by Char Weigel –
If Washington Irving, like Rip Van Winkle, awoke from years of slumber, he would celebrate his 237th birthday on Friday, April 3. Irving would be delighted to find a weekend of events to honor his role as a founding father of American literature.
>At 7 p.m. on Friday, April 3, Irving biographer Andrew Burstein (Charles P. Manship Professor, Louisiana State University) and Curtis Armstrong (stage, screen and television actor, and expert on Washington Irving’s work) will take the stage at the Sleepy Hollow High School Auditorium. Burstein will share his thoughts on “Washington Irving in the 21st Century – Beyond ‘The Legend.’” Armstrong will read from Irving’s writings and present “The Theatrical Irving – An Actor’s Rumination.” This event is free and requires no advance registration.
>On Saturday, April 4, Burstein and Armstrong will join 15 Irving scholars for a literary conference entitled “Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane at 200: An Appreciation of Washington Irving and Lost Time.” Irving experts will share their insights on his short stories, essays, books and life in a series of engaging and interactive roundtables. The conference will be held at the Westchester Marriott in Tarrytown and requires a modest registration fee. The weekend will close with walking tours of the Old Dutch Church and Burying Ground, and other local sites that inspired Irving’s works. These tours will be led by experts from The Historical Society Serving Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown, and offered at a discounted rate for those who pre-register.
Burstein, a Hackley School graduate, is curating the literary conference. He highlighted the impact that Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown had on Irving, saying, “Irving came to this area at a formative age, and understood the centrality of the Hudson Valley to America’s formation.” Armstrong pointed out Irving’s role as a groundbreaker, saying, “As far as England was concerned, there were no writers in America at all. That is, until Irving established American literature and, in many ways, American culture.”
Those cultural references still echo in Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown today. Armstrong attributes Irving’s ongoing influence to his power of description and sense of place. “Ichabod Crane’s ride home in ‘The Legend’ is both beautiful and creepy. Irving is a visual writer. You can really see the image of the Headless Horseman stalking Ichabod, and hear every spooky sound.” Armstrong added, chuckling, ”His humor is a big deal as well. Sometimes almost Monty Pythonesque.” Armstrong, Burstein and the other scholars will explore these aspects of Irving’s writing and more during the Saturday sessions.
Burstein observed that Irving’s 19th century life was, in many ways, quite modern. A child of immigrants, he worked to support his extended family. His insistence on retaining copyrights for his works changed the mindset of New York publishing firms, benefitting generations of future writers. “Irving reinvented himself several times as he matured as a writer,” said Burstein, highlighting his roles as satirist, patriot chronicler of America’s expansion, and biographer among others. “And people in places around the world learned about a tiny little hamlet north of Manhattan,” Burstein continued, “all because Irving put it on the map.”
What would Irving think about this celebration of his body of work? Irving had a strong literary relationship with Sir Walter Scott early in his career and corresponded with many writers throughout his life. The Saturday roundtables are in keeping with his spirit of collaboration. The Sunday walking tours would feel familiar given the hours he spent as a teenager wandering around the Old Dutch Church and Burying Ground. The fact that this Irving conference is a “first” would also appeal to him. “There has never been a program like this that focuses on Irving’s mind, his craft and his influence on writers and American culture today,” observed Burstein. Armstrong agreed, “This will be a celebration of a great writer who is ripe for rediscovery.”
For more information on the free Friday event and to register for the Saturday literary conference and Sunday walking tours, visit www.thehistoricalsociety.net. In addition to these events, Christ Episcopal Church in Tarrytown, where Irving worshipped and was a vestryman, will be open to the public on Friday, April 3 from 4 – 5 pm. This literary weekend is sponsored by The Historical Society serving Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown, and Historic Hudson Valley with support from the Trustees of the Village of Sleepy Hollow.