Washington Irving is one of the best representatives of early American Romanticism (1820-1830’s) while Edgar Allan Poe is a famous representative of the mature American Romanticism (1840-1850’s). Both these writers contributed to the development of the world literature. Washington Irving participated in the process of interaction between the American and European Romanticism. As well as other writers of that time, he conducted an intensive search for national artistic traditions and outlined the main themes and issues. It is significant that Irving was actively involved in social and political life of the country, seeking to influence directly the course of its development. As for the mature American Romanticism, the period of Edgar Allan Poe’s artistic work, complex and contradictory reality of America had led to marked differences in attitude and esthetic position of Romantics. Markedly, most of the writers of this period had deep dissatisfaction with the course of the country’s development. The gap between reality and the romantic ideal deepened, and finally turned into an abyss. However, despite the conditions in which two great artists created their masterpieces, there are some similar features in their works. This paper seeks to compare the style and content of the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe and Washington Irving taking as examples “The Legend of the Sleepy Hollow” and “The Fall of the House of Usher”.
First and foremost, the core of the differences of their creativity lies in the writers`life styles. Washington Irving was a wealthy and successful man while Edgar Allan Poe led a very hard and mysterious life abusing alcohol. Edgar Allan Poe was a poet, literary critic and editor while Washington Irving was a famous short story writer, historian and biographer. In general, Poe’s life was hard and dark, that is why his stories are full of mystic motifs and gothic elements.
The plot of Irving’s stories is closely related to American folklore and history. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is based on a German fairy tale. Irving’s tradition of destruction of mystical and mysterious by rational natural explanation is preserved in the works of Edgar Allan Poe. However, Irving’s destruction of fabulous, unreal and unearthly is associated not with the component of grim reality, but with good-natured irony. In “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” Irving is a wizard in creating an atmosphere, as well as in confusing and misleading the reader. From the soft comfort, he deftly and immediately moves to heighten mysticism and mysteries, and then sharply completes it by reserved humor. This story is full of exquisite and stunningly precise style, slowly and carefully paced plot, and vivid descriptions of life, nature and characters. Definitely, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is very interesting and enjoyable to read. Even describing some simple emotions of the characters Irving manages to do it with multidimensional and subtle humor. Furthermore, in “The Legend of the Sleepy Hollow” Irving puts the canons of folk legends to parody reconsideration. Smith states that “historically speaking, this ambiguity surrounding the supernatural in Irving’s “Sleepy Hollow” is of more importance to the tale than it may seem at first glance”. (Smith, 2001) It should be said that both of these writers did their best to take the reader into the story. Equally, in “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Legend of the Sleepy Hollow” the story develops quite slowly, coming to an unexpected finale. Irving and Poe could use extensive descriptions of story settings in order to give the reader the feeling of being involved in the story. The writers are similar in extensive use of descriptive passages. However, in “The Legend of the Sleepy Hollow”, the supernatural is very often unmasked or appears somewhat primitive, almost caricatured. For example, maintaining faith in ghosts that supposedly inhabit Sleepy Hollow, an evil American boy imitates mysterious “Headless Horseman” and frightens the teacher. Indeed, in “The Legend of the Sleepy Hollow” emergence of Headless Horseman turns out as a comic reality.
Actually, the most important thing in the works of Irving is spirit of the time, very skillfully transferred in the works, and his “horrors” are just a part of that spirit. Unlike Poe, Irving uses a lighthearted tone. Even the description of the protagonist Ichabod Crane is humorous. Irving described the protagonist as “tall and exceedingly lank, with long arms and legs, and narrow shoulders.” (Irving, 1917) His attitude is the attitude of ignorant man who sees the footprints of undefeated supernatural forces, rather than harmony and regularity of natural phenomena.
Unlike Light Romantic Irving, Dark Romantic Poe exploited human fears. Poe masterfully developed the principle of originality in his works. “The Fall of the House of Usher” is a brilliant example of the obscurity and morbidity of the writing style of Edgar Allan Poe. The writer believed that without the elements of strangeness, surprise and novelty the magic of beauty is unattainable. Indeed, Poe’s originality is achieved by active imagination. Unlike Irving, Poe’s “rationalistic romanticism” combined imagination with mathematical calculations and iron logic. Poe’s prose has become the basis of new genres of detective and science fiction. Creativity of Edgar Allan Poe was deployed in a pivotal era and it reflected the contradictions of his time in all their acuteness and complexity; the writer most sharply felt the closeness of impending disaster. From the contradictions of reality Poe goes into a fantasy world; trying to ignore the struggle unfolding in his country.
