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date: 25 January 2020

Irving, Washingtonfree

(03 April 1783–28 November 1859)
  • William L. Hedges

Washington Irving.

Pictured at age twenty-seven. Engraving by J. de Mare.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-95735).

Irving, Washington (03 April 1783–28 November 1859), author, was born in New York City, the son of William Irving, a Scottish merchant, and his English wife, Sarah Sanders, who had emigrated to America in 1763. A middle-class family of very modest means, the Irvings gradually prospered in the economic expansion that followed the American Revolution. In time the father’s business, heavily dependent on imports from England and France, became the family business, in which his five sons were involved in varying degrees at various times. Irving was the youngest child, and his mother and three sisters lavished affection and attention on him in his early years. The father, however, a Presbyterian deacon and elder, dominated the family until his death in 1807, imposing on the household a strict religious discipline, which his youngest son strongly resisted. Although Irving was interested in literature from an early age, authorship in the United States was generally seen as at best an avocation. Thus in 1799 he began an apprenticeship with a lawyer, partly as an escape from the family business. But literary pursuits, a troublesome lung condition, and social distractions delayed his qualifying for the bar for several years.

He owed his start as a published writer to his brother Peter Irving, who, though nominally a physician, dabbled in literature, journalism, and politics. In 1802–1803 Peter’s small newspaper, the Morning Chronicle, carried a series of essays written by Washington under the pseudonym “Jonathan Oldstyle,” several of which satirized performances and audiences at the city’s chief theater. Peter also edited the intensely partisan, though short-lived, Corrector, aligned politically with Aaron Burr (1756–1836), for which in 1804 Washington wrote numerous brief, unsigned, scurrilous but clever attacks on opposition candidates. In May 1804 he embarked at family expense on a two-year grand tour of France, Italy, Switzerland, the Low Countries, and England. His poor health partly prompted the excursion, but his brothers also recognized that his artistic talents (he could draw as well as write) warranted nurturing. Although he proved a somewhat casual tourist, too often content merely to socialize in polished circles, he did absorb enough European high culture that, when he got home, he passed or posed in New York as something of a cosmopolite.

Finally admitted to the bar late in 1806, he began, without enthusiasm, to practice law with his brother John. He also occasionally acted as agent or representative for the family in business affairs, his personal charm obviously an advantage as the Irvings’ commercial contacts with older New York families multiplied. But he found plenty of time in 1807 to collaborate with his brother William Irving and another New York writer, James Kirke Paulding, in composing and editing the breezy pseudonymous Salmagundi (1807–1808). In this burlesque periodical the young writers unsparingly parodied periodical-essay conventions derived from Joseph Addison and Sir Richard Steele while also mocking the taste, manners, institutions, and politics of their readers’—and their own—narrow, self-satisfied, pseudosophisticated world. They caricatured New Yorkers as furiously engaged in the momentous pursuit of keeping up with the latest fashions, and their scathing satire reduced the young American republic to a “logocracy” or government of words. There was no love lost for President Thomas Jefferson in Salmagundi.

It had scarcely ceased publication before Irving, this time with Peter, began planning what became slightly less than two years later the History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, written purportedly by one Diedrich Knickerbocker. Peter went abroad before the book advanced very far, leaving Irving to write most of it. In the meantime, however, he suffered through the most painful ordeal of his life. He had fallen in love with Matilda Hoffman, the daughter of Judge Josiah Ogden Hoffman, an erstwhile legal mentor, who treated him almost like a member of the family. Matilda being only seventeen, her father would not consent to a marriage before his prospective son-in-law proved that he could support her. This meant becoming the judge’s full-time law partner. Threatened with the curtailment of his literary life, Irving accepted the conditions, only to see Matilda overwhelmed suddenly by consumption. She died within a few weeks in April 1809. Irving was never to marry.

