Tag Archives: Washington Irving

Dark and Stormy Nights

Today, I came across this piece in the Daily Telegraph, which begins with this literary accusation:

One of the worst lines in literature is widely regarded to be “It was a dark and stormy night”, which first appeared in Washington Irving’s 1809 work A History of New York. It became the catchphrase for awful writing and one which authors are warned to avoid.

Whether you believe these are really the “worst lines in literature” is a matter of taste (and of some discussion). But one thing that isn’t really true is that the phrase originated with Washington Irving–or at least not the phrase that became the cliched opening for bad novels.

Washington Irving did use the words in that particular order in a revised edition of his mock history of New York City, A History of New-York. The book was originally written in 1809 when Irving was 26-years-old, and revised periodically throughout his life. In one of the revised versions (not in the 1809 original), Irving writes:

It was a dark and stormy night when the good Antony arrived at the creek (sagely denominated Haerlem river) which separates the island of Manna-hata from the mainland.

200px-Edward_George_Earle_Lytton_Bulwer_Lytton,_1st_Baron_Lytton_by_Henry_William_Pickersgill

Edward Bulwer-Lytton

That’s a perfectly useful sentence, and not at all one of the “worst lines” in literature.

It would actually be a contemporary of Irving’s, the Romantic English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton, to use the phrase as the opening of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. Here’s Bulwer-Lytton’s opening:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies) rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

Again, whether that’s a clunker of an opener is up for debate; for a bit of English Romanticism, it does the trick.  It is a bit purple, however, which is likely what made it ripe for satire–most notably by Charles M. Schulz, who regularly used it in Peanuts:

Snoopys-Dark-and-Stormy-Night-Second-Line

So, is Irving the true creator of “It was a dark and stormy night?” Not really. While he used the words in that particular order in his History, it would be Bulwer-Lytton who would dramatically use them as the opening of his novel* — and Charles M. Schulz who would turn them into a modern-day punchline.

* And inadvertently spawning the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest at San Jose State University, where entrants are encouraged to write “the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.

(d)Evolution of a Workspace

Over the last ten years, I’ve written three books at my desk in my home office in Maryland. Below is the desk where I wrote Washington Irving over the span of just ten months in late 2006- early 2007.

mydesk.jpg

My office at that time was in a long, narrow upstairs room, just off our bedroom. When we moved into the house, it was an old and unused kitchen (don’t ask). We removed all the old appliances, laid down some vinyl tile, painted the walls blue and brown, pulled some phone line, and moved in a daybed, IKEA bookshelves and an IKEA workbench (with the unfortunate IKEA designation of JERKER). While the room was small, I could keep nearly any reference I needed within arm’s reach on a bookshelf directly behind me (which you can’t see in this photo). as well as on the low shelf just over my computer screen. At that time, I was writing on a Dell desktop, which we bought new just for me to write on, since our main computer was located in a public space in the parlor.

This was a small, cozy set-up, and I actually enjoyed writing here.  Getting Irving done in ten months meant getting up every morning at 5 a.m, writing until about 7:30, then heading for my day job in local government. I’d return here each evening at about 5:30 p.m. and write until 11 — then repeat the next day for the better part of a year. One of the nicest things about this set-up, however, is that from time to time, Madi — who was barely a middle schooler then — would sometimes crawl into the day-bed and fall asleep while I was working in the evenings.

When I began work in earnest on Jim Henson in 2010, it was immediately clear the space in the upstairs office wasn’t large enough to contain all the notebooks, books, and other resources I was using — including a gigantic white board that I was using to map out family trees and outline chapters. So, in the autumn of 2010, I set up an office in our basement, making a desk out of two farm tables pushed into an L-shape in front of the corner fireplace.

desk21

Sorry the photo is blurry–but as you can still see, it got messy in a hurry. Instead of the Dell, I was now working on a desktop Mac, with a gigantic screen that made it easier for me to look at multiple documents on screen at the same time. For 2 1/2 years, all I did was Jim Henson–the elected official I had worked for had opted not to run again in 2010, which permitted me to dedicate myself to Jim full time. As you can imagine, then, this particular corner got messier and messier, and the piles of books and notebooks deeper and deeper.

