American literature began with the horse. Our poetry had to wait for Whitman, but the stirrings of an American fiction—a fiction that did not slavishly imitate whatever the British were doing—are found in the ride of the Headless Horseman. Like Frost a hundred years later, Washington Irving had to go to England to write his most original work, and he came bearing news from the backwaters. The British loved tales of empire, loved them long after the empire had collapsed, and the better when written by exotics. Irving was followed by Kipling, Frost, Walcott, Naipaul, and Rushdie.

Perhaps a national literature must begin in myth. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” gave nightmares to generations of children. Irving offered not merely German folk tales transplanted to the New World, but also a sense of the uncanny lurking on foreign ground (home and yet not home with its New York, New Jersey, New London), the uncanny found...


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