“The evening passed delightfully: we sat out in the moonlight on the piazza, and strolled along the banks of the Patapsco; after which I went to bed, had a sweet night’s sleep, and dreamt I was in Mahomet’s Paradise.”
Washington Irving romanticized his life. In an 1854 letter to his niece, he even found whimsy on the Patapsco River in Maryland, where he stayed at the home of John Pendleton Kennedy: Whig politician, Secretary of the Navy, Maryland Congressman, and a man immersed in the pop-medieval daydreams of his age.
No one reads Kennedy’s 1832 book Swallow Barn anymore, and the author’s own description of it isn’t likely to bring readers back: “There is a rivulet of story wandering through a broad meadow of episode. Or, I might truly say, it is a book of episodes, with an occasional digression into the plot.” Kennedy loved Irving’s Bracebridge Hall, in which an American visitor describes an English manor through a series of character sketches and anecdotes, and he mimics it in Swallow Barn: a northerner visits his cousin’s plantation on the James River in Virginia and describes the place in anecdotal fits and starts. (Swallow Barn so closely resembles Irving’s style that when it was published under the name “Mark Littleton,” the public assumed Irving has simply adopted a coy new nom de plume.)
Medievalism is rampant in Swallow Barn. In his prologue, Kennedy cites the Morte d’Arthur. He likens a miller to a Robin Hood character, an old slave to an ancient crusading knight, and a group of pedantic Virginia lawyers to an Anglo-Saxon “wittanagemote.”
As it turns out, the early 19th-century Virginians of Swallow Barn are as obsessed with the Middle Ages as the narrator is. Here’s Prudence Meriwether, the plantation owner’s sister:
There is a dash of the picturesque in the character of this lady. Towards sunset she is apt to stray forth amongst the old oaks, and to gather small bouquets of wild flowers in the pursuit of which she contrives to get into very pretty attitudes; or she falls into raptures at the shifting tints of the clouds on the western sky, and produces quite a striking pictorial effect by the skillful choice of a position which shows her figure in strong relief against the evening light. And then in her boudoir may be found exquisite sketches from her pencil, of forms of love and beauty, belted and buckled knights, old castles and pensive ladies, Madonnas and cloistered nuns,—the offspring of an artistic imagination heated with romance and devotion.
Next we meet Ned Hazard, a 33-year-old Princeton dropout who stands to inherit Swallow Barn:
A few years ago he was seized with a romantic fever which manifested itself chiefly in a conceit to visit South America, and play knight-errant in the quarrel of the Patriots. It was the most sudden and unaccountable thing in the world; for no one could trace the infection to any probable cause;—still, it grew upon Ned’s fancy, and appeared in so many brilliant phrases, that there was no getting it out of his brain . . . However, he came home the most disquixotted cavalier that ever hung up his shield at the end of a scurvy crusade…
“His mind,” Kennedy insists, “is still a fairy land, inhabited by pleasant and conceited images, winged charmers, laughing phantoms, and mellow spectres of frolic.”
The object of Ned Hazard’s chivalrous amour is Bel Tracy, who’s so obsessed with Sir Walter Scott that she uses his novels to try to teach herself hawking:
In her pursuit of this object she had picked up some gleanings of the ancient lore that belonged to the art; and, fantastic as it may seem, began to think that her unskillful efforts would be attended with success . . . A silver ring, or varvel, was fitted to one leg, and on it was engraved the name of her favorite, copied from some old tale, ‘Fairbourne,’ with the legend attached, ‘I live in my lady’s grace.’ I know not what other foppery was expended upon her minion; but I will warrant he went forth in as conceited array as his ‘lady’s grace’ could devise for him. A lady’s favorite is not apt to want gauds and jewels.
By the time Swallow Barn winds down and “Mark Littleton” heads north, Ned Hazard survives a chivalric duel (a fistfight); slaves decked out to resemble “troubadours and minnesingers” tell ghost stories about nearby Goblin Swamp; and the narrator likens himself to Gregory of Tours and William of Malmesbury and quotes Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale.”
In an introduction to the most recent reprinting of Swallow Barn, Lucinda H. MacKethan writes that Kennedy “manages merrily both to revere and to ridicule almost all of the Old South’s icons,” adding that reviewers disagreed on whether the book was a faithful depiction of Southern plantation life or blatant satire. I think it’s both: Swallow Barn shows a South in which overprivileged plantation-dwellers are so immersed in chivalric tales that they come to inhabit a shared medieval delusion.
When Washington Irving visited John Pendelton Kennedy in Maryland in 1854, life had been good to both authors, but especially to Kennedy. He had married Elizabeth Gray, daughter of textile baron Edward Gray, and moved into the Gray mansion. Gray liked to see himself as a feudal lord as he surveyed his factories on the Patapsco, a fancy Irving apparently shared.
In an 1854 letter to Elizabeth Gray Kennedy after returning home to Tarrytown, Irving let his inner medievalist romp:
I envy Kennedy the job of building that tower, if he has half the relish that I have for castle building—air castles, or any other. I should like nothing better than to have plenty of money to squander on stone and mortar, and to build chateaux along the beautiful Patapsco with the noble stone which abounds there; but I would first blow up all the cotton mills (your father’s among the number), and make picturesque ruins of them; and I would utterly destroy the railroad; and all of the cotton lords should live in baronial castles on the cliffs, and the cotton spinners should be virtuous peasantry of both sexes, in silk skirts and small clothes and straw hats, with long ribbands, and should do nothing but sing songs and choruses, and dance on the margin of the river.
Only Washington Irving could look past textile mills and see a medieval peasant fantasy—but as Paul J. Travers points out in The Patapsco: Baltimore’s River of History, “Irving’s words were prophetic”: A great flood in 1868 washed away part of the Gray mansion, Kennedy’s personal library was ruined, and the family was forced to move. (Elizabeth Kennedy kept the factory going for 20 more years—until another devastating flood.)
Today, if you hack through the weeds between down Ellicott City and Patapsco State Park, you can walk in the footsteps of a wide-eyed Washington Irving…
…and spot the “picturesque ruins” Irving joked that he wanted to see. They’re now monuments to a forgotten writer and a half-remembered natural disaster.
Nearby, you’ll find more recent wrecks that put Irving’s romanticism in perspective.
Shops on Main Street in Ellicott City now sell plastic swords, pirate gear, and Viking hats alongside antique shops that burnish the relics of Irving and Kennedy’s age. On the outskirts of town, Marylanders hike and bike; some latter-day rustics fish along the river’s edge. Whether you see timeless fantasies here, as Irving did, depends on your affinity with Swallow Barn’s Bel Tracy, who found “something pleasant in the idea of moated castles, and gay knights, and border feuds, and roundelays under one’s window, and lighted halls.”
Mark Twain saw something else in Southern medievalism: a sort of mass insanity, a “maudlin Middle-Age romanticism” that’s still more tenacious in America than he ever foresaw. Even now, many Americans would answer Twain in the same tone Bel Tracy uses to scold her cousin: “Pshaw!…You haven’t one spark of genuine romance in your whole composition.” When a 19th-century New Yorker can find Virginia medievalism on the banks of a Maryland river, I’m not sure both notions aren’t right.