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 point out America’s vitality and growing importance even in his English pieces. In one essay, “English Writers on America,” he condemns their temerity and suggests that England is a pygmy when compared to the United States. In the fifth part of The Sketch Book, Irving wrote a quintet on impressions of Christmas that is sometimes printed and lavishly illustrated separately as Old Christmas.