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THE ALHAMBRA: WASHINGTON IRVINGS HOUSE OF FICTION Jeffrey Rubin-Dorsky* Of the three sketchbooks that grew out of Washington Irving's seventeen -year sojourn in Europe, The Alhambra has traditionally been regarded as the least vital. In its own time, while it did not quite rival The Sketch Book either in immediate impact or sustaining interest, it did receive a widespread critical reception, which helped to solidify Irving's reputation as the foremost American writer of his time. In modern scholarship, both The Sketch Book and Bracebridge Hall (his second European sketchbook) continue to receive some attention and still manage to gather a small though faithful readership; The Alhambra, however, has been relegated to the shelf, as at best a literary oddity, at worst an outdated and outmoded guidebook. In 1832, as Irving's biographer has written, a large part of The Alhambra s appeal "lay in its novelty"; Irving was, after all, among the first group of Americans to explore the Moorish palace, which lay far off the usual path of the Grand Tour. · Today, neither readers nor critics (nor scholars, for that matter) have much patience for the romantic atmosphere that pervades Irving's last sketchbook; indeed, the Moorish legends and tales he reworked from bits and pieces collected around the fort seem, as William Dunlap once observed, "'very slight stuff.'"2 The Alhambra, however, is still of interest due to what criticism has overlooked: the nature and dimension of the experience recorded in its pages and the way that it encapsulates the conflict between the opposing demands of fiction and reality, a conflict that had been at work in Irving since The Sketch Book years. Like his other sketchbooks, The Alhambra is essentially autobiographical in conception (although also like those earlier works it incorporates into its structure the fruits of Irving's antiquarian pursuits), parading before the reader scenes and episodes that can be traced back to the daily events of Irving's life in the late spring of 1829. This autobiographical quality becomes especially important because throughout his stay in Spain the idea of an earthly paradise had taken hold of him and appears as both a central theme in his writings and in his own personal search for transcendent, all-encompassing experience .3 No matter where he traveled on the continent this goal had eluded him until, three-and-a-half years after he entered Spain, this "¦Jeffrey Rubin-Dorsky is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of California , Los Angeles. He has published in Nineteenth-Century Fiction and Modern Philology and is now at work on a critical biography of Washington Irving. 172Jeffrey Rubin-Dorsky exotic southern land provided him with the culminating moment of his European journey in the form of a privileged residence in one of the most famous structures in all the world. It is an interesting paradox of literary history that the book which bears the name of the great Moorish palace should prove to be a critical failure when it actually shows Irving to have found what so many of his contemporaries longed for but failed to achieve, the quintessential Romantic experience: a perfect state of timeless existence. It is nearly impossible to distinguish romance from reality in The Alhambra, and this, as much as anything else, has tended to obscure the meaning of Irving's adventures in the ancient fortress. "Care was taken," he wrote in the "Preface to the Revised Edition," "to maintain local coloring and verisimilitude; so that the whole might present a faithful and living picture ofthat microcosm, that singular little world into which I had been fortuitously thrown, and about which the external world had a very imperfect idea."4 Yet despite this declaration of "truthfulness," the accuracy of the representation is questionable. The book proper commences , appropriately enough, with a sketch of "The Journey"; but after a matter-of-fact introduction and a few "remarks on Spanish scenery and Spanish travelling," Irving moves off into what appears to be a largerthan -life sojourn uhrough "stern, melancholy country, with rugged mountains , and long sweeping plains, destitute of trees, and indescribably silent and lonesome, partaking of the savage and solitary character of Africa...


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