This essay continues the reflections begun in the previous post, “Of lager beer and an Ohio German Catholic Bigot”.

By Christopher Zehnder

Washington Irving

In traveling about our motley country, I am often reminded of Ariosto’s account of the moon, in which the good paladin Astolpho found everything garnered up that had been lost on earth. So I am apt to imagine, that many things lost in the old world are treasured up in the new; having been handed down from generation to generation, since the early days of the colonies. A European antiquary, therefore, curious in his researches after the ancient and almost obliterated customs and usages of his country, would do well to put himself upon the track of some early band of emigrants, follow them across the Atlantic, and rummage among their descendants on our shores.

So wrote the 19th-century American author, Washington Irving, in a short essay, “The Creole Village.” When I first read this essay over 25 years ago, I was intrigued. I had been raised with the metaphor of America as a melting pot in which national cultural distinctions were boiled down into a homogeneous brew that hardly savored of any of the original ingredients. One could detect trace elements of them to be sure – borrowed foreign words and phrases, for instance, or remnants of ethnic styles in our plastic art, music, and cookery. Yet, such elements merely made our national cultural stew a bit more interesting than it would otherwise have been; they do not make it discernibly French, German, Jewish, Italian, African, or Japanese. It remains peculiarly American soup – rather bland. We are a mixture of these cultures, and yet none of them.

It was not to such a cultural soup that Washington Irving referred when he spoke of “many things lost in the old world” but “treasured up in the new.” His examples point to something rather different than a melting pot – Dutch villages “on the banks of the Hudson and the Mohawk,” “the sturdy yeomanry of New Jersey and Pennsylvania” who “keep up many usages fading away in ancient Germany,” and “the little, poverty-stricken villages of Spanish and French origin, which border the rivers of ancient Louisiana.” It is one such “poverty-stricken” Creole village on the banks of the Mississippi that forms the subject of Irving’s essay. And while, says Irving, the population of this village was a mixed one, for it “is generally made up of the descendants of those nations, married and interwoven together, and occasionally crossed with a slight dash of the Indian,” it nevertheless possessed a cultural integrity that withstood immersion in the American inundation all around it.

The culturally articulated America that Washington Irving wistfully extols was more like a patchwork quilt or mosaic, rather than a melting pot. Yet, though this America held treasures for the antiquarian and romantic, these did not represent its deepest worth. The Creole village, for instance, appealed to more than the writer’s historical curiosity. As he describes it, the village stood as a sign of contradiction to the bustling, enterprising, and brash devotion to what he called the “almighty dollar” (a term he coined) that marked the advance of its rival: the dominant, homogenizing American culture of his day. Describing one such outpost of the dominant culture, located not far from his Creole village, Irving says:

The surrounding forest had been laid out in town lots; frames of wooden buildings were rising from among stumps and burned trees. The place already boasted a court-house, a jail, and two banks, all built of pine boards, on the model of Grecian temples. There were rival hotels, rival churches, and rival newspapers; together with the usual number of judges, and generals, and governors; not to speak of doctors by the dozen, and lawyers by the score.

The place, I was told, was in an astonishing career of improvement, with a canal and two railroads in embryo. Lots doubled in price every week; everybody was speculating in land; everybody was rich; and everybody was growing richer. The community, however, was torn to pieces by new doctrines in religion and in political economy; there were camp meetings, and agrarian meetings; and an election was at hand, which, it was expected, would throw the whole country into a paroxysm.

The American settlement, as Irving describes it, was self-divided, fraught with dissension. Yet, even while it was “torn to pieces” by conflicting devotions, it nevertheless possessed a kind of unity, for its citizens must have joined together to lay out the town lots and in plans for the railroad and canals. But what was the basis of this unity? Not common ideas or interests, for the citizens did not agree in religion or political economy. Not a common purpose, for their politics were governed by opposing interests. Not blood or kinship, for if this settlement was typical of the time, it was composed of people from far-flung regions and foreign lands. What held the settlement together, strangely enough, was what set its inhabitants against each other: the individual pursuit of the “almighty dollar.” In chasing this quarry, the inhabitants at times joined together in projects that required cooperation. But while these projects were of common benefit, they were temporary truces. The rivalry that underlay the people’s social life remained. Through and even in their common life, they were impelled by self interest. It might have been enlightened self interest, but at bottom, it was still only self interest. Hence the social divisions and rivalry.

Very different was the Creole village. Irving describes it as a poor, and because it was poor, a merry place. It held to common, ancient traditions and customs that gave it a bold flavor. Its “flimsy and ruinous” houses were “in the French taste”; “all the wagons, plows, and other utensils about the place were of ancient and inconvenient Gallic construction, such as had been brought from France in the primitive days of the colony.” The women of the place were dressed coquettishly, but modestly, in ancestral costume.

Irving doubtlessly would have said more of the place, if his stay had been longer; he would have noted other characteristics, even some revealing a darker aspect. Indeed, he already noted in passing the presence of slavery in the place. But he hadn’t the time for further observation; “the bell of the steamboat summoned me to re-embark.” But just before he did embark, after the bell’s ringing faded into silence, his ear caught another sound: the scratching of a fiddle. It was a signal, he said, a summons to a “joyous gathering,” probably a dance – the apt symbol of social unity formed from intricate relations; the very expression of what characterized the village: the unity of friendship.

For Washington Irving the antiquarian, the Creole village was a living museum piece, a curiosity remnant of folkways long since dead in the wider world. If this were its only value, it would be value enough; for in an age like his and more especially ours, where a cultural sameness stretches like a pall over the vast extent of North America, who would not like to discover an unaffected corner that preserves an ancient and articulated way of life? The living world is marked by variety; one would hope human society bore the same mark of life.

Yet, the Creole village possessed a deeper value. It was not superior to the American settlement simply because it was more quaint. It was superior because it possessed what Irving did not once mention in regards to it – something we might call right religion. In the end, what Irving dislikes in the American settlement is its religion. What he loves in the Creole village is its religion, expressed in the peace of the common life of its inhabitants. The people of the village are content with the customs inherited from their ancestors. Their roofs are moss-grown, their elms ancient. They live in “happy ignorance.” All “enterprise and improvement” are absent from them. They have a “respect for the fiddle.” Most of all, they harbor a “contempt for the almighty dollar,” the worship of which is the chief mark of the American settlement, its religion.

It might seem strange to call the pursuit of wealth a religion, but only if one narrowly defines the term. For the term “religion” encompasses whatever imparts the guiding principle of all of life. It refers to what we give the highest measure of our devotion as individuals, but more importantly, as a society. Culture finally is but the expression of this devotion, comprehensible only in light of this devotion. Our social demeanor, our institutions, how we build our towns, the character of our architecture, our music and entertainments, even our cuisine express what we think is ultimately the highest good in human life. Irving’s American settlement is divided by rival churches, rival newspapers, even rival hotels. Though a small settlement, it crawls with “lawyers by the score,” for its people live as adversaries. Their god speaks only to individuals, calling them to struggle one against the other in competition for the always finite material goods of this world. Their god is Mammon, avarice, the root of all evil in the world.

“Alas!” moans Irving at the end of his essay, “with such an enterprising neighbor, what is to become of the poor little Creole village!” We all know the answer – it will be engulfed and obliterated. Such has historically been the fate of any society that has refused to burn incense to the golden god of our land – the “Almighty Dollar.”

If you found this essay interesting, you might want to look into two novels I have published: A Song for Else, Part I: The Vow and Part II: The Overthrow. They tell the story of a boy growing into a man during the “heroic” years of the Reformation in Germany and of his struggles to make sense of a rapidly changing world.