Washington Irvings Contributions
Washington Irving’s Literary Contributions
As one of America’s most celebrated authors who is often called “the father of the American short story” (Washington Irving), Washington Irving’s illustrious career spanned a multitude of literary classifications including poetry, essays, travel writing, biography, columns and short stories. His two most famous works – The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle firmly etched in literary history – Irving endeavored to capture a complementary combination of fiction, fantasy and reality (Rubin-Dorsky PG).
Born in New York City, Irving was the eleventh child of a wealthy merchant and his English wife. It was not long into his young life that books captivated him, and he was primarily intrigued with tales of fantastic voyages and other travel lore. He focused his studies upon the legal profession under the tutelage of Henry Masterton, Brockholst Livingston and John Ogde Hoffman; his career in law would not last long, however, inasmuch as the literary community was patiently awaiting his contributions. Europe beckoned between 1804 and 1806, where Irving made stops in Marseilles, Genoa and Sicily – an adventure that would introduce him to English naval officer Nelson Roman painter Washington Allston – forever altering his professional direction (Hedges PG). “There rise authors now and then, who seem proof against the mutability of language, because they have rooted themselves in the unchanging principles of human nature” Cool 2
Irving started his long literary journey in newspapers and journals, becoming a contributor to his brother’s Morning Chronicle and publishing his own Salmagundi, later collaborating again with his brother and James Kirke Paulding. He also spent two years editing Analetic Magazine from 1812-1814. Indeed, his professional career was certainly taking shape; however, this continued success was made bittersweet by the death of his fiancee, Matilda Hoffman, whose death at age seventeen left Irving both stunned and heartbroken. “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” (Irving PG).
Irving employed several pseudonyms throughout his career as a means by which to experiment with different literary genres. His comedic A History of New York – written by the fictitious Dietrich Knickerbocker – poked fun at the Dutch regime by a so-called “eccentric Dutch-American scholar” (Washington Irving). This particular story marked the early beginnings of Irving’s preoccupation with fantasy. Even though it was meant as tongue-in-cheek literature, A History of New York has become a significant component of New York folklore, with the work ‘Knickerbocker’ ultimately reflecting
“any New Yorker who could trace one’s family to the original Dutch settlers” (Washington Irving).
“As an essayist Irving was not interested in the meaning of nature like Emerson or self-inspection like Montaigne. He observed the vanishing pasts of old Europe,
the riverside Creole villages of Louisiana, the old Pawnee hunting grounds of Oklahoma, and how ladies fashion moves from one extreme to the other. ‘Geoffrey Crayon’ was his most prolific fictional mask” (Washington Irving).
Geoffrey Crayon was yet another of Irving’s pseudonyms, earning him success with The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent in 1819. This collection of German folk tales was single-handedly responsible for establishing him as a full-time writer, with its sequel – The Sketch Book, Bracebridge Hall – printed a mere two years later. “I am not writing a novel, and have nothing of intricate plot, or marvelous adventure, to promise the reader” (Irving PG).
Irving remained in Europe for seventeen years after his mother’s death, at which point he moved to Spain and worked a financially requisite job for three years at Madrid’s US Embassy; after that, he spent another three years as an American Legation secretary under Martin Van Buren. It was during this period of time that Irving composed the following classics: The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, The Conquest of Granada and The Companions of Columbus. Another historical publication – The Alhambra – was written in 1832 and chronicled Moorish Spain legends (Hedges PG).
Irving was among stellar literary company during his up-and-coming days as a writer, with Mary Shelley and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow just two of many historic figures with whom he associated. Once established as an international author, Irving returned to New York to a warm and enthusiastic welcome, where he promptly toured the southern and western regions of America; during this travel time, he wrote The Crayon Miscellany and A Tour of the Prairies. Indeed, Irving’s success was so rapid and continuous that he earned himself many ‘firsts’ in American literary history:
0. Irving is the first belletrist in American literature, writing for pleasure at a time when writing was practical and for useful purposes.
0. He is the first American literary humorist.
0. He has written the first modern short stories.
0. He is the first to write history and biography as entertainment.
0. He introduced the nonfiction prose as a literary genre.
0. His use of the gothic looks forward to Poe (Perkins et al PG).
Irving served as Spain’s United States Ambassador for three years between 1842 and 1845, an appointment to office Secretary of State Daniel Webster favorably supported. Soon, however, Irving would begin to feel his advancing age at sixty-two years old and start to make considerations for his remaining time. “My heart yearns for home; and I have now probably turned the last corner in life, and my remaining years are growing scanty in number, I begrudge every one that I am obliged to pass separated from my cottage and my kindred…” (Washington Irving). Upon situating himself for his final years at Sunnyside Manor House in Tarrytown-on-Hudson, Irving assumed the position of Astor Library president, later to be renamed the New York Public Library. Advanced age was not to preclude a final grouping of his work to be published, including Mahomet’s Successors, Wolfert’s Roost and Life of Washington. The very night of his death in 1859, Irving was quoted as saying, “Well, I must arrange my pillows for another weary night! If this could only end!” (Washington Irving).
Most of Irving’s work possesses many important components of life that, if not taken in their direct context, will be overlooked by the average reader. It is essential to also look beyond the author’s obvious intention with regard to each story’s overall meaning so as not to miss the grand but elusive subtleties. To be sure, Irving’s writing incorporates a significant amount of blatancy while also implying considerable obscurity, a dichotomy that has served to be the cornerstone of the author’s works, which have successfully stood the test of time.
Hedges, William L. Washington Irving: An American Study
1802-1832. Greenwood Publishing Group, 1980.
Irving, Pierre Munroe. The Life and Letters of Washington
Irving. Dimensions, 2001.
Perkins, George et al. The American Tradition in
Literature. McGraw-Hill, 2002
Rubin-Dorsky, Jeffrey. Adrift in the Old World: The
Psychological Pilgrimage of Washington Irving. Dimensions, 1988.
Washington Irving. 8 September 2002
*PG denotes page number taken from an online electronic source.