“Some of the martyrs to this cause…”

After several days of rest, I got back to work yesterday. At one point, I found myself writing more about someone named Thomas Jefferson:

Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson, outside Charlottesville, Virginia. [Photo by me, 2011.]
Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson, outside Charlottesville, Virginia. [Photo by me, 2011.]

I did so within a web of happenings that are impacted to some degrees by his views. Writing is such freedom – and such a challenge. It’s a remarkable exercise as a writer to create a fictional environment in which you have to attack a historical figure you “generally” admire.

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.@WashingtonIrving You Stink!

In the spring of 1824, Washington Irving finished his Tales of a Traveller. While proofing it, he wrote to his friend Tom Moore. Here’s the opening part of the letter:

Brighton, August 14, 1824.

My boat is on the shore,
And my bark is on the sea.

I forget how the song ends, but here I am at Brighton just on the point of embarking for France. I have dragged myself out of London, as a horse drags himself out of the slough, or a fly out of a honey-pot, almost leaving a limb behind him at every tug. Not that I have been immersed in pleasure and surrounded by sweets, but rather up to the ears in ink and harassed by printers’ devils.

I never have had such fagging in altering, adding, and correcting; and I have been detained beyond all patience by delays of the press. Yesterday I absolutely broke away, without waiting for the last sheets. They are to be sent after me here by mail, to be corrected this morning, or else they must take their chance. From the time I first started pen in hand on this work, it has been nothing but hard driving with me….

He worked hard to produce the tale. Next, finished, he became bogged down in the corrections.


Sound familiar? If you’re a novelist, see, you’re not unique in your sufferings. Washington Irving went through the same creative struggles and endured similar frustrations.

Free Stock Photo: A pile of antique books.
Free Stock Photo: A pile of antique books.

A biographer noted that, after the book was released, Irving faced his critics as we all do. Indeed he even endured what might today be labeled “trolling”:

Irving considered [Tales of a Traveller] on the whole his best work; but though it had a large sale, its reception in England was not quite what he had hoped for; and in America it was received by the press with something like hostility. Unfortunately some busybody in America made it his concern to forward to Irving all the ill-natured flings which could be gleaned from American notices of the new book. The incident – with all its unpleasantness – was trifling enough, but to Irving’s raw sensitiveness it was torture. He was overwhelmed with an almost ludicrous melancholy, could not write, could not sleep, could not bear to be alone. This petty outburst of critical spleen, backed as it evidently was by personal antagonism on the part of a few obscure journalists, actually left him dumb for more than a year.

Imagine if Irving had had to deal with the internet? If he needed to face lashings on Facebook? If he found himself beset by disparaging tweets launched his way?:

.@WashingtonIrving You stink! @FCooper is much better. Bet you’ll block me now. #loser

If I’m having a bad day, I try to remember that. We all should. Not everyone is going to like what you write. ๐Ÿ™‚

P.S. And @FCooper is? Come on! You must know! ๐Ÿ˜‰

And What Does “An American” Look Like Also?

I had pointed out the other day that I believe as writers it is our sacred duty to provide future English literature students with Ph.D. dissertation topics. ๐Ÿ˜‰ While doing that, I had linked to a New Yorker article. However, I had not discussed its actual contents:

How America Learned To Hear Itself Talk

It is another in the perpetual quest to pinpoint the advent of “truly American” storytelling. In any such effort, Washington Irving is usually immediately discounted for being “too European” – mostly because he had spent so much time living in Europe. James Fenimore Cooper is said to have owed too much to “imitating” Sir Walter Scott.

In reviewing a new literary history book by Ben Tarnoff, a New Yorker writer notes how Tarnoff argues “native fiction” really began to come of age with Mark Twain:

Twain earned local notoriety cranking out newspaper columns in Nevada and San Francisco, …. but in 1865 he had his nationwide breakthrough. โ€œJim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,โ€ which Twain had heard improvised by a backwoods forty-niner during a prospecting trip, is a somewhat inexplicable comic anecdote about a man who gets cheated in a bet about his pet frog. But the point of the story is all in the telling. Twain assumes the voice of a grizzled, plausibly drunken old miner who buttonholes an unfortunate visitor and weaves his way through the shaggy-dog tale. Something about the story, Tarnoff writes, โ€œspelled the beginning of the end of the old guard in American letters: the decline of a genteel elite that looked to Europe for its influences and the rise of a literature that drew its inspiration from more native sources.โ€

It is self-evident that as authors we are always products of our time, place, circumstances, and life influences. Impacted by all that, we share on our pages what we desire to explore. In doing so, we hope readers will want to join us for the trip.

Yet the diverse (and that’s likely too narrow a word) cultural origins of the U.S. beg this overarching, much larger question: Has there ever even been a line which we might confidently point to and decree that, to its other side…. over there, yonder, that’s where a “native fiction” comes into existence? Apparently, some are sure it may be located. “The truth is out there,” so to, uh, speak.


Whenever I stumble on any search for an “essential Americanism,” I want to slam my head repeatedly against the nearest wall. We might just as well also ask, “How long is a piece of string?” I had casually addressed that reality in this exchange in my book:

โ€œYou must take more after your mother,โ€ [Isabelle] replied. โ€œYou look more Italian. And you may not have any French, but you look a bit French.โ€

โ€œFrench? Come on!โ€ he reacted in disbelief.

โ€œReally. You would not be out of place in France. You donโ€™t look American,โ€ she expanded.

James paused and let her observation sit for a moment. โ€œOkay, Iโ€™ll play,โ€ he asked finally. โ€œSo what does an American look like?โ€

Indeed, and what does “an American” happen to “sound like” either? The argument seems to be Irving’s writing of Dutch New York was not really “American-sounding.” Neither was Cooper’s tale of the 1757 frontier.

Likewise all others. Ah, but Twain decades later having his characters employ his take on “American living speech?” Well, “Huck,” that clinched it?

Hmmm. Interestingly, in an 1895 “satirical” effort Twainย directly attacked Cooper’s work. It was undoubtedly a brave literary endeavor …. given Cooper had been dead since 1851. One suspects luckily for Twain the hotheaded Cooper was safely no longer around to shoot “satire” back.

Much the same might well be said for scholars and publications in the early 21st century too. Even to dare suggest that his writings were not as “American” as anyone else’s? To James Fenimore Cooper…. whyyy, gosh darnit, thems wuz fightin’ worrrds. ๐Ÿ™‚

UPDATE: April 26: Christian Science Monitor:

….author Mark Twain wrote in โ€œThe Adventures of Tom Sawyerโ€ that his hero was โ€œliterally rolling in wealth.โ€

“Literally?” Hmm. Wonder what James Fenimore Cooper would’ve thought of that?