Washington Irving

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Washington Irving Biography

Washington Irving, though he wrote extensively throughout his life, is remembered essentially for two short stories. One focuses on a man who takes the world’s longest catnap, and the other is a spooky tale about a teacher who loses his head. “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” have become enduring classics, inspiring numerous film and television adaptations. Yet the erudite Irving, born and raised in Manhattan, made his name early with sophisticated satire. Politics and social issues were equally important to Irving. Following his extensive travels throughout the frontier, Irving was unabashedly critical of the United States’ dealings with Native Americans. It was not a popular stance at that time, but it typified Irving’s complexity and the hidden depths of his written works.

Facts and Trivia

  • Irving is considered one of America’s first great writers. His name is often mentioned with the likes of James Fenimore Cooper and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
  • Irving was particularly adept at short-form writing, and many of his earliest works were humorous, often satirical pieces that appeared in literary periodicals.
  • Irving served in the military and fought in the disastrous War of 1812. Shortly thereafter, he retreated to England for nearly two decades to help save his family’s damaged fortunes.
  • Irving’s story “Rip Van Winkle” was inspired by a stay at his sister’s home in England.
  • Later in life, Irving shifted the focus of his writing to a new interest: history. Though his historical work was not always accurate, it was highly romantic, reflecting the movement that would soon dominate literature.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2045

Article abstract: Washington Irving, America’s first international literary success, was responsible for making American letters respectable in the nineteenth century.

Early Life

Washington Irving was born into the large family of William Irving and Sarah Sanders Irving on April 3, 1783, in New York City. His father was a merchant of Scottish background and stern disposition. His mother, on the other hand, the granddaughter of an English curate, was gentle and kind. Although Irving’s father, a church deacon, tried to restrict his children from simple pleasures, Washington, named after the United States’ first president, would slip away to wander throughout the then small town of New York City. The youngest of eleven children, Irving was frail as a child and had an undistinguished record as a student, being somewhat lazy as well as mischievous. He did read extensively the tales of adventure in his father’s library, however, all of which influenced his writings later.

Irving began apprentice law studies in 1802 with Josiah Ogden Hoffmann. Also in that year, his brother Peter began publication of the Morning Chronicle, an Anti-Federalist newspaper which supported Aaron Burr, for which Irving began to contribute letter essays under the pseudonym “Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent.” Although these early contributions were amateurish and imitative of essays in the British periodical The Spectator, they allowed Irving to experiment with various literary conventions and writing styles. Between 1804 and 1806, Irving traveled widely in England and throughout Europe, during which time he honed his powers of observation and strengthened his health. When he returned to the United States, he was admitted to law practice.

His real interest and talent, however, lay in his writing. In 1807, along with his brother William and James Kirke Paulding, Irving helped establish another periodical, Salmagundi, a satiric and lively send-up of whatever the three young men thought needed parodying. Although Irving’s father died in 1807, most biographers agree that the greatest tragedy in the early part of his life was the death of Matilda Hoffman, his first great love and the woman whom he intended to marry. In 1809, Irving published his first major work, A History of New York, a burlesquely comic narrative in which he created the persona Diedrich Knickerbocker, who appears later as the teller of Irving’s most famous stories, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle.” The book brought Irving his first taste of literary success, and in 1812 he became the anonymous editor of Analectic Magazine.

In May, 1815, Irving traveled to Liverpool, England, on behalf of the hardware business of which he was a partner with his brothers Peter and William. It was here that he discovered what poor financial condition the business was in and here also that he faced with his brothers the bankruptcy courts. Thus, it was not a burning love of literature that made Irving begin his writing career in earnest, but rather his desperate need to make a living. Irving stayed in Europe for the next seventeen years, finally returning to the United States in 1832, but only after he had become the famous author of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-1820).

Life’s Work

A few months after the bankruptcy of his company, Irving began writing in earnest on the first installments of his series of tales and essays that were to become The Sketch Book. Sending them to his brother Ebenezer in the United States for publication, Irving wrote, characteristically, that his greatest desire was to make himself worthy of the goodwill of his countrymen. He did much toward achieving his goal by including in this first number perhaps the most memorable mythic figure in all of American literature, Rip Van Winkle. In the installments that followed, Irving almost single-handedly established the beginning of American literature. No American work of literature, and few works from any country, received the amount of praise heaped upon The Sketch Book. It was truly the first international literary sensation to come from the New World.

Irving’s newfound success freed him and his brothers from their money worries and allowed Irving to indulge himself in his great love of travel. After several months in Paris, Irving returned to England to publish Bracebridge Hall (1822), which focused on the customs of England. Then he was off again, traveling through Europe until settling in Dresden for six months, after which he lived in Paris from August, 1823, until May, 1824. When he returned to London, he published the appropriately titled Tales of a Traveller (1824). This work was not well received by the critics, however, and caused Irving his first professional disappointment. His biographers call this an important transition period in Irving’s literary development, a period during which he seems to have decided to cease writing the imaginative sketches that had brought him fame and to focus more on historical and biographical works.

After four months in southern France, Irving went to Spain with an American legation, thus beginning his career as an American diplomat and ambassador. The fruits of Irving’s Spanish sojourn are A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828), A Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada (1829), Voyages and Discoveries of the Companions of Columbus (1831), and The Alhambra (1832), which included sketches and tales.

