Uncovering the Life and Works of Washington Irving: A Renowned American Author


Who was Washington Irving? Information on American author Washington Irving biography, life story, writings and works.

Washington Irving was a prominent American author known for his contributions to American literature. In this post, we’ll take a closer look at the life and legacy of Washington Irving, from his early years to his literary achievements. We’ll explore his most famous works, including “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and examine his impact on the development of American literature. Additionally, we’ll discuss Irving’s role in promoting American culture and identity during a time of great change in the United States. Join us as we delve into the fascinating world of Washington Irving.

Washington Irving

Source: wikipedia.org

Washington Irving; (1783-1859), American author, who was the first native American to succeed as a professional writer. The popular author of the short stories Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and of The Knickerbocker History of New York, Irving was greatly admired and imitated in the 19th century, particularly as a stylist. Although his reputation declined in the 20th century because of the sentimentality and excessive gentility of much of his work, he remains important as a pioneer in American humor and the development of the short story.

Early Life:

Washington Irving was born in New York City on April 3, 1783, the youngest child in a merchant’s large family. Instead of joing to college, he was apprenticed in 1801 to a lawyer but boredom and poor health necessitated his taking a long trip abroad (1804-1806), chiefly to Italy, France, and England, at the family’s expense. He passed the bar examination late in 1806, but remained financially dependent on his family until the publication of The Sketch Book (1819-1820). His father and brothers tried repeatedly to establish him in the law, their importing business, or a government office. Though he did odd jobs for the family as agent and lobbyist, he seems to have worked as little as possible, and for years pursued an amateur or semiprofessional interest in literature.

His brother Peter gave Irving his start as a writer in 1802 by publishing in his newspaper, the New York Morning Chronicle, a series of epistolary essays Washington wrote under the pseudonym “Jonathan Oldstyle.” These broadly comic juvenile pieces made fun of local fashions and satirized especially the crudeness of the early New York theater. Irving’s significant comic work began in 1807 with Salmagundi, a periodical on which he collaborated with his brother William and James Kirke Paulding. The ostensible models for Salmagundi were the English periodical publications in the tradition of Addison and Steele’s Spectator. But the magazine’s deliberately farcical, sometimes nonsensical, manner undermines the apparent didactic purpose. Salmagundi becomes in part a burlesque of the very tradition from which it derives. It is not suave, urbane, subtly ironic, but brash, and irreverent, its humor tending toward hyperbolic ridicule. Irving and his young associates, as would-be sophisticates, obviously enjoy “playing” Addison and Steele to the provincial metropolis, but they cannot take the role seriously. Though willing to expose bourgeois vulgarity where they see it, they also seem to feel the incongruity of any group’s claiming social and cultural authority for itself in a young republic.


Irving was briefly engaged to Matilda Hoffman, a daughter of the Federalist judge under whom he had studied law for several years, but she died of consumption in 1809 after a short illness, and Irving never married. Following Matilda’s death, he’completed the Knickerbocker History (1809), which he had begun with his brother Peter. This mock history of the colony of “New Netherlands” is sustained by its pseudonymous author, the addlepated antiquarian “Diedrich Knickerbocker,” who tries to transform his ancestors into heroes in an epic drama but cannot help seeing them much of the time as ludicrous, ignoble, and insignificant. A healthy antidote to the excessive nationalism of American writing at the time, Knickerbocker presents the settlers of the New World not as heralds of freedom and founders of a pure and just society but as a land-hungry, pleasure-loving breed, ready to cheat the Indian and enslave the Negro.

Irving revised Knickerbocker several times to improve the narrative structure and tone down the blunt language, which, as he grew older, seemed to him sometimes in bad taste. But the crude power of the original edition is his greatest comic achievement. The hopeless confusion of Diedrich Knickerbocker, Irving’s travesty of the writer-philosopher-historian, justifies the dizzying shifts in manner that produce the effect of a half-insane world, in the midst of which bizarre profundity now and then is manifested.

Middle Years:

In the 10 years that intervened between Knickerbocker and his next book, Irving, except for a brief interlude as an officer in the War of 1812, divided his time between business and literature, editing the Analectic Magazine from 1813 to 1815. Between 1815 and 1817 he worked in the Liverpool office of the family business in a vain effort to stave off financial disaster. In 1820, after the publication of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., however, his situation drastically changed. Still in England, he had written the stories, essays, and sketches of which the book is composed primarily for an American audience, and had shipped the materials home piecemeal to be brought out in a series of booklets or pamphlets by his brother Ebenezer and a friend, Henry Brevoort. But to protect himself against the pirating of his work in England, he published it there in book form. It immediately won the acclaim of critics accustomed to patronizing American writers as scarcely civilized or literate. Hailed now as the first American with genuine literary talent, Irving was finally launched on his career as a professional writer.