Forward now to late 2014-early 2016. Initially, I was writing George Lucas in my basement office, sitting at a new, modular L-shaped desk that took up roughly the same footprint as the two farm tables shown above. However, as I began my work on each chapter, I would pull out all the books and notebooks and interviews anything else I needed, and start making piles on my desk–and it was clear that this was book was going to be more than my desk could handle; I simply needed more horizontal surfaces on which to pile and stack and spread out. By mid-2015, I finally took over our dining room table.

todaysmess.png

While I’ve got an old MacBook laptop in the middle of things here, I eventually moved my desktop Mac up here as well. And I’ll admit it: while the hardbacked chair is uncomfortable, there are windows on three sides of the room, making this a much warmer and brighter spot in which to write than the basement. It was also much less isolated; while Madi is long gone, the dog would come in and sleep under the table while I worked, and Barb could come in and check on me every now and then.

I was also back at work full time while I wrote this one (working for a different elected official), which could make for some long days. I’m not the early riser I was when I was writing Washington Irving; instead, I would get up around 7 each morning so I could be at work by 9 a.m.–then, once home by 6 p.m., I would immediately sit down to write, stopping for about thirty minutes for dinner with Barb, then write non-stop again until 2:00 a.m. or so . . . then do it all over again the next day.

What I find so interesting about all this is that as the projects got larger and more labor intensive, my workspace seemed to get less and less formal. While I’m one of those writers who likes a dedicated space for writing (like Washington Irving, I love cozy writing rooms), what I found as time went on is that I preferred a less formal, more spacious, and much less secluded writing area.  Not that it made things any less messy.

Still Great at 232 Years.

WashingtonIrvingSS621a-b

“Little minds are tamed and subdued by misfortune; but great minds rise above them.” — Washington Irving, “Philip of Pokanoket : An Indian Memoir,” from The Sketch Book (1820)

Happy Birthday to Washington Irving, born on this day in 1783. Celebrate his birthday by reading a great American short story–for he pretty much invented the form, you know.

Washington Irving, Ichabod Crane, and Diane Rehm

UnknownI had a terrific time talking Washington Irving on The Diane Rehm Show this morning.  “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was (appropriately) chosen as the book for their monthly “Readers Review,” and I sat on a panel with two incredibly sharp experts on literature, film and media, professors Caetlin Benson-Allot of Georgetown and Sian Silyn Roberts of Queens College.

Me, I was there mostly to provide the background on Irving, though I did get to chip in and comment on the story every once in a while.  I was also fascinated by the interest in how Irving may have come up with the name Ichabod Crane — it was the topic of both an e-mail that was read on the air as well as a phone call.  It was fascinating to hear that the name has a Hebraic origin, but when it comes to Irving . . . well, I’ll let you listen to the show and you can hear what I had to say. If you missed it, not to worry: you can listen to the entire show right here.

And if you’re listening, and wanna know exactly which version of “Sleepy Hollow” we’re reading from and want to read along, it’s this one.

More Comings and Goings

Urgh, I continue to be the worst. Blogger. Ever.

Hi, everyone.  How ya doin’?

Since I last saw you, I’ve come back from a wonderful trip to Kinderhook, New York, where I had been invited to come talk on Washington Irving.  Kinderhook is particularly important in Irving’s story, because it’s where he wrote his first book, A History of New York, in the summer of 1809, while recovering from the death of his 17-year-old fiancee. While I was there, I toured Martin Van Buren’s home, Lindenwald (which is THE ACTUAL HOUSE where Irving wrote his History of New York, though it was still owned by the Van Ness family at that time), and had the great pleasure of staying in this house right here:

kinderhook georgianThis is a local landmark, the Burgoyne House, where British general John Burgoyne was held after his capture by Benedict Arnold.  Arnold, however, had to stay at a very nice, but much smaller, house just down the street.  Which probably explains a lot about what happened later.

