Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2008

Biographer awakens pop culture personality of the past

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Brian Jay Jones combined two of his passions — pop culture and Christmas customs — in choosing the person for his first biography, ‘‘Washington Irving: An American Original.”
For Brian Jay Jones, a pair of passions — one for pop culture, the other for Christmas customs — was crucial in choosing the person for his first biography ‘‘Washington Irving: An American Original.” Ironically, those connections with the American writer’s career are little known in contemporary times.

To most, Irving is the author of ‘‘Rip Van Winkle” and ‘‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” His first book ‘‘A History of New York” was written with the pen name Diedrich Knickerbocker – thus the New York Knicks — and that city’s nickname Gotham came from an article Irving wrote for Salamagundi, a magazine he and some friends created.

About 10 years ago, Jones, who admits to being ‘‘a Christmas junkie,” read Stephen Nissenbaum’s ‘‘The Battle for Christmas,” ‘‘a terrific book about the origins of Christmas celebrations in the United States.” He learned that ‘‘all the rosy, picturesque customs that we embrace thinking we’re carrying on with Old English customs, were actually invented by Washington Irving.”

The 40-year-old Damascus resident quickly sought and found ‘‘Old Christmas” among the short stories in Irving’s collection ‘‘The Sketch Book.”

‘‘It was all a lot of fun, and what’s more, it was written in chatty, non-stilted language, much more modern than I expected,” Jones says. ‘‘I became intrigued by the fellow who had penned such stuff, and wanted to learn more about him.”

To his surprise, that information was not easily accessible. He ‘‘promptly hit a dead end. There wasn’t a thing in print and, as I discovered, there hadn’t been a major biography of Irving since 1935.”

Ascribing to the ‘‘rule among writers ... to write a book you’d want to read,” Jones says his research led him to believe that others would be similarly interested.

‘‘He (Irving) deserved a modern biography, with a modern sensibility — one that sympathized with his idleness even as it celebrated his ingenuity,” he explains.

Jones’ lifelong preoccupation with pop culture — ‘‘Books, music, TV, movies ... I loved it all,” he says of his childhood — also made Irving a likely candidate.

‘‘In his time, Irving was pop culture personified,” says the biographer. ‘‘He had international fame, he wrote international bestsellers, and everyone who was anyone wanted to be his friend or have a kind word from him. Politicians wanted his endorsement or affiliation. People bought his portrait and hung it on the wall.

‘‘There had really never been anyone like that before, and even today, we’d be hard pressed to find another celebrity of that caliber.”

Writing was hardly new to Jones, although ‘‘Washington Irving” is his first book. Reared mostly in Albuquerque, N.M. in a ‘‘suburban, upper-middle class, quite happy an decidedly normal” family, he says his ‘‘parents always encouraged me to do whatever I wanted in life. ... The problem was, apart from writing — which, like Washington Irving, I considered more hobby than career — I was never sure what I wanted to do.”

After giving up the pre-med career track at the University of New Mexico — having ‘‘quickly realized that chemistry and physics made me break out in a rash” — Jones studied English literature and wrote for the college newspaper.

‘‘I discovered that I not only liked it, but that I was pretty good at it,” he recalls. ‘‘So, armed with my English degree – a degree in unemployment, the engineering majors sniggered — I thought, OK, then, maybe I really can become a writer. ... And if I didn’t want to end up writing obituaries for the Albuquerque Journal, I had to find something else to do to cut my chops and pay the bills.”

A stint managing a comic book store in his hometown paid the bills while Jones looked for ‘‘a real job.” His writing career officially began in New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici’s D.C. office, initially answering constituent letters. Promoted to legislative assistant, he advised the senator on education, welfare, labor and the arts and wrote ‘‘statements and speeches, most of which ... landed in the distinguished but relatively obscure pages of The Congressional Record, and were garbled by unanimous consent.”

Nevertheless, he says, ‘‘I had a reputation as a wordsmith, and I was always the go-to guy for the ‘People Speeches’ — the ones celebrating the lives and accomplishments of others. An omen, right?”

Subsequently, he worked for the Senate Labor Committee, then as Associate Superintendent of Education for Arizona, returning to D.C. to work for an education nonprofit, and since 2004 as a policy advisor for Montgomery County Council President Mike Knapp.

Before he came to D.C., Jones had ‘‘zero interest in politics or government.” All these years later, though, he says, ‘‘while I don’t necessarily love politics, I love the political and legislative process ... the spectacle and the decorum and the customs and the culture.

‘‘That was what motivated and inspired me more than anything — the awesome responsibility that comes with being part of a long American tradition. I mean, I was working in the same institution as John Adams and Daniel Webster, and Calhoun and Clay. This was living history. That was a rush, even as it was intimidating.”

Professionally, Jones has ‘‘written countless speeches, statements, articles, brochures, newsletters and press releases.” But after the experience of writing his first book, he says, ‘‘I absolutely plan on writing another — and I’m already discussing a number of ideas with my publisher.” That, and reading comics, playing the banjo, listening to classic jazz and blues, watching Charlie Chaplin films and reading ‘‘anything having to do with the Beatles.” For now, at least, Christmas is past.