Washington Irving Re-framed The Representative Tradition Of The Moors


“Irving helped to create the modern idea of Christmas. Charles Dickens often gets the credit for inventing the modern Christmas, with goodwill to everyone, the resurrection of old and formerly outdated customs, and the big Christmas feast. It’s certainly true that before the early nineteenth century, the older Christmas celebrations of the Middle Ages had waned, but it was not Dickens who first began to popularise them again. Dickens himself was greatly influenced by Irving.”

“Indeed, the anonymously published 1823 poem ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ (also known as ”Twas the night before Christmas’) also gets the credit for inventing the mythlore of Santa Claus with his flying sleigh and reindeer, but Irving was ahead of this poem, too: in 1812 he added passages to his revised Knickerbocker’s History of New York which helped to foster this renewed interest in the idea of Santa Claus. Like Dickens, he wrote five Christmas stories, and, like Dickens also, he championed traditional festive customs which had fallen out of favour (and which he had experienced while staying in England shortly before this). So next time you’re sipping your eggnog round a festive fire, raise your glass in a toast to Irving, the man who helped to invent Christmas as we know it.” 

See Irving helped to create the modern idea of Christmas.

“Irving also wrote a great deal about Moors. Michael S. Stevens states in “Spanish Orientalism: Washington Irving and the Romance of the Moors” the following:

“Edward Said’s description of Orientalism as a constitutive element of the modern West is one of the enduring concepts of cultural history. The Orientalism thesis begins with the observation that in the 19th century Westerners began describing the “Orient,” particularly the Middle East and India, as a place that was once gloriously civilized but had declined under the influence of incompetent Islamic governments. This construction was then employed to justify Western Imperialism and the expansion of Christianity into Asia. This dissertation examines a case of Orientalism with a twist. Between 1775 and 1830 a group of Anglophone writers and artists depicted Spain as a state with a cultural trajectory similar to that described by the Orientalists. But in the Spanish case, the glorious past was the age of the Islamic Moors who had ruled parts of the Iberian Peninsula from 700 until 1492, while the current Christian rulers were the backwards and religiously intolerant impediments to progress. Thus the case of Spanish Orientalism employs an argument structurally identical to Said’s Orientalism, with the role of the Christians and Muslims reversed”

“In examining this phenomenon, I focus on three particular issues. The first is the representation of the Moors in early modern European popular culture. I argue that these earlier traditions use the Moors as an emblematic manifestation of oppositionality to the centralizing state and elite authority. The romantics found in the Moors a symbol comparable to such other proto-Europeans as the Celts and the Goths, worthy predecessors to the warlike, chivalric, and liberty-loving modern Europeans. The second is the political context of Spanish Orientalism. Like “classical” Orientalism, Spanish Orientalism had a clear political payoff. Its articulators meant to show that the Spanish government was an unworthy steward of its rapidly disintegrating empire, thus Spanish Orientalism is closely associated with attempts to assert Anglophone authority in the Caribbean. Third, I examine in detail the work of the author most clearly associated with Spanish Orientalism, Washington Irving. In the four books he wrote while in Spain during the 1820s,Irving became the individual most responsible for reframing the long representational tradition of the Moors into a modern idiom and bringing it to a mass audience.”

“The rise of European artistic culture is one of the great signifiers for the rise of the West. Since the fourteenth century, art, theater and literature have expressed the values and aspirations of the culture. For most of this time, society’s elites have followed Plato’s advice by using Academies and censors to manage these representational traditions. But alongside official, academic art, popular artistic traditions have persisted; it is here where we find the early modern representation of the Spanish Moors. Stories about the medieval encounters between Christendom and Islam, and the reconquista, the gradual conquest of Islamic Spain by Christian kingdoms, largely occur in popular performance culture. The best known examples are the many versions of moros y cristianos, a ribald, raucous, and carnivalesque tradition that had been an important element of European popular culture since the late medieval period. The moros y cristianos, or morescas, recapitulated the battles of the reconquista in pageantry and dance with a strong emphasis on costume, mock violence, and sexuality – certainly a recipe for popularity, but one that emphasizes the ephemeral nature of the tradition. The sixteenth-century epic poem Orlando Furioso was the first important written work written in the spirit of the moresca. It also provides the first significant written documentation of the key themes addressed in popular representation of the conflict between Moor and Christian”