I spoke that afternoon at the Reformed Dutch Church, where I talked about Irving’s version of the Dutch history of New York. Afterwards, I was asked several really good questions, and only slightly disappointed the home town crowd when I informed them that Kinderhook was probably not the Sleepy Hollow of Irving’s famous tale (Had I been a bit faster on my feet, I’d have said that every place is Sleepy Hollow.  But it was hot.) Afterwards, we retreated to a reception at the old Jesse Merwin house, which at one time belonged to the historic figure who actually was the inspiration for Ichabod Crane. All in all, a lovely weekend — and I even got to bring Barb with me.

I’ve got several events coming up in the next few months, which I’ll post under the News tab as well.  

First, I’ll be speaking at the University of Maryland — Jim Henson’s alma mater, for those of you playing at home — on Friday, September 12, as part of the university’s parent’s weekend.  I’ll be at the University Book Center at Stamp Union, starting at 6:30 p.m.

In October, I’ll be attending the James River Writers Conference down in Richmond, Virginia, for three days (October 17-19), and I’ll be giving my hour long Jim Henson show on Friday night, October 17, as part of the many kick-off events. If you’re anywhere near Richmond that weekend and love books . . . well, it’s something you’d probably wanna do.

In November, I’ll be back at the University of Maryland (in association with the Prince George’s County Historical Society) to talk Jim Henson on Sunday, November 2, from 2:30 to 4, at the Hornbake Library.

Finally, on Wednesday, November 5, I’ll be making my long-overdue appearance at the New York Public Library’s Mid-Manhattan Library, at 6:30 p.m. I’m very excited about this one, especially as the library and I went back and forth for a long time trying to find a date that worked.

Shameless Self Promotion of the Month!

In the event you still want or need Washington Irving on your Kindle or Other Electronic Device, it’s now on sale for the wondrously low price of $2.99 over on amazon.  TWO NINETY NINE.  C’mon, it makes a great virtual stocking stuffer. Or something.

 

Washington Irving, His Kith and Kindle…

Once again, when I wasn’t looking, Washington Irving went galloping into yet another format.  It’s now available as an e-book in the Kindle format—so you can read it on your iPad, so long as you have the Kindle app—and you can download it for a mere $9.99 right here.

If you’re one of those folks like me who still lives the analog life and prefers a physical book you can hold in your hands, the paperback version will be available on November 15.

A Sure Sign Of Fall

School must be back in session, because the terms “cliff notes legend of sleepy hollow” are driving people here in droves.

It’s not Cliff’s Notes, but I did talk a bit about Irving’s story right here. But really, just go read Irving’s story.  It’s short (Irving’s called the Father of the American short story for a reason). And if you base your paper on the Johnny Depp movie, you’re in big trouble. Just sayin’.

A Speculative Discussion at the Rosenbach: Sir Walter Scott, Rebecca Gratz, and Washington Irving

Washington Irving

An event I’ve been waiting to announce has at last become officially Official—but before I post it, I need to give you a bit of context first.

In 1817, Washington Irving spent several days with his literary idol, Sir Walter Scott, at Abbotsford, Scott’s stately home near Melrose, Scotland. At the time, Scott was known more for his romantic poetry than his novels, though at the time of Irving’s visit, Scott was reviewing the proofs of his historical novel Rob Roy, part of his popular Waverley series.

Rebecca Gratz

Three years after Irving’s visit–right around the time Irving was enjoying international success with the publication of The Sketch Book—Scott published a blockbuster of his own, another installment of the Waverley series, the medieval adventure novel Ivanhoe.  Featured prominently in Scott’s story is the character Rebecca, the beautiful daughter of a Jewish moneylender, as well as a healer who saves Ivanhoe and is later tried–and, with the help of Ivanhoe as her champion, cleared–of charges of witchcraft.

