Washington Irving Essay, Research Paper
Irving, Washington (1783-1859), American writer, the first American author to achieve international renown, who created the fictional characters Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane. The critical acceptance and enduring popularity of Irving’s tales involving these characters proved the effectiveness of the as an American literary form.
Born in New York City, Irving studied law at private schools. After serving in several law offices and traveling in Europe for his health from 1804 to 1806, he was eventually admitted to the bar in 1806. His interest in the law was neither deep nor long-lasting, however, and Irving began to contribute satirical essays and sketches to New York newspapers as early as 1802. A group of these pieces, written from 1802 to 1803 and collected under the title Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent., won Irving his earliest literary recognition. From 1807 to 1808 he was the leading figure in a social group that included his brothers William Irving and Peter Irving and William’s brother-in-law together they wrote Salmagundi, or, the Whim-Whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq., and Others, a series of satirical essays and poems on New York society. Irving’s contributions to this miscellany established his reputation as an essayist and wit, and this reputation was enhanced by his next work, A History of New York (1809), ostensibly written by Irving’s famous comic creation, the Dutch-American scholar Diedrich Knickerbocker. The work is a satirical account of New York State during the period of Dutch occupation (1609-1664); Irving’s mocking tone and comical descriptions of early American life counterbalanced the nationalism prevalent in much American writing of the time. Generally considered the first important contribution to American comic literature, and a great popular success from the start, the work brought Irving considerable fame and financial reward.
In 1815 Irving went to Liverpool, England, as a silent partner in his brothers’ commercial firm. When, after a series of losses, the business went into bankruptcy in 1818, Irving returned to writing for a living. In England he became the intimate friend of several leading men of letters, including. Under the pen name of Geoffrey Crayon, Irving wrote the essays and short stories collected in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-1820). The Sketch Book, as it is also known, was his most popular work and was widely acclaimed in both England and the United States for its geniality, grace, and humor. The collection’s two most famous stories, both based on German folktales, are “Rip Van Winkle,” about a man who falls asleep in the woods for twenty years, and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” about a schoolteacher’s encounter with a legendary headless horseman. Set in rural New York, these tales are considered classics in American literature.
From 1826 until 1829 Irving was a member of the staff of the United States legation in Madrid. During this period and after his return to England, he wrote several historical works, the most popular of which was the History of Christopher Columbus (1828). Another well-known work of this period was The Alhambra (1832), a series of sketches and stories based on Irving’s residence in 1829 in an ancient Moorish palace at Granada, Spain. In 1832, after an absence that lasted 17 years, he returned to the United States, where he was welcomed as a figure of international importance. Over the next few years Irving traveled to the American West and wrote several books using the West as their setting. These works include A Tour on the Prairies (1835), Astoria (1836), and The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, U.S.A. (1837).
In 1842 Irving was appointed U.S. minister to Madrid, where he lived until 1846, continuing his historical research and writing. He returned to the United States again in 1846 and settled at Sunnyside, his country home near Tarrytown, New York, where he lived until his death. (Sunnyside is now a historic house and museum.) Irving’s popular but elegant style, based on the styles of the British writers Joseph Addison and Oliver Goldsmith,and the ease and picturesque fancy of his best work attracted an international audience. To a certain extent his romantic attachment to Europe resulted in a thinness and overrefinement of material. Much of his work deals directly with English life and customs, and he never attempted to come to terms with the democratic American life of his time. On the other hand, American writers were encouraged by Irving’s example to look beyond the United States for subject matter.
Washington Irving earned his reputation as a major author by creating the short story. Later authors learned from and fashioned their short stories after his works. Irving was not boastful about his works. Instead, he had this to say, “If the tales I have furnished should prove to be bad, they will at least be found short,” “Irving’s early works set an example for humorous writing, which later became an important part of American literature. In addition, Irving helped establish the short story as a popular literature for the United States” (World Book Encyclopedia, 460). Irving also had a way of combining folklore with romanticism in his literary works. His contributions helped create America’s romantic literary movement (World Book Encyclopedia, 460).
