Washington Irving’s Critique of American Culture: Sketching a Vision of World Citizenship challenges long-standing views of Washington Irving. He has been portrayed as writing in the 18th century style of Addison and Goldsmith, without having much substance of his own. Irving has also been accused of being insufficiently American and adrift in an identity crisis. The author argues that Irving addressed the American cultural context very extensively—he was a writer of substance who articulated an ethic of world citizenship that was found in the philosophy of ancient Greek cynics and stoics. This ethic was united with a love of picturesque travel, which emphasized variety and texture in experience, resulting in an extraordinary affirmation of the value of cultural diversity in the new Republic. Irving was, in fact, a liminal figure straddling Romantic and neoclassical modes of writing and acting. The author draws attention to Irving’s success as a writer in the pictorial mode. Irving also expressed a critique of cultural loss and environmental destruction like that articulated by the artist Thomas Cole. The work embraces an interdisciplinary approach, where insights from philosophy, religion, art history, and social history shed light on an underestimated writer.
J. Woodrow McCree is professor of religion and philosophy at the State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota.
Chapter 1: Style with Substance
Chapter 2: Satire in the Name of World Citizenship
Chapter 3: The Picturesque Aesthetic and Neo-classical/ Romantic Boundary-Crossing
Chapter 4: American Ovid, American Virgil, American Claude, and Pumpkin Smasher
Chapter 5: Irving’s Critique of American Culture in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”
Chapter 6: World Citizenship on Frontiers Near and Far
McCree presents Irving (1783–1859) as both an 18th-century neoclassic and a 19th-century Romantic—and he thoroughly and logically develops this bifurcated view in this volume’s six chapters. McCree reveals Irving to be not only a cynic who believed in world citizenship but also a Romantic whose verbal sketches were inspired by American painters such as Thomas Cole. After a review of past scholarship, McCree employs Irving’s cynical philosophy to analyze his writings on Native American, Quaker, and African American injustices. Next, McCree turns to Irving’s “picturesque art,” examining his history of American civilization, especially New York, which was inspired by the Romantic landscape painters. Then, in a chapter dedicated to Irving’s Sketch-Book, especially “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” McCree depicts Irving as a cynic attacking American culture. But the final chapter turns to Irving’s travel writings about the West, writings that exemplify his belief in world citizenship. Assiduously researched, this volume cogently presents Irving as a world citizen who criticized American nationalism, industrialism, and culture, but also as a writer who embraced the American picturesque, its diversity and natural beauty. Recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty.
This is the most original and provocative examination of Irving’s literary identity in years. McCree deftly probes the balancing act, as he describes it, between the groundbreaking author’s Enlightenment skepticism and his Romantic dream-spinning. With an eye toward both classical and eighteenth-century influences, he returns Irving to his deserved place as a literary stylist whose descriptive skill and philosophic values have been trifled with by nearsighted critics of the modern age.
In many respects, McCree’s work follows the trajectory of recent Irving scholarship while also reevaluating the value of Irving’s neoclassical influences. He helps dispel any lingering impressions of Irving as an aimless or sentimental writer; rather, he is an adventurous boundary-crosser willing to probe American anxieties. In McCree’s ambitious study spanning Irving’s American writings from 1804 to 1845, he makes a plausible case for Irving’s vision of a pluralistic nation buffeted by relentless development and imperialistic practices.