porkers" to describe a group of pigs. In that same scene, I appreciated the alliterative joys of a "a stately squadron of snowy geese..." I know that more than one of my English teachers would have likely slashed at some of those adjectives with a red pen, or at least warned me against their overuse, but there is something about the sheer layers of words that really works to create this story's atmosphere and tone.

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