Irving caught people’s attention with his comical ‘poking fun’ style. He especially liked to poke fun at the upper class New Yorkers. “Better than any man before him, and better also than many who came later, he catches the swing and rhythm of everyday, rough-and-ready language . . .” (Deakin, M. & Lisca, P., 1972, p. 20). Irving had the ability to reach out and touch the common man. His tales use vivid descriptions such as “his knees nearly up to the pummel of the saddle; his sharp elbows stuck out like grasshoppers” (Deakin, M. & Lisca, P., 1972, p. 25) Readers could relate to his characters because his writing had a way of tying into the American identity. Philip Young commented on one of Irving’s most famous characters, Rip Van Winkle, “Rip was a near-perfect image of the way a large part of the world looks at us (Americans): likeable enough up to a point and at times, but essentially immature, self-centered, careless and above all-and perhaps dangerously-innocent.” He is a carefree, overgrown child, incapable of understanding the world of adults, even that of his wife. He is “one of the boys”, off for an evening of pleasure or a long day of hunting, released from responsibility (Deakin, M. & Lisca, P., 1972, p. 23). Basically, Rip was one of the guys that any common man could relate to.
Irving eventually earned the title of the “Father of American Literature,” but his journey to that goal was fraught with anxiety. His was a search for freedom from not political oppression, but from the uncertainty of what to do with the freedom won by the founding fathers; his was a search for identity. This search consisted of three distinct phases.
In the first phase, lasting until he was 33 years old, Irving’s wealthy and indulgent family allowed him to drift casually through life. Irving, the youngest of eight children, was clearly the pet of the family. His father, William Irving, was a well-to-do merchant in New York City, a self-made Scotsman who had emigrated to America in 1763. An imaginative but sickly child, Irving was eventually groomed as a lawyer, but his real education took place on a grand tour of Europe in 1804-1806, in lieu of attending Columbia College as had his two older brothers, William and Peter. His adventures abroad included being attacked by pirates while en route to Sicily.
From this early time in his life, Washington Irving felt a tension between the New World and the Old. The absence of a cultural tradition in America created a vacuum that Irving sought to fill with borrowed traditions from Europe. Irving’s early work as a writer showed the clear influence of the genteel English essayists Addison and Steele, with an uneasy infusion of American brashness. For example, Irving chose to make his literary debut in a series of Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent. (1802-03), Jonathan being the name of a popular stage stereotype of a bumptious American, and Oldstyle suggesting the Old World refinement of British gentility.
In 1807, Irving became a member of a social and literary club known as the “lads of Kilkenny” or the “nine worthies,” with two of whom Irving wrote Salmagundi, a literary “stew” consisting of satirical essays on the social scene in New York and its environs. Some of the political satire of Jeffersonian democrats in these essays betrays Irving’s Federalist leanings. During this time, Irving fell hopelessly in love with Matilda Hoffman, the young daughter of his employer, Judge Josiah Hoffman. The high and low points of this first phase of Irving’s life both occurred in 1809. While he was writing his parodic History of New York, Matilda died of tuberculosis. Deep in mourning, Irving managed to complete this comic masterpiece, written in the voice of Diedrich Knickerbocker, a name now synonymous with New York City.
The next year, Irving’s brothers Peter and Ebenezer made him an essentially inactive partner in their import business, based in Liverpool. Irving was enjoying his literary celebrity, being wined and dined up and down the Eastern seaboard. While in Washington, Irving crashed a party at the White House and became friends with Dolly Madison. When the British burned the White House in 1814, Irving was so incensed that he signed up as a colonel, serving on the Canadian frontier but never fighting in any battles.
During this first phase, Washington Irving wrote for his own enjoyment, not needing to concern himself with making money. In fact, he did not publish any significant work during the ten years between 1809 and 1819. Supported by his family and lionized by society for his early successes, Irving lived up to his reputation as a genial man of leisure.
