Fictionalizing the Life and Voice of Washington Irving
The following paper — “Fictionalizing the Life and Voice of Washington Irving” — was presented at the North American Review Bicentennial Conference at the University of Northern Iowa, in Cedar Falls, which ran from June 11 to 13, 2015. This paper was part of the “Voice and Point of View” panel on June 13. Other papers presented were “Expanding the Powers of First-Person Narration” by Buzz Mauro and “The Art of Narrative Telling: Transforming Cheever’s Voice” by Grant Tracey. In addition to presenting, I also moderated the panel.
I’m here today to talk about writing my novel An Untimely Frost, which I worked on between about 2006 (I think) and 2011, eventually publishing it via my own press, Twelve Winters, in 2014—Twelve Winters Press, by the way, has a table at the conference. The inspiration for the novel was Washington Irving’s rumored courtship of Mary Shelley. It seemed to me that a romantic relationship between the author of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and the author of Frankenstein could make for an intriguing chemistry. I didn’t know where or when I’d learned of that rumor, and I wasn’t especially interested in verifying its accuracy because I decided very early on that I wasn’t going to write a fictionalized biography of Irving and Shelley and their time together. Rather, I was going to use them as sources of inspiration and an armory of period details as needed. [As noted, I didn’t research the actual relationship between Irving and Shelley when writing the novel; however, in preparing this talk I came across this rare book—The Romance of Mary W. Shelley, John Howard Payne and Washington Irving (1907)–which would be of interest to anyone who wanted to know more about the famous authors’ “romance.”]
For an earlier project, which resulted in the novella Weeping with an Ancient God, I wrote a fictionalized biography of author Herman Melville’s real-life experiences among cannibals in 1842. I was dedicated to staying true to the established details of Melville’s life and times, which made for a challenging artistic endeavor. I like to believe that the novella turned out pretty well, but oftentimes I did feel hemmed in by reality and by Melville’s biography. Not to mention, real life rarely provides us with a satisfying narrative arc, which tends to handicap a novelist. It’s a bit like running in a three-legged race. It’s an experience all its own, but there’s no helping that the entire time one is keenly aware of how much easier it would be to race the usual two-legged way.
Thus, when I began writing about Irving and Shelley, I had no intention of shackling my creativity to their real lives. I began by concocting fictional names for them, eventually ending up with “Jefferson Wheelwright” and “Margaret Haeley.” I also decided early on that Jefferson Wheelwright would be my first-person narrator. I obviously had some familiarity with Washington Irving—and I’d taught “Sleepy Hollow” a couple of times in a college course—but I didn’t feel that I knew him and, more importantly, his voice well enough to create my Jefferson Wheelwright persona. To prepare, I did read several biographical sketches of Irving and more of his fictional stories. However, what I really wanted to steep my brain in was his real-life speaking voice, and the closest I could come to that, given that he lived in the early and mid nineteenth century, was to study his published letters.
I got hold of two collections in particular, both edited by Stanley T. Williams. One collection, brought out by Harvard University Press, concerns Irving’s letters “from England and the Continent, 1821-1828,” and the other, brought out by Yale University Press, consists of his letters “from Sunnyside and Spain,” spanning the years 1840-1845. I made use of both collections, and in fact one of the epigraphs for the novel comes from a Madrid 1842 letter. However, I found the letters from the earlier period to be more helpful since they correspond more closely to the time frame and the geography of my novel’s setting.
I culled the letters, along with biographical information, for two sorts of material. First, while I wasn’t writing a fictionalized biography based on Irving’s life, I was open to transferring and transforming real-life details from Irving to my creation, Wheelwright. Second, and more vital, I wanted to capture as nearly as possible Irving’s narrative style.
Without reading through the biographical notes and letters in their entirety again, it’s difficult for me to recall all that I borrowed in terms of real-life details and events. I did skim through the letters in preparation for this presentation, and I was surprised in a couple of instances regarding details that in my recollection I had wholly made up, but in actuality stemmed from my research.
