Irving’s Sunnyside


From a tower in Kent to a country retreat in upstate New York: today’s destination is Washington Irving’s ‘Sunnyside’, founding site of American literature.

In his two-volume compilation of periodical essays, The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-1820), Irving presented ‘sketches’ of English life, contrasted with American scenes. Appropriately enough for a collection dedicated to Sir Walter Scott, the essays are preoccupied with a sense of heritage and its rootedness in physical place and physical object. In mapping English culture through literary tourism — the seeking-out and re-description of sites associated variously with authors’ lives or with particular books – Irving helped develop a sense of the literary landscape of Britain.  Fundamentally, he helped define an American national literature at once dependent upon and antagonistic to the country that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1863 book of travel essays would call rather patronisingly ‘Our Old Home.’ Especially alive to the implications, sentimental or ironic, of the act of trying to combine familiar texts with the ambiguously homely and yet intractably foreign landscape to which they were related, Irving sought to condense a usable version of Britain into a repository of, and pre-history to, an American cultural heritage and literary future.

‘Sunnyside’ can be seen to actualise the argument of Irving’s Sketchbook superimposed onto his long-standing interest in Scott and Abbotsford. Although described by American architectural historians as a ‘cottage’, Sunnyside clearly quotes Abbotsford in its steeply-pitched roofs, its clustering together of chimneys in a consciously picturesque fashion, its romantic irregularity and its high-stepped gables. Most explicitly, it is still clothed in British ivy, grown from a cutting brought from Melrose Abbey for the purpose. The house also reiterates Abbotsford in its sense of performing the author’s identity: it too is consciously fantastical and autobiographical as, for example, in its later addition of a ‘Moorish’ turret in allusion to Irving’s time spent as a diplomat in Spain.

It is in the matter of location, however, that Irving most interestingly imitates Scott. Whereas Scott intended to build a house that would match the charms of storied and poetical association that he found in the local landscape of the Borders (Abbotsford lies beneath the Eildon Hills, by tradition cleft by the wizard Michael Scott, and was extended to encompass land in the vicinity of Huntley Bank, where Thomas the Rhymer met the Queen of the Fairies), Irving had to build the storied and poetical association to go with the house. He did so by fabricating a largely fictional and highly romantic history for the house and landscape, which, by extension, laid the foundation for the ‘home’ of a new national literature.

One of the most celebrated tales in Irving’s Sketchbook, ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’, ‘found among the papers of the late Diedrich Knickerbocker’, concerns a country schoolmaster from Connecticut, much possessed with the old tales of witchcraft and hauntings set down by New England author Cotton Mather. He courts one Katrina van Tassel and is eventually routed by his rival, a local Dutchman, who impersonates the local Headless Horseman one night in order to terrify him into fleeing the area. The story identifies Sleepy Hollow, where Irving spent time as a boy, as a place bewitched, which channels the past into the present by enriching the real with the visionary and impalpable:

Some say that the place was bewitched by a high German doctor during the early days of settlement; others, that an old Indian chief, the prophet or wizard of his tribe, held his powwows there before the country was discovered by Master Hendrick Hudson… [T]he place still … holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie. …The whole neighbourhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions…

While he was building Sunnyside, Irving returned to this early piece of myth-making in a series of essays published in the Knickerbocker Magazine of March 1839-1841. In one, the dilettante traveller Crayon boasts of his acquisition of ‘one of the most ancient and historical mansions in the country’, supposedly containing Diedrich Knickerbocker’s possessions. In another, ‘Crayon’ edits, extracts, and annotates a supposed history written by Knickerbocker of his house, detailing three main epochs: the occupation of the land by a native American ‘wizard chieftain’; the original build by Jacob van Tassel (a relative of Katrina in the earlier story) sacked by the British and rebuilt after the War of Independence; and its final occupation by Knickerbocker himself as historian of the early settlers. The house is thus fashioned as a testimonial to the cultural and architectural heritage that preceded the birth of the nation, while Crayon is positioned as inheriting, occupying, and renovating a building now conceived as a microcosm of American identity, which is legendary and haunted.

While Sunnyside would subsequently become celebrated as an influential model of American architecture, it should be more greatly celebrated for having invented the American writer’s house. In his later years, Irving constructed an experience for his guests not unlike that provided by Scott. As N.P. Willis’ account in Evert Augustus Duycksinck’s Irvingiana: a memorial of Washington Irving (1860) reveals, visitors were typically admitted to the ‘workshop of genius’ to chat about Irving’s working practices, before driving with Irving around the vicinity of Sleepy Hollow. Willis tells of looking around whimsically for the figure of Katrina van Tassel and other characters from Irving’s story, and of taking especial pleasure in hearing Irving’s childhood memory of shooting squirrels in the wood, a memory that also features in ‘The Legend’. Both men are caught here in the act of laying down Scott-like ‘associations’ within the landscape, a potent compound of authorial memory, fiction, and topography.

Of all the parallels that Sunnyside and Abbotsford present nowadays, the most striking is a slightly mournful air of being left high and dry by the receding waters of nineteenth-century enthusiasm. Put more bluntly, both houses have become monuments to forgotten national treasures, to the extent that, when I visited Sunnyside with my family on a long hot July day, we were undisturbed by anyone except the volunteer guides.

For my earlier post on Abbotsford see

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *