Sunday, November 17, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 202: Washington Irving, The Stout Gentleman (#202)

Washington Irving, "The Stout Gentleman" (1822) from Washington Irving: Bracebridge Hall, Tales of a Traveller, The Alhambra:

When I taught a college class in 19th-century science fiction, I started off by saying that they would enjoy everything we read, except for one short novel that would bore them silly; and, as I guessed, when we got to George Tomkyns Chesney's The Battle of Dorking (1871), they all told me that they were bored to tears. Why then was this such a popular book at the time? I argued that the boredom of the piece was linked to its realism, its drab dread of invasion--that Chesney was as skillful with boredom as Tarantino, who I think is a modern master of moments when "nothing happens."

All my students offered a different explanation for its popularity: there was just less to do back then, so...

Though that does short-sell the entertainment ecology of the 1870s, I couldn't help think of it when reading Irving's "The Stout Gentleman," a comedic-tinged story of a man who is trapped in an inn--by rain and lingering fever--and whose boredom is lavishly painted. There's no one to talk to, one boring magazine, and no internet. So the narrator describes his boredom at boring length--the rain, the misery, the emptiness.

(Bonus: he says something about stuff carved into the walls or windows that you could find at any inn, which sounds like the 1822-version of contemporary highway bathroom poetry.)

And then the narrator becomes obsessed with the mysterious Stout Gentleman in room 13, a man whom the narrator never sees, but has to assemble from the effects he has on the world. The Stout Gentleman never comes out of his room and he eats late--so he must be rich. He upsets a cheerful chambermaid, so he must be rude and ugly. But he pleases the nagging landlady, so he must be charming. Etc. The narrator becomes so obsessed with this Stout Gentleman that even when other travelers show up and start chatting at night, the narrator is no longer able to be entertained by this. Of course, when the narrator tries to meet or see the Stout Gentleman, he just misses him.

It's all played for slight laughs; and Irving's friend witnessed this story being written and noted that Irving laughed to himself. So why am I so reminded of Poe's unsolvable mysteries told by feverish men, like "The Man of the Crowd" (1840)? A feverish narrator. A weirdly attractive mystery. An unknown other. An overactive imagination. An attempt to read the mystery through its signs. A failure of detective work. Even a slight obsession with shoes.

The one main difference may be Irving's claustrophobic picture of the boring inn and Poe's wide-ranging picture of London's tumult. Which seems right: Irving wants people around him (heck, he even wrote this story while sitting around with a friend), Poe is more worried about others.

No comments:

Post a Comment