For solace he threw himself into completing Knickerbocker’s History, which appeared in December. A monument of mock-erudition, it is perhaps his greatest book. As history, it is mostly exaggeration and invention, spurious by design. As humorous fiction, it is an odd coupling of sense and nonsense held together by the inspired contrivance of Knickerbocker, the rattlebrained scholar whose “history,” left behind in a New York rooming house, is the text with which the reader must contend. Knickerbocker is vehemently opinionated and irrational—unless his self-contradictions are read as facetious. Blessed with Irving’s verbal gifts, he expatiates wildly and interminably on almost anything and everything, especially the writing of history, but he cannot sustain a simple, straightforward narrative. His presentation of political controversies in Dutch New York doubles as satire on factional politics in the era of Jefferson, and his straining to wrest historic grandeur from the obscure exploits of his seventeenth-century Dutch ancestors casts an odd light on the new republic’s urgent need to mythologize its origins. The burlesque creates an image of history as unending war and oppression, perpetrated by powerful leaders for glory’s sake. Through it all Knickerbocker staggers vaingloriously to the end, finishing his book, as foolish—or canny—as ever, eulogizing Peter Stuyvesant as “a valiant soldier—a loyal subject—an upright governor, and an honest Dutchman—who wanted only a few empires to desolate, to have been immortalized as a hero!”

Although Irving earned literary recognition and a substantial sum of money from the book, he was still not ready to risk his future on writing alone. He accepted a silent partnership in his brothers’ business, acting occasionally as its agent or lobbyist. He edited the Analectic Magazine for two years and served briefly as a noncombatant in the War of 1812. In 1815 he sailed on another European tour, but at Liverpool, his first stop, he found the branch of the family importing firm there in grave difficulties and Peter Irving, its manager, in poor health. For the next two years he worked as a bona fide businessman to stave off bankruptcy—but to no avail. It was the “soul-killing” drudgery of this experience that at last drove him to try professional writing. He proceeded, however, in a very businesslike way, canvassing the literary market and taking advantage of acquaintances with Walter Scott, Francis Jeffrey, the publisher John Murray, and other literary people. In response to new tastes, he shifted to a less caustic, at times wistful, humor and to a more direct kind of storytelling, aiming now to ingratiate himself with his readers rather than disconcert them.

The result, brought out in several installments, was The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., a mildly romantic assortment of essays, sketches, and short fiction, diversely offering gothic excitement, sentimentality, humor (at times satirical), and musings on English history, literature, scenery, customs, and traditions. The whole gathering more or less reflected the personality, attitudes, and feelings of Geoffrey Crayon, an aging American bachelor rather like Irving, at times lonely, pensive, and bookish, charmed by England but seldom completely at home there. Applauded on both sides of the Atlantic, the book seemed to fulfill longings of Americans of English descent to know more about the old country, while English critics hailed Irving as America’s first genuinely talented author, the first to write classic English prose. Furthermore he had, with the help of brothers and friends, circumvented the wholesale piracy of the work in either the United States or England by publishing and copyrighting it almost simultaneously in both countries. Suddenly he had a name that would sell books for the rest of his life.

From a literary point of view, The Sketch Book is most notable for “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” often cited as the earliest examples of the genre now termed the short story—as distinguished from “tales” or “legends” largely dependent for interest on plot, mystery, and suspense. Both stories owe something to Irving’s reading, at Scott’s behest, in German folklore and romantic fiction. But they also stand as early examples of American local color writing, fondly evoking Hudson Valley landscapes, customs, and character types. Their “gothic” effects are only half-serious. In the end Irving’s humor shrugs off both the twenty-year sleep of Rip Van Winkle and the “ghost” that terrorizes Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow.