One of the character details that I know I extracted from Irving’s letters had to do with a skin condition of his legs and feet that plagued him in the 1821-28 period. For instance, he writes from Germany on August 20, 1822: “I grew very lame in trudging about the dutch [sic] towns, and unluckily applied a recipe given me by old Lady Liston (may god bless her, and preserve her from her own prescriptions!)—it played the vengeance with me [. . .] I could scarcely put my feet to the ground & bear my weight upon them [. . .]” (“Wi[e]sbaden” 19). Elsewhere Irving talks about seeking treatment from various physicians. I decided early on in the writing process that some sort of foot condition would be part of my Jefferson Wheelwright’s situation. I guess I vaguely thought it might have some metaphorical value, connecting to his fear that he was not evolving, not moving forward, as a writer and artist. In An Untimely Frost, Wheelwright requests the aid of a London physician, Dr. Carter. In Chapter 2, I write,
On the first morning, he listened to my complaint while touching and gently kneading my feet and toes, which were blotchy red, except around the toenails where the skin was a vibrant purple. Spots on my feet were pained to the touch while my toes were dead numb. [. . .] The good doctor said it was a circulation problem; he said that even though exercise irritated my feet, rest was counterproductive, that we must increase the blood flow to nourish the nerve fibers.” (11)
In reality, Irving was laid up for days and even weeks with bouts of his “cutaneous condition,” but I didn’t think that would make for an especially exciting narrative, to have Jefferson Wheelwright lying around his hotel room for days on end nursing his feet, so I had Dr. Carter prescribe exercise. Carter becomes an important character in the novel—although when I first introduced him in the second chapter I had no idea whether it would be a cameo appearance or lead to a larger role.
In addition to physical details I also borrowed one of Washington Irving’s personality traits, namely his lack of interest and acumen when it came to business affairs. He let his elder brothers manage the family’s business interests, while he focused on his literary aspirations. In my novel, I write:
So far I was having a splendid time lounging in the gigantic bed at The Saint Georges [hotel], drinking the black-black Italian coffee, and scribbling my tale. I even felt a brief—brief, mind you—pang of guilt at the idea that this is what I did to earn my keep in the world. Like many of the Wheelwright men, I’d tried my hand at business, but to dismal results. I simply do not have a head for numbers and inventories and so on—I can conjure whole worlds with my pen, yet adding a column of numbers and arriving at the correct result seemed beyond me (I believe because midway I would lose interest and begin daydreaming of haunted castles on lonely, wind-swept cliffs). (10)
There were numerous details from Irving’s life, especially his writing life, that I commandeered for my purposes, but even more important was capturing Irving’s narrative style—and in particular the style he used in his letters to friends and family, which was somewhat different, on the whole, than his published authorial voice, such as in The Sketch Book and Bracebridge Hall stories.
I wrote a brief essay about trying to capture Irving’s voice for Glimmer Train Press’s Writers Ask series (it appeared in number 54 and I reprinted it in An Untimely Frost). Since it is brief and to the point at hand, I would like to insert it here in its entirety:
Like the vast majority of writers who have come out of a university creative writing program, I was taught to write contemporary literary fiction. However, for over a decade now, I’ve been mainly attracted to historically based narrative, both as a reader and as a writer. When we think of writers tackling a story or novel set in another time and another place, we imagine them doing extensive research on things like people, on the chronology of events, on various aspects of the material world they are attempting to fabricate—and we tend to imagine rightly. For me, though, there is another sort of research that must go on as well, the results of which are not as easy to spot in a story as, say, an infamous assassination or an obsolete gadget; and that is researching the structure of language itself. It can be a nebulous term, but what I’m most interested in is a setting’s voice.
Voice should contribute to the ring of authenticity, to be sure, but, more than that, voice can actually compel the movement of the narrative; voice can shape its structure. William H. Gass spoke to this phenomenon in a 1976 interview for The Paris Review, saying that “word resemblance leads you on [as a writer], not form. So you’ve really got a musical problem, certain paragraphs you are arranging, and you imagine you are orchestrating the flow of feelings from one thing to another.” Gass summed up by saying, “Once you get your key signature, the theme inherent in the notes begins to emerge: the relationship between art and life and all that.” Gass, author of some of the most admired books in the English language, suggests that the physical structure of the words on the page—and the meanings, feelings, moods that they convey—help guide the writer to, essentially, everything else in the narrative: plot development, characterization, theme, setting. . . .
The importance of this sort of research in historically based fiction is nicely illustrated in Charles Frazier’s highly acclaimed novel Cold Mountain, which is set in Civil War-era Appalachia. In an interview available online, Frazier said, “I wanted the language of the book to create a sense of otherness, of another world, one that the reader doesn’t entirely know.” Frazier did library research regarding the material world he was creating, finding “words for tools and processes and kitchen implements that are almost lost words.” Beyond that, however, he was interested in “getting a sense of the particular use of language in that region, the rhythm of it.” Frazier culled period letters and diaries for much of his information, but he also had the benefit of having actually heard “that authentic Appalachian accent” when he was a child.
For my own writing I’ve been attracted to more distant times and places, and as such have not had the benefit of hearing period speakers so printed examples of voice have been my guideposts. Nevertheless, the feel and rhythm of the language can filter into one’s writing by paying attention to the linguistic structures. For my current project I’ve been creating a first-person narrator based on the American author Washington Irving. It isn’t a fictionalized biography. It’s more that Irving’s persona has been the primary inspiration for my protagonist. When I first became interested in the project, I tracked down an obscure collection of Irving’s letters that he wrote between 1821 and 1828. The book has been invaluable to me in my effort to develop an effective narrative voice.
