The known makes us more aware of the unknown: both are in us. The relation of known and unknown is a large, constant thing in all our lives; and the playing of known on unknown, unknown on known, is both foundation and atmosphere in the novel or short story, as it is in all art. Suspense, for example, is clearly an interaction of known on unknown. However, the showing of something clearly, yet mysteriously; mysteriously, yet effectively, is a necessity always of great prose and poetry. The novel is, in a sense, a fruitful teasing of what is seen by the unseen, of what is described by the undescribed, of what is revealed by the unrevealed. Dostoievsky makes a character meaningful by showing us what he doesn't know about him, what the character doesn't know about himself, and what we, too, don't know about the character. The unknown emphasizes, enlarges the known-as an immediate attendance.
Washington Irving is hardly Dostoievsky, but there is one story by the American writer in which the unknown as an abiding, unmistakable factor can plainly be noticed, apprehended, welcomed deeply. That story is "The Stout Gentleman" of 1822-one of the stories in Bracebridge Hall. I think it is one of the great fictional happenings in American literature. It showed, as I see it, valuable discernment when Somerset Maugham included it, as one of the few older stories, in his Tellers of Tales of some years ago.
The story can seem trivial, and, I am afraid, has seemed so. It is chatty, safe, old-fashioned. It seems so typically Washington Irvingian, so much of the pleasant Knickerbocker writer who lived so estimably at Sunnyside. Irving, however, at times had the animal under the curried fur. In "The Stout Gentleman," in an unexpectedly placid milieu, in a comfortable framework, Irving deals with the great questions: How is the unknown always of us? What have we to do, every minute, with the unknown?
Uprisings from the Unknown
The fact that Irving perhaps went after something big is to be seen a little in his motto from Hamlet: "I'll cross it, though it blast me." Indeed, there is a resemblance between the ghost in Hamlet and the "stout gentleman": both are uprisings from the unknown, and even while they are apprehended, make their presence felt, they are unseen; they puzzle.
Washington Irving makes a continually rainy day in the town of Derby the representative of the unknown, the flat, the formless, from which something definite can come. What we don't know, what we are unaware of, is to what we see definitely as the gigantic, quiet formless to the shaped and observed. Irving presents the vague and formless in various notable ways. The definite and vague are in a rich combination in this early passage:
The windows of my bedroom looked out among tiled roofs and stacks of chimneys, while those of my sitting room commanded a full view of the stable-yard.
The uncertainty of things mingled with what we can be sure of is what Irving shows charmingly, in this bit about a sleepy but definite cow and a ghostly but rather busy horse:
Near the cart was a half-dozing cow, chewing the cud, and standing patiently to be rained on, with wreaths of vapor rising from her reeking hide; a wall-eyed horse, tired of the loneliness of the stable, was poking his spectral head out of a window, with the rain dripping on it from the eaves.
I do not wish to exaggerate: however, I feel here Irving meets Teniers on the one hand and the Hemingway of In Our Time on the other.
The theme of "The Stout Gentleman" is how something we're aware of, which we know is there, is yet not known by us as we'd like to know it; as, perhaps, we have to know it. The idea of what is unknown in the known, not seen in the seen, is in this bit of social lightsomeness (the narrator is shut up in an inn on this day of insistent rain and vapor):
I then amused myself with watching the daughters of a tradesman opposite; who, being confined to the house for fear of wetting their Sunday finery, played off their charms at the front windows, to fascinate the chance tenants of the inn. They at length were summoned away by a vigilant vinegar-faced mother, and I had nothing further from without to amuse me.
So the person telling the story has to fall back on himself. He has to meet himself, with formlessness, and mist, and rain about. Out of this compelling vagueness, something will come forth. The notion of something coming forth from shapelessness is to be seen in this paragraph:
The day continued lowering and gloomy; the slovenly, ragged, spongy clouds drifted heavily along; there was no variety even in the rain: it was one dull, continued, monotonous patter-patter-patter, excepting that now and then I was enlivened by the idea of a brisk shower, from the rattling of the drops upon a passing umbrella.
The "brisk shower" and the "rattling" upon the "passing umbrella" is as the sudden coming forth thing to the misty, unknown thing.
A Stout Gentleman Has Come
The narrator finds that a stout gentleman has come to the inn. This stout gentleman is many things, which don't coalesce. The narrator knows much about him, but doesn't see him, doesn't know him. He is like an idea dimly seen, but insisting on its presence. He corresponds to the idea of the determined ghost: only he is a stout gentleman. Stoutness-unmistakable evidence-has become shadowy, in some strange manner. As more is known, the central thing becomes more unknown. The stout gentleman has the flowingness and variety of reality, of our own wavering minds. He is "obstreperous" with a chambermaid, mysteriously affable to the landlady:
After a little while my landlady came out with an odd smile on her face, adjusting her cap, which was a little on one side. As she went down stairs I heard the landlord ask her what was the matter; she said, "Nothing at all, only the girl's a fool"
The stout gentleman seems both an aristocrat and a spokesman of the masses. He has to do with food—intensely so—but he hardly seems of earth. He comes to merge with the rain, and monotony. He is in relation, also, to church bells. He is a being of definite footsteps, footsteps that tell you something:
I only heard the ticking of the clock, with the deep-drawn breathings of the sleeping topers, and the drippings of the rain, drop-drop-drop, from the eaves of the house. The church bells chimed midnight. All at once the stout gentleman began to walk over head, pacing slowly backwards and forwards.
How a sight of his face is desired! The desire for a sight of the face of the stout gentleman becomes more and more like our desire for the unknown in us, which is ourselves, and yet seems everywhere. Irving is commenting on the import of the great sentence in 1 Corinthians:
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
But the face of the stout gentleman is not seen. Only the back in motion of this being is seen: the story ends with these sentences:
I sprang out of bed, scrambled to the window, snatched aside the curtains, and just caught a glimpse of the rear of a person getting in at the coach-door. The skirts of a brown coat parted behind, and gave me a full view of the broad disk of a pair of drab breeches. The door closed—"all right!" was the word—the coach whirled off; —and that was all I ever saw of the stout gentleman!
Perhaps, however, the stout gentleman will appear in some other form.
Back and Face
I have brought together Washington Irving's "The Stout Gentleman" and passages from the New Testament. I believe that the story likewise has to do with some passages in the Old Testament. I shall mention one: God tells Moses (Exodus 33):
And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen.
Back and face have to do with knowledge. "The Stout Gentleman" has to do with knowledge. In turn knowledge has to do with weariness, contempt, pride, disappointment, triumph. And, most importantly, what we know has so much to do with what we don't know, and which we may hope to know and may fear to know.
Because man as he knows and doesn't know, as he grasps and doesn't grasp, has and doesn't have, is and is not, is dealt with fittingly, with artistic clearness and subtlety by Washington Irving in "The Stout Gentleman," this story, I believe, is one properly honoring the depth, humor, imagination, and contemporaneity of American literature.
Copyright © 1971 by Definition Press
"Known and Unknown: Washington Irving's 'The Stout Gentleman,'" was published in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known number 815, November 16, 1988.