Last reviewed: June 2018
American short-story writer and historian
April 3, 1783
New York, New York
November 28, 1859
Tarrytown, New York
The son of a prosperous merchant of Scottish descent, Washington Irving was the youngest child in a family of eleven children. A frail child, he grew up in a household that catered to him whenever it could. After spending eleven years in school, he began to study law in New York City in 1798. At the same time, he also engaged in the busy social life of the city, despite a weak constitution that sent him on several excursions up the Hudson River in search of more healthful surroundings. In 1892, some of his writings were published under the pseudonym of Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent., in the New York Morning Chronicle, which was edited by his brother Peter. In these pieces, he opposed Federalism and supported Vice President Aaron Burr. Washington Irving
Because of his continuing tendency toward tuberculosis, Washington Irving’s family sent him to southern Europe in May 1804. During his two years away from the United States, he visited most of the cities of France, traveled around the Mediterranean, and enjoyed himself immensely. His health improved steadily, despite exposure to some hardships and danger, including pirate attacks, desert travel, and all the inconveniences of the horse-drawn conveyances of the time. Although he was intent on pleasure, he took the time to fill notebooks and diaries with his observations and impressions. These journals indicate that he was more interested in people than in institutions or history. Notes on the theater, for which he maintained a lifelong enthusiasm, as well as on operas, dances, and flirtations, outweigh reflections on cathedrals, classical ruins, and art galleries.
Upon his return to the United States in 1806, Irving passed the examinations and was admitted to the New York bar. He set up as a lawyer in an office on Wall Street that he shared with his brother John. Law was, however, less important to him in the following years than were his associations with such literary men as James K. Paulding. The young men, including Irving’s brother William, embarked upon a project that became the twenty issues of Salmagundi, published between January 1807 and January 1808. These papers are strongly reminiscent of the style and purpose of the style-conscious and didactic Spectator written by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in England almost a century earlier. During the same months, Irving began a project that eventually became A History of New York, which first showed Irving’s antiquarian interests. The work is still a source of enjoyment to those readers who can recognize the burlesquing of various kinds of prose style. In 1809, tragedy hit Irving when his fiancé, Matilda Hoffman, the daughter of a prominent New York barrister, died. Irving never married.
In 1810, following his father’s death, Irving went into his family’s cutlery business as a partner with his brothers William and Peter. The firm did an extensive business, both in the United States and in England. In 1811, Irving traveled to Washington, DC, as the agent of his firm during the session of Congress; however, his exact business in the city has always remained vague. Letters he wrote at the time indicate that his duties did not keep him from enjoying to the full the social activity of the nation’s capital. As a result of the business depression of 1812, he was back in Washington, DC, as a member of a committee of New York merchants who sought help from the federal government. Upon returning home, he busied himself as the editor of the Analectic Magazine in Philadelphia and as a colonel on the New York governor’s staff during the War of 1812.
Irving left New York in 1815 and crossed the Atlantic a second time, not realizing that seventeen years would pass before he returned to the United States. Shortly after his arrival in England, his brother Peter’s death and another business depression placed Irving in charge of the Liverpool branch of the family business. Affairs in the firm went from bad to worse, however, and bankruptcy was declared in 1817. At that point in his life, Irving, then past thirty, decided to live by his pen in spite of the fact that he had been away from any writing activity for almost a decade. In February 1818, he had the first number of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. ready for publication, and the others soon followed. This work, published serially in England and in the United States, made Irving a popular author, although readers knew him only by the pseudonym. Another volume of short pieces, Bracebridge Hall, followed soon after and assured his future success. These two volumes contain some of Irving’s best-known and best-loved work, including the stories “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” such essays as “John Bull” and “Traits of Indian Character,” and humorous sketches such as “The Stout Gentleman.”
After finishing Bracebridge Hall, Irving crossed the English Channel to visit the Continent and settled in Dresden, Germany, for several months before returning to Paris to collaborate with John Howard Payne on several plays, the best of which was Charles the Second: Or, The Merry Monarch. Shortly after his return to London, Tales of a Traveller appeared in 1824. This volume, like the earlier two collections, shows Irving as a writer of romantic temperament, writing tales of the unusual, the exotic, and the supernatural, a far cry from the obvious neoclassicism of the Salmagundi papers. Irving soon turned to a subject matter that confirmed fully these romantic tendencies.
In 1826, when he went to Madrid to become a member of the American Legation, he began the studies that eventually bore fruit in A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. In 1828–29, Irving toured Spain, remaining for some time in the Alhambra and gathering material for his A Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada, which was history in a far different vein from the light-hearted burlesque of A History of New York.
The year 1832 brought new changes for Irving. He returned to America to be met with great enthusiasm. As a member of a government commission, Irving made a long trip to the West. Although he wrote little of literary importance between 1832 and 1841, his western tour resulted in journalistic and historical writings, among them A Tour of the Prairies, Astoria, and The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, which he based on B. L. E. Bonneville’s journal. From 1842 to 1846, Irving was back in Europe as the US minister to Spain. He left Spain to journey to England in the capacity of envoy in the negotiations over the Oregon controversy and returned home to the United States in 1846.
Upon his return to America, Irving remodeled his home at Sunnyside on the Hudson River, near Tarrytown, New York, and settled down to a quieter life. His final years were spent preparing a revised edition of his writings, doing research in the National Archives, and writing biographies of Mahomet and George Washington, the latter an extensive, five-volume work. Irving died in 1859, shortly after the publication of the final volume of that biography of Washington.
Washington Irving’s continued popularity rests on parts of three volumes—A History of New York, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., and Bracebridge Hall. Beyond that, he brought to world literature much that is romantic and picturesque in American life and legend. Certainly he was the first American writer to receive critical and popular approval in his own country as well as in Europe, and he was a prose stylist whose influence is still apparent in American literature.