Irving, Ruin, and Risk
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Irving, Ruin, and Risk

Low ambition offends Americans even more than low achievement.

—Scott Sandage, Born Losers: A History of Failure in America

Why does a professional writer write? Or, to ask a question more specific to the pages that follow: why did Washington Irving—the professional writer in the US literary tradition—enter the transatlantic literary marketplace after financial turbulence ruined his brothers’ import-export firm, P. & E. Irving, in the late 1810s? Of course, the question of Irving’s inauguration of professional literature in the United States has generated no shortage of responses. William Charvat, for instance, offers a well-traveled thesis, which has it that Irving writes because he both can and must. “The profession of authorship began in the United States in the 1820s,” Charvat asserts in his still classic The Profession of Authorship, “when Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper discovered that they could turn out regularly books which readers were willing to buy regularly” (29). The public’s willingness, to quote from Irving’s correspondence, “to pay for the support of authors” was well timed, as it coincided with the ruin of P. & E. Irving, which underwent bankruptcy proceedings in England in 1818 (Letters 554). The bankruptcy spelled the end of his brothers’ patronage; no longer supported by the firm’s revenue, Irving therefore needed (again to quote from his letters) to employ “a little capital” of his own (540). He needed, that is, to turn his literary avocation into a vocation.

From the early twentieth-century Irving biographer Stanley Williams to one of the most influential late twentieth-century Irving critics Jeffrey Rubin-Dorsky, scholars have found a materialist account of Irving’s turn to professional authorship to lack sufficient explanatory power. Accordingly, these critics have deployed a psychological approach to understand the relation between the demise of P. & E. Irving and the “crucial issue of vocation” (Rubin-Dorsky, Adrift 36). While Rubin-Dorsky acknowledges Irving’s pressing financial need during The Sketch Book’s “prenatal period” (1816–18), he reads The Sketch Book as a “map of [Irving’s] psychological pilgrimage,” as a sign, that is, of Irving’s ability heroically to repress crippling [End Page 709] anxiety occasioned by financial tumult (36). In this influential account, the equipoise of Geoffrey Crayon—the source of the text’s “very harmony”—“derives from the working out of this [market-based] anxiety” (32). Irving channels his anxiety and becomes, in Williams’s apt phrase, “a prospector on the trail of literary gold” (1: 156). Indeed, for Rubin-Dorsky, “anxiety” emerges as the shibboleth that unlocks the whole of The Sketch Book (Adrift 41), a text that exists not simply as the product of Irving’s financial necessity but, instead, of his urgent need for emotional calm after the firm’s bankruptcy had left him “traumatize[d]” (34).

In a more recent examination, David Anthony rigorously synthesizes the materialist and the psychological approaches, arguing that Irving writes in the late 1810s in response to a particular historical phenomenon: the erosion of a mercantilist economy and the subsequent rise of a paper money one. Anthony’s wide-ranging Paper Money Men (2009) identifies The Sketch Book “as reflecting a nostalgic longing for a period predating the modern period of commerce and credit, one that found an anxious Irving financially embarrassed and decidedly out of place” (42). As the historian J. G. A. Pocock has powerfully shown, “the emergence of classes whose property consisted not of lands or goods or even bullion, but of paper promises to repay in an undefined future, was seen as entailing the emergence of new types of personality, unprecedentedly dangerous and unstable” (qtd. in Anthony 42). Building on Pocock’s insights, Anthony argues that Irving’s “nostalgic” but “nervous” sketches “reflect” his anxiety over the fact that in the brave new economic order identity was not static but fluid, not given but achieved.

What unites the diverse approaches to Irving and the rise of professional authorship sketched above is the assumption of an antagonistic relationship between Irving and the market, a form of economic organization that, as the historian Scott Sandage argues, began to discipline the individual through an...