Walter Scott

Rebecca doesn’t get Ivanhoe in the end—he marries the Lady Rowena instead–but to most, Rebecca is the heroine of the novel.   She was also a strong Jewish character in a novel written at a time when Jews were struggling for emancipation in England–and Scott’s sympathetic portrayal of Rebecca is credited by some as helping pave the way for reforms in English law that began to give  Jewish citizens—or, at least, the men—the same status as other “emancipated” Englishmen.

Why is that relevant here?  This is where it gets interesting.  Shortly after the publication of Ivanhoe, the Jewish Philadelphia philanthropist Rebecca Gratz—who was also a friend of Washington Irving–was constantly being collared by friends  who had read Scott’s novel and swore up and down that the character of Rebecca was based on her.  Gratz had never met Scott, and Scott had never met Gratz.  That left only a mutual acquaintance–the aforementioned Mr. Irving—who could possibly have told Scott about Gratz.

But did he?  Was Scott’s heroine indeed based on Gratz?  And if so, did Scott learn of Gratz through Irving?

On Thursday, March 3, Gratz scholar Susan Sklaroff and I are going to talk about it in a “speculative discussion” at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia. More information can be found on the Rosenbach’s website by clicking here. The discussion starts at 6:00 p.m., and if you’re in the City of Brotherly Love at that time, come by and throw in your two cents. This one’ll be fun.

My thanks to Susan and the folks at the Rosenbach for inviting me.  Susan also writes a fine blog on Rebecca that you can see right here.  Check it out.

Back At It

Happy 2011! And good lord, is the first week of the year really almost over?

The winter break was a quick sprint through the Southwest for Barb and me — I’m a New Mexican, and she’s an Arizonan, so we spent a few days with family and friends in each state before setting up camp (read: staying in a hotel) out in the Gold Canyon region of Arizona for several days.  Barb took advantage of the spa services while I spent my time in front of a fire, sipping Land Shark, burning the eight-dollars-a-piece Duraflame logs provided by our hotel, and reading Robert Caro. All in all, not a bad way to pass the time.

It was unseasonably cold while we were out there — as it seems to have been across most of the continental US that week — and a snowstorm blew through northern Arizona late last Wednesday, blanketing Flagstaff under two feet of snow and closing roads in all directions.  The only problem was, our New Year’s Eve plans included driving to Flagstaff and ringing in 2011 from there. Fortunately, the roads cleared and we made it to Flagstaff with no problems, though we greeted the new year with temperatures hovering at 15 below. On New Year’s morning, I discovered that a case of sodas I had stupidly left in the back seat of the rental car had frozen and exploded — then instantly froze again, making the clean up easy: I simply picked up the frozen ice sculpture of cans, box, and foam and threw it away.

I left behind the laptop I had intended to carry along with me — we decided to forget work and stay off the grid during our vacation, though Barb couldn’t resist bringing along her iPad and checking e-mail every once in a while.  Since our return, however, we’ve been back at it.  In fact, this week, I’ll have a draft of several chapters completed that I can ship off and have some folks take a look at. Yeah, I’m pretty excited, too.

On a completely random aside, I’m pleased to announce that I’ve got two Washington Irving-related events in the coming months, both in Philadelphia.  One is a speaking engagement at the Rittenhouse Club, while the other is at a celebration of Rebecca Gratz at the Rosenbach Museum and Library. At the Rosenbach, I’ll be speaking in tandem with Susan Sklaroff, a Gratz scholar and docent at the Museum.  Susan writes a great blog about Gratz (which you can see here) and she and I will be discussing Irving and Gratz’s rather amusing relationship, as well as whether Sir Walter Scott based his heroine Rebecca in Ivanhoe on Irving’s description of the dynamic Rebecca Gratz. I’ll post more information as it becomes available.

Finally, I just registered for the Biographers International Organization’s 2011 Compleat Biographer conference, right here in Washington, DC.  And you should too.

Happy New Year!