Washington Irving Essay - Critical Essays

Washington Irving American Literature Analysis

Although best known today as an American humorist, Irving’s literary career also encompassed historical works and biographies. He was a prolific writer who took great delight in describing whatever interested his curious intellect. The author was a superb and influential prose stylist who influenced other writers, and he became America’s first successful man of letters.

Irving’s work can be categorized by the changes in his temperament, which also followed a chronological pattern. Beginning in 1802, this first period was marked by a certain recklessness of attitude. Irving assumed the persona of “Jonathan Oldstyle,” and he reflected his own and the United States’ exuberance following the overthrow of British tyranny. Serving out his literary apprenticeship, Irving’s merry and vulgar Oldstyle looked at the citizens of New York City and found something to say about their culture, society, and politics.

By the time Irving penned his burlesque A History of New York in the second period, he had settled down and developed into a stylish and confident amateur. The work is one of the great comic masterpieces of American literature, and “Diedrich Knickerbocker” was an original, almost mythical character. “Father Knickerbocker,” in his recognizable tricorn hat, is still New York’s official symbol. In the third and most creative phase, a mature Irving found his greatest literary expression in The Sketch Book.

His histories of Spain and the American West are marred by an unscientific approach and are filled with romantic overtones. The biographies on Goldsmith, Mahomet, and Washington that appeared when the author was in his sixties are tired efforts and are marred by sentimentality. These works from the last period of his life have not stood up well over time and are rarely read.

Irving penned most of his best work under a pseudonym, beginning with the Oldstyle pieces. He did so initially while he searched for an authentic voice, a practice that would take a lifetime. Irving always remained unsure of himself as a writer and undertook elaborate steps to disguise his own identity. A publisher once provoked Irving’s fury by appending the author’s real name under the pseudonym to a published work (A Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada by “Fray Antonio Agapida”).

Irving suffered from paralyzing bouts of melancholy during his life, usually following the death of a loved one. The depressed state would then be followed by a creative burst of energy that pushed aside the gloom. His work characteristically contained a certain morbidity and fascination with cemeteries and death that seemed inappropriate in his lighter work. Even in his delightful Sketch Book, there are some lachrymose pieces—“The Broken Heart,” “The Widow and Her Son,” and “Rural Funerals”—that underscore a subconscious preoccupation with death.

The course of Irving’s literary career was not a smooth one. Throughout his life, he endured fallow periods when he wrote absolutely nothing. The dry spell could range anywhere from five to ten years, after which he would become productive again. Overall, his six decades of interrupted writing activity produced a voluminous amount of literature.

Irving’s influence on American society during and after his lifetime was great. A complete set of his works in a private library was once considered the hallmark of an educated individual. Numerous writers, including nineteenth century Americans Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allan Poe, owe Irving a great literary debt, and his reputation, although dimmed by time, remains secure as America’s first important writer. He is especially revered for his stories of native American humor, which found its best expression in The Sketch Book, particularly in the tales of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.

First published: 1819-1820

Type of work: Short stories and essays

This disparate collection of short pieces reflects the author’s catholic tastes and includes two classic tales of American literature.

Irving’s The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. was first published in 1819 and 1820 in the United States in seven paperbound installments and then in two volumes in England. It became an immediate best seller in both countries and started a line of other “sketch books” as imitative writers sought to capitalize on its success. The Sketch Book remains Irving’s most important, influential, and popular work.

Irving became an overnight literary sensation and the first American writer to be lionized in England and Europe. The author, living in England at the time of publication, took the unusual step of publishing his work on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean because he feared that a pirated edition of his work would make its way to Britain. It was a well-founded fear, because there was no international copyright law to protect literary property, and pirating of popular material was a common practice. Irving’s stratagem, therefore, was a clever move and protected his material from unscrupulous publishers. It also established a practice that other writers would emulate.

The Sketch Book is actually a literary potpourri designed to appeal to a variety of tastes, both American and English. It is made up of some thirty pieces. Each one marks a deliberate shift in tone and mood. About half of them are based on specific observations of life in England. There are also six literary essays, four traveling reminiscences, three short stories, and two pieces on the American Indian; three pieces defy easy classification. Only four parts contain specifically American content; however, two of those four—“Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”—have become legendary.

Irving’s use of the character Geoffrey Crayon was a masterstroke. He fashioned an admirable figure by which to bring together his diverse collection of short pieces. Common themes run throughout The Sketch Book that tie the various stories together. The most prominent includes imprisonment, shipwreck, sterility, financial loss, and the function of the storyteller. The book brims with Jeffersonian idealism. Crayon is quick to...

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