Washington Irving: The Fantastic in the Time of Nations

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Scott Sprenger / Arnaud Huftier / Otrante: journal of fantastic art and literature
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Otrante : arts et littératures fantastiques
Volume 36: “Washington Irving: le fantastique au temps des nations”

The ways in which Washington Irving’s fiction was inflected by European gothic literature has been the subject of a number of previous studies. Critics have been especially interested in explaining how his adaptations of gothic themes to the early American context contributed to the formation of an American identity by its insistence on the frictions between local superstitions and imported ones. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow or Rip Van Winkle, emblematic of Irving’s work, can easily be interpreted in this light, but at the risk, perhaps, of a simplification.

The simplification comes from the perception of this new national consciousness solely as a schizoid form or as an aspect of a transatlantic tension arising from the American displacement of European influences. To be sure, this tension is part of the foundational structure of Irving’s literary production, but its explanatory power is partial: Irving simultaneously attempts to expose the mystifications of emerging “national” (or nationalist) forms of consciousness, both in America and abroad. Approached in this light, studies of Irving can no longer be content with his emblematic texts or with reading him as an American version of the European gothic. Indeed, we propose here to embrace the entirety of his works (historical, biographical and fictional) and to broaden the frame of analysis to the general problem of emerging national (and rationalist) forms of consciousness. Scrutiny of his histories and biographies has shown that they are unreliable as reflections of “historical reality,” but Irving’s historiographical unreliability is not due to error or a lack of archival due diligence. The fictional dimensions of his historiography are, on the contrary, coherent with his broader aim to uncover what we might call a moral geography, or an unofficial mapping and reconstruction of experience at the zones of cultural and mental displacement, as nations engaged in internal colonization. Irving seeks to lift to the surface realities that official national discourses, and national(-ist) forms of consciousness, had displaced and repressed under the sign of legend, archaic superstition, barbarity or madness. It is precisely this ‘lifting to the surface’ of unclassifiable human experience that accounts for the fantastic effects of Irving’s writing and recommends revisiting his work.

On both sides of the Atlantic, Washington Irving’s originality as a writer has often been misrecognized or undetected by being considered a gothic imitation by Anglo-American critics or a precursor to the fantastic by the French. This special issue of the French journal Otrante is devoted to showing how and why Irving invented literary effects that resist traditional “national” generic and literary historical classifications. Irving’s formal originality, we propose, derives from the depth and complexity of his explorations of the hidden causes of nationalist pathologies and its connection to a fundamentally “unconceptualizable” aspect of political and cultural modernity. It is not thus the inventor of a national consciousness that we celebrate here, but more ambitiously, the surprising precursor of cultural anthropology or social psychology.

Articles written in or translated into native French would be appreciated. Strong articles in English will be considered for translation by professionals in France. 1-page proposals due by April 19, 2013. Final papers (30,000 characters including spaces) are due Sept 20, 2013.

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