Irving’s Transforms American Literature Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After winning its independence from Great Britain, the United States slowly began to develop a new, unique, and non-European identity in both its politics and its culture. With his clever satires of the “old ways” and his relaxed comic prose, best exemplified in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., Washington Irving led America to a new and optimistic literature and a new age of journalism.

Summary of Event

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, New York City’s population tripled, from 100,000 to 300,000 persons, and the city took over Philadelphia’s role as the commercial and cultural capital of the United States. This shift also caused a change in political power from wealthy Dutch landowners from the Hudson Valley to European immigrants and hardworking young American-born men who became self-made capitalists and entrepreneurs in New York City. The United States began to look for its own identity in both literature and politics after gaining independence from Great Britain. Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., The (Irving) Literature;American Irving, Washington New York City;literature of [kw]Irving’s Sketch Book Transforms American Literature (1819-1820) [kw]Sketch Book Transforms American Literature, Irving’s (1819-1820) [kw]Transforms American Literature, Irving’s Sketch Book (1819-1820) [kw]American Literature, Irving’s Sketch Book Transforms (1819-1820) [kw]Literature, Irving’s Sketch Book Transforms American (1819-1820) Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., The (Irving) Literature;American Irving, Washington New York City;literature of [g]United States;1819-1820: Irving’s Sketch Book Transforms American Literature[0970] [c]Literature;1819-1820: Irving’s Sketch Book Transforms American Literature[0970]

As New York City became the center for American business and politics, it also became the center for a new journalism. During the early years of the nineteenth century, the standard for American literary magazines was the Philadelphia Port Folio, Port Folio edited by Harvard-educated Joseph Dennie Dennie, Joseph (1768-1812). However, it increasingly found competition in many new and short-lived magazines that arose in New York. Many young men in business and law decided to try their hand at writing, and the growing number of literary journals and newspapers in New York created a demand for short stories, light verse, tales, and satirical prose.

Washington Irving was the first American-born writer to achieve literary credibility in both the United States and England. Born in 1783, the year that the United States became independent, he studied law but turned to writing satirical prose. He first published “The Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent.” anonymously in his brother Peter Irving’s Irving, Peter newspaper, The Morning Chronicle. Irving then collaborated with another brother, William Irving, as well as James Kirke Paulding, to write entertaining sketches and essays to “instruct the young and reform the old.” These were published in a series of pamphlets titled Salmagundi: Or, The Whim-Whams of Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq. and Others Salmagundi: Or, The Whim-Whams of Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq. and Others (1807).

Washington Irving.

(R. S. Peale/J. A. Hill)

Although the United States was enjoying its new independence, there was a feeling among many young men that the country was being run much in the same way as it had been under Britain, and that the men of established families were still making the rules and keeping the wealth. In Irving’s eyes it was time to celebrate freedom and a new and more egalitarian government. Irving put his ideas into writing as he brazenly attacked the status quo in his first real literary success, A History of New York History of New York, A (Irving) (1809).

Irving’s A History of New York is a comic history of the city’s Dutch colonization and politics that lampoons the Dutch governors of New Amsterdam New Amsterdam and their exploits, along with President Thomas Jefferson. Irving cleverly embellished Dutch history with whimsical facts and comical caricatures and at the same time lent a spurious credibility to his history by basing it on the journals of the fictional Diedrich Knickerbocker Knickerbocker School . Knickerbocker was cleverly introduced to the public in a series of newspaper articles as a gentleman who had recorded Dutch history over his lifetime, had left his journal in a boardinghouse, and had somehow disappeared. In reality Diedrich Knickerbocker was a pen name that Irving used to set himself apart from the story that was being told.

Irving served in the War of 1812, a conflict that many believed finally gave the United States true freedom from Britain and a stronger desire to create a unique American identity. Afterward, he spent seventeen years visiting England and the Continent. In 1819-1820, he published The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. He released the collection of stories, tales, and essays in seven installments in order to gauge the public’s response to it. When he saw that the collection was a success, he republished it as a book that contained thirty-two sketches. Of the four sketches about American subjects, two became Irving’s most famous stories, “Rip Van Winkle” "Rip Van Winkle" (Irving)[Rip Van Winkle (Irving)] and “The ”Legend of Sleepy Hollow, The" (Irving)[Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Irving)] Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Drawing on German folklore, both tales were unique in that Irving set them in America with a new kind of literary hero who would come to be known as “the common man.”

