The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.
§ 12. The Sketch Book
In the production of The Sketch Book, Irving was able not only to enhance his fame by a charming contribution to literature, but to render a special service to two countries, England and America. The book came into print at a time when the bitterness of the war which closed in 1814 was still fresh in the minds of both contestants. It was a time when it was the fashion in America to use Great Britain as a bugaboo, as a synonym for all that was to be abominated in political theories and in political action. The word “British” was associated in the minds of most Americans with an attempt at domination, while in England, on the other hand, references to the little Yankee nation were no more friendly, and things American were persistently decried and sneered at.
It was of enormous value that at such a period, first in the list of patriotic Americans who through sympathetic knowledge of England have come to serve as connecting links between the two countries, Irving should have been a resident in England and should have absorbed so thoroughly the spirit of the best that there was in English life. It was in part because men honoured in Great Britain, writers like Scott, Southey, Rogers, Roscoe, Moore, men of affairs like Richard Bentley, John Murray, and many others, came not only to respect, but to have affectionate regard for, the American author, and it was in part because the books written by this man showed such sympathetic appreciation of things and of men English, that England was brought to a better understanding of the possibilities of America. If there could come from the States a man recognized as one of nature’s gentlemen, and to be accepted as a companion of the best in the land, a man whose writings of things English won the highest approval of the most authoritative critics, it was evident that there were possibilities in this new English-speaking state. If one American could secure friendships in Great Britain, if one American could make a noteworthy contribution to the literature of the English tongue, the way was thrown open to other American to strengthen and widen the ties and the relations between the tow contries. An American critic who might have been tempted to criticize some of the papers in The Sketch Book as unduly English in their sympathies and as indicating a surrender by the author of his American principles, was estopped from any such folly by the fact that the same volume contained those immortal legends of the Hudson, Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. In these stories, poems in prose, the author utilized, as the pathway and inspiration for his imagination, the great river of which he was so fond. If Irving’s descriptions of rural England were to give fresh interest to American readers in the old home of their forefathers, the skill with which he had utilized the traditional legends of the Catskill Mountains and had woven fanciful stories along the roadway of Sleepy Hollow made clear to readers on the other side of the Atlantic that imagination and literary style were not restricted to Europe.