American author, short story writer, essayist, poet, travel book writer, biographer, and columnist (1783-1859)
"I am always at a loss to know how much to believe of my own stories." (from Tales of a Traveler, 1824)
Washington Irving was the first American to achieve an international literary reputation and was born in New York City on April 3, 1783. He was the last of eleven children of a Scottish born father and an English born mother. His father was a wealthy merchant and his mother was a stay at home mom. His parents chose to name him after George Washington. According to legend, George Washington met Irving as a baby and gave his blessing. He dropped out of school at the age 16, not because of his income, but for his dislike in his studies. Later that year, he worked for a law office, but he didn't enjoy it.
During his childhood, Irving developed a passion for books. He favorite books were Robinson Crusoe, Sinbad the Sailor, and The World Displayed. He and his brothers as children enjoyed writing poems and essays as recreation. He read widely in English literature at home by the encouragement of his older brothers, modeling his early prose on the elegant Spectator papers of Joseph Addison, but delighted by many other writers, including Shakespeare, Oliver Goldsmith, and Laurence Sterne. At nineteen, Irving wrote a series of humorous essays on the theater and New York for his brother Peter’s newspaper, the Morning Courier . Well into his thirties, his brothers routinely tried to make plans for him, and his own emotion to his family was a dominant influence throughout his life.
Irving wrote a series of letters to the New York Morning Chronicle , using the pen name Jonathan Oldstyle in 1802. When Irving showed signs of tuberculosis in 1804, his brothers immediately sent him aboard for a two year tour of Europe. On his return, he began studying law with Judge Josiah Hoffman. However, most important for his career was that he started a magazine with his brother William and William’s brother-in-law James Kirk Paulding called Salmagundi (the name of a spicy Hash). The magazine ran through 1807 with sketches and poems on politics, drama, as well as other ranging topics. Then in 1808, Irving began working on A History of New York . It included President Thomas Jefferson portrayed as an early Dutch governor of New Amsterdam, William the Testy, Exuberant, and broadly comic.
However, Irving's achievement literature was shadowed by a personal misfortune. Matilda Hoffmanm, whom he was engaged to be married died at the age of seventeen, in 1809. Afterward he wrote in a private letter: "For years I could not talk on the subject of this hopeless regret; I could not even mention her name; but her image was continually before me, and I dreamt of her incessantly."
At around this time, he launched Knickerbocker's History of New York, From the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty , a hilarious account of the Dutch in New York. The book was originally published under the name of Diedrich Knickerbocker, however most people knew it was his writings. Reprinted in England, the book reached Sir Walter Scott, who declared that it made his sides hurt from laughter. For future generations of readers, it is hard to comprehend Irving’s ideas without the footnotes he found delight in mocking.
During the War of 1812, Irving was the editor of the Analectic Magazine, which he filled many essays of patriotic biographical sketches of American naval heroes. Toward the end of the war, he was made a colonel in the New York State Militia. In May of 1815, he left for Europe and stayed for seventeen years. He first traveled to Liverpool with his brother Peter, an importer of English hardware. In 1818, Peter went bankrupt shortly after their mother died in New York. Irving once again took refugee in writing. During his work on The Sketch Book, he met Sir Walter Scott who directed him to the attention of unused literary material in German folktales. Scholars have shown that Irving found the source for Rip Van Winkle, because many passages are close paraphrases of the original. In 1819, Irving began sending The Sketch Book to the United States for publication. When the full version was printed in England the next year, it made Irving famous and brought him the friendship of many other leading British writers of the time.
"The headless horseman was often seen here. An old man who did not believe in ghosts told of meeting the headless horseman coming from his trip into the Hollow. The horseman made him climb up behind. They rode over bushes, hills, and swamps. When they reached the bridge, the horseman suddenly turned into a skeleton. He threw the old man into the brook and sprang away over the treetops with a clap of thunder."
His new false name, Geoffrey Crayon became universally recognized. As Irving knew, part of his British success derived from general astonishment that a man born in the United States could write in such an English way about English scenes. He soon afterwards published The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. and it included a number of New York Dutch folk legends, including Irving's retellings of Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Everyone who read them knew instantly that they were among the literary treasures of the language and it soon was among the English classics.
At a loss to sustain his career, Irving gambled on accepting an invitation from an acquaintance, the American minister or ambassador to Spain. He was to come to Spain as an attaché of the legation and translate Martin Fernandez de Navarrete’s compilation of accounts of the voyages of Christopher Columbus. It included Columbus’s lost journals as copied by an earlier historian. He was helped by the American counsel in Madrid, Obadiah Rich, who owned a splendid collection of books and manuscripts on Spanish and Latin American History. Irving worked intensely and in 1828, he published The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus . It was not the biography of Columbus, but Irving’s own re-creation of the history. Out of these Spanish years, came also The Conquest of Grenada (1831), Voyages and Discoveries of the Companions of Columbus (1831), and The Alhambra (1832).