Simply put, in Irving’s day a well-read New Englander structured the language in ways that sound quite foreign—quite exotic even—to us now. Take, for example, this letter written at “Beycheville,” France, October 17, 1825:
I have had something of a dull bilious affection of the system which has clung to me for more than two weeks past. . . . The greater part of Mrs Guestiers household, who have lately removed here, are unwell—I have tried to shake off my own morbid fit by exercise—I have been out repeatedly hunting, as there were two packs of hounds in the neighborhood, but though I have taken violent exercise I do not feel yet reinstated by it. (50)
The terms are spectacular, yes—heaven help anyone who contracts “a dull bilious affection” and Irving’s reference to “violent exercise” makes me think of junior high P.E. class—but even more meaningful to my eye and ear are the syntactic rhythms. Today one might say, “I’ve been feeling sick for a couple of weeks,” but for Irving the “affection of the system” has “clung” to him “for more than two weeks past.” The structure implies that his sense of unwell-being is a sort pernicious companion of whom he can’t quite rid himself, in spite of his taking “violent exercise”—giving the act of exercise a physicality, as if it were an item from the apothecary’s pantry.
Yet I have no particular interest in my protagonist’s contracting a bilious affection or partaking of violent exercise. Rather I want the structure of the language. I want to tell my own tale, but I want to form the sentences as Irving might have had he written of the same events nearly two centuries ago. I normally keep the book of Irving’s letters on my nightstand, and every so often I open to a random page and read awhile, perhaps a few pages but often as little as a sentence or two, because I’m not searching for information: I want to keep retracing the sentence rhythms in my brain, like wagon wheels along a worn track, so that when I sit down to write, the words flow as naturally in the direction of his prose style as if he (or someone like him) were composing them himself. (I must go now—I feel the onset of a bilious affection.)
There haven’t been a lot of reivews of the novel, and the ones that have appeared are somewhat mixed—but the reviewers seem to appreciate the narrative voice that I was able to create. For example, Anne Drolet writes in the North American Review: “Morrissey styles Wheelwright’s voice after the patterns and idioms of 19th-century British speech, and that choice lulls the reader into the historical setting” (47). I presume being lulled into a setting is better than being jarred into one. Cécile Sune says in her blog Book Obsessed: “The writing is beautiful and elaborate, and is a testament to the research Ted Morrissey conducted for this book . . . As a result, it feels like a Victorian novel”—ultimately, though, she only gave it three out of five stars on Amazon (damn it). And most recently William Wright writes for the Chicago Book Review: “There are moments of true brilliance in An Untimely Frost. It reads like it was written by a post-modernist emulating Henry James [I like that line], which proves to be an intriguing combination”—but Wright concludes with “Perhaps with more ruthless editing, the novel could have been a triumph. As it stands, it was a wonderful idea that wasn’t quite pulled off.”
I’ll tell you what, critics are hard to please.
My five years floating around in the fictional consciousness of Washington Irving was an interesting artistic experiment, and it really stretched me as a writer. When I finished with the novel, I began writing a series of interconnected short stories—each in third-person, with shifting points of view, and set for the most part in an unnamed Midwestern village in the 1950s. I finished the twelfth and final story just a few weeks ago, and eventually I’ll be bringing them out in a collection titled Crowsong for the Stricken. I’m considering other long-term writing projects at the moment, and one idea is to return to nineteenth-century London, but not Jefferson Wheelwright. Never say never, but I believe I’ve said all I care to say in the voice and persona of Mr. Wheelwright.
Drolet, Anne. Rev. of An Untimely Frost, by Ted Morrissey. North American Review Fall 2014 (299.4): 47. Print.
“An Interview with Charles Frazier.” BookBrowse [c. 1997]. Web. 9 June 2015.
Morrissey, Ted. An Untimely Frost. Sherman, Ill.: Twelve Winters Press, 2014. Print.
—-. “Researching the Rhythms of Voice.” Writers Ask #54. Portland, Ore.: Glimmer Train Press. Print.
Sune, Cécile. Rev. of An Untimely Frost, by Ted Morrissey. Book Obsessed 10 Oct. 2014. Web.
Williams, Stanley T., ed. Letters from Sunnyside and Spain by Washington Irving. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1928. Print.
—-. Washington Irving and the Storrows: Letters from England and the Continent, 1821-1828. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1933. Print.
Wright, William. “A Hot and Cold ‘Frost.’” Rev. of An Untimely Frost, by Ted Morrissey. Chicago Book Review 18 May 2015. Web.
(Note that the portrait of Washington Irving was obtained via Wikipedia at this link.)