The second phase of Washington Irving’s search for identity commenced when he set sail in May of 1815 for Europe. He was not to return for 17 years. His brother Peter falling ill, Irving stepped in to help run the import business. When the War of 1812 ended in 1815, low demand in the U.S. for trade goods from England caused the business to fail. Finally, in 1818, the brothers declared bankruptcy.
Irving was devastated, becoming severely anxious about earning a livelihood. For the first time, he set out to write a commercially successful work that would also firmly establish his literary reputation both at home and abroad. He succeeded beyond his wildest imagination with The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-1820), writing this time in the persona of a charmingly self-effacing wanderer fascinated by the quaintness and antiquity of English landscapes and customs. Although the book’s subtext reveals his anxiety about being dispossessed of home and security, the surface is famously genial and sentimental (Rubin-Dorsky 32-64). Although only four of the 34 literary sketches in the book are about America, two enduring American classics (actually based on European folk legends) are among them: “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
The disorientation resulting from Rip Van Winkle’s famous 20-year sleep is evocative of Irving’s generation’s loss of its bearings. One day the sign at the tavern in the Catskill village in which the story is set shows the image of George III; the next day (so it seems to Rip) the sign depicts General Washington. In the mysterious interval, Rip is also freed of the despotism of his shrewish wife, who has died: “Happily that was at an end–he had got his neck out of the yoke of matrimony, and could go in and out whenever he pleased without dreading the tyranny of Dame Van Winkle” (History, Tales, and Sketches 783).
Rip Van Winkle escaped the responsibilities of the prime of his life, just as Washington Irving and his generation on some level must have yearned to escape the pressures they faced. In fact, Irving was a lifelong bachelor (although he may have proposed to and been rejected by 18-year-old Emily Foster when he was 40). The sentimental explanation promulgated by his nephew Pierre was that Irving pined for Matilda Hoffman all his life, but some of the negative views of wives in his work suggest that Irving’s search for freedom included freedom from the ties that bind (Banks).
The success of The Sketch Book made Irving the first American man of letters to have an international reputation. Irving, in typical self-deprecating fashion, wrote that the world was surprised to find a native American with a feather in his hand instead of on his head. Having become friends with Sir Walter Scott on their first meeting in 1817, Irving was now launched as an international celebrity. He followed The Sketch Book with two more miscellaneous collections of sketches “by Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.”: Bracebridge Hall (1822) and Tales of a Traveller (1824), the latter so poorly received that Irving afterward essentially abandoned fiction and subjective essays to write history and biography.
In the 1820s, Irving traveled throughout Europe, making occasional extended stays. In Dresden, he became close with the Foster family and a favorite of the King of Saxony. In Paris, he collaborated unsuccessfully with playwright John Howard Payne, whose claim to fame is writing the song “Home, Sweet Home.” In London, he resisted the flirtatious advances of Mary Shelley, widow of Percy Shelley and author of Frankenstein. Finally, in Madrid and Seville from 1826-29, he researched and wrote Life and Voyages of Columbus and A Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada. Enchanted by the Moorish palace in Granada, he was inspired to write The Alhambra (1832), a sort of Spanish Sketch Book.
In 1829, Irving took on another identity, that of diplomat. In September of that year he accepted an appointment as secretary at the American legation in London, eventually serving as acting charg? d’affaires until the new minister, Martin Van Buren, arrived in 1831. Irving’s wide circle of friends in England proved useful in negotiating trade agreements with England.
By 1832, Irving had been abroad for 17 years. It was time to return and begin the third and final phase of his life, a phase marked by a renewed connection to America. Received with great ceremony in New York, Irving declared, quoting Scott, “This was my own–my native land!” He proceeded to travel throughout the fast-growing country, stopping in Washington to dine with President Andrew Jackson and his vice-presidential nominee, Irving’s friend Martin Van Buren. (In the decade of the 1830s, Irving apparently supported the Democratic party, although he aligned himself with the opposing Whigs in later years.) He even ventured to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) in the company of Commissioner of Indian Affairs Henry Ellsworth in October of 1832. He published his account of this trip, A Tour on the Prairies, in 1835, following that work of “adventurous enterprise” with two more: Astoria (1836), an account of John Jacob Astor’s fur trade in the northwest, and Adventures of Captain Bonneville, U.S.A. (1837), the story of a western explorer.
