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Washington Irving

Washington Irving Essay - Irving, Washington (1783 - 1859)

Irving, Washington (1783 - 1859)

Introduction

Washington Irving (1783 - 1859)

(Also wrote under the pseudonyms Fray Antonio Agapida, Geoffrey Crayon, Diedrich Knickerbocker, Launcelot Langstaff, and Jonathan Oldstyle) American short story writer, essayist, historian, journalist, and biographer.

Irving is considered both the first American man of letters and the creator of the American short story. Although best known for such tales of rural Americana as "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (both published in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., 1819–20), Irving later became a prolific and accomplished biographer as well as a distinguished statesman. He explored a number of literary styles and genres in his writings, with many of his best-known stories incorporating elements of Gothic literature. Such works, many of which were written in a humorous, lighthearted tone, reveal the author's interest in mystery, horror, and the supernatural.

BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

Born in New York in 1783, Irving was the youngest of eleven children. Although he studied the law and eventually worked at a law office, his legal studies were halfhearted; he much preferred writing for his brother Peter's journal, The Morning Chronicle. In 1802 Irving wrote a series of letters to the Chronicle under the pseudonym of Jonathan Oldstyle. These letters gently mocked New York society and brought Irving his first recognition as a writer. Failing health forced him to seek a change of climate, and he traveled to Europe. In 1806 he returned home and was admitted to the bar. Irving, his brother William, and brother-in-law James Kirke Paulding, along with some other friends, were known as the "Nine Worthies of Cockloft Hall," named after their favorite place for "conscientious drinking and good fun." They collaborated on the satirical journal Salmagundi; or, The Whimwhams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq., and Others (1807–8), which included many essays by Irving that reflected his Federalist political attitudes and social stance. The venture proved unprofitable, however, and the young men were forced to abandon the publication. In 1809 Irving enjoyed literary success with the publication and favorable reception of the satirical A History of New York, from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty. His success, however, was overshadowed by the death of his fiancee, Matilda Hoffman, in 1809. Grief consumed Irving, and from that time on his works reflected a more serious tone. In an effort to ease his sorrow, Irving entered a period of fervid activity. He acted as his brother's law partner, helped in the family hardware business, and edited a magazine, the Analectic.

Irving eventually returned to England and worked in the Liverpool branch of his family's import-export firm for three years until it went bankrupt. After years of wavering indecisively between a legal, editorial, and mercantile career, he finally decided to make writing his livelihood. He began recording impressions, thoughts, and descriptions in a small notebook. These, polished and revised in Irving's meticulous manner, eventually became The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Irving's most enduring work, the collection—which includes the stories "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"—ensured his reputation as a man of letters. Its timing proved opportune, as no one had yet produced a universally appealing piece of American literature. In 1826 he traveled as a member of the American diplomatic corps to Spain, where he wrote A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828). A subsequent tour of Spain produced A Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada (1829) and The Alhambra (1832). During the 1830s, Irving returned to America, taking part in a tour of the Oklahoma territory. His travels in the West were fodder for several of his subsequent books, including The Crayon Miscellany (1835), A Tour on the Prairies (1835), Astoria; or, Anecdotes of an Enterprise beyond the Rocky Mountains (1836), and The Rocky Mountains; or, Scenes, Incidents, and Adventures in the Far West (1837). In 1842 Irving became minister to Spain. Although he enjoyed his role as a diplomat, he returned to the United States to further his career as a biographical writer. His biography of Oliver Goldsmith is considered a particularly fine example of Irving's concise, balanced style. His last years were spent at work on a biography of George Washington; though assessed as overly elaborate and lacking his former naturalness of tone, the work expresses Irving's belief in a glorious American past. Irving's funeral was attended by thousands of admirers who mourned the death of a beloved author.

MAJOR WORKS

Irving's initial forays into writing were essays that satirized the political, social, and cultural life of his native New York City. A number of these were published in the short-lived journal Salmagundi. Irving continued in this satirical vein with his first book, A History of New York. Narrated by the fictional Diedrich Knickerbocker, a fusty, colorful Dutch American, the work provided a comical, deliberately inaccurate account of New York's past. A History of New York has been considered Irving's most consistently optimistic work, in which he expounds on native themes with affection and candor; indeed, the name "Knickerbocker" has become synonymous with a period of early American culture. The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., Irving's subsequent effort, is considered a landmark work in American fiction. The book not only introduced the modern short story form in the United States but was also the first work by an American author to gain recognition abroad. The collection was widely popular in both England and the United States. Purportedly the work of Geoffrey Crayon, a genteel, good-natured American wandering through Britain on his first trip abroad, The Sketch Book consists largely of his travel impressions. These sketches are picturesque, elegant, and lightly humorous in the tradition of the eighteenth-century essayists Richard Addison and Oliver Goldsmith, Irving's literary models. The most enduring pieces, however, are those in which Irving wove elements of legend, folklore, and drama into narratives of the New World. "Rip Van Winkle," the story of a lackadaisical Dutch American who slumbers for twenty years, and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," which recounts Ichabod Crane's meeting with a headless horseman, have long been considered classics. Critics generally agree that these were the models for the modern American short story and that both tales introduced imagery and archetypes that enriched the national literature.

