``Debatable ground'': Westward expansion, sentimental aesthetics, and the literary personas of Washington Irving

Date of Completion

January 1996


Biography|American Studies|Literature, American




The literary personas of Washington Irving draw upon sentimental aesthetics to shape the American understanding of westward expansion. Applying contemporary cultural studies to a range of sources--nineteenth-century newspapers, political pamphlets, sermons, periodical essays, travel narratives, belles lettres, and historiography, this dissertation reconstructs the contexts within which Irving developed from a political satirist to epitomize the polite American author and historian. The dissertation covers the contexts within which Irving fashioned his satires of Jeffersonian-era politics and culture in Salmagundi (1807). Especially in his critique of early American history and historiography in Diedrich Knickerbocker's A History of New York (1809, 1812), Irving's early personas decry the use of literature for partisan politics. The Sketch Book joins the debate about the American character sparked by calls for English emigration to the United States in 1817-20. In it, the persona of Geoffrey Crayon refutes The Quarterly Review's colonialist caricatures of American barbarians, confronts Americans' postcolonial fascination with English culture, and claims the aesthetic heritage of Shakespeare. The dissertation concludes by studying Irving's attempts to reconcile the United States's imperial ambition with his Picturesque vision in The Life and Voyages of Columbus (1828), The Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada (1829), A Tour on the Prairies (1835), and his valedictory Life of Washington (1853-59). This dissertation offers the fullest account yet of the cultural contexts and historical circumstances which informed Irving's writing. By relating the development of Irving's central literary technique to his engagement with westward expansion in the first half of the nineteenth-century, it shows how Irving personified ways of displacing a recognition of the potential violence of settlement into a representation of its promise as a scene of picturesque fulfillment. The dissertation concludes that both in his satires of the master-narratives of American culture and in his sentimental vision of Picturesque communities, Irving's writing offers an important vantage-point from which to re-consider nineteenth-century ideas of American character. ^