Introduction: Irving's Gigantic Question

[1]     Washington Irving does a bold thing in Book I, Chapter V of the History of New York.  He makes us realize, like Puritan horror-meister Jonathan Edwards, that we walk on slippery places.  The land is not ours.  Never was.  Never will be.  Never can be.  And all our verbal constructions to the contrary, like Edwardean spider webs trying to stop falling rocks, cannot save us from the circle of the Inferno reserved for hypocrites.  Our stories simply won't hold up in the court of Last Assizes.  We're intruders, interlopers.  Bandits, brigands.  Aliens, assassins.  Chief Seattle reminds the white man that he will never be alone; even after the last Indian has died, the ghosts will be there, incriminating.  Irving tries precisely to unleash those harpies of guilt.  Camus describes those moments when the appearance of rationality surrenders to the reality of the Absurd.  Irving is Camus's hit man.  In this chapter he's pulling the trigger.

[2]     Irving does a bold thing.  He questions our identity.  Never question your identity.  How do you know you are your father's child?  Just take your mother's word.  Please.  Don't question.  Historians provide the mother's word for the nation.  Don't question.  Listen to Aristotle: "If the titles of rule had always to be proved by going back to the seeds of time, no tenure could ever be fully established" (Nicomachean Ethics).  Expedient.  Comforting.  Very politic.  Aristotle wrote the book on Politics, in fact.  We are born in slime.  Accept.  Live in good faith in the present.  What's done is done.  Past is past.  I was not there.  One life to lead.  Move on.

[3]     Bold.  Surely, then, Irving is ingenuous and sly when he cites "kind-hearted folks" writhing in mental distress over his "gigantic question" (3, 1).  And when he puts in his sights "the worthy people of America" and their restless sullied consciences (3).  No, there was no wide concern over the gigantic question that he must absolve.  For our historians (and our "historians") had rendered the question of our right of possession mute, moribund, meaningless.  Columbus plants his staff; the Notary records.  Done.  Ours.  Let's have a Columbus Day.  Strike up the band.  Next.  Bradford's God sealed our covenant by bringing us safely to the New World.  Done.  Ours.  Dress the kids in feathers.  Pass the turkey.  Next.  No--in the kind of reversal characteristic of much of his strategy in the chapter, Irving wants to create what he says he sees.  He wants a bit of writhing from us kind-hearters.   He wants our lily-white consciences marked by the wheels of the dung-cart.

[4]     Irving's gigantic question, then, is deadly serious, but his approach is decidedly comic.  His Diedrich Knickerbocker is an incongruous knight who will tilt at wordmills.  This introduction to the chapter, for instance, mocks the mock-epic: whereas Pope mocks the rape of a lock, Irving mocks the rape of a land.  The effect is disconcerting.  The doublings ("honour and chivalry," "shrink or quail"), the ubiquitous and vivid adjectives ("perilous," "doughty," "fiery"), and the archaic forms ("fain," "might and main," "vanquish") are examples of a heightened language related to a night world of medieval romance that at first seems incompatible with scrutinizing harsh political realities in the glare of day.  But Irving seems committed to the tonic of the absurd.  And tongue in cheek does not mean tongs in check.  Irving hight Knickerbocker tickles our funny bone while he cracks our back bone.  Prithee, Sirrah!

[5]     But why "go there," even laughing?  Why question our identity?  Dejustification isn't a pleasant town on a tourist map.  It's a cemetery, visited only by politically correct Frankensteins.  Opening the books of the justifiers is like opening the coffin lids of the plague-ridden.  Rattle dem bones but beware the waft.  And after such awareness, what?  A man without a country.  And perhaps the realization that Truth in all its gory is more imperious than Imperial Spain in all its glory.  And more beautiful.