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Melville and Irving
The dawn of the American nation brought with it a need for a decidedly American culture, one depicted with careful precision by many of the authors that came to paint the literary landscape of the new magnate across the Atlantic. Washington Irving, the first American great, told the story of the nascent, colonial United States through youthful folklore limned with great detail and attention to the inner workings of the human spirit in its new land. Half a century later, Herman Melville entranced the same people with his swashbuckling narration of pirates, whales, and sailors; America's best, who, against all odds, battled sea, spray, and monster to find their way back home. While Melville declared his preference for creative genius over adept imitators like Irving, he could not escape Irving's influence, from which he learned that realistic details of rural life in American can be worked memorably into fiction. Through Rip Van Winkle and Bartleby, the corollary connecting the two authors is cemented in their dedication to the humanity that, despite extreme change in the external world, stretches the internal world with universal resonance.
Born into a family of patriots on Williams Street in the heart of bustling Manhattan on April 3, 1783, the year the American colonies achieved the independence for which they had so desperately fought, Washington Irving is widely regarded as the first author to produce in the new republic. From his birth, the writer was inextricably tied to the Americana for which he would be known through time memoriam; when he was a year old, his father and nurse lifted his head to the passing General whose name he was given. "My nurse told me afterwards," said Irving, "that the General lifted me in his arms up to the pommel of his saddle and bestowed upon me a formal blessing."
Growing up in Manhattan, ill health kept him from the newly opened doors of Columbia College, formerly King's College in New York, in the footsteps of his older brothers; instead, family associations, opportunity, and enchantment carried the young writer to Europe, where journey and triste brought to light an infatuation with people, land, and prowess with the pen.
His time in Europe begot his first literary endeavor, the nuyorican account of Manhattan's nineteenth century social life. History of New York soon followed, and between a short tangle of other writings, Irving joined the military, serving under Governor Tompkins and defending the northern line of New York in the campaign of 1814.
Exposure to the greater American landscape and a desultory epoch of traveling and writing bought the author time enough to develop his reputation in transatlantic literary circles, and while his works began to focus more steadily on the mysticism of the European countryside and spirit, from The Conquest of Granada to Legends of the Alhambra, his romantic Mediterranean escapade began its end, and in 1835 the American tale of Ichabod Crane that resonated in both geographies was shipped home, and Irving returned to New York with A Tour of the Prairies.
Despite his examination of the bucolic, it was Irving's cosmopolitanism that led him to a natural reflection of the realistic details of American life that he sewed with elegance and coherence into the new fable of American literature. Irving was a true patriot; he was as tied to the land of the upper reaches of the colonies as he was to the fertile berth of Manhattan, and his dedication to the heartland of his burgeoning nation prompted an acceptance abroad of the foundation of a new literary state. His work was basic; in its simple humanity and exposure of the human spirit in any countryside, he was able to commit to the hearts and minds of an audience both at home in the colonies as well as in Europe.
Epitomized by Rip Van Winkle, the quintessential American classic, Irving explores these noble simplicities through a man who wakes up in the Catskills after twenty years of sleep, finding a changed world. Irving broke away from the established forms of writings and engaged the American spirit in rural detail through an in-depth engagement with the world of imaginative literature. Satires, sketches, and short stories like Rip Van Winkle take the reader through the American pastoral. His pen gave credence to the sylvan intricacies of both American life and that of the nineteenth century, not only shaping American folklore but the future works of many writers to come.
Almost a century later, Herman Melville declared, "but it is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation." Born to the same streets as his predecessor only forty years later, Melville rejected his association with the adapt imitators of Washington and other literary predecessors; he devoted himself with conviction to the cultivation of original creative masterpiece. His tales of the South Sea adventures and Moby-Dick, presumably based on the tragedy of the Nantucket whaleship Essex, captivated the American spirit during the earlier part of his lifetime as the precarious balance between technology and growth weighted with fear and tragedy in the modern reality.
The decline of his popularity at the end of his life was no gauge for his future; the accessibility of his books resonated to the core of Americans for years to come.
Despite his predilection for originality, Melville operated in the urbane Manhattan society in which the infiltration of greats like Irving could not be escaped. His life paralleled that of Irving as well; roaming travels abroad, to the south seas, the Society Islands, and Hawaii instead of the European soil trekked by Irving, was followed by activity in the American service on the frigate United States, from which he launched into the Peruvian ports, and set the stage for Omoo, Typee, and White-Jacket.
Like Irving, he found his metropolitan home-place inescapable in word, not the duchy of steel, glass, and refuse of today, the epitome of American life; all at once simple and rural as well as grand and fantastic.
Bartleby, the Scrivner is Melville's 1853 production of a Wall Street life. The consummate American capitalist, Bartleby struggles with the passive resistance of his fellows in workplace; after engaging in the strife "but, with submission," and "I would prefer not to," his own inability in articulation and employer's cemented position impart an impassioned discussion of modern society.
The narrator is a "safe" man and takes few risks, opposing the capitalist Bartleby and resulting in unavoidable corporate discontent. Yet, despite its seemingly unrelated plot and geographic foundation in the City of New York, the story takes both author and reader through the same voyage as Rip Van Winkle years before.
When Rip Van Winkle awakes from his twenty year nap to the changed world of the American Revolution, what glorifies his tale is the change that can occur in the absence of a life; while van Winkle was still alive, his rest made him near-dead in the world in which he had physically occupied; he was alone, unaware, and incongruent with the actual environment. Bartleby, too, had been asleep. While not physically at rest, his role in the tale was that of someone near-dead, "like a very ghost."
While van Winkle was yielded inactive because of lethargy, work corrupted the live man inside of Bartleby, expressing him instead as a man indoors, motionless, without passion, and already beaten.
In quiet acquiescence to the world around them, both eponymous characters are forced into passive acceptance of their lives. It is clear that neither expected the turn of events that charges their present and future, but neither have the ability to fully occupy it. They both struggle; while Rip seems out of place and is accused of being a Tory spy for his lack of knowledge, Bartleby is at first fundamentally challenged by his employer. Their surrounding environments leave no room for the people they are -- Rip unchanged after twenty years internal and Bartleby a reminder of bygone days no longer seamless in the modern day -- but both, stubbornly convicted to their pasts and ideologies, ultimately win over their peers with understanding. Rip Van Winkle finally achieves recognition in his daughter and the local ancient Peter Vanderdonk, but it is not until the end that he is able to live in peace. Alternately, Bartleby overturns the narrator's predisposal for rejection with the understanding that they shared a common thread.
"Before, I had never experienced aught but a not unpleasing sadness. The bond of a common humanity now drew me irresistibly to gloom. A fraternal melancholy! For both I and Bartleby were sons of Adam."
While the narrator had been on the same path of forced acceptance for the modern world, Bartleby had crossed the same road not victorious. While the narrator was able to understand and operate in the visceral starkness of Wall Street, Bartleby had instead been numbed out real life.
Their roles as the omega outsiders forced both Bartleby and Rip van Winkle into a place of social…[continue]
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