Washington Irving, Today's New York City Honoree
Washington Irving, America’s first accomplished professional writer, was born in Lower Manhattan on April 3, 1783, the same week New Yorkers learned of the cease fire that ended the American Revolution. The family lived on William Street near Wall Street. He was a writer, essayist, historian, biographer, and diplomat most famous for the short stories "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." These works were both a part of "The Sketch Book," the collection of short stories that won him international recognition. Washington Irving has been called the father of the American short story because of his early and unique contributions to the form.
The youngest of 11 children of merchant class Scottish-English immigrant parents William Sr. and Sarah, he was named after George Washington, the hero of the just-completed American Revolution, and attended the presidential inauguration on April 30th 1789 at Federal Hall on Wall Street. Washington Irving read a great deal as a boy, including "Robinson Crusoe," "Sinbad the Sailor," and "The World Displayed." His formal education consisted of elementary school and private studies until he was 16, where he performed without distinction.
A dreamy and uninspired student, Irving apprenticed himself in a law office rather than follow his elder brothers to nearby Columbia College. In his free time, he read avidly and wandered when he could around the misty, rolling Hudson River Valley. This area just north of New York City was steeped in local folklore and legend and served as an inspiration for his later writings.
Irving began writing when he was 19 as a journalist using the pseudonym Jonathan Oldstyle. As a reporter for his brother Peter’s newspaper The Morning Chronicle, he covered Aaron Burr’s treason trial. Preferring to indulge his creative impulses, Irving teamed with friend James Kirke Paulding and oldest brother William to publish Salamagundi, a periodical of humorous essays. In a similar vein, he penned the History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker (1809), a satirical work that earned the writer widespread acclaim.
Washington Irving was engaged to marry Matilda Hoffmann, the daughter of a prominent local family. She died of consumption on April 26, 1809, at the age of 17. Irving never became engaged or married anyone after the tragedy. In response to an inquiry about why he had never married, Irving wrote in a letter, saying: "For years I could not talk on the subject of this hopeless regret; I could not even mention her name, but her image was continually before me, and I dreamt of her incessantly."
In 1815 Irving traveled to England to help his brothers with the floundering family business. When that endeavor failed, he composed a collection of stories and essays that became The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Published in several installments over the course of 1819-20, The Sketch Book contained two of the author's most famous works, "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," and made him a literary star both in England and the United States. Irving ended living in Europe for 17 years, beginning in Birmingham and later enjoying an active social life in London and Paris.
"The Sketch-Book" was a milestone in American literary history as it was the first piece of American writing to garner European recognition. James Fenimore Cooper was the only other contemporary American writer to receive international acclaim. Later in his life, Irving would encourage the careers of great American authors Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, and Herman Melville.
Irving followed with Bracebridge Hall (1822), and then Tales of a Traveller (1824). After accepting an invitation from the U.S. Minister to Spain, he moved to Madrid in 1826 and embarked on extensive research for A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828), as well as the works that became Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada (1829) and Tales of the Alhambra (1832). Irving was then appointed secretary of the U.S. delegation to London in 1829, a post he held until 1832.
Later Years, Death and Legacy
Among his later works was Astoria (1836), an account of the formation of John Jacob Astor's fur company, followed by The Adventures of Captain Bonneville (1837). After another stint abroad as U.S. minister to Spain (1842-46), Irving spent his later years at his New York estate of "Sunnyside," in the Hudson River Valley which served as a meeting place for the leading writers, artists and politicians of his era. He turned out a succession of mainly historical and biographical works during this time, including his biography Life of Mohammed in 1849 and the five-volume Life of George Washington (1855-59) completed shortly before his death.
Irving also sought to nurture his successors and pushed for stronger laws to protect writers from copyright infringement. Washington Irving died of a heart attack in Tarrytown, New York on November 28, 1859. He seemed to foretell his death, as he said before going to bed: "Well, I must arrange my pillows for another weary night! If this could only end!" Irving was, fittingly, buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. His Sunnyside estate outside of Irvington, New York is open to the public (under normal circumstances) for tours and to enjoy the views of the Hudson River.
ounds overlooking the Hudson River.
Impact on American culture
Irving popularized the nickname "Gotham" for New York City, and he is credited with inventing the expression "the almighty dollar". The surname of his fictional Dutch historian Diedrich Knickerbocker is generally associated with New York and New Yorkers, as found in New York's professional basketball team The New York Knickerbockers. Underscoring the endurance of his fictional creations, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" was adapted into a 1999 film by director Tim Burton, and served as the basis for a TV series in 2013.
Salmagundi lampooned New York City culture and politics in a manner much like today's Mad magazine. It was in the November 11, 1807, issue that Irving first attached the name "Gotham" to New York City, based on the alleged stupidity of the people of Gotham, Nottinghamshire in England.
One of Irving's most lasting contributions to American culture is in the way that Americans celebrate Christmas. In his 1812 revisions to A History of New York, he inserted a dream sequence featuring St. Nicholas soaring over treetops in a flying wagon, an invention which others dressed up as Santa Claus. In his five Christmas stories in The Sketch Book, Irving portrayed an idealized celebration of old-fashioned Christmas customs at a quaint English manor which depicted English Christmas festivities that he experienced while staying in England, which had largely been abandoned. He used text from The Vindication of Christmas (London 1652) of old English Christmas traditions, and the book contributed to the revival and reinterpretation of the Christmas holiday in the United States.
The village of Dearman, New York changed its name to "Irvington" in 1854 to honor Washington Irving, who was living in nearby "Sunnyside", which is preserved as a museum. Influential residents of the village prevailed upon the Hudson River Railroad, which had reached the village by 1849, to change the name of the train station to "Irvington", and the village incorporated as Irvington on April 16, 1872. The town of Knickerbocker, Texas was founded by two of Irving's nephews, who named it in honor of their uncle's literary pseudonym. The city of Irving, Texas states that it is named for Washington Irving as is Irving Place in the Gramercy Park-Union Square area of Manhattan.
Irving and his grave were commemorated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his 1876 poem "In The Churchyard at Tarrytown", which concludes with:
How sweet a life was his; how sweet a death!
Living, to wing with mirth the weary hours,
Or with romantic tales the heart to cheer;
Dying, to leave a memory like the breath
Of summers full of sunshine and of showers,
A grief and gladness in the atmosphere