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.
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; though 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 an author they loved.
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. Considered his most consistently optimistic work, Irving was able to expound 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. Noted chiefly today for the stories “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” 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. Irving's later career is marked by his shift towards biography writing. While traveling through Europe in the 1820s, Irving was asked to translate some documents on 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.
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 been infused into popular culture.
A handful of issues have dominated modern literary scholarship on Irving: questions about the author's views on gender, the relationship between his personal identity and the burgeoning national identity, and the fluctuations in the quality of his writing. One of the biggest debates to rage in Irving scholarship is over the issue of anti-feminism in his writing. In her 1997 essay, Marjorie Pryse explains the historical context for Irving's writing. She states that the United States underwent an identity crisis in the early 19th century, attempting to establish its own culture in the years following national independence. The need to maintain patriarchal power and concerns over the role of women in the new society were paramount. Against that backdrop, Pryse argues, Irving wrote stories that restored men's power. Jenifer S. Banks concurs, stating that The Sketch Book and Bracebridge Hall (1822) reflect Irving's personal conflict between responsibility, as represented by women characters such as Dame Van Winkle, and independence, which is reified in men like Rip Van Winkle. Banks posits that the tension is best seen in Irving's short stories “The Widow and Her Son” and “The Wife.” Laura Plummer and Michael Nelson argue that, while gender ideology has been studied in “Rip Van Winkle,” little attention has been focused upon “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” They state that the story “reveals Irving's characteristic misogyny and the male fear of disempowerment played out again and again throughout the tale.” Hugh J. Dawson disagrees; he argues that 19th century popular interpretations of “Rip Van Winkle” have confused and misled scholars into categorizing the tale anti-feminist. Redressing arguments made by critics Philip Young, Judith Fetterley, and Leslie A. Fiedler, Dawson writes that the story is a gothic tale which reaffirms the importance of marriage over the dark, destructive power of the forest in which Rip Van Winkle grows old.
Interwoven within these debates about gender ideology are the prevailing theories of the importance of national identity in Irving's writings. Pryse discusses Irving's need to establish an American hero, separate and unique from those in British literature. Walter Sondey contends that Irving was the first American writer to recognize the potential of American literature to form the identity of Americans. Brian Harding maintains that the connection between Irving's writings and his views on national identity are not so straightforward. Discussing the author's journey to the West, Harding states that while Irving did not attempt to repatriate himself with Americans after a long absence in Europe, A Tour on the Prairies is written in a European style, using stereotypes and foreign analogies. In his analysis of Astoria and Captain Bonneville, Harding posits that they demonstrate Irving's reservations about the American system as much as they celebrate the industry and skills of American frontiersmen. Laura J. Murray is skeptical of predominant arguments about American literary history; she questions the arguments of such critics as Jeffrey Rubin Dorsky, a noted Irving scholar, about the link between Irving's anxiety as a writer and the formation of a national character. In her analysis of The Sketch Book she dismisses the concept of anxiety, stating that Irving fashioned a book that would appeal both to the English with its exotic portrayals of “savages” and to Americans with reassuring depictions of England.
A third strain of arguments questions the overall quality of Irving's corpus. While most scholars agree that Irving was an exceptional writer, not all agree that all his works deserve praise. Alice Hiller states that while Irving's first works were promising, his conscious decision to appeal to the British in his writing of The Sketch Book lowered his quality in subsequent works. She maintains that, while he did reestablish himself with American writers with the publication of A Tour on the Prairies, he did not live up to the potential obvious in his first American works. Writing more than one hundred years earlier, critic Alexander Hill Everett concedes that Irving's work suffers from irregular language and concurs that in The Sketch Book Irving lost some of the “vivacity, freshness and power” that characterized his earlier works. However, Hill maintains that Irving was a master at history, praising A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus as one of the greatest works of literature. The anonymous reviewer for the Ladies' Repository in 1848 echoes Hill, praising Irving's skill as an observer and researcher.