Adventures in Reading


“The Voyage” by Washington Irving
“Who can tell, when he sets forth to wander, whither he may be driven by the uncertain currents of existence, or when he may return, or whether it may ever be his lot to revisit the scenes of his childhood?” from Washington Irving’s “The Voyage” from The Sketch Book.

Washington Irving is perhaps best known for his two short stories “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (both stories I admittedly have never read), and I had never read his short fiction or considered reading them until I finished Edgar Allan Poe’s review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story collection Twice-Told Tales where within he mentions Irving. Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of reading Irving is approaching him, as the introduction describes, as a post-colonial author. I confess that in my literary experience I have always considered America the colonizer and had failed to even consider American literature in any way as post-colonial. [1]

When I finish a novel I expect to close the back cover, leave feeling satisfied, see the threads nicely tied together, and generally have some sentiment of contentedness with the entire reading process. My short story reading experience has seldom replicated this scenario. Honestly it is a little closer to reading and then rereading the final page to figure out what the hell just happened, giving in and starting over from the beginning, sparks of excitement as themes etc. begin to fall into place, and ultimately leaving the story (no matter how often I read it) with questions.

This is an excellent reason to read living short story writers because you can write them letters and ask them what they were thinking or what they meant or why the hell they write such confusing prose. Unfortunately for me, Irving has been dead for quite some time.

But that’s the feeling that “The Voyage” left me with. On the surface, “The Voyage” is a tentatively safe short story with an American taking a sea voyage to England. Our nameless narrator reflects on leaving his home, the joys and sorrows of the sea, and finally landing in a strange land. On my first time through I found “The Voyage” terrible dry and dull and dreaded trying to reread it. However, I found “The Voyage” to be a tale punctuated with the grief and flatteries of the sea and these concepts broadening to metaphors for life. Irving captures a multi-faceted approach to the ocean describing it as “vacancy,” “meditation,” “monotony,” and “continual reverie.” The ocean becomes a symbol of isolation and cruelty as well as an extention of purification and childlike whimsy.

“The Voyage” has the more obvious man versus nature references but my favorite parts of “The Voyage” were two internal stories, which I’ll refer to as “The Captain’s Story” and “The Sailor’s Arrival.” “The Captain’s Story” is how a ship the captain was on crashed into a smaller schooner uncontrollably and destroyed every thing and one on board. “The Sailor’s Arrival” ends “The Voyage” as a woman scans the faces onboard the boat for her husband and only recognizes her husband after he calls to her as he is so emaciated and near death. The woman ends the story wringing her hands “in silent agony.” These two minor stories were wonderful and created a complexity within “The Voyage” it would otherwise lack.

But what was the point? “The Captain’s Story” is rather more fitting as it serves as a representation of the chaos and uncontrolable nature of the sea. However, “The Sailor’s Arrival,” while lovely, seems almost superfluous. Or is it? As a result of the shortness of prose tales it is unlikely that an author would interject unnecessary information. What objective do these stories serve? Likewise, considering the period Irving was writing in, what poignancy can be extricated from the concluding lines of the story: “I alone was solitary and idle. I had no friend to meet, no cheering to receive. I stepped upon the land of my forefathers–but felt that I was a stranger in the land”?

[1] Keeping in mind that these post-colonial peoples were doing terrible things to the native population.

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5 Comments

This is tricky. One point of the sketch or essay (it’s not really a story, is it?) is simply to move the American narrator to England, which is the setting for the subsequent pieces in “The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon”.

Are you reading a story anthology, or the “Sketchbook”? Very few of the pieces in the latter are real narrative stories. “Rip van Winkle” and “Sleepy Hollow” being the big exceptions.

Good question at the end.

Comment by Amateur Reader

Amateur Reader: Whether or not it’s a “story” is a fascinating question and one I can’t begin to answer during my early adventures into short stories. Reading this as a story was far easier than, for example, the micro fiction (some a sentence or less) I’m currently reading and it also seems far more of a story than Jack London’s earliest “story” (less of a story than this) “Typhoon.”

As of right now I this is actually the only fictional piece I have read by Irving. I was prodded into it by the collection of essays What Is the Short Story?, which encouraged me to brush up on my lack of early American literature. Thanks for the comments though – I might have to give this one a reread.

Comment by bookchronicle

Is it just me, or does Irving look a bit like Napoleon?

Okay, it’s just me.

Comment by Brandon

Brandon: I don’t know – a quick glance and he’s not too far off from Napoleon (at least a young Napoleon).

Comment by bookchronicle

[…] the short story May 11, 2008 On my post for Washington Irving’s “The Voyage” I received a thought provoking comment from Amateur […]

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