Commercially also The Sketch Book had far-reaching effects, catering, as it did, to the interests and desires of a rapidly expanding middle-class readership in the United States and Britain, the larger portion of which was female. Dignified but not pompous, alternately humorous and serious without being intellectually demanding, the book reinforced rather than challenged conventional notions. It seemed to belong to the home, soon to be idealized in America as “woman’s sphere,” the realm of love, nurture, and moral decency as opposed to the stressful male world of enterprise, the marketplace, and hard bargaining. Readers especially liked the Christmas sketches, in which a homesick Crayon finds refuge for the holidays at the ancestral hall of the amusingly toryish Squire Bracebridge, who keeps up seasonal rituals—eating, drinking, singing, dancing, and game playing—in the hearty old English way. This sequence helped touch off a popular revival of Christmas, later encouraged in England by such writers as Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray. In the United States ornate, lavishly illustrated Christmas gift-books targeted for the middle-class home appeared as early as 1825. Not unlike The Sketch Book itself, these annual miscellanies contained short pieces of poetry and prose appropriate for the season, many of them written by well-known American authors, including Irving.

His new style, at its best leisurely, unpretentious, wry, and half-ironic, was influential in America for several decades, as both The Sketch Book and Geoffrey Crayon were widely imitated. Irving himself eventually wrote four more miscellanies by Geoffrey Crayon or “the author of The Sketch Book.” The first, Bracebridge Hall (1822), loosely structured as Crayon’s extended stay at the hall for the wedding of the squire’s son, seems unsure of its intentions. “The Stout Gentleman” is one of Irving’s best stories. But, as though contemplating a manor-house novel, he added numerous characters drawn less from life than from English literature. No major action develops, and somewhat surprisingly, politics intrudes. Crayon, the American republican, voices regret at the growing social irresponsibility of the English landed gentry. A village “radical” who reads William Cobbett denounces May Day celebrations as inappropriate at a time when Englishmen are starving. Portrayed less sympathetically than in The Sketch Book, the squire’s traditionalism comes to seem a vain beckoning toward the feudal past in the face of the commercial and industrial future against which he rails impotently.

Although Irving enjoyed being accepted in patrician society, his politicoeconomic position was less aristocratic than bourgeois. True, he often satirized the vulgar ostentation and spoilsport puritanical earnestness of upwardly mobile businessmen like Mr. Faddy in Bracebridge Hall. But two of the book’s characters, both of middling rank, stand out as more substantial figures than either the squire or Faddy. The first, Ready-Money Jack, is a yeoman farmer in the neighborhood; the second is the title character of “Dolph Heyliger,” a rambling peripheral narrative set in America, a ghost-adventure-success story. Both men are enterprising, self-determined individuals, by and large generous-spirited, and affable and informal in their dealings with others. Together they hint at Irving’s politics of moderation and his somewhat unstable affiliation at various times with Burrite Democratic-Republicans, Federalists, Jacksonian Democrats, and Whigs.

His next major effort was a dismal disappointment. He had spent more than a year in Germany in 1822–1823, supposedly preparing a German “sketch book.” But in Tales of a Traveller (1824) Crayon never gets to Germany, and to many readers his “tales” seemed at best weak imitations of German romantic fiction. Much of the book, like the one item that is now genuinely admired, “Adventure of the German Student,” actually satirizes gothic conventions. But on the whole the humor went unappreciated, while bawdy innuendos in a few of the tales provoked charges that Irving had betrayed the trust of readers who revered him as a family author.

Deeply distressed by the reviews and uncertain about his future, he accepted a suggestion that he go to Madrid early in 1826 to translate a recently published collection of documents pertaining to the voyages of Christopher Columbus. He saw, however, that a good biography of the explorer, especially in English, was urgently needed and would be far more lucrative. Changing plans, he researched and wrote The History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus in less than two years—a remarkable performance by the onetime mock-historian. Based on an abundance of documents available in Madrid, the biography was authoritative enough that it remained useful to scholars throughout the nineteenth century. Its understanding of history is not profound, but it offers a protagonist of heroic proportions, whose short-lived triumph turned to tragedy and who was both acclaimed and vilified for exploits that changed the course of history. Irving did not suppress Columbus’s failure as a colonial viceroy or his role in the ultimately genocidal subjugation of the Indians. His Columbus is still half medieval, as much quixotic visionary as protomodern enlightened realist, a servant of God as well as master of the Ocean Sea, bent on redeeming pagan souls and discovering the earthly paradise. Ironically this book projects more romantic intensity than any of Irving’s purely fictional texts.

