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Washington Irving: America's Storyteller

By Tara Mae

Washington Irving is best known for his short stories “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Considered a master of the American short story, Irving’s interest in history and European culture informed his work. By sampling the folklore of other countries, he helped create American legends and is recognized as the “first American man of letters.”

Named by his mother for George Washington, Irving was born on April 3, 1783, in New York City. The week of his birth marked the official British ceasefire that concluded the American Revolution. He was the youngest of eleven children, eight of whom survived into adulthood. At six years old, he met his namesake while Washington was living in New York City. Irving later had the encounter commemorated with a small watercolor painting that he hung in his home. 

In 1798 a yellow fever outbreak in the city facilitated Irving’s introduction to Sleepy Hollow, when for his safety his parents sent him to the neighboring Tarrytown. Irving stayed with his friend James K. Paulding, and learned of the nearby village’s Dutch customs and heritage, including its ghost stories. As a teenager Irving made several trips upstate and visited the Catskill Mountains region, later the setting of “Rip Van Winkle.” 

Unlike his brothers, Irving did not get a college education nor did he enter into a specific trade. Interested in writing, many of his brothers sustained his aspirations by occasionally supporting him financially. Irving’s debut came in the New York Morning Chronicle, of which his brother Peter was an editor and Aaron Burr was a partial owner. Using the pen name Jonathon Oldstyle, Gent., he wrote fanciful, satirical essays. Burr was so impressed he apparently sent clippings of Irving’s work to his daughter Theodosia. 

Concerned about Irving’s health, his brothers financed a two year tour of Europe. Upon his return, he studied law and passed the bar exam. Irving was still most interested in writing, however. With his brother James and Paulding, Irving started Salmungdi, a literary magazine. Frequently taking pseudonyms like William Wizard and Launcelot Langstaff, Irving lampooned New York’s social constructs and politics.

 The periodical was a relative success, and Irving’s reputation grew. He is credited with giving New York City the nickname’ “Gotham,” which in Old English translates to a “homestead where goats are kept.” This was the start of Irving’s lasting legacy to New York. Soon, the cultural impact of his writing would extend to the rest of the country.  

A somewhat self-taught student of history, Irving’s next project was A History of New York from The Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty by Diedrich Knickerbocker. This satirical history was Irving’s first major published work. Its creation was stymied by the death of his love Matilda, daughter of Josiah Ogden Hoffman, in whose law firm he had been employed.  

To generate publicity for his book before it was released, Irving staged the disappearance of Dutch historian Diedrich Knickerbocker, placing adverts in New York papers looking for him. The ruse worked; when Irving released the book under that moniker, it garnered attention and was appreciated by both critics and the public. Irving later noted that it “...gave me celebrity, as an original work was something remarkable and uncommon in America.” Knickerbocker became a popular nickname for Manhattan residents. In 1946, the New York Knickerbockers (Knicks) also took its name from this association. 

Despite the book’s positive reception, Irving still needed a steady job. In 1811, he moved to Washington, DC to work as a lobbyist for his brothers’ hardware importing company. Irving organized the American edition of Thomas Campbell’s poems, and served as an editor of Analectic Magazine. He was one of the first editors to print Frances Scott Key’s poem “Defense of Fort Henry,” later immortalized as “The Star-Spangled Banner.” 

During the War of 1812, he was appointed a staff colonel, and in 1815, he went to Liverpool to oversee the interests of his brothers’ business. The war had been detrimental to the livelihoods of many merchants, and he was ultimately unsuccessful in his attempts to save the hardware importing company. Rather than going home to take up the naval post his brother William had secured for him, Irving chose to stay in England and pursue his writing career. He befriended Walter Scott and began The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., a compilation of essays and short stories that featured his most famous pieces. 

Most of the entries in the anthology relate to England, but six are short stories that take place in America. Among them “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Americanized versions of German folklore. Irving sent the stories to his brother Ebenezer in New York for publication. Printed in New York in seven installments and in London in two installments, the entire series was well-received. “Rip Van Winkle” was part of the first publication and an immediate triumph. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” another favorite, was published in the sixth issue of New York edition and the second volume of the London edition.

Believed to be the first American writer to set his tales in the United States, Irving “borrowed” from German fables. In Americanizing these fairytales, Irving helped establish American storytelling. His influence on New York and the nation as a whole went beyond the literary canon to effect the very nature of American writing. He utilized the modern vernacular, an unusual practice for the time; rather than crafting stories centered on moralistic themes, Irving constructed narratives that were designed for entertainment. He set the precedent for the possibilities of the American short story. 

The publication of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. earned Irving further acclaim and solidified his position as one of the early American fiction writers. Rather than return to the United States to take advantage of heightened fame, Irving chose to explore Europe, collecting stories, and battling bouts of writer’s block interspersed with periods of writing and publishing. At the invitation of the American Minister to Spain, Alexander HIll Everett, Irving journeyed to Madrid to study manuscripts that addressed the country’s colonization of the Americas. 

From this he developed many projects, such as A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, a biographical romantic history. It was the first book he published under his own name. Irving was then invited by the Duke of Gor to stay at his palace and examine the contents of his library, where he was exposed to many medieval manuscripts. The result of this investigation was the Chronicle of the Conquest of Grenada and in 1831, The Voyages and Discoveries of the Companions of Columbus. 

After a stint as a staff member of the American Minister to Britain Louis McLane, being awarded a medal by the Royal Society of Literature, and accepting an honorary doctorate of civil law from Oxford University, Irving returned to the United States. He toured the country, making acquaintances with notable figures such as John Jacob Astor, with whom he was a founding member of the Saint Nicholas Society of the City of New York. The charitable organization still exists today. At the recommendation of Secretary of State Daniel Webster, President John Tyler selected Irving as Minister to Spain in 1842. Four years later, Irving returned to Sunnyside, the cottage and land he had purchased in Tarrytown in 1841. 

He spent the remainder of his life there, revising earlier publications, writing biographies on Oliver Goldsmith and the Prophet Mohammed, and undertaking a passion project: an account of George Washington’s life. Five tomes were published between 1855 and 1859. Traveling between New York and Washington, DC to conduct his research, Irving fostered friendships with Presidents Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce. 

Made an executor of Astor’s estate in 1848, per his will Irving became the first chairperson of the Astor Library, a precursor to the New York Public Library. Adding to his status as literary living legend, He was chosen as an Associate Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Irving enjoyed the respect and recognition of fans, politicians, and fellow writers. Oliver Wendell Holmes remarked that Irving’s home was “next to Mount Vernon, the best known and most cherished of all the dwellings in our land.” He died there on November 28, 1859, at the age of seventy-eight. 

Irving left an indelible imprint on the artistic and historic evolution of America. His writing remains in the collective conscience, an integral element in the formation of the country’s popular culture. Irving’s influence extends beyond the written word; his language is part of the lexicon and his tales are part of American mythology.

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