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Washington Irving- Early American Storyteller author of Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Updated on July 1, 2017

Washington Irving by John Wesley Jarvis 1809


Washington Irving Early American Writer


Washington Irving who lived from April 3, 1783 to November 28, 1859 was not only a first American storyteller but also an historian and biographer. Many of his stories he published in the Sketch book of Geoffrey Crayon,Gent Among his historical writings are biographies of George Washington, Oliver Goldsmith and Muhammad. He also wrote several histories of 15th Century Spain about such subjects as Christopher Columbus, the Moors and  the Alhambra Palace. He was U.S. minister to Spain from 1842 to 1846.

I think like most people I read Irving’s most popular stories “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle’ as  a kid in grade school. After that I more or less forgot about him until recently I ran across a reference to him in Across the Wide Missouri by Bernard DeVoto that places Irving on an expedition in fur country.

Following up on that I found that Irving was indeed a historian and wrote about the frontier. He also had a deep interest in the folklore of the Dutch colonials in the Catskill Mountains, which most likely inspired his stories  of Rip Van  Winkle and Ichobod Crane.

Obviously there was more to this writer than I had originally thought. He started his career in literature in 1802 with  observational letters to the Morning Chronicle under the pen name of Jonathan Oldsyle. He got international attention when he moved to England for the family business in 1815. With James Fennimore Cooper he was one of the first American writers to earn acclaim in Europe, according the Wikipedia.He was the first American international best selling author.

Early Years

He was born the same day that people in their Manhattan community learned about the British ceasefire and the end of the American Revolution, his mother named him for George Washington. He met Washington At the age of six. The  incident was commemorated in  a small watercolor, which still hangs in his home.

An outbreak of Yellow fever in Manhattan prompted for his family to send him to visit  a friend in Tarrytown, New Yor,.which was near the town of Sleepy Hollow, with quaint Dutch customs and local ghost stories. On an extended visit later to Johnstown, NY. where he passed through the Catskill Mountain, he said it had a witching effect on him.

His brothers financed a trip to Europe for him in 1804. He dismayed his brothers by honing his social skills at dinners and led him to be an in demand guest. rather than doing the conventional tour . In some ways this reminds  me of how Benjamin Franklin won over so much of Europe by being a charming and playing the part of frontiersman, which he was not.

.He socialized with a literary crowd and with his brother and a friend a magazine: the Salmarundi. It was moderately successful and made him known beyond New York. In the November 11, 1807 issue he gave the name Gotham—Anglo-Saxon for “Goats Town.” To the city. That’s used today in Batman.

His first major book was A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the end of the Dutch Dynasty, by Dietrich Knickerbocker  It was a satire of the self-important local history and contemporary politics..

He promoted his book by starting a hoax by placing missing person ads in New York newspapers seeking information about a crusty Dutch Historian  Dietrich Knickerbocker missing from his hotel in New York City. The surname Knickerbockers is now a nickname for Manhattan residents. Later writers like Mark Twain pulled similar hoaxes.

He became editor of Analectic where he wrote biographies of naval heroes. He was one of the first to reprint Scott Key’s poem “Defense of Fort McHenry>’ which eventually became “The Star Spangled Banner’” the U.S. national anthem.



He opposed the War of 1812 but changed his stand when the British attacked Washington D.C. in 1814 so he enlisted. He saw little action but the war was hard on business he went to England to try to save the family trading company, and   stayed for seventeen years. He failed to rescue the business and had to declare bankruptcy. In 1817 he met novelist Walter Scott that led to a personal and professional friendship. He wrote “Rip Van Winkle” while at his sister’s house in Birmingham, England.

According to the lectures of the Teaching Company Great Courses course on American literature Ichobod Crane represents  the Intellectual Elitist as we would call them today. Brom Bones who plays the headless horseman and scares Crane away  is representative of many American heroes and characters in American   literature  that came later.  Rip Van Winkle seems to personify a dream of escape in American Literature. The man who wants to remain a child. Peter Pan is an example. I most like it for the metaphor of someone unaware of important things happening for whatever reasons they have.

In both cases he is using folk tales  showing a sleepy village in contrast to drastic change in America. Folk tales continued to interest him. In Europe he read widely in Dutch and German folk tales looking for story ideas.

Plaque on spanish



In 1826 Alexander Hill Everett the recently appointed American Minister to Spain asked Irving to go to Spain. He told Irving that manuscripts of the Spanish conquests of the Americas had recently been made public. He went to Madrid and began searching the archives for material he could use. He now had access to the American consul’s large library of Spanish history and set out working on several books, all at the same time. The first was The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus Published in 1828.By the end of the century 175 editions were published. It was his first project published under his own name. This and his other Columbus books were what we now call Romantic History, mixing history with fiction. He did extensive research but added imaginative elements to sharpen the story. This book also started the myth that medieval Europeans believed the Earth was flat.

He moved to Granada’s Alhambra, an ancient palace.

American Legion in London

He went to England to be aide-de-camp of the American minister Louis Mclane.They spent the next year negotiating a trade agreement between the United States and the British west Indies which they got in 1830 he also got a medal from the Royal Society of literature that year and an honorary doctorate in civil law from Oxford the next the year.