From then on he was to be less a writer of fiction than a historian, although the two genres tend to merge in his work. His stay in Spain lasted three and one-half years. There he completed Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada (1829) and parts of both The Alhambra (1832) and the inconsequential Voyages of the Companions of Columbus (1831). Granada is a literary curiosity, history conceived almost entirely as romantic coloring and fascination with late medieval chivalry and the exoticism of things Moorish or more generally oriental. It virtually reduces historical causation to preordained fate, on the model of Spanish and Moorish legends and ballads quoted in the text. While accurate enough as a minimal outline of a complicated sequence of events, it is quaintly presented as based on an ancient chronicle by a fictitious and fiercely bigoted monk, Fray Antonio Agapida.

The Alhambra, the best of the Crayonesque miscellanies after the original Sketch Book, partly fictionalizes Irving’s few-weeks’ residence in 1829 in the deserted ancient palace of the Moors overlooking Granada. He explores mysterious chambers and courtyards, strolls about the surrounding hills meditating on historic landmarks, and tells tales of Arabian enchantment and buried treasure. Living in an imagined past, the Crayon/Irving persona seems so serenely at home that his farewell to the Alhambra at the end becomes an exile from paradise, like that of Boabdil el Chico, the last Moorish king of Granada, driven from the palace—and Spain—at the end of The Conquest.

The reality that Irving left for was the post of secretary of the American legation in London, an appointment engineered by the New York politician Martin Van Buren, with much prodding from the Irving family. Capitalizing on his large number of English acquaintances, Irving proved surprisingly effective as a diplomat. Together with the success of Columbus, his service for the government quieted complaints at home that he had largely de-Americanized both himself and his writing. In 1832, after seventeen years abroad, he returned to the United States something of a national hero, only to rush off soon afterward on an extensive tour of the Mississippi valley and regions to the west.

Aware of the growing American interest in the frontier, Irving published in rapid succession “A Tour of the Prairies” (a volume in The Crayon Miscellany [1835]), Astoria (1836), and Adventures of Captain Bonneville (1837). The first is a colorful, amusing, and thoughtful account of his trek in 1832 into Pawnee territory in what is now Oklahoma, where his party encountered Indians, hunted buffalo, and traveled with frontiersmen and mounted rangers. The second is an account of the ill-fated effort (1810–1812) of John Jacob Astor (1763–1848) to establish a fur-trading post at the mouth of the Columbia River by sending out two expeditions, one by sea, the other across the Rocky Mountains. It is based primarily on voluminous documents put at Irving’s disposal by Astor himself. Bonneville derives from a similar windfall, Benjamin L. E. de Bonneville’s journal of his fur-trading activities and explorations in the Rockies, turned over to Irving after the two men met in Astor’s office. Fundamentally factual, these books, especially Bonneville, romanticize the wilderness, highlighting heroic enterprise, for instance, and adding local color in the form of trappers’ stories and Indian lore. All three of the western books were widely read. They solidified Irving’s reputation as an “American” writer, even though his attitude toward western expansion and commercial exploitation of the frontier was by no means that of a shrill proponent of Manifest Destiny.

In 1836 he had established a home for himself and five nieces, whom he supported, in a picturesque old Dutch house that he called “Sunnyside” overlooking the Hudson River near Sleepy Hollow. Not yet entirely at ease in the new, aggressively democratic America, however, he accepted an appointment as minister to Spain and served with distinction from 1842 to 1846. Back in the United States in 1846, he resumed his literary career. Oliver Goldsmith (1849), Mahomet and His Successors (1849–1850), and Wolfert’s Roost (1855), a collection of fugitive pieces, are among his weaker books. But in 1848 he began revising his earlier writings for an edition of his collected works, to include eventually texts he had not then completed. Published by G. P. Putnam, this venture, a landmark for an American author, proved highly profitable.