Irving’s books about the west balance elements of his early rougher personae with the refined romanticism of Geoffrey Crayon. Similarly, in these books, Irving balanced the demands of commerce and art, of appeals to greed and to cultural values. According to Peter Antelyes, Irving produced a commercially viable “revised adventure tale form that endorsed expansionism while noting the dangers posed to American society by that expansion” (xv). After over a century of dismissal and neglect, Irving’s western writings finally received attention from scholars more open to the complex balancing act Irving achieved in these works.
In 1835, Irving not only demonstrated his commitment to his American identity by publishing his first book about the West, but he also bought property on the Hudson River north of New York City. Over the years he expanded his home there, called “Sunnyside,” and received a steady stream of visitors. Sunnyside remains a popular tourist site for fans of Irving to this day.
The only time Irving ventured back to Europe in this last phase of his life was when President John Tyler appointed him minister to Spain in 1842. After serving with distinction for four years, he returned to Sunnyside in 1846 to resume work on a long-planned life of George Washington. (The Founding Father had actually bestowed a blessing on the future Father of American Literature in 1789, when the six-year-old Irving’s nurse had presented the child to Washington in a shop in New York.) The monumental Life of George Washington was eventually published in five volumes over a five year period, the last volume finally seeing print in the last months of Irving’s life. After a long period of declining health, Irving died of a heart attack at Sunnyside on November 28, 1859, almost the eve of the Civil War. His lifespan linked the two wars that forged our nation.
Despite his fears of failure, Washington Irving’s life-long search produced an enduring identity as America’s first professional man of letters. Celebrated for his graceful prose style, he pioneered the short story as a genre and folklore as a source of literary narrative. He was, as William Makepeace Thackeray described, “the first ambassador sent by the new world of letters to the old.”
Irving, Washington. The Complete Works. Gen. Ed., Richard Dilworth Rust. 30 vols. Boston: Twayne, 1969-19–. Including(by chapters)
I-V. Journals and Notebooks.
VI. Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle and Salmagundi; or The Whim-whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq. & Others.
VIII. The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.
XI. The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus.
XV. Astoria, or Anecdotes of an Enterprise Beyond the Rocky Mountains.
XIX-XXI. Life of George Washington.
XXII. The Crayon Miscellany (includes A Tour on the Prairies).
XXVIII-XXIX. Miscellaneous Writings.
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Steinbeck (p. 13-26). Gainseville, FL: University of Florida Press.
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Antelyes, Peter. Tales of Adventurous Enterprise: Washington Irving and the Poetics of Western Expansion. New York: Columbia U P, 1990.
Banks, Jenifer S. “Washington Irving, The Nineteenth-Century American Bachelor.” In Ralph M. Aderman, ed. Critical Essays on Washington Irving. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990. Pp. 253-65.
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Brooks, Van Wyck. The World of Washington Irving. New York: Dutton, 1944.
Hedges, William L. Washington Irving: An American Study, 1802-1832. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins P, 1965.
Hellman, George S. Washington Irving, Esquire. New York: Knopf, 1925.
McDermott, John Francis, ed. The Western Journals of Washington Irving. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1944.
Myers, Andrew B., ed. A Century of Commentary on the Works of Washington Irving, 1860-1974. Tarrytown, NY: Sleepy Hollow Restorations, 1976.
Rubin-Dorsky, Jeffrey. Adrift in the Old World: The Psychological Pilgrimage of Washington Irving. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.
Williams, Stanley T. The Life of Washington Irving. 2 vols. New York: Oxford U P, 1935.
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