The Sketch Book gives a tourist’s view of England and the English past, focusing on the quaint and the picturesque. It also caters to the popular taste of the time for some of the milder manifestations of romanticism. Through his pseudonymous author, “Crayon,” Irving looks tenderly at rural landscapes and aspects of village life and sentimentalizes accounts of disappointed love and wifely and motherly devotion. But Crayon has a sense of humor and can laugh not only at English eccentricity but at his own sentimentalism and avidity for the antique. Much of Irving’s own uncertainty and unsettledness is projected through Crayon, whose quietly whimsical and self-mocking voice is what speaks in his creator’s much admired decorous but unpretentious, formal but familiar, prose style.

What endure more than anything else in The Sketch Book, however, are the stories Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, in the composition of which Irving transplanted folktales of German origin to the Hudson Valley of New York and achieved something more than the routine tale of suspense or the bizarre anecdote. The successful integration of the various elements of these narratives—the half-comic, half-pathetic characters, the more or less fantastic or mythic actions they perform, and the ample, benevolent landscapes in which they move—make Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow the first examples of the full-fledged short story.

Irving remained in Europe for 12 more years, largely trying to capitalize on the success of The Sketch Book. Bracehridge Hall (1822) is a sequel to a section of the earlier book, but only one of the interpolated stories, The Stout Gentleman, is really first rate. A trip to Germany in 1822-1823 failed to inspire a German “sketch book.” Instead he produced Tales of a Traveller (1824), which, though issued in Crayon’s name, has little of his mild sentiment and pathos. Readers reacted unfavorably to its bawdy innuendo and occasional raw violence.

After several years in Spain, Irving wrote The Alhambra (published, 1832), the most satisfying of his reworkings of the formula of The Sketch Book. Though the Spanish and Moorish legends he included in it do not develop into
genuine short stories, they are designed, like his descriptions of architecture and landscape, to amplify the central experience of the book, Crayon-Irving’s withdrawal for several weeks into the palace of the Moorish kings of Granada to commune with the memory of the earthly paradise the Moors had had—and lost— in Andalusia.


Disappointed by the poor reception of Tales of a Traveller, Irving began writing history and biography. In 1826, Alexander Everett, the American diplomat and man of letters, interested him in an array of documents pertinent to Columbus being collected and published by the Spanish scholar Martín Fernández de Navarrete. Irving went to Madrid and, while holding a job in the American legation, wrote The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828). At the same time his interest in the Moors was aroused and led to A Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada (1829). Subsequently, as a writer of narrative, Irving found it easier to work with historical materials than to invent fictions.

Later Years:

After returning to England in 1829 to serve as secretary of the American legation in London, Irving finally went home in triumph to the United States in 1832. He was no longer the brash young wit and satirist but a revered man of letters, recipient of an honorary degree from Oxford, friend of notables in virtually every walk of life.

In 1834, John Jacob Astor made documents pertinent to his fur-trading ventures in the Pacific Northwest available to Irving and “commissioned him to write Astoria (1836). Irving’s later biographical works were Adventures of Captain Bonneville, U.S.A. (1837), The Life of Oliver Goldsmith (1849), Mahomet and His Successors (1850), and a 5-volume Life of George Washington (1855-1859). As might be expected — of a man who had been the good friend of Sir Walter Scott, Irving was of the romantic school of historians, fond of heroic adventure, colorful scenic detail, costumes, manners, and processions) His understanding of basic political, social, a economic factors in history was superficial. But though essentially a popularizer, he recognized the value of primary source materials and ofte worked extensively in them.

Several efforts were made after Irving’s return to the” United States to get him into public service, but he accepted only one mission—as American minister to Spain from 1842 to 1846. Otherwise, though he traveled occasionally, he lived as a bachelor squire at Tarrytown, N. Y., not far from Sleepy Hollow, in an old Dutch house he had remodeled and christened “Sunny-side.” The important work of his later years, in addition to his biography of Washington, was the revision of his works for a uniform edition published in 1848-1850. Irving died in Tarrytown on Nov. 28, 1859.

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