Washington Irving (1783-1859) is best known for his short stories “Rip Van Winkle” and “The legend of Sleepy Hollow”, but in fact he was a prolific writer and, according to Wikipedia, is often credited as being America’s first “man of letters”. I was fascinated to read in Wikipedia that, as well as being a writer, he worked as a diplomat in Europe. He helped other writers, promoted the writers’ rights in issues like copyright, and he was admired by the likes of Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron and Charles Dickens. I guess Americans know all this, but I didn’t.
However, I have had a recent encounter with Irving, before the story in this post that is, because I dipped into his Tales of the Alhambra (1832) when we visited that part of Spain in 2013. I was fascinated by his description of a place that is not totally unfamiliar to an Australian:
its scenery is noble in its severity, and in unison with the attributes of its people; and I think that I better understand the proud, hardy, frugal and abstemious Spaniard, his manly defiance of hardships, and contempt of effeminate indulgences, since I have seen the country he inhabits.
And I loved his desire to travel with an open heart and mind:
but above all we laid in an ample stock of good humor, and a genuine disposition to be pleased, determining to travel in true contrabandista style, taking things as we found them, rough or smooth, and mingling with all classes and conditions in a kind of vagabond companionship.
That’s the spirit, as Son Gums would say.
Anyhow, let’s get to the story, “The adventure of the German student”, that was recently published in the Library of America’s Story of the Week program. It came from his collection, Tales of a traveller, which comprised essays and short stories published in 1824 under his pseudonym, one of several he used, Geoffrey Crayon. This collection was divided into four “books”, and our story was in the first, titled “Strange stories by a nervous gentleman”.
Most of the stories are set in Germany and Paris, with “The adventure of the German student” being set in Paris during the French Revolution. The opening lines are:
On a stormy night, in the tempestuous times of the French revolution, a young German was returning to his lodgings, at a late hour, across the old part of Paris. The lightning gleamed, and the loud claps of thunder rattled through the lofty, narrow streets …
The story, you may not be surprised to hear, is Gothic in tone. LOA’s notes say this is surprising because his “supernatural tales are known more for gentle whimsy and wry satire rather than the Gothic horror found in this story”. They tell us that this story predates Edgar Allan Poe “by a good twenty years” and that American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft admired it for diverging from his “lighter treatment of eerie themes”.
It’s a simply told story. After that opening, the narrator decides that before continuing he needs to tell us a bit about this German student, Gottfried Wolfgang. He was “a young man of good family” but was, perhaps, a little too sensitive and suggestible for his own good. During his studies he had “wandered into those wild and speculative doctrines which have so often bewildered German students” and he starts to feel that “there was an evil influence hanging over him; an evil genius or spirit seeking to ensnare him and ensure his perdition”. His friends decide he needs “a change of scene” and send him off to Paris.
There, Gottfried starts by enjoying the revolutionary spirit but soon all the blood gets him down. In true Gothic style he lives in “a solitary apartment” in a gloomy street not far from the monastic walls of the Sorbonne”. He visits “the great libraries of Paris, those catacombs of departed authors”, becoming a “literary goul (sic), feeding in the charnel house of decayed literature”.
However, he also has “an ardent temperament” but is too shy to approach women so, being of fanciful bent, he dreams up a woman of “transcendent beauty”. She haunts him in the way such visions do to “the minds of melancholy men”.
Now, remember, this is set during the French Revolution, so as the story progresses a guillotine appears where our student meets his dream-woman. He brings her to his home and is, of course, totally enamoured. Fortunately, these are modern times:
It was the time for wild theory and wild actions. Old prejudices and superstitions were done away; every thing was under the sway of the “Goddess of Reason.” Among other rubbish of the old times, the forms and ceremonies of marriage began to be considered superfluous bonds for honourable minds. Social compacts were the vogue. Wolfgang was too much of a theorist not to be tainted by the liberal doctrines of the day.
Ha-ha! Who needs “sordid forms to bind high souls together” he tells the young woman. So he talks her into immediately pledging herself to him. And here, I’m afraid I’ll leave you, but let’s just say that things don’t quite work out for Gottfried, or his dream-woman. There are several layers in which we can read the story – political, philosophical, psychological, sexual, feminist – but all point, at some level at least, to satire of the times.
In 1860, Irving wrote this about his stories:
I am not, therefore, for those barefaced tales which carry their moral on the surface, staring one in the face; they are enough to deter the squeamish reader. On the contrary, I have often hid my moral from sight, and disguised it as much as possible by sweets and spices, so that while the simple reader is listening with open mouth to a ghost or a love story, he may have a bolus of sound morality popped down his throat, and be never the wiser for the fraud…
An interesting, thoughtful man, this Irving.
“The adventure of the German student”
First published: In Tales of a traveller (1824)
Available: Online at the Library of America