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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Washington Irving

A merchant’s son, born and raised in New York City, Washington Irving was writing satirical pieces for a local newspaper before he was twenty. It was not until he was thirty-seven, however, that he established himself as a professional author. The cheap importation and reproduction of English books made literature a precarious occupation in the United States at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Moreover American commercial society tended to equate art with idleness. For years Irving halfheartedly pursued a career in law and business, while stealing as much time from work as possible for his writing. Only in 1818, with the bankruptcy of his brothers’ importing firm, on which he depended financially, did he risk authorship for a living. Two years later, however, the remarkable popularity of The Sketch Book made him a marketable commodity in both England and America, and his future as the nation’s first successful professional writer was guaranteed.

In his youth, while essentially an amateur in literature, he wrote an abundance of broad, often irreverent burlesque humor, parody, and satire primarily to amuse a local New York audience. The comic periodical Salmagundi, on which he collaborated with his brother William and James Kirke Paulding, and the facetious History of New York, ostensibly written by the eccentric and highly unreliable antiquarian, Diedrich Knickerbocker, mocked literary conventions and simultaneously made fun of bourgeois manners, provincial high culture, American chauvinism, and republican politics—particularly Jefferson’s.

From 1815 to 1832 Irving lived and traveled widely in England and on the European continent. Now much of his work shaped itself as a consciously American response to Old World culture. Seeking a large international audience, he became primarily a writer of short fiction and personalized sketches and essays. Burlesque satire gave way to a gentler, more subtle humor, and he developed the more ingratiating prose style for which he became famous. His persona Geoffrey Crayon, a shy, ironic, at times melancholy American bachelor writer traveling in Europe—a fictionalized version of Irving himself—gave a degree of thematic and tonal unity to his miscellanies, The Sketch Book, Bracebridge Hall, Tales of a Traveller, and The Alhambra. In addition Crayon helped dramatize the author’s ambivalent feelings toward both European aristocracy and American democracy.

Irving had grown up in a transitional America, a nation culturally unsure of itself and deeply divided as to how democratic it should become. He is often dismissed as a political reactionary, a would-be aristocrat in a democratic society. Such a view, however, overlooks complexities, if not contradictions, in his work. For him issues were seldom clear-cut, and he was prone to exploit his uncertainties. A mild (if not rampant) self-mockery is inherent in much of his satire and fiction.

By 1820 he had become a partial convert to romanticism, catering to the vogue for tearful sentimentality (though he made fun of it too) and exhibiting romantic interests in landscape, folklore, and the past. Subsequently as a historian and biographer, he was to focus on colorful drama, costumes, and pageantry. But though by temperament a dreamer, he lacked the high romantic’s faith in imagination. The undermining of common sense by illusion and the shattering of visions against an unyielding reality are persistent themes in his work, as in “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” With these nar-ratives (both from The Sketch Book) Irving is usually seen as having created the short story as a new genre, distinct from the moral or sentimental tale and tales of headlong action and gothic mystery. Ironically both stories, with their evocative American settings, were partly inspired by German folk motifs and composed in England.

His going to Spain in 1826 and being given access to a mass of largely unused materials relating to Christopher Columbus led to his biography of the explorer. The book was well received, and thereafter Irving wrote more history and biography than fiction. A national celebrity upon his return to America in 1832, he traveled west, gathering material for “A Tour on the Prairies” (in The Crayon Miscellany), which he followed shortly with Astoria and Bonneville, histories of far-western fur-trading and exploring ventures. From 1842 to 1846 he served as American minister to Spain. In his final years he continued to produce books and revised and published his complete works. He finished the five-volume Life of Washington shortly before his death.
William Hedges
Goucher College

In the Heath Anthology
Rip Van Winkle (1819 - 1820)
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1819 - 1820)
A History of New York
      Book I, Chapter 5 (1809)

Other Works
Salmagundi (1807 - 1808)
The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819 - 1820)
Bracebridge Hall (1822)
Tales of a Traveller (1824)
The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828)
The Alhambra (1832)
The Crayon Miscellany (1835)
Astoria (1836)
Adventures of Captain Bonneville (1837)
The Life of George Washington (1855 - 1859)

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Paper Topic: Communities of Men (Lois Leveen, April 26, 2001)


"The Gigantic Question" in Washington Irving's History of New York
An excerpt of Irving's The History of New York

About Washington Irving
A brief biography of Irving and several images.

Chapter 3: Romanticism; Washington Irving
Biographical information and the texts of and analytical essays on Irving's Rip van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

Washington Irving
An analytical essay about Irving's representations of Native Americans.

Secondary Sources

Peter Antelyes, Tales of Adventurous Enterprise: Washington Irving and the Poetics of Western Expansion, 1990

Mary W. Bowden, Washington Irving, 1981

Stanley Brodwin, ed., The Old and New World Romanticism of Washington Irving, 1986

William Hedges, Washington Irving: An American Study 1802-1832, 1965

Andrew B. Meyers, A Century of Commentary on the Works of Washington Irving, 1976

Jeffrey Rubin-Dorsky, Adrift in the Old World: The Psychological Pilgrimage of Washington Irving, 1988

Stanley T. Williams, The Life of Washington Irving, 2 vols., 1935