In 1829, Irving was appointed secretary to the American legation in London, where he became a hardworking diplomat. No longer the latest rage, Irving was a solidly established author. On his return to the United States in 1832, his reputation was Europeanized. Irving turned to three studies of the American West: A Tour on the Prairies (1832), Astoria (1836), and The Adventures of Captain Bonneville (1837).
In the late 1830’s, Irving bought and began refurbishing a house near Tarrytown, along the Hudson River and north of New York City. It was just where he had dreamed of settling down in The Legend of the Sleepy Hollow. At Sunnyside, he made a home for several members of his family, including as many as five nieces at a time. He wrote little and in 1842, he was appointed as minister to Spain.
At the age of sixty-two Irving wrote to his friends in America: "My hear yearns for home; and I have now probably turned the last corner in life, and my remaining years are growing scanty in number, I begrude every one that I am obliged to pass separated from my cottage and my kindred...."
He served four years in Madrid with great success. Irving’s main work after 1851 was his long contemplated life of George Washington. He worked in libraries, read old newspapers, studied government records, and visited battlefields. He forced himself in the most heroic attempt to complete the successive five volumes, of which the first was published in 1855. Just after he finished the last one, he collapsed and died a few months later on November 28, 1859 on the eve of Civil War. Washington Irving died at Sunnyside surrounded by his family. He was buried in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery at the Old Dutch Church in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y.
Many artists, politicians, writers, and other influential people visited Sunnyside. Irving's home was revealed throughout the world in lithographs, magazines, and tourists maps. Images of Sunnyside could even be found on cigar boxes, sheet music, and ceramic pitchers.
When his old friend, Charles Dickens, visited America, he saw also Irving and celebrated their reunion with a speech: "There is in this city a gentleman who, at the reception of one of my books—I well remember it was the Old Curiosity Shop—wrote to me in England a letter so generous, so affectionate, and so manly, that if I had written the book under every circumstance of disappointment, of discouragement, and difficulty, instead of the reverse, I should have found in the receipt of that letter my best and most happy reward. I answered him, and he answered me, and so we kept shaking hands autographically, as if no ocean rolled between us. I came here to this city eager to see him, and laying his hand upon Irving’s shoulder here he sits! I need not tell you how happy and delighted I am to see him here to-night in this capacity."
LETTERS OF JONATHAN OLDSTYLE, 1802
SALMAGUNDI, 1807 (with William I. and J.K. Paulding)
A HISTORY OF NEW YORK, BY DIETRICH KNICKERBOCKER, 1809
THE SKETCH BOOK, 1819-20 (as Geoffrey Crayon) - contains 'Rip Van Winkle' and 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow' - film adaptations: The Adventures of Ichabold and Mr Toad (1949) ; Sleepy Hollow, dir. by Tim Burton (1999), starring Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Michael Gambon, Miranda Richardson, Christopher Walken, Casper Van Dien, Jeffrey Jones, Martin Landau
BRACEBRIDGE HALL, 1822
LETTERS OF JONATHAN OLDSTYLE, GENT., 1824
TALES OF A TRAVELLER, 1824
A HISTORY AND VOYAGES OF CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS, 1828
THE CHRONICLE OF THE CONQUEST OF GRANADA, 1829
THE COMPANIONS OF COLUMBUS, 1831
THE ALHAMBRA, 1832 - Alhambra
A TOUR ON THE PRAIRIES, 1835
ABBOTSFORD AND NEWSTEAD ABBEY, 1835
THE CRAYON MISCELLANY, 1835 (3 vols.)
ESSAYS AND SKETCHES, 1837
THE ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN BONNEVILLE, 1837
THE LIFE OF OLIVER GOLDSMITH, 1840
WORKS, 1848-51 (15 vols.)
MAHOMET AND HIS SUCCESSORS, 1849
THE LIFE OF GEORGE WASHINGTON, 1855-59
WOLFERT'S ROOST, 1855
SPANISH PAPERS AND OTHER MISCELLANIES, 1866
ABU HASSAN, 1924
THE WILD HUNTSMAN, 1924
COMPLETE WORKS, 1969-89 (30 vols.)
*** Credit to Yossarian and Jet-Poop, for their old writeups were mixed into this one