Washington Irving

Often called the “first American man of letters,” Washington Irving (1783-1859) helped shape the American literary world into what it is today. Irving was born the same year the American Revolution ended and was one of the first Americans to write short stories set solely in an American context. Although he also traveled extensively to Europe for his health and writing career, Irving will forever be remembered for his American fairytales and haunting American settings.

Washington Irving Washington Irving

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    Washington Irving Biography

    Washington Irving was born in New York City in 1783. The youngest child of a successful merchant family, Irving grew up in a loving, doting home. His family frequently financed trips in the hopes of improving his health, and Irving's older brothers provided for him financially so he could pursue a literary career. He believed that writing was a legitimate career, and in 1819, he decided to attempt to make a living through writing alone. By the time of his death in 1859, Irving was one of the most popular and celebrated writers in the United States.

    Irving began writing at the age of 19, submitting essays to his brother’s newspaper, The Morning Chronicle. Irving wrote under many pseudonyms in his career, the first being Jonathan Oldstyle. In 1804, his brothers sent him to Europe for an extended tour, hoping the change in climate would be good for his health. Irving was quite charismatic and spent much of his time in Europe meeting new people and honing his skills as a conversationalist.

    When he returned, Irving studied law with Judge Josiah Ogden Hoffman and passed the bar exam. Irving was not destined to be a lawyer, however, and soon gave up his career in law. In 1807, he created the humorous literary magazine, Salmagundi, in which he criticized contemporary New York culture. He then wrote A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker (1809), which was again a satire on New York history, society, and politics.

    Washington Irving, Aerial view of Manhattan neighbourhood in New York City, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Many of Irving's early writings satirized the society and culture of his hometown, New York City.

    While writing A History of New-York, his fiancée Matilda Hoffman suddenly died of consumption. Racked with grief, Irving lived life aimlessly for years, traveling for his family's business, serving in the War of 1812, and moving to England to try and save his family's company. In 1817, he met writer Sir Walter Scott in London, who encouraged Irving to continue writing again.

    With Scott's support, Irving wrote The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent, publishing this collection of short stories and essays in several installments from 1819–20. The Sketch Book contained Irving's famous short stories, "Rip van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." The Sketch Book was a huge success in England and the United States, reassuring Irving's hope that he could make a living solely off his writing ability.

    Following The Sketch Book, Irving published another short story collection, Bracebridge Hall, in 1822. In 1826, Alexander H. Everett, an American diplomat in Spain, invited Irving to Madrid to look at the newly-public collection of Spanish manuscripts detailing Spain's conquest of the Americas. Irving used his research in the archives to write the historical fiction book A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828).

    While staying at the palace of the Spanish Duke of Gor, Irving had access to the duke's private library. Gaining inspiration from medieval legends, Irving wrote The Companions of Columbus (1831), A Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada (1829), and Tales of the Alhambra (1832).

    After 17 years in Europe, Irving returned home to New York in 1832. Upon his return, Irving was asked on a surveying mission and traveled deep into the frontier, recording the experience in his book A Tour on the Prairies (1835). He later wrote the book Astoria (1836) about a fur trading colony and The Adventures of Captain Bonneville (1837) after meeting the explorer Benjamin Bonneville.

    In 1841, Irving bought a cottage in Tarrytown, New York. He named his home Sunnyside and stayed there for the rest of his life, aside from a four-year-long period as minister to Spain in 1842–1846. He published five volumes of a biography on George Washington from 1855 to 1859. He died of a heart attack in November 1859, eight months after the final volume was published. He was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

    Washington Irving, Portrait of George Washington at desk, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Irving was named after George Washington and published a five-volume biography on Washington as his last great literary work.

    Facts About Washington Irving

    Irving was named after American president and famous war veteran George Washington. Irving grew up in Manhattan and met Washington in 1789, while the latter was staying in New York following his Presidential inauguration. Irving was six years old at the time of their encounter, which affected him so deeply that he commissioned artist George Bernard Butler Jr. to commemorate the event in a watercolor painting in 1854.

    Irving was born the same week New Yorkers learned the American Revolution had ended.

    The NBA team the New York Knicks was named after Irving's character Diedrich Knickerbocker. The team's full name is the New York Knickerbockers.

    Washington Irving, NBA basketball, StudySmarterFig. 3 - The New York Knicks NBA team got its name from Irving's character, Diedrich Knickerbocker.

    Because of the yellow fever epidemic in New York in 1798, Irving was sent up the Hudson River to Tarrytown. Here, he became intimately familiar with the ghost stories of the town Sleepy Hollow, New York. This provided him with his setting for "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."

    Irving coined the word “Gotham” as a nickname for New York City in 1807 in a magazine he ran with his brother. The Anglo-Saxon word originally meant "Goat's Town."

    Washington Irving Short Stories

    Irving's most famous short stories are "Rip van Winkle" (1819) and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (1820).

    "Rip van Winkle" (1819)

    "Rip van Winkle" was published in the first installment of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon in 1819. In this short story, Rip van Winkle is a colonial American living before the American Revolutionary War. Wanting to escape his wife's bad temper one day, Rip van Winkle escapes into the Catskill Mountains with his dog. There he sees a mysterious group of Dutchmen playing a nine-pins. When he drinks their liquor, he falls into a deep sleep.