The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. was well received by English and American readers alike. Indeed, it was such a success that Irving became regarded as the first American writer. The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. revealed Irving’s ability to show reverence toward the literature of the old country while simultaneously showing enthusiasm for a new literature set in a new land. His stories often use contrasts between the old and the new and between the natural and the supernatural. For example, the village in which “Rip Van Winkle” is set is located between a real river and the “fairy mountains” of the Catskills. Irving also blends fact and fancy, past and present.

A rather lazy character living in America before the American Revolution American Revolution (1775-1783) , Rip Van Winkle is of Dutch decent. When Rip goes into the woods to escape from his wife’s badgering, he meets men in Dutch costumes with whom he drinks. He then settles down to take a nap but sleeps for twenty years and misses the Revolution, He thus awakens to a new land and a new life. Although Rip is initially confused, he easily adjusts to the new society he finds. He also discovers that in this new society he now has new status, even though he is merely a common person. Rip’s name may be an acronym for the well-known epitaph “rest in peace” (R.I.P.)—an indication that the story lays the old ways to rest.

Irving’s relaxed style was a significant change from the literature of the Enlightenment in England and Europe. His tales are typically frame stories in which his narrators recount tales stories that are told to them. This technique—which Mark Twain Twain, Mark later employed to good effect—allows Irving to exaggerate and include fantasy and gothic qualities, while freeing him from taking responsibility for his stories’ validity. The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. uses Irving’s old friend Diedrich Knickerbocker’s journals to validate its tales.

Although Washington Irving went on to write bulky novels on George Washington, Christopher Columbus, and the Moorish conquest of Granada, his later writings never received the kind of acclaim enjoyed by The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. In fact, his later works lacked the freshness and humor of his earlier works. Nevertheless, his early writings inspired a group of authors and journalists to set their own stories in America, to look to common people for their heroes, and to be proud of the new country and society that they were forming. Fittingly, these new writers became known as the Knickerbocker school. Knickerbocker School


The primary significance of Washington Irving as an author lay in his development of a unique literature based in American settings that was respected internationally. His informal prose style departed from the more formal and structured literary style of the Old World. His use of fictitious frame narrators allowed him to entertain readers through exaggeration and wonderment. Irving might also be called the first American humorist with his contributions of satire and humor in Salmagundi and A History of New York.

Irving’s early writings inspired New York writers from diverse backgrounds and writing styles to call themselves the Knickerbockers. From 1810 to 1840, these writers contributed articles, stories, and tales for New York’s literary magazines and newspapers, basing their writings on the new independent country in which they and the new culture and form of politics that they were developing. Irving also influenced the writing styles of such major literary figures as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Mark Twain Twain, Mark , as well as countless other writers and students of literature during the nineteenth century. Irving’s legacy can be seen in the name of the modern New York Knickerbocker basketball team and the continued popularity of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” both of which have been immortalized in films.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aderman, Ralph, ed. Critical Essays on Washington Irving. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990. Anthology of contemporary reviews of Irving’s work and twentieth century essays on his art and literary debts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gardner, Jared. Master Plots. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. Discusses the relationship between the development of American literature and the creation of a national identity in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Loving, Jerome. Lost in the Customhouse: Authorship in the American Renaissance. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993. Excellent critique of “Rip Van Winkle” that details Irving’s influence on the writers who followed him.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spiller, Robert. The Cycle of American Literature. New York: Free Press, 1967. Discusses the political, religious, and economic issues that influenced the development of literature in the United States. Examines authors from the nineteenth century to the twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tuttleton, James W., ed. Washington Irving: The Critical Reaction. New York: AMS Press, 1993. Useful collection of modern essays on Irving’s literary works. Includes a chronology of his life.

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