After the appearance of The Sketch Book, Irving wrote steadily, capitalizing on his international success with two subsequent collections of tales and sketches that also appeared under the name Geoffrey Crayon. Bracebridge Hall; or, The Humorists: A Medley (1822) centers loosely on a fictitious English clan that Irving had introduced in several of the Sketch Book pieces. Bracebridge Hall further describes their manners, customs, and habits, and interjects several unrelated short stories, including "The Student from Salamanca" and "The Stout Gentleman." Tales of a Traveller (1824) consists entirely of short stories arranged in four categories: European stories, tales of London literary life, accounts of Italian bandits, and narrations by Irving's alter-ego, Diedrich Knickerbocker. The most enduring of these, according to many critics, are "The Adventure of the German Student," which some consider a significant early example of American Gothic and supernatural fiction, and "The Devil and Tom Walker," a Yankee tale that like "Rip Van Winkle" draws upon myth and legend for characters and incident.

Irving's later career is marked by his shift toward biography writing. While traveling through Europe in the 1820s, Irving was asked to translate some documents relating to Christopher Columbus. Instead, Irving decided to write a biography on the man central to the American identity. Critics praised A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus as one of the greatest biographies ever written; the book earned Irving distinction both as a scholar and as a biographer. Irving employed his skills as a researcher again in his biographies on Oliver Goldsmith and George Washington. In addition, Irving's keen interest in the American character and identity led him to write several books about the American West. In his works A Tour on the Prairies, Astoria, and Captain Bonneville, Irving recounted the adventurous and sometimes brutal life of the frontiersman. He is credited with realistically portraying the pioneers' cruel treatment of Native Americans. However, he championed American enterprise and the courage of American men forging a future for the country.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

Contemporaneous reviews illustrate the level of approval Irving won in the nineteenth century. While many of these reviewers were aware of deficiencies in Irving's work, their praise is generally overwhelming. Not all subsequent critics have been so enthusiastic; critical reception of the author's work has been mixed over the past two centuries. However, most modern critics classify Irving as one of the greatest American writers, responsible for establishing an American style of writing, especially in the short story genre. He is well respected as a biographer and as a chronicler of American culture. His short stories "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle" are considered American masterpieces, their legacy so great that they have become part of popular culture.

Many of Irving's stories, particularly "The Adventure of the German Student," have received attention for their unique handling of the supernatural and the Gothic. At the time Irving began working on his earliest—and best known—tales, the popularity of Gothic literature had begun to wane. In recognition of the genre's declining appeal, Irving opted for a fresh approach, employing Gothic conventions in nontraditional ways. For example, a number of his stories feature supernatural or macabre happenings, but such events are presented in a comical, lighthearted way—a technique described by some critics as "sportive" Gothic. Michael Davitt Bell has suggested that Irving's influence on the American Gothic tradition is undervalued in part because of his humorous and sometimes satiric tone. While some critics may dismiss his impact as minimal, John Clendenning has asserted that Irving's works "anticipated the advanced gothic fiction of [Edgar Allan] Poe and [Nathaniel] Hawthorne."

Principal Works

Salmagundi; or, The Whim-whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq., and Others [with William Irving and James Kirke Paulding] (journal) 1807–8
A History of New York, from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty [as Diedrich Knickerbocker] (parody) 1809
The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. [as Geoffrey Crayon] (short stories) 1819–20
Bracebridge Hall; or, The Humorists: A Medley [as Geoffrey Crayon] (short stories) 1822
Tales of a Traveller [as Geoffrey Crayon] (short stories) 1824
A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (biography) 1828
A Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada...

(The entire section is 186 words.)

Primary Sources

SOURCE: Irving, Washington. "Adventure of the German Student." In Great Tales of Terror from Europe and America: Gothic Stories of Horror and Romance, 1765–1840, edited by Peter Haining. 1972. Reprint edition, pp. 424-30. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd., 1973.

The following short story was originally published in 1824 in Tales of a Traveller.

On a stormy night, in the tempestuous times of the French revolution, a young German was returning to his lodgings, at a late hour, across the old part of Paris. The lightning gleamed, and the loud claps of thunder rattled through the lofty, narrow streets—but I...

(The entire section is 2185 words.)

General Commentary

John Clendenning (Essay Date 1964)

SOURCE: Clendenning, John. "Irving and the Gothic Tradition." Bucknell Review 12, no. 2 (1964): 90-8.

In the following essay, Clendenning assesses Irving's works within the context of a developing American Gothic tradition.

Although we may scoff at the thrills, tricks, and flights of gothic fiction, its durable influence cannot be ignored. How this popular genre, despite its medieval twaddle and its supernatural bombast, was appropriated by our most serious writers remains an enigma, though some critics have argued convincingly that the genre was, in some ways, serious from the outset. Whatever the case, everyone will agree...

(The entire section is 3700 words.)

Michael Davitt Bell (Essay Date 1980)

SOURCE: Bell, Michael Davitt. “Strange Stories: Irving’s Gothic.” In The Development of American Romance: The Sacrifice of Relation, pp. 77-85. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

In the following excerpt, Bell discusses Irving’s humor and treatment of ambiguity as part of the American Gothic tradition.

It has long been a critical truism that the tradition of gothic romance played an essential role in the development of American fiction—far more so than in England, where the tradition originated. It is curious, then, that Irving, although the bulk of his fiction falls clearly within the gothic mode, has...

(The entire section is 4677 words.)