Washington Irving (1783–1859)
From American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps
Also in Washington Irving: Bracebridge Hall, Tales of a Traveller, The Alhambra
Most of Washington Irving’s supernatural tales have a whimsical—even farcical—tone, and many of his most famous ghost stories are notable for not featuring any actual ghosts. An exception is the surprisingly macabre “The Adventure of the German Student,” which H. P. Lovecraft singled out for praise because it diverged from Irving’s “lighter treatment of eerie themes.” Yet even this story couldn’t resist a final joke; a coda assures the reader, “I had it from the best authority. The student told it me himself. I saw him in a madhouse at Paris.” And Irving (who was born 233 years ago this Sunday, April 3) subtly mocks the entire Gothic tradition, saying the student fell into his “excited and sublimated state” by becoming “a literary goul, feeding in the charnel house of decayed literature.”
The story first appeared in the 1824 collection Tales of a Traveller, which was not well received when it was published—mostly because critics felt Irving had fallen into a rut. Yet several of the book’s stories have gained in stature over the last two centuries and are still often included in anthologies. The volume is also notable for its part in a metafictional gag: a battle of wits between Irving’s fictional characters and the equally fictional characters of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels—an aspect we describe in greater detail in the introduction on our Story of the Week site.