In 1829, Irving returned to London to become secretary of the American legation and thus began his diplomatic life in an even more formal way. In April, 1830, he was given a gold medal by the Royal Society of Literature for preeminent work in the field of literature, and in the following month he was presented an honorary doctor of letters degree from Oxford University. Thus, it was at the height of his professional career, some seventeen years after he left the United States, that he finally returned to his native country, having succeeded beyond his wildest dreams in earning the goodwill of his countrymen. He returned to great acclaim and public enthusiasm, much to his surprise, and had to refuse invitations from many cities for dinners and banquets in his honor. Still the wanderer, Irving began tours of the American West and South, keeping diaries of his travels from which he published A Tour of the Prairies in The Crayon Miscellany in 1835.

Also in 1835, Irving bought ten acres of land at Tarrytown, on which sat a Dutch stone house which he named Sunnyside and in which he took permanent residence. In the next six years, Irving published more historical and biographical works, including Astoria (1836), written at the request of John Jacob Astor; The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, U.S.A. (1837); and short biographies of Oliver Goldsmith and Margaret Davidson. During this period he was offered, and refused, the position of secretary of the navy and the nomination for mayor of New York City. In short, as his biographers have noted, Irving took it easy in the ten years after returning to the United States. Although portraits of Irving as a young man present him as a keen-eyed, dark-haired Byronic dandy with curling dark locks of hair, the more popular image of him can been seen in a later sketch in which he looks the part of a genial middle-class landowner, reclining in a rural setting with his faithful dog Ginger beside him.

He did not, however, refuse the offer made to him by President John Tyler in 1842 to become minister to Spain, a position he held until the end of 1845, at which time he made his final return to the United States to spend the last years of his life in the idyllic setting of Tarrytown, expanding his biography of Oliver Goldsmith, arranging for the publication of his collected works, and writing his multivolume The Life of George Washington (1855-1859). Irving died at his home at Sunnyside on the evening of November 28, 1859.


Washington Irving was America’s first grand old man of letters, America’s first internationally famous author, and the first American writer to make American literature a tangible reality. The Sketch Book, although imitative of several genres such as the personal essay and the folktale which were popular in the nineteenth century, became a phenomenal success, unprecedented at the time. Irving had great influence not only on such British comic writers as Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray, but also on American writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Edgar Allan Poe. Irving was successful in blending the eighteenth century essay style of the British writers Joseph Addison and Richard Steele with the Romantic folktale popular in Germany. In this way, Irving was instrumental in creating the short genre that Hawthorne and Poe would later deepen and develop and thus make America’s major contribution to world literature.

Although Irving was a prolific writer and his works fill numerous volumes, and although he was widely read during his time, few people, other than students, read his work today, and they only read a small portion of his total output. Yet two of his creations, Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane, have become mythic figures in American folklore, comparable to Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed. Everyone is familiar with these memorable icons of a more leisurely and peaceful time in American culture. In such tales as “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Irving used the persona of Diedrich Knickerbocker to give new life to old tales and thus allow his readers to identify with his comic characters. Regardless of age, many men have longed for a draught of the magic brew that allowed Rip Van Winkle to sleep through all of his adult responsibilities to emerge unscathed into a second childhood.

Washington Irving is responsible for making American literature a significant force in world culture at a time when the United States was felt to be England’s cultural inferior. The secret of Irving’s success, in addition to combining the essay and the tale form to sow the seeds for a new literary genre, was his own unique voice—a leisurely and genial point of view that expressed kindness, good humor, hospitality, and warmth, or, in short, the ideal of something uniquely American.


Bowden, Mary Weatherspoon. Washington Irving. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981. An introductory critical study which focuses on the political forces that influenced Irving’s work. Sketchy on biography but detailed on literary development.

Hedges, William L. Washington Irving: An American Study, 1802-1832. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965. A sound and fully developed critical study which places Irving within his cultural milieu and examines the many literary genres which Irving mastered. Clarifies Irving’s emphasis on dreams, fantasies, and symbolic fiction.

Hellman, George S. Washington Irving, Esquire: Ambassador at Large from the New World to the Old. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1925. An early informal biography which focuses on Irving’s travels, his association with influential peers, and his role as a cultural ambassador for the United States.

Irving, Pierre M. The Life and Letters of Washington Irving. 4 vols. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1862-1864. Reprint. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1967. Written by his nephew, this is the first biography of Irving. Although in its respectful treatment it is far from an objective account, it is valuable in its dependence on Irving’s notebooks, letters, and journals.

Kime, Wayne R. Pierre M. Irving and Washington Irving: A Collaboration in Life and Letters. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1977. A detailed account of the professional relationship between Irving and his nephew, the author of his first biography.

Myers, Andrew B., ed. A Century of Commentary on the Works of Washington Irving. Tarrytown, N.Y.: Sleepy Hollow Restorations, 1976. A collection of essays on Irving by artists and critics from Irving’s own time up to the mid-twentieth century. Some of the most important criticism on Irving can be found here.

Roth, Martin. Comedy and America: The Lost World of Washington Irving. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1976. A helpful study of the literary genres of burlesque and satire that Irving borrowed from and developed, especially in his first important work, The History of New York.

Williams, Stanley T. The Life of Washington Irving. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1935. The authoritative biography of Irving, based on extensive research in original manuscripts of Irving’s journals, notebooks, travel notes, and letters. The most complete and dependable study of Irving’s life and career.

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Critical Essays