Source: Spanish Orientalism: Washington Irving and the Romance of the Moors…

George Washington And The Moor With the Horse

general_washingtonTo the left is a French engraving, circa 1780, showing  General Washington holding the Declaration of Independence. The Moor with the horse, though not identified, is thought to represent William Lee. William “Billy” Lee (1750–1828), also known as Will Lee, was George Washington’s personal servant and the only one of Washington’s slaves freed outright by Washington in his will. Because he served by Washington’s side throughout the American Revolutionary War and was sometimes depicted next to Washington in paintings, Lee was one of the most publicized American Moor’s of his time. Born circa 1750, Lee was purchased on May 3, 1768, when he was just a teenager, by George Washington, as described in Washington’s account book as Mulatto Will, from the estate of the late Colonel John Lee of Westmoreland County, Virginia for sixty-one pounds and fifteen shillings. William kept the surname “Lee” from this previous owner. Also purchased at this time was William’s brother Frank, as well as two other slaves. Washington paid high prices for William and Frank, as they were to be household slaves rather than field laborers.







William and Frank were often chosen to serve as domestic servants, who were given responsibilities and privileges most slaves never enjoyed. Frank became Washington’s butler at Mount Vernon, while William served in a variety of roles, including Washington’s valet or manservant.

As valet, Lee performed chores such as brushing Washington’s long hair and tying it behind his head. Washington was a frequent fox hunter, and Lee became his huntsman (the person in charge of the hounds or dogs) , a role that required expert horsemanship.  In his memoirs, Washington’s step-grandson George Washington Parke Custis described Lee during a hunt:

 Will, the huntsman, better known in Revolutionary lore as Billy, rode a horse called Chinkling, a surprising leaper, and made very much like its rider, low, but sturdy, and of great bone and muscle. Will had but one order, which was to keep with the hounds; and, mounted on Chinkling … this fearless horseman would rush, at full speed, through brake or tangled wood, in a style at which modern huntsmen would stand aghast.[2]

Before the Revolutionary War, Lee often traveled with Washington to the House of Burgesses in Williamsburg, or on journeys such as a surveying expedition to the Ohio Valley in 1770 and to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1774.

Lee served at Washington’s side throughout the eight years of the Revolutionary War, including the winter at Valley Forge and at the siege of Yorktown.

According to historian Fritz Hirschfeld, Lee “rode alongside Washington in the thick of battle, ready to hand over to the general a spare horse or his telescope or whatever else might be needed. Even following Washington’s 1797 retirement, Lee’s disabilities prevented him from continuing his previous duties, and he spent the last years of his life as a shoemaker at Mount Vernon, struggling with alcoholismRevolutionary War veterans who visited Mount Vernon often stopped to reminisce with Lee about the war.

When Washington died in 1799, he freed William Lee in his will, citing “his faithful services during the Revolutionary War”. Lee was the only one of Washington’s 124 slaves freed outright in his will; the remaining slaves owned by Washington were to be freed upon the death of Martha Washington. (Another 153 slaves living at Mount Vernon were the property of Martha’s first husband’s estate, and could not be freed by Washington.)  Lee was given a pension of thirty dollars a year for the rest of his life, and the option of remaining at Mount Vernon if he wanted. Lee chose to live out the rest of his life at Mount Vernon, where he is buried.

“If Billy Lee had been a white man,” wrote historian Fritz Hirschfeld, “he would have had an honored place in American history because of his close proximity to George Washington during the most exciting periods of his career. But because he was a Moorish servant, a humble slave, he has been virtually ignored by both black and white historians and biographers.”