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