Washington Irving

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 125

What circumstances of Washington Irving’s life permitted him to become America’s first professional man of letters?

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The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. was published in 1819, and James Fenimore Cooper’s earliest novel just one year later. Which writer is more important in the development of an authentically American literature?

What are the implications of Irving’s decision to conclude “Rip Van Winkle” with the title character “ignorant but harmless”?

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Change and progress are not synonymous. What is the relationship between these two concepts in “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”?

What does Irving accomplish by his technique of interposing fictitious intermediaries such as Diedrich Knickerbocker and Geoffrey Crayon between story and reader?

Did Irving overrate the virtue of practicality?

Other Literary Forms

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Washington Irving distinguished himself in a variety of genres. His finest and most typical book, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., blends essay, sketch, history, travel, humor, and short story; his first best-seller was a satire, A History of New York (1809); he coauthored a successful play, Charles the Second: Or, The Merry Monarch (1824); but he devoted the latter and most prolific part of his career to books of travel and especially of history.

Achievements

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Washington Irving was America’s first internationally recognized author. While he achieved national notoriety with his satiric A History of New York, his fame abroad was made with The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Irving was a prolific writer throughout his life, from his first collaborations with his brother William and friend James Kirke Paulding, to his many biographies of well-known historical figures, including George Washington. Among his most successful works were his collections of sketches and tales, a distinction then made between realistic and imaginative types of fiction. His sketches often make use of historical sources, while the tales usually derive from traditional folktales. His best-known stories, “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” although largely copied from German folktales, still maintain an originality through their American settings and Irving’s own gently humorous style.

Bibliography

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Aderman, Ralph M., ed. Critical Essays on Washington Irving. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990. A collection of essays on Irving, from both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Includes discussions of Irving’s art and literary debts, the relationship of his stories to his culture, and his generic heritage.

Antelyes, Peter. Tales of Adventurous Enterprise: Washington Irving and the Poetics of Western Expansion. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990. Explores the theme of the western frontier in Irving.

Bowden, Mary Weatherspoon. Washington Irving. Boston: Twayne, 1981. Bowden’s general study of Irving discusses the major works in chronological order of composition. While her focus is literary, Bowden begins each chapter with useful biographical information about Irving at the time. The section dealing with The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. is particularly successful in describing Irving’s attitudes toward England and how these are revealed in the sketches.

Hiller, Alice. “‘An Avenue to Some Degree of Profit and Reputation’: The Sketch Book as Washington Irving’s Entree and Undoing.” Journal of American Studies 31 (August, 1997): 275-293. Claims that some of Irving’s personal correspondence reveals that The Sketch Book may have been pitched deliberately at the British market, resulting in a paralysis of Irving’s powers of writing.

Jones, Brian Jay. Washington Irving: An American Original. New York: Arcade, 2008. Washington Irving is known to most readers as the author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, but this biography focuses on his private life. Irving’s personality is brought to life as Jones delves into his likes and dislikes, and his relationships with friends and lovers.

McFarland, Philip. Sojourners. New York: Atheneum, 1979. While not a conventional biography, this study of Washington Irving’s life situates the writer in his various geographic, historic, and literary contexts. McFarland explores in detail the life of Irving, interweaving his biography with those of other important Americans of the time, among them Aaron Burr, the abolitionist John Brown, and John J. Astor.

Murray, Laura J. “The Aesthetic of Dispossession: Washington Irving and Ideologies of (De)colonization in the Early Republic.” American Literary History 8 (Summer, 1996): 205-231. Argues that Euro-Americans cultivated their sense of vulnerability with respect to Britain and in so doing rhetorically excused themselves from their colonizing role with regard to Native Americans.

Myers, Andrew B., ed. A Century of Commentary on the Works of Washington Irving. Tarrytown, N.Y.: Sleepy Hollow Restorations, 1976. This collection, divided into four chronologically ordered sections, offers writings on Washington Irving. Part 1 includes essays by contemporaries of Irving, such as William Cullen Bryant and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; part 2 covers evaluations from the beginning of the nineteenth century. Early twentieth century scholars of American literature, such as Fred Lewis Pattee, Vernon Louis Parrington, and Van Wyck Brooks, are represented in part 3, and part 4 covers the period 1945 to 1975. The collection gives an excellent overview of the development of Irving criticism and provides a point of departure for further investigations.

Piacentino, Ed. “’Sleepy Hollow’ Comes South: Washington Irving’s Influence on Old Southwestern Humor.” The Southern Literary Journal 30 (Fall, 1997): 27-42. Examines how nineteenth century southern backwoods humorists adapted Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” to a southern setting; discusses a number of works with clear parallels to Irving’s story.

Plummer, Laura, and Michael Nelson. “‘Girls Can Take Care of Themselves’: Gender and Storytelling in Washington Irving’s ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.’” Studies in Short Fiction 30 (Spring, 1993): 175-184. Argues that Sleepy Hollow is female-centered; the tales that circulate in the region focus on emasculated, headless spirits and serve to drive out masculine interlopers like Ichabod and thus preserve the old Dutch domesticity based on wives’ tales.

Rubin-Dorsky, Jeffrey. Adrift in the Old World: The Psychological Pilgrimage of Washington Irving. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. In this study of Irving’s short fiction, Rubin-Dorsky sets out to establish Irving’s Americanness, thus reversing a critical tradition that marked him as primarily imitative of British prose style. By placing Irving within his historical context, Rubin-Dorsky underscores Irving’s central position in early American letters.

Tuttleton, James W., ed. Washington Irving: The Critical Reaction. New York: AMS Press, 1993. Essays of critical interpretation of Irving’s works.

Wagenknecht, Edward. Washington Irving: Moderation Displayed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962. Wagenknecht has divided his study of Irving into three parts: The Life, the Man, and the Work. “The Man” is by far the largest section and provides an engaging portrait of Irving’s personal life and development as a writer. Wagenknecht’s biography offers a more streamlined alternative to Stanley T. Williams’s two-volume work (see below).

Williams, Stanley T. The Life of Washington Irving. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1935. This very thorough biography of “the first American man of letters” provides a wealth of biographical and literary detail about Washington Irving. Volume 1 is most useful for those interested in Irving’s short fiction, as it covers his life and his work up to The Alhambra. The chapters are organized according to Irving’s places of travel or the titles of his works, an arrangement which highlights the various contexts in which Irving wrote.

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Critical Essays