Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2623
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...
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