face-lift, and the town and its people are generally a little more ragged than they were before the war. But there’s a kind of energy that drives them, a certainty that their lives are their own and nobody by golly is going to boss them around. They speak their minds and do what they want. And tyranny and absolute rule are dead. In other words, this slightly scruffy assemblage of people is on the way to defining for itself what it means to be American and free. So not everything is better, but the things that really matter – freedom, self-determination – they are better. How can I be so sure that Irving means to imply all that? Part of his protective coloration is as this rather naive, rustic spinner of tales, but that’s not him; it’s pure disguise. Washington Irving was a man of great sophistication who studied law, was admitted to the bar, served in Spain as a diplomat, wrote histories as well as fiction, traveled widely. Does that sound like a man who didn’t understand what his narrative signified? His ostensible narrator, Diedrich Knickerbocker, is a jolly companion who spins out
these tales of his Dutch ancestors without seeing all the implications. Irving saw them, though. He knew, moreover, that with Rip and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”(1819) he was creating an American consciousness in literature, a thing that hadn’t existed prior to his time. Like Poe, he sets himself up in opposition to European literary tradition, offering instead a body of work that could only come from an American and that features and celebrates freedom from its former colonial power. So is every literary work political? I can’t go that far. Some of my more political colleagues may tell you yes, that every work is either part of the social problem or part of the solution (they’ll give it to you with rather more subtlety than that, but that’s the gist). I do think, though, that most works must engage with their own specific period in ways that can be called political. Let’s say this: writers tend to be men and women who are interested in the world around them. That world contains many things, and on the level of society, part of what it contains is the political reality of the time – power structures, relations among classes, issues of justice and rights, interactions between the sexes and among various racial and ethnic constituencies. That’s why political and social considerations often find their way onto the page in some guise, even when the result doesn’t look terribly “political.”An example. When Sophocles is a very old man, he finally writes the middle third of his Theban trilogy of plays, Oedipus at Colonus (406 B.C.), in which the old and frail Oedipus arrives at Colonus and receives the protection of the Athenian king, Theseus. Theseus is everything we might want in a ruler: strong, wise, gentle, tough when necessary, determined, coolheaded, compassionate, loyal, honest.