2. Washington Irving

Washington Irving was born in New York City (near present-day Wall Street) at the end of the Revolutionary War on April 3, 1783. His parents, wealthy Scottish-English immigrants, were great admirers of General George Washington, and named their son after their hero. He was the youngest of eleven children.

Irving studied law at private schools. After serving in several law offices and traveling in Europe for his health from 1804 to 1806, he was eventually admitted to the bar in 1806. His interest in the law was neither deep nor long-lasting, however, and Irving began to contribute satirical essays and sketches to New York newspapers as early as 1802. A group of these pieces, written from 1802 to 1803 and collected under the title Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent., won Irving his earliest literary recognition. From 1807 to 1808 he was the leading figure in a social group that included his brothers William Irving and Peter Irving and William's brother-in-law James Kirke Paulding; together they wrote Salmagundi, or, the Whim-Whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq., and Others, a series of satirical essays and poems on New York society. Irving's contributions to this miscellany established his reputation as an essayist and wit.

Irving had two very impressive pseudonym voices he gave to his writings: Diedrich Knickerbocker, the impolite old gentleman and Geoffrey Crayon the proper, polished, ambassador of good will (Leary 7). The name Knickerbocker was later used to identify the first American school of writers, the Knickerbocker Group, of which Irving was a leading figure. The book became part of New York folklore, and eventually the word Knickerbocker was also used to describe any New Yorker who could trace one's family to the original Dutch settlers. It is also where the basketball team, The New York Knickerbockers (Knicks), got its name. 

In 1809, using the Diedrich Knickerbocker pen name, Irving published a 2-volume parody of a guidebook to New York - A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, Inskeep & Bradford (New York, 1809) Under the guise of Diedrich Knickerbocker, "a small elderly gentleman" who had mysteriously disappeared from his lodgings, leaving behind him a manuscript of "the only authentic history of the times that have been or ever will be published," Washington Irving published his most unified and jubilant work in December 1809. Begun as a parody of a guidebook to New York, Irving ended by writing a comic history of New York under Dutch authority (with such governors as "Walter the Doubter," William the Testy," and "Peter the Headstrong"). Fact is interspersed with exaggeration, burlesque and biting sarcasm. The History's combination of mock solemnity and extravagant irreverence was to lay a foundation of style for subsequent American humorists, from Mark Twain to Will Rogers. 

In the book, dates were wrong, facts were hiding with fiction, but it was a bright, mirth-filled book (15) which pokes fun at New York's Dutch past, including many references to St. Nicholas. There were positive reactions, as well as negative ones made by some of Irving's contemporaries: Walter Scott, Byron, Dickens and Coleridge had very positive reactions, whereas poets like Emerson and Whitman strongly disapproved (Leary 15-16). 

Pictured right: an excerpt from Book I, Chapter 5 of A History of New York - The European powers are carving up the New World. The caption reads: "What right had the first discoverers of America to land, and take possession of a country, without asking the consent of its inhabitants, or yielding them an adequate compensation for their territory?" 

Many old Dutch families were scandalized at Irving's mockery of their lives:

"One lady was pointedly indignant against him, and in an outburst of wrath vowed, if she were a man, she would horsewhip him. The historian was wonderfully amused upon hearing this, and with a degree of modest impudence quite foreign to his natural character, forthwith determined to seek an introduction. He accordingly prevailed on a friend to take him to her house. She received him very stiffly at first, but before the end of the interview he had succeeded in making himself so agreeable that she relaxed entirely from her hauteur, and they became very good friends." [Pierre M. Irving. The Life and Letters of Washington Irving. 4 vols. New York: G.P. Putnam, 1862 - 1864.]

It was Washington Irving who first described the saint as a plump and jolly old Dutchman in his comic History of New York, the first literary description of Saint Nicholas to appear in America. It poked fun at the Dutch founders of New York and contained numerous references to the Dutch patron saint. In later editions of his work, Irving gave this account of Saint Nicholas bringing gifts:

“...and lo, the good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children....And he lit his pipe by the fire and sat himself down and smoked... And when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe, he twisted it in his hatband, and laying his finger beside his nose, gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very significant look; then mounting his wagon, he returned over the treetops and disappeared.”

