“River, I’ve never seen the sea…”

“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.

“The stairs creak as you sleep, it’s keeping me awake…”

“How solemn and thrilling the scene as we anchored at night at the foot of those mountains, clothed with overhanging forests; and every thing grew dark and mysterious…”

So wrote an awed teenaged Manhattanite in 1800 about his first voyage up the Hudson River. If you ever find yourself in Tarrytown, New York, and if you can find (as I did this morning) a brief break in your business there, stroll down the street and visit Sunnyside, the late-life home of the wide-eyed mythologist who likened the Hudson to the Rhine: Washington Irving, one of America’s great unacknowledged medievalists.

It’s fitting to poke around Sunnyside on Columbus Day. Biographer Andrew Burstein notes that Irving’s A History of the Life and Voyages of Columbus went through 175 editions between 1828 and 1900, and that “[a]ccording to a recent survey of the contents of American libraries, rural and urban alike, in the mid-nineteenth century, Irving’s Columbus was the most commonly owned book. It undeniably influenced how American schoolchildren were taught their country’s origins for the balance of the nineteenth century.” As Nancy Marie Brown recently mentioned, Irving’s book almost certainly popularized the misperception that medieval people believed the world was flat.

Washington Irving loved the Middle Ages. In 1804, at 21, he admired Gothic architecture in France, and he was apparently so enamored of St. Agatha’s Cathedral in Sicily that while he gaped at the place, someone picked his pocket. He later included references to Charlemagne in his satirical “Knickerbocker History” of New York City, and he also whipped up a scene where one of his Dutch forefathers, Oloffe, has a medieval-style dream vision of Saint Nicholas, the city’s patron.

Irving’s Sketch-Book (most famous today for the German-inspired “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”) also features a dream vision in which Irving’s alter ego, Geoffrey Crayon, visits the library at Westminster Abbey, where medieval books literally speak to him. Irving’s 1821 novel Bracebridge Hall, with its character sketches of squires, old yeomen, and romantic lovers, teems with a love of medieval tradition and even includes a chivalric digression: “The Student of Salamanca.” Irving also adored medieval Spain, romanticizing history and legend in Tales of the Alhambra and Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to call Washington Irving one of America’s first pop-medievalists—although interestingly, he didn’t use the word “medieval.”

In “Medievalism: Its Linguistic History in Nineteenth Century Britain,” Clare A. Simmons notes that Washington Irving avoided the term “Middle Ages,” probably because it was then associated with Roman Catholicism—but the word “medieval” never leaks from Irving’s pen either. Instead, he opts for phrases like “olden times,” “days of yore,” and “the age of chivalry.” The word “medieval” was in currency in England at least as early as 1827, but if Irving heard it during his extensive time abroad, he doesn’t seem to have brought it home with him.

Irving bought and moved to Sunnyside in 1835. Around that time, he abandoned medieval subjects and wrote books about America: A Tour of the Prairies; the Western novel Astoria; the romance The Adventures of Captain Bonneville; and a five-volume biography of George Washington.

Still, Sunnyside reflects Irving’s continued interest in a romanticized Middle Ages, from its “Italian Gothic” piazza…

…to the “Spanish Tower,” which I image Irving found very olden-timey…

…to the ice house, designed by Irving himself in what a placard calls “a whimsical fashion conveying the look of a small Gothic chapel.”

Irving died in 1859, late enough to see the early medievalization of the Hudson Valley at nearby estates such as Lyndhurst but too soon to see just how nuts Americans would get about Gothic architecture. Many castle-like estates loom over the Hudson, including one built in Tarrytown between 1897 and 1910, just three miles from Irving’s home. Some of them have fallen into disrepair.

Irving would have enjoyed seeing medievalist follies sprout like mushrooms from New York cliffsides, but as his lively era recedes into obscurity, I wonder what he would have thought of his own reputation, if not his influence, becoming as much a part of “days of yore” and “olden times” as the real Middle Ages themselves.

Or maybe the era he never named helped prepare him for that: “And all for what? to occupy an inch of dusty shelf—to have the title of their works read now and then in a future age, by some drowsy churchman or casual straggler like myself; and in another age to be lost, even to remembrance. Such is the amount of this boasted immortality.”

“Won’t you fly across that ocean, take a train on down…”

“The origin of our city will be buried in eternal oblivion,” wrote Washington Irving in his satirical History of New York, the 1809 book that made the 26-year-old Manhattanite one of America’s first literary celebs. Two centuries later, Irving’s “Knickerbocker History” is by turns funny, baffling, and obscure, but what intrigued me was how full of Charlemagne it is:

The origin of our city will be buried in eternal oblivion, and even the names and achievements of Wouter Van Twiller, Wilhelmus Kleft, and Peter Stuyvesant, be enveloped in doubt and fiction, like those of Romulus and Remus, of Charlemagne, King Arthur, Rinaldo, and Godfrey of Bologne.

