Washington Irving

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Introduction

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Washington Irving 1783–-1859

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

Irving is considered both the first American man of letters and the creator of the American short story. Though best known for such tales of rural Americana as “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Irving later became a prolific and accomplished biographer as well as a distinguished statesman.

Biographical Information

Born in New York in 1783, Irving was the youngest of eleven children. Though 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; however, his legal interest waned. 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 Whim-whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq., and Others (1807-1808), 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 a second 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 his works were never again to be light-spirited. In an effort to forget 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 repolished in Irving's meticulous manner, eventually became The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-20). Irving's most enduring work, the collection 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 Irving 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 Adventures of Captain Bonneville (1837). In 1842 Irving became minister to Spain. Though 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;...

(The entire section is 85,032 words.)