A Tale Worth Telling

Christine Sunderland reviews DUTCHESS COUNTY: A SCREENPLAY by Michael De Sapio

DUTCHESS COUNTY: A SCREENPLAY is a moving, cinematic, meaningful biopic of Washington Irving (1783-1859), credited with being the first American “Man of Letters” and the Father of the American Short Story. We glimpse a pivotal time in American history—pre-Revolution to post-Revolution, the “Age of Reason” to the “Age of Romanticism.” Irving bridges the Old World of Europe and the New World of America. He influenced many of the nineteenth century English great writers—Scott, Dickens, Thackeray—and in America, Longfellow. American literature gained respect (finally, and perhaps grudgingly).

Irving narrates through voice-overs, depicting dream and fantasy sequences in which he plays a role in the story he is writing. The device allows us to enter Irving’s imagination, while placing him in the historical context of his times. We see the miracle of the story—when the reader lives in the telling.

We see Irving’s use of folk tales and local legends that surround Tarrytown in New York State. These become his stories, and as he listens to local tales, the power of the oral telling is evident. We see the Catskill Mountains, the Hudson River valley, Sleepy Hollow, as well as New York City. We see him write the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle.” Rip Van Winkle, we recall, falls asleep before the American Revolution and awakes twenty years later, after the Revolution. He has suffered a “little death” and resurrection. He returns to his village an old man, a new world surrounding him. He falls asleep in Sleepy Hollow, where ghosts of the original Dutch settlers gather. He awakes having missed the turning point in the history of the Western world, the birth of the New World. Are we asleep today, detached from our history?

Heroes and history are central. Washington Irving, named after George Washington, meets the president as a boy, and George Washington blesses him. Irving’s last work is a five volume biography of George Washington. After time spent with the Iroquois, he states, “It strikes me that our country, young as it is, has a real history behind it. It shall be my task to tell it, and to give voice to its divers people.” His friend Allston states, “You have showed us the value of our history, traditions and legends.” His friend Rebecca tells him it lies with him to save—give birth to—American literature.

The scenes depict a world of ideals, virtue versus vice born of the Judeo-Christian tradition: work versus idleness, business versus pleasure, truth versus lies, bravery versus cowardice, fortitude versus weakness, with the implicit judgments. Christianity forms a background, in conversation about belief and unbelief, in moments of prayer before a white cross, in the claim that without belief one cannot be an artist. For artists must depict suffering redeemed by beauty and truth, darkness turned into light, hope silencing despair. As Irving reads from his beloved’s Bible, left to him after her early death, he moves from darkness into light. He states later, “I am sure that Matilda lives.”

There are many lovely moments in DUTCHESS COUNTY. Upon return from England, Irving writes of the festivities of an English Christmas, not seen in Puritan America. He introduces St. Nicholas flying through the night sky, made famous by Clement Clark Moore in “The Night Before Christmas.”

Thank you, Michael De Sapio, for Washington Irving has been brought back to life, framed in an immensely important conversation about faith, history, virtue, and the miracle of storytelling touchingly and sensitively portrayed. I look forward to the film!

Christine Sunderland


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