Unlike Irving, Poe’s creativity is full of deep horror. In his novels, the reader observes madness, horror, fear, as well as the things that destroy the human psyche, and thus destroy the surrounding world. The author’s protagonists are at the mercy of fate predetermining their death; they are weak-willed, and have no power to protest. Usually, each of them is a victim of some obsession. The reader can see these signs of fear and madness in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The main theme of the novel is the tragic consequences of the collision of human consciousness, brought up in the spirit of humanistic ideals, with new inhuman tendencies that arise during the progress of the American bourgeois civilization. Poe was probably the first American writer who captured the threat of the lack of spirituality in these trends. Among the psychological states, that particularly attracted attention of the artist, the sense of fear dominated: fear of death, fear of life, fear of loneliness, fear of people, fear of madness and fear of knowledge. In “The Fall of the House of Usher” the theme of madness follows the reader line by line. This story is an allusion to the mind of a man, and the twins Roderick and Madeline are its split. One can not be free from the other, and they should die together. Analyzing the protagonist of the story, Cook reflects that “Roderick Usher attempts to transcend mortality in an idealized realm given over to the creation and enjoyment of art.” (Cook, 2012) “The Fall of the House of Usher” depicts not the fear of life or fear of death, but the consternation of the fear of death, that is, a particularly sophisticated and deadly form of horror of the soul, leading to the destruction of an individual.
Notably, however both writers had similar narrative styles and themes of American Romanticism, their different personalities are clearly showed in their short stories. The stories of Edgar Allan Poe and Washington Irving are rich in imaginary things. Both writers use similar symbols, however, with different purposes. Poe uses symbols to add the mysterious mood to his stories. For example, it is a house in “The Fall of the House of Usher”. Hence, the author paints a picture of a man with a tragic disharmony as a sacral center of his being. The narrative begins with the lifeless, sad place, impressing of its gloom.
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As well as Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe was the son of his time. He rejected much of American life of that time, but also shared many of its illusions. As for the differences of these writers, they used different stylistic devices. Humor was the key instrument of Washington Irving, while Edgar Allan Poe used horror. “Unlike Light Romantics, the Dark Romantic authors are defined by a pessimistic view of the natural world as a place that is dark, decaying, and mysterious. When it reveals truth to man, its revelation is evil and hellish.” (Dincer, 2010) Characteristic of the works of Irving and Poe is that whatever they wrote, they always tried to look at the world through the eyes of their fellow countrymen. Humor bordering on satire, especially in conjunction with American love of life and practical vein overpowered the respect for the rules of romantic aesthetics in their short stories. Deviation from this aesthetic gave their novels present identity. In the development of the satirical techniques and artistic means, Poe also largely followed Irving. The writers are characterized by similar ideological orientation that underlies their satirical vision. Both writers equally criticized bourgeois reality, however, Irving admitted the possibility of correcting the social disadvantages; he had faith in the triumph of the ideals of democracy, while Poe’s denial of bourgeois reality has become total and uncompromising.
The characteristic features such as severity of the plot, combination of serious and comic things and romantic irony with a pronounced rationalistic beginning are inherent to Irving’s novels. In addition to similar ideological foundations, continuity is expressed in the similarity of artistic techniques and means of expression. Both writers have the ability to express their attitude in two or three dropped sentences, which contain rather high proportion of irony.
As for Irving, although he repeatedly admitted that he was interested in everything mystical, supernatural, in his novels the writer consistently destroyed the atmosphere of mystery. As the heir to Enlightenment ideas and the fan of Mind, Irving nevertheless felt attracted to the wonderful world of fiction.
To summarize, it should be pointed out that “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Legend of the Sleepy Hollow” are seemingly different, but they have some common features – both writers used imagination vs. reality. Edgar Allan Poe and Washington Irving are both known for their horror stories; however, their personal traits of character make these stories different. It is thanks to Washington Irving and Edgar Poe, the short story genre has become one of the most developed genres of American literature. Moreover, their novels are considered as masterpieces for lively story, entertaining plot, combined with irony and beauty of the landscape. The common features of their work are, firstly, combinations of gentle irony, humor, parody, satire and grotesque in the modern life of America, and, secondly, combinations of fantastic things with a realistic transition from the everyday to the magical and mysterious world which appears in their works as something natural.