Irving's book was a best seller of the day and after its publication the Saint Nicholas legend traveled fast. At the first anniversary for it, John Pintard and his friends at the New York Historical Society - which had been founded in 1804 with St. Nicholas as its patron saint, thus its members reviving the Dutch tradition of the saint as a gift-bringer - passed out a broadside he'd commissioned with his own money. It included a poem, "Sancte Claus Goed Heyligman!" ("Santa Claus, Good Holy Man!"). The woodcut was presented at the annual St. Nicholas Day dinner festivities, and it showed the traditional Nicholas figure (tall, with long robes) accompanied by a Dutch rhyme about "Sancte Claus" (in Dutch, "Sinterklaas"). When Irving revised his History of New York in 1812, he added details about Nicholas "riding over the tops of the trees, in that selfsame waggon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children." He also rewrote the book for subsequent editions in 1819, 1824, 1829, and 1848.

Pictured left: Felix O. C. Darley, a wash drawing (1849) published as a frontispiece illustration for [Washington Irving] Diedrich Knickerbocker's A History of New-York.

In 1815 Irving went to Liverpool, England, as a silent partner in his brothers' commercial firm. When, after a series of losses, the business went into bankruptcy in 1818, Irving returned to writing for a living. In England he became the intimate friend of several leading men of letters, including Thomas Campbell, Sir Walter Scott, and Thomas Moore.

In 1819-20, under the pen name of Geoffrey Crayon, Irving wrote the essays and short stories collected in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-1820). The Sketch Book, as it is also known, was his most popular work and was widely acclaimed in both England and the United States for its geniality, grace, and humor. The collection's two most famous stories, both based on German folktales, are “Rip van Winkle,” about a man who falls asleep in the woods for twenty years, and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” about a schoolteacher's encounter with a legendary headless horseman. Set in rural New York, these tales are considered classics in American literature.

"Rip Van Winkle" was written by Irving overnight, while staying with his sister, her husband, Henry van Wart, and their two sons and two daughters, one of whom was his god-child, in Birmingham, England, a place which also inspired some of his other works. Bracebridge Hall, or, The Humorists, A Medley is based on Aston Hall there. One of the van Wart's children would later name his first-born Washington Irving Van Wart (b. 1836), whose niece in turn was called Rosalinda Irving Van Wart (b. 1874). It is believed that the city of Irving, Texas was named after him, as are Washington Street and Irving Street in Birmingham. The name "Rip van Winkle" has gone into the language to describe people who awake and cannot recognize their surroundings.

From 1826 until 1829 Irving was a member of the staff of the United States legation in Madrid. During this period and after his return to England, he wrote several historical works, the most popular of which was the History of Christopher Columbus (1828). Another well-known work of this period was The Alhambra (1832), a series of sketches and stories based on Irving's residence in 1829 in an ancient Moorish palace at Granada, Spain. In 1832, after an absence that lasted 17 years, he returned to the United States, where he was welcomed as a figure of international importance. 

Over the next few years Irving traveled to the American West and wrote several books using the West as their setting. These works include A Tour on the Prairies (1835), Astoria (1836), and The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, U.S.A. (1837). He was one of the few 19th Century figures to speak out against the mishandling of relations with the Native American tribes by Europeans. 

From 1842-46, Irving served as U.S. ambassador to Spain. He is said to have mentored authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Edgar Allan Poe. Late in life Irving wrote a monster five-volume biography of George Washington, and his biography of Christopher Columbus is still considered a classic.

On November 28, 1859, on the eve of the 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. Throughout his life, Irving had many interests including writing, architecture and landscape design, traveling, and diplomacy. He is best known, however, as the first American to make a living solely from writing. 

Sources:

  • http://www.blackmask.com/books21c/wihinydex.htm
  • http://www.williams.az.us/writers/library/irving/rvw.html
  • http://www.williams.az.us/writers/library/irving/sleepyhollow.html

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Created: Sunday, November 03, 2002; Last updated: Friday, December 25, 2015
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