Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Washington Irving's The Alhambra

Shortly after having moved back to my parents’ home, I settled down on a soft bed in one of the guest rooms. There was a bookshelf by the side of the bed with books and DVDs. Many of the books were LDS-themed, but others were literature. I had not perused this bookshelf before. I glanced across the spines and saw the title The Alhambra pop out at me. That was unusual. There was a book about a famous building in Granada, Spain, sitting right there untouched for who knew how long. I took it off the shelf and felt the hardcover binding. A sticker had been partly peeled off the spine. “Was it a library book at one time?” I asked myself. Inside the front cover were purple letters made by rubber stamps. One said “SANDY Jr. HIGH” and the other said “SEP 14 1933.” This was certainly curious. “How did my parents get their hands on this one?” I wondered. I flipped to the back side of the book and almost ripped the whole binding away from the paper bundle. Apparently, the book had seen better times. I found a pocket still adhering to the cover and a check out card in it. The book once belonged to the Jordan District Public School Library system. I smiled because I remembered checking out books from libraries that had these paper pockets pasted to the back of the book for the check out cards. To check out a book, patrons had to take it to the librarian, usually a woman, and she would then pull out the card from the pocket, stamp it, put it in her file, and stamp a piece of paper with a grid that informed the patron when the book would be due back at the library. (Nowadays, every book has a barcode and all the patron has to do is scan the barcode, wait for a printed receipt, and take them away. Progress? Most likely, but I sort of miss the sound of the pounding stamp the librarian makes before handing the book back to me, like the kind made in the song “Marian the Librarian” from The Music Man.) I wondered how many times the book was checked out. I pulled out the card and only found two dates: JAN 30 1939 and SEP 11 1939. “Is the book that old?” I thought, “When was it printed?” The copyright listed by Allyn and Bacon had the year as 1926. “That long, huh?” I thought to myself. I could not get over the fact that this book was at least eighty years old. What was more surprising was the title page. It belonged to a series called the Academy Classics for Junior High Schools, edited by Stella S. Center. This particular edition had notes and comments by Frederick Houk Law, Ph.D., the “Head of the Department of English in The Stuyvesant High School New York City.” Did that mean literary professors with doctoral degrees could publish books and work at high schools back in the 1920s? If that was so, then the school system of today could not hold a candle to yesteryear’s merits. Did the education system deteriorate that much? I hoped not, assuming high schools back then employed highly qualified teachers.

I chose to read the book because it dealt with an American’s outlook on a Spanish landmark. I wondered why I had not heard about it before in my courses. In any case, I wanted to know what a nineteenth-century American’s impression was while wondering through this Islamic palace. I had never been to Granada, but I heard it was a fabulous city to visit. Francisco Asís de Icaza y Breña said it best with this popular phrase: “Give him alms, woman, for in this life there is nothing so pitiable as to be blind in Granada.”

The author of The Alhambra was Washington Irving, the same that wrote “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Irving had gone to Spain to scour the archives and write romantic histories. He later went to Granada and got permission to linger at the Alhambra for some time before heading to London to work as Secretary of the American Legation. He wrote essays and fiction relating to the palace and published his work using the title Tales of the Alhambra. He published it in 1832.

The first portion of the book deals with Irving’s first-hand experiences of the palace and historical backgrounds that created it. They read like elaborate journal entries. Some associations that Irving relates seem a little dramatized. I cannot call him a historian in the truest sense because he mixes history and legend on the same page. Later, he includes stories of magic and intrigue that have the Alhambra as the stage. They read like polished fairy tales. Irving may have gleaned these stories and myths from locals and archives while staying at the palace, but I have to question which ones. Most of the tales seem genuine, but others seem original to the author himself. I cannot claim this without proper research, of course, but I like to know when an author is doing his own work or not. However, these fairy tales are enjoyable in themselves and I do like a good fairy tale. My particular favorite is “Legend of the Three Beautiful Princesses.”

I believe anyone can enjoy this book, or the stories in this book, although children that like fairy tales would have to hear the story from a skillful storyteller in order to like it. The descriptions Irving uses in his earlier chapters may throw off younger readers. An ideal activity for this book would be to compare the observations in the book while strolling through the Alhambra to see how closely Irving got to the original.


1 comment:

  1. You never know what Mom and Dad have stashed here and there. I am guessing Dad was the one who acquired it.


Have you read this book? What did you think of it?


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