Authors: Washington Irving

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

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. {$I[AN]9810000290} {$I[A]Irving, Washington} {$S[A]Crayon, Geoffrey;Irving, Washington}{$S[A]Oldstyle, Jonathan;Irving, Washington} {$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Irving, Washington} {$I[tim]1783;Irving, Washington}

Washington Irving

(Library of Congress)

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.

Author Works Short Fiction: The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., 1819–20 Bracebridge Hall, 1822 Tales of a Traveller, 1824 The Alhambra, 1832 Legends of the Conquest of Spain, 1835 The Complete Tales of Washington Irving, 1975, 1998 (Charles Neider, editor) Drama: Charles the Second: Or, The Merry Monarch, pb. 1824 (with John Howard Payne) Nonfiction: A History of New York, 1809 Biography of James Lawrence, 1813 A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, 1828 A Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada, 1829 Voyages and Discoveries of the Companions of Columbus, 1831 A Tour of the Prairies, 1835 Astoria, 1836 The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, 1837 The Life of Oliver Goldsmith, 1849 The Life of George Washington, 1855–59 (5 volumes) Bibliography Aderman, Ralph M., ed. Critical Essays on Washington Irving. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990. A collection of essays on Irving, from both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Includes discussions of Irving’s art and literary debts, the relationship of his stories to his culture, and his generic heritage. Antelyes, Peter. Tales of Adventurous Enterprise: Washington Irving and the Poetics of Western Expansion. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990. Explores the theme of the western frontier in Irving. Bowden, Mary Weatherspoon. Washington Irving. Boston: Twayne, 1981. Bowden’s general study of Irving discusses the major works in chronological order of composition. While her focus is literary, Bowden begins each chapter with useful biographical information about Irving at the time. The section dealing with The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. is particularly successful in describing Irving’s attitudes toward England and how these are revealed in the sketches. Hiller, Alice. “‘An Avenue to Some Degree of Profit and Reputation’: The Sketch Book as Washington Irving’s Entree and Undoing.” Journal of American Studies 31 (August, 1997): 275–293. Claims that some of Irving’s personal correspondence reveals that The Sketch Book may have been pitched deliberately at the British market, resulting in a paralysis of Irving’s powers of writing. Jones, Brian Jay. Washington Irving: An American Original. New York: Arcade, 2008. Washington Irving is known to most readers as the author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, but this biography focuses on his private life. Irving’s personality is brought to life as Jones delves into his likes and dislikes, and his relationships with friends and lovers. McFarland, Philip. Sojourners. New York: Atheneum, 1979. While not a conventional biography, this study of Washington Irving’s life situates the writer in his various geographic, historic, and literary contexts. McFarland explores in detail the life of Irving, interweaving his biography with those of other important Americans of the time, among them Aaron Burr, the abolitionist John Brown, and John J. Astor. Murray, Laura J. “The Aesthetic of Dispossession: Washington Irving and Ideologies of (De)colonization in the Early Republic.” American Literary History 8 (Summer, 1996): 205–231. Argues that Euro-Americans cultivated their sense of vulnerability with respect to Britain and in so doing rhetorically excused themselves from their colonizing role with regard to Native Americans. Myers, Andrew B., ed. A Century of Commentary on the Works of Washington Irving. Tarrytown, N.Y.: Sleepy Hollow Restorations, 1976. This collection, divided into four chronologically ordered sections, offers writings on Washington Irving. Part 1 includes essays by contemporaries of Irving, such as William Cullen Bryant and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; part 2 covers evaluations from the beginning of the nineteenth century. Early twentieth century scholars of American literature, such as Fred Lewis Pattee, Vernon Louis Parrington, and Van Wyck Brooks, are represented in part 3, and part 4 covers the period 1945 to 1975. The collection gives an excellent overview of the development of Irving criticism and provides a point of departure for further investigations. Piacentino, Ed. “’Sleepy Hollow’ Comes South: Washington Irving’s Influence on Old Southwestern Humor.” The Southern Literary Journal 30 (Fall, 1997): 27–42. Examines how nineteenth century southern backwoods humorists adapted Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” to a southern setting; discusses a number of works with clear parallels to Irving’s story. Plummer, Laura, and Michael Nelson. “‘Girls Can Take Care of Themselves’: Gender and Storytelling in Washington Irving’s ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.’” Studies in Short Fiction 30 (Spring, 1993): 175–184. Argues that Sleepy Hollow is female-centered; the tales that circulate in the region focus on emasculated, headless spirits and serve to drive out masculine interlopers like Ichabod and thus preserve the old Dutch domesticity based on wives’ tales. Rubin-Dorsky, Jeffrey. Adrift in the Old World: The Psychological Pilgrimage of Washington Irving. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. In this study of Irving’s short fiction, Rubin-Dorsky sets out to establish Irving’s Americanness, thus reversing a critical tradition that marked him as primarily imitative of British prose style. By placing Irving within his historical context, Rubin-Dorsky underscores Irving’s central position in early American letters. Tuttleton, James W., ed. Washington Irving: The Critical Reaction. New York: AMS Press, 1993. Essays of critical interpretation of Irving’s works. Wagenknecht, Edward. Washington Irving: Moderation Displayed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962. Wagenknecht has divided his study of Irving into three parts: The Life, the Man, and the Work. “The Man” is by far the largest section and provides an engaging portrait of Irving’s personal life and development as a writer. Wagenknecht’s biography offers a more streamlined alternative to Stanley T. Williams’s two-volume work (see below). Williams, Stanley T. The Life of Washington Irving. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1935. This very thorough biography of “the first American man of letters” provides a wealth of biographical and literary detail about Washington Irving. Volume 1 is most useful for those interested in Irving’s short fiction, as it covers his life and his work up to The Alhambra. The chapters are organized according to Irving’s places of travel or the titles of his works, an arrangement which highlights the various contexts in which Irving wrote.

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