Here is how one of America’s most beloved stories begins:
In the bosom of one of those spacious coves which indent the eastern shore of the Hudson, at that broad expansion of the river denominated by the ancient Dutch navigators the Tappan Zee and where they prudently shortened sail, and implored the protection of St. Nicolas when they crossed, there lies a small market-town or rural port, which by some is called Greensburgh, but which is more generally known by the name of Tarry Town.
This is but the first sentence; the opening paragraph goes on for several more similar sentences, shepherding the reader into a particular fictional universe delineated by choice of vocabulary, tone, rhythm, and imagery.
I am as are we all a product of my time. When I was in graduate school in Ann Arbor (yes, Steve, Alabama embarrassed us) very good professors taught us to analyze literature is if it had no author. We were told at that time that it was impossible to determine the author’s intent and who cares what he intended, for by the very act of being printed or published, the story, novel, or poem (now known universally as “the text”) was freed from the author’s intended meaning and subject to logical, evidence-based interpretation by the critic. In other words, once the author, to whom went the reputation and the rewards, released his “text” into the wild, meaning was attributed by the literary critic. Us, in other words, the groveling impoverished graduate students sitting around tables in the Modern Language Building desperately trying to find an interpretation that would lead to a dissertation that might get us a job. Our intention was crystal clear: Eating was better than not eating.
We also learned, at least in the French canon, that authors that mattered were “he” with a few exceptions to prove the rule. I noticed that a string of authors I studied in the 17th and 18th centuries all had mothers who died when they were very young suggesting to me that lives of women at that time were more difficult if not more lethal than those of men. My professors thought this irrelevant unless I could find some reference to it in “the text.” The generation of scholars in French literature after mine made careers out of tracing the influence of missing pieces such as mothers but that is another story.
I decided that scholarship had not paid enough attention to the ways in which French playwrights in the 17th century opened their plays. Most critical thought over 250 years had dismissed play openings as “exposition”, a mere setting the chess pieces on the board. My argument was that how these pieces were shaped and where they were placed determined the course of the game. Literature was not chess; the pieces could be placed in a wide variety of arrays that determined how the game would unwind. In fact, in literature the game began as the pieces were set upon the board.
My work balanced on two underpinnings: “Beginnings” by Edouard Saîd and “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions “by Thomas Kuhn. The first taught me the importance of origin and why we mythologize it; the second gave me courage to advocate for the paradigm shift I was proposing in interpreting literature. After many attempts, this groveling impoverished graduate student punched his ticket into a very fulfilling career in which he taught four or five language courses for every literature course he ever offered.
And what of the opening to this column? Perhaps a few of you recognized these as the opening lines of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving. First published in 1820 by “The Father of American Literature”, this story is a by turns frightening and humorous warning against the dangerous consequences of favoring the pedantic over the common-sense, of stumbling over pumpkins when one’s head is too firmly hidden in the clouds.
Irving sets all of this up very nicely in his opening sentence where we learn that our storyteller is rather pedantic himself, letting us know that he is well-versed in Dutch history of navigation and is equally aware that the town in which the story is to be centered has two names: Greensburgh and Tarry Town. We learn that the location of the story is a dangerous place where Dutch sailors shortened sail and sought saintly protection. Similar dark and mysterious forces will of course wreak havoc in the life of Ichabod Crane. We learn in the remainder of the first paragraph that women named it “Tarry Town” because their men lingered there longer than necessary, and that nearby lies a little valley “or rather lap of land” that is the quietest place on earth. And there you have the story: an authoritative if pedantic storyteller, a dangerous and foreboding (“shorten sail”) place, tension between men and women, a nearby spot of nature that is in at least one way unnatural. An astute reader has all of the tools of torture ready to apply. All that is needed is the hapless victim, Ichabod Crane.
Most of us know the story though few of us have read it in the original. Disney altered it into a cartoon for children. Johnny Depp made it into something altogether different. I am no longer of my time. I am Rip Van Winkle.