Benjamin Bonneville

Returning to America in 1832 he went with U.S> Commissioner of Indian affairs, Henry Leavitt Ellsworth on a surveying mission deep in Indian Territory. After the western tour he went through Washington D.C. and Baltimore, where he  met novelist-politician John Pendleton Kennedy.

He started writing again and had a popular success with a report of his recent travels A Tour of the Prairies. In 1834 In 1834 John Jacob Astor persuaded him to write a book about his fur trading colony in the American Southwest, which is now Astoria, Oregon.

Astoria  was  a quick work  described as “fawning” by Wikipedia.

During a stay at Astor’s he met the explorer Benjamin Bonneville. Irving bought his maps and notes and wrote a book in 1837 The Adventures of Captain Bonneville.

Classic Comics

Public domain.
Public domain.

Mixed Legacy

Many critics have been harsh on Irving, including Edgar Allen Poe who once sought his advice on writing. He was accused of losing his American roots. He was accused of having more style than substance. It is obvious he wrote some pot boilers but also some of the works seem to me to be uniquely American such as the Catskill stories.

One contribution to American culture is the way we celebrate Christmas. In an 1812 revision of to A History of New York he had a dream sequence in which ST. Nicholas soared over treetops in a flying wagon—which others would add to make Santa Clause. He also portrayed harmonious

© 2010 Don A. Hoglund


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    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      22 months ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Peggy, thanks for commenting. I didn't pay a lot of attention to Irving or his contemporaries. Later, I found there is more to them than I thought.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      22 months ago from Houston, Texas

      Thanks Don for introducing me to more works by Washington Irving. I was only familiar with the ones that most of us probably read as children. He certainly was well traveled and had an interesting life.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      4 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks Robert for reading my hub on Washington Irving. He is an author I did not read as much as I should have.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 

      4 years ago

      Thank you. You did a great job of explaining the influence Washington Irving had on American culture, especially New York culture.

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Danielle!I totally undarstend your concern, but just wanted to point out that any idle Hubs you might have were getting very little attention via search engines as it was, so by giving them idle status, we hope to make your portfolio of Hubs on the whole seem more lively (by removing from search engine's sight that which is not very active).Our intention is not to make you feel bad or say that your work is outdated; it's to help your overall traffic and let you know when some of your work is not performing as well as it could be with an update (because it is becoming increasingly important for online content to be regularly updated).Hope that helps!

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for commenting on it.

    • crystolite profile image


      8 years ago from Houston TX

      Thanks for sharing,this article.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thank you for reading and commenting. Until recently I didn't focus on that period but I found something worthwhile in Irving.

    • Cheryl J. profile image

      Cheryl J. 

      8 years ago from Houston, TX

      Thanks for sharing the life of Washington Irving. His writing style was very unique. Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle and Sleepy Hollow stories were the best during my early school years. He wrote with good taste. A great hub.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      9 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for visiting and commenting. I've noticed that our early writes like Irving, Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain and their contemporaries did rather outrageous things to promote themselves. I don't know if it would be acceptable now.

    • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

      Susan Hazelton 

      9 years ago from Sunny Florida

      What an inventive way to promote a book - placing missing persons ads. Well researched - great background on a great writer.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      9 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids


      I never paid much attention to authors earlier than Twain, but I see a lot of the tradition in Irving that may have been picked up by Franklin and Twain.They all pulled spoof or hoaxes on there readers. Irving had something like Franklin's Poor Richard. Thanks for commenting.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Informative and enjoyable. The english-language notes of tourists to empirial Spain and colonial South America would be interesting, I bet. "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" comes to mind.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      9 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids


      I started reading some of his other tales. Quite a few seem to be ghost stories. Thanks for commenting.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      9 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids


      Thanks for you visit and comments. I'm glad you found it interesting.

    • Coolmon2009 profile image


      9 years ago from Texas, USA

      I read "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" as a kid,but never knew much about the author. I enjoyed reading this article on Washington.

    • creativeone59 profile image

      benny Faye Douglass 

      9 years ago from Gold Canyon, Arizona

      Thank you dahoglund such an interesting storyon Washington Irving,it was very invigorating. Thank you for sharing. Godspeed. creativeone59

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      9 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I appreciate your comment.I have to read more of his works, myself.

    • Robwrite profile image


      9 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      Great hub. I always liked Washington Irving. There's a street near here in Manhattan called Irving Place, which was named after Washington Irving.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      9 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids


      Thanks for visiting and commenting.


      Thanks for you comments. the hub was a bit longer than I like to make them.I was surprised to run across him as a frontier writer that I decided to learn more about him.His use of folklore is also important to me.

    • Tom Whitworth profile image

      Tom Whitworth 

      9 years ago from Moundsville, WV


      Very well researchied, and well written hub. I learned a great deal about Irving, but I was most surprised to learn he had written a biography of Muhammad.

      Good job!!!!!!!!!!!

    • samsons1 profile image


      9 years ago from Tennessee

      good read...


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