- Silencing the Dead: Washington Irving’s Use of the Supernatural in the Context of Slavery and Genocide
The Lord prefers common-looking people. That is why he makes so many of them.Abraham Lincoln
The Oracle(s) of the Family: African American Ghost Story Tellers and Dutch American Historians
In Washington Irving’s First Book-Length Publication, A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker (1809), the narrator attempts to describe “a typical domestic situation” in post-revolutionary United States. A scene of “a happy regulated family” of Dutch origin is introduced: the father smoking a pipe, the mother knitting stockings, and
the young folks . . . crowd[ing] around the hearth, listening with breathless attention to some old crone of a negro, who was the oracle of the family,—and who, perched like a raven in a corner of the chimney, would croak forth for a long winter afternoon, a string of incredible stories about New England witches—grisly ghosts—horses without heads—and hairbreadth scapes and bloody encounters among the Indians.(History 479)1 [End Page 1]
In this scene an old woman marked as African American is mediating “incredible stories” about witches, ghosts and Indians, while the mother knitting stockings, the warmth of a fireplace, and the intimacy conveyed by a first person narrator are intertwined in an effort to produce what is offered as a “typical” image of harmony and felicity in the United States shortly after the country’s acquisition of independence. “Negro,” “Indian,” “ghosts,” and “witches” are assembled in a spectral room of their own and staged as a source of wonder and amusement for the ordered, “regulated family” of European descent.
The narrative tension is generated through the enigma inscribed in the character of the storyteller. Her outsider position and animistic description leads the reader to anticipate gaining insight into clandestine and occulted spheres of knowledge. The reader assumes that the storyteller is in possession of secret information, pieces of which she is now willing to share. The reader has an interest in retaining the alienation of the storyteller, as this distance grants suspension and initiation into otherwise inaccessible spheres of knowledge. To an Anglo-Saxon audience in 1809, the character of a (former) slave must have appeared highly suitable for this task, as the imagined distance in experience, habits, and culture in comparison to a “typical” Euro-American family is extreme. For this purpose, the storyteller appears dehumanized. Animalized, she is “perched like a raven” and rather than speaking, she “croaks.” Presented as an “oracle of the family,” she is positioned halfway between regulated happiness and threatening mysteries; rather than a storyteller, she is a medium.
The scene is framed by an introduction in which a landlord, Seth Handaside, recalls the story about the ghost story teller, which he claims to have read in the papers of the fictitious historian Dietrich Knickerbocker (370). Knickerbocker, whose character combines logocentric authority with village-gossip, is also introduced as an unacknowledged oracle: “Indeed he was an oracle among the neighbours, who would collect around him to hear him talk of an afternoon, as he smoked his pipe on the bench before the door” (374). While the stories narrated by the first “oracle” remain occluded, the historian’s tales receive their first public exposure. Irving’s repeated installation of neglected historians who by chance manage to leave a mark in the annals of history by discovering stories about ghost stories seems to follow a specific pattern. Mute African American ghost story tellers framed by fictitious historical [End Page 2] narratives that relate their biographies reappear in all publications following A History of New York: The Sketch Book (1819), Bracebridge Hall (1822), and Tales of a Traveler (1824). The conjecture of history with spectrality in the “negro” character telling (ghost) stories about Indians that are being collected and retold by Dutch historians so far has not been recognized as a topos in Irving’s writing. By exposing and interpreting this point of convergence I’d like to answer Toni Morrison’s call, in which she urges scholars to develop a language for “unspeakable...