His final project, long contemplated, was a five-volume Life of George Washington (1855–1859), elaborately researched and agonizingly completed as his health failed. He lived long enough to see the last volume published, dying soon afterward at Sunnyside. The book was designed—incongruously, given its length—for both scholars and average American readers. It tended to reaffirm standard conceptions of the nation’s most revered patriot, who, for Irving, was a nearly perfect hero. A country gentleman, a soldier, and a republican, motivated by civic virtue as well as a sense of noblesse oblige, he had served his country disinterestedly, carefully mediating, for instance, while president, between Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian extremes. Irving went to great lengths to make him a less remote, less glacial figure. Ironically, however, most Americans probably read the book, if at all, in abridged versions.

That Irving was the first American to earn a comfortable living by his writing is more than a historical oddity. He had grown up in a young republic rapidly becoming more democratic and commercial. With literary patronage virtually unknown, aspiring American writers who lacked independent means had to reckon with the marketplace. Irving showed other authors how to take advantage of consumer demands, but living in some uncertainty as to whether he belonged to literature or to what is now called popular culture, he strained to produce books rapidly while trying to satisfy simultaneously readers of various levels of sophistication. His talent had revealed itself early. Salmagundi and Knickerbocker fairly bristle with the spontaneity and exuberance of young writers not overly anxious about pleasing an audience. Of his later writings only a few stories and sketches now seem indisputably first-rate. But he wrote a number of salable books informed by the intriguing style and personality of one who had seen a good deal of the world yet was not exactly worldly. In spite of appearances, Irving remained a rather innocent American. He did not presume to know what the great world was all about, although first and last he had a lot to say about it in one form or another. He said it in admiration, amazement, amusement, mockery, sadness, disdain, and disgust—usually also with tolerance, sympathy, and good humor. Holding his own amid the vicissitudes of the book trade, he won at last a considerable measure of esteem for the profession of letters in the United States.


Substantial collections of Irving’s papers are housed at the New York Public Library, Yale University, and the University of Virginia. The reader interested in locating specific Irving documents is advised to consult appropriate sections of The Complete Works of Washington Irving (which includes his letters, journals, and notebooks), published in twenty-nine volumes under the general editorship of Henry A. Pochmann, Herbert L. Kleinfield, and Richard D. Rust (1969–1988). Washington Irving: A Reference Guide (1976), compiled by Haskell Springer, is an annotated bibliography of materials about the author that were published between 1807 and 1974. The principal biography is Stanley T. Williams, The Life of Washington Irving (1935). Edward Wagenknecht, Washington Irving: Moderation Displayed (1962), and Mary Weatherspoon Bowden, Washington Irving (1981), are briefer and more recent biographies. Adrift in the Old World: The Psychological Pilgrimage of Washington Irving by Jeffrey Rubin-Dorsky (1988) is a critical biography of the author in the crucial period 1815–1829. The World of Washington Irving by Van Wyck Brooks (1944) describes American intellectual and artistic life in the antebellum period. Pochmann’s introduction to Washington Irving: Representative Selections (1934) provides detailed information on the literary and historical background of Irving’s career. A special study is Walter Reichart, Washington Irving and Germany (1957). A Century of Commentary on the Works of Washington Irving, ed. Andrew B. Myers (1976), is a useful collection. Major critical studies are William L. Hedges, Washington Irving: An American Study, 1802–1832 (1965); Martin Roth, Comedy and America: The Lost World of Washington Irving (1976); and Peter Anteleyes, Tales of Adventurous Enterprise: Washington Irving and the Poetics of Western Expansion (1990).