As it turns out, Irving was a bit of a Charlemagne buff. Elsewhere in the History, his alter ego Diedrich Knickerbocker looks to the Carolingians to explain why New York City’s “ancient magistrates” were chosen, naturally, by weight:

As a board of magistrates, formed on this model, think but very little, they are the less likely to differ and wrangle about favourite opinions—and as they generally transact business upon a hearty dinner, they are naturally disposed to be lenient and indulgent in the administration of their duties. Charlemagne was conscious of this, and therefore (a pitiful measure, for which I can never forgive him) ordered in his cartularies, that no judge should hold a court of justice, except in the morning, on an empty stomach—a rule, which, I warrant, bore hard upon all the poor culprits in his kingdom. The more enlightened and humane generation of the present day have taken an opposite course…

Jolly old Diedrich Knickerbocker also trots out several mock-heroic references to Roland, the “Orlando” of romance. Two of them occur in battles between Dutchmen and Swedes, while the third anchors a preposterous yarn about the death of trumpeter Antony Von Corlear, whose race to aid his fellow Dutchmen is stymied when a devil drags him to the bottom of the Harlem River:

Luckless Antony! scarce had he buffeted half way over, when he was observed to struggle most violently as if battling with the spirit of the waters—instinctively he put his trumpet to his mouth and giving a vehement blast—sunk forever to the bottom!

The potent clangour of his trumpet, like the ivory horn of the renowed Paladin Orlando, when expiring in the glorious field of Roncesvalles, rung far and wide in through the country, alarming the neighbors round, who hurried in amazement to the spot…

Irving later visited relatives in England (where he wrote two of his most famous stories, “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”) and spent 17 years wandering Europe. He had mined German folklore for two of his biggest hits and expected further inspiration. “I mean to get into the confidence of every old woman I meet with in Germany,” he told a friend, “and get from her, her budget of wonderful stories.”

The romantic New Yorker, pushing 40, soon met the drab reality of history. Visiting Aachen in 1822, he noted in his journal that he had seen the “fountain with bronze statue of Charlemagne” and “Charlemagne’s Chair in Town Hall,” both of which are still tourist landmarks, but he saved his grousing for a darkly amusing letter to his sister:

I am disappointed in Aix-la-Chapelle. To me it is a very dull place, and I do not find that others seem more pleased with it.

[. . .]

This is the birthplace, and was once the seat of empire of Charlemagne, that monarch so renowned in history and song. His tomb is in the cathedral, and is only marked by a broad slab of black marble, on which is the inscription, Carolo Magno. The Cathedral is an extremely ancient, venerable-looking pile. Every night I hear the hours chimed on its bells; and the midnight hours announced by the watchman from its tower. The Germans are full of old customs and usages, which are obsolete in other parts of the world . . .

The people have an antiquated look, particularly the lower orders. The women dress in peculiar costumes. As to the company at the hotels and public saloons, it is composed of all nations, but particularly northern nations: Russians, Prussians, Germans, Dutch, &c. Everywhere you see military characters, in fierce moustaches and jingling spurs, with ribbons and various orders at their button-holes. Still, though there are many personages of rank here, the place is not considered the most fashionable, and there are many rough characters in the crowds that throng the saloons. Indeed it is somewhat difficult to distinguish a gentleman from a common man among these northern people; there is great slovenliness of dress and coarseness of appearance among them; they all smoke; and I have often been surprised to hear a coarse-looking man, whom I had set down for some common tradesman, addressed as Monsieur the Count or the Baron. The weather has been very bad for several days past.

A recent biographer points out that Irving was suffering from an illness, perhaps the gout, which the famous waters of Aix-la-Chapelle failed to cure—but he wasn’t the last tourist to find Aachen underwhelming. A 2003 Rick Steves guidebook dismisses “unassuming Aachen” near the “unromantic Rhine,” and when I sat in Aachen Cathedral on a frigid February weekend in 2008, I heard tourists mumble that the place was too small to have been worth the trip.

Despite their gripes, I found that the “concentrated magnificence” of the octagonal chapel at Aachen repays real contemplation, and trying to see it backwards across a 1,200-year gulf is a worthy (if futile) ambition. Tourists to Aachen wish for eighth-century streets; if Washington Irving’s imagination failed him in Charlemagne’s town, what hope can their be for the Lonely Planet crowd?

Two years after sulking in Aachen, Irving wrote in Tales of a Traveller: “The land of literature is a fairy land to those who view it from a distance, but like all other landscapes, the charm fades on a nearer approach, and the thorns and briars become visible.” He later found his European dreamworld in Spain, especially Granada, where he briefly lived and wrote at the Alhambra. As the author of the most popular 19th-century book about Christopher Columbus, Irving convinced Americans, wrongly, that medieval people believed the world was flat. It’s tempting to wonder what myths he might have spun about Charlemagne if he’d just passed through Aachen in sunnier health. Generations of teachers perhaps can be glad he did not.

(Photo of Aachen taken in February 2008.)