    When Rip van Winkle wakes up, he is all alone, his beard is over a foot long, and his musket has deteriorated. He returns to the small town and is shocked when he doesn't know anyone. The people in town ask him how he voted in their recent election, and he states that he is a loyal subject of King George III. This almost gets him into trouble as the American Revolution has recently freed the colonies from the king's control. An elderly woman realizes that it is Rip van Winkle, who disappeared 20 years before. He learns that his wife is dead, his daughter is married, and his son grew up to be just like him. The villages tell Rip van Winkle that the men he met in the mountains are likely ghosts of the crew of the Halve Maen, a Dutch East India Company ship sailed by Henry Hudson.

    "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"

    "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (1820) was also published in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon. In this gothic story, Sleepy Hollow is a quiet town haunted by supernatural occurrences. Ichabod Crane, who comes to Sleepy Hollow to work as the schoolmaster, is fascinated by the ghost stories and legends. He is especially interested in the tale of the Headless Horseman, a soldier who lost his head during the Revolutionary War and now spends his days searching for it. Ichabod becomes infatuated with Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter of one of the local farmers. He contends with Brom Van Brunt for her hand in marriage.

    Brom scares away all of his rivals for Katrina's hand, and with Ichabod's interest in marrying her, Ichabod becomes Brom's next target. Brom pulls pranks on Ichabod, including filling the school with smoke and training a howling dog to follow Ichabod around. One night Ichabod attends a party at the Van Tassels’. The night goes well until Ichabod's journey home. He sees a shadowy figure following him and realizes it doesn't have a head. A chase ensues, and Ichabod sees the figure throw its detached head at him. The next morning there is no sign of Ichabod, only a smashed pumpkin on the ground. Some townspeople claim he ran out of town after Brom's prank. Others say he was taken by the Headless Horseman.

    Washington Irving Books

    Irving wrote roughly 20 collections/books during his lifetime. Two of his books include The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1820), and A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828).

    The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent

    The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent was published in several installments from 1819-1820. In total, The Sketch Book is a mixture of 34 essays and short stories. This collection contains two of Irving's most famous short stories, "Rip van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." These short stories were both attributed to Irving's fictional historian Diedrich Knickerbocker. The Sketch Book was also important for its impact on copyright laws.

    Due to loose copyright laws, Irving's The Sketch Book collection suffered heavily from piracy. Irving's friend Scott introduced Irving to his own publisher, who helped him to protect his copyright. For the rest of his life, Irving continued to advocate for stronger copyright laws to protect writers and their works.

    A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus

    This fictional biographical account of Christopher Columbus's life was published in several volumes in 1828. It is credited as being one of the first examples of historical fiction about the Americas. A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus also helped to popularize the myth that Europeans at the time thought the Earth was flat. Critics have stated that the historical inaccuracies are a weakness in the book.

    Washington Irving, Columbus Ship, StudySmarter

    Fig. 4 - Irving wrote a fictional account of Columbus's life and voyage.

    Washington Irving Quotes

    This quote comes from Washington Irving's The Sketch Book.

    There is in every true woman's heart a spark of heavenly fire, which lies dormant in the broad daylight of prosperity; but which kindles up, and beams and blazes in the dark hour of adversity."

    The quote speaks to Irving's relationship with women. Although some of his works can be read as anti-feminist, others position women as heroes. Irving was close with all his family members, including his mother, and he was so deeply distraught at the loss of his first love that he never married.

    Great minds have purpose, others have wishes. Little minds are tamed and subdued by misfortunes; but great minds rise above them."

    Also from The Sketch Book, this quote relates to Irving's bold desire to make a career solely from writing. The profession of writing was virtually unheard of during his time. Irving knew there would be challenges to sustaining himself through his pen alone, but he rose above them. Perhaps one of the biggest trials he faced was copyright laws that did not protect authors.

    [Christmas is] the season for kindling, not merely the fire of hospitality in the hall, but the genial flame of charity in the heart.”

    This quote comes from one of Irving's four essays on Christmas in The Sketch Book. An ardent lover of Christmas, Irving not only popularized Saint Nicholas through his writing; but also, helped found the Saint Nicholas Society of the City of New York in 1835. Today, Irving is credited with shaping Christmas in America into the festive, joyful holiday it has become in American culture.

    Washington Irving - Key takeaways

    • Washington Irving was born in New York City in 1783.
    • He was named after George Washington and wrote a five-volume biography about his life.
    • Irving was one of the first Americans to make a career solely off his writing.
    • Two of his famous short stories are "Rip van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."
    • Irving coined the word "Gotham," which was the inspiration behind the New York Knicks name, and helped to popularize Christmas in the United States.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Washington Irving

    Who was Washington Irving?

    Washington Irving was one of the first writers to base his work entirely in America. He is also known as the “first American man of letters."

    What was unique about Washington Irving's writing?

    His humor was unique compared to his contemporaries. He was also arguably the first writer to situate his works entirely in the newly-independent United States.

    How many books did Washington Irving write?

    Irving wrote nearly 20 books/collections. 

    When did Washington Irving write his biography of Christopher Columbus? 

    A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus was written in 1828. 

    What is Washington Irving most famous for?

    Irving is most famous for popularizing American short stories, notably "Rip van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What is Ichabod Crane’s main motivation in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”?

    Who is Ichabod Crane’s rival?

    Which of these themes are present in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”?


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