by Petri Liukkonen
|(1783-1859) – pseudonyms: Dietrich Knickerbocker, Jonathan Oldstyle, Geoffrey Crayon|
|American author, short story writer, essayist, poet, travel book writer, biographer, and columnist. Irving has been called the father of the American short story. He is best known for ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’ in which the schoolmaster Ichabod Crane meets with a headless horseman, and ‘Rip Van Winkle,’ about a man who falls asleep for 20 years.
Washington Irving was born in New York City, the youngest of 11 children. “The house in which I was born,” he recalled later, “was No. 131 William-street, about half-way between John and Fulton streets. Within a very few weeks after my birth the family moved into a house nearly opposite, which my father had recently purhased; it was No. 128. . . .” His father, William Irving, was a wealthy merchant, born in the Orkney Islands. Sarah (née Sanders), his mother, was the granddaughter of an English clergyman. According to a story, George Washington met Irving in 1789 in a shop, and gave his blessing on his namesake. Irving never forgot the moment. In the years to come he would write one of his greatest works, The Life of George Washington (1855-59).
Early in his life Irving developed a passion for books. He read Robinson Crusoe, Sinbad the Sailor, and The World Displayed; or, A Curious Cllection of Voyages and Travels. He studied law privately in the offices of Henry Masterton (1798), Brockholst Livingston (1801), and John Ogde Hoffman (1802), but practiced only briefly. From 1804 to 1806 he traveled widely around Europe, where he visited Marseilles and Genoa, saw the famous English naval officer, Nelson, in Sicily, and met Washington Allston, the painter, in Rome. After returning to the United States, Irving was admitted to New York bar in 1806. He was a partner with his brothers in the family hardware business in New York and Liverpool, England, and a representative of the business in England until it collapsed in 1818. During the war of 1812 Irving served as a military aide to New York Governor Tompkins in the U.S. Army.
Irving’s career as a writer started in journals and newspapers. He contributed to Morning Chronicle (1802-03), which was edited by his brother Peter, and published Salmagundi (1807-08), writing in collaboration with his brother William and James Kirke Paulding. From 1812 to 1814 he was an editor of Analectic magazine in Philadelphia and New York.
A personal tragedy cast its shadow on Irving’s success in social life and literature. He was engaged to be married to Matilda Hoffman, who died at the age of seventeen, in 1809. Later he wrote in a private letter, addressed to Mrs. Forster, as an answer to her inquiry why he had not been married: “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.” However, it has also been claimed that Irving was a homosexual.
Irving’s comic history of the Dutch regime in New York, A History of New York (1809), was published under the name of the imaginary ‘Dietrich Knickerbocker’, who was supposed to be an eccentric Dutch-American scholar. It was one of the earliest fantasies of history. The name Knickerbocker was later used to identify the first American school of writers, the Knickerbocker Group, of which Irving was a leading figure. The book became part of New York folklore, and eventually the word Knickerbocker was also used to describe any New Yorker who could trace one’s family to the original Dutch settlers. This burlesque of life, set in New Amsterdam, was made into a Broadway production in 1938 under the title Knickerbocker Holiday, perhaps best remembered for ‘September Song’. The music was composed by Kurt Weil, the lyrics were written by Maxwell Anderson. John Huston sang and danced on a peg leg in the role of Governor Pieter Stuyvesant.
Irving’s success continued with The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-20), a collection of stories, which allowed him to become a full-time writer. The stories were heavily influenced by the German folktales. In Bracebridge Hall (1822), the sequel of The Sketch Book, Irving invites the reader to ramble gently with him at the Hall, stating that “I am not writing a novel, and have nothing of intricate plot, or marvelous adventure, to promise the reader.”
After the death of his mother, Irving decided to stay in Europe, where he remained for seventeen years, from 1815 to 1832. He lived in Dresden (1822-23), London (1824) and Paris (1825). In England Irving had a romantic liaison with Mary Shelley. Eventually he settled in Spain, working there for financial reasons for the U.S. Embassy in Madrid (1826-29). In 1829-32 Irving was a secretary to the American Legation under Martin Van Buren. During his stay in Spain, he wrote Columbus (1828), Conquest of Granada (1829), and The Companions of Columbus (1831), all based on careful historical research. In 1829 he moved to London and published Alhambra (1832), concerning the history and the legends of Moorish Spain. Among his literary friends were Mary Shelley and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
In 1832 Irving returned to New York to an enthusiastic welcome as the first American author to have achieved international fame. He toured the southern and western United States and wrote The Cayon Miscellany (1835) and A Tour on the Prairies (1835), an account of a journey, which extended from Fort Gibson, at that time a frontier post of the Far West, to the Cross Timbers in what is now Oklahoma. His fellow-travelers included Henry Leavitt Ellsworth (1791-1858), who also wrote an interesting narrative of the tour, and Charles Joseph Latrobe (1801-1875), whom Irving described as a “man of a thousand occupations; a botanist, a geologist, a hunter of beetles and butterflies, a musical amateur, a sketcher of no mean pretensions, in short, a complete virtuoso.”
From 1836 to 1842 Irving lived at Sunnyside manor house, Tarrytown-on-Hudson. When his old friend, Charles Dickens, visited America, he saw also Irving and celebrated their reunion with a speech: “There is in this city a gentleman who, at the reception of one of my booksI well remember it was the Old Curiosity Shopwrote to me in England a letter so generous, so affectionate, and so manly, that if I had written the book under every circumstance of disappointment, of discouragement, and difficulty, instead of the reverse, I should have found in the receipt of that letter my best and most happy reward. I answered him, and he answered me, and so we kept shaking hands autographically, as if no ocean rolled between us. I came here to this city eager to see him, and [laying his hand upon Irvings shoulder] here he sits! I need not tell you how happy and delighted I am to see him here to-night in this capacity.”
After working for three months on the History of the Conquest of Mexico, Irving found out that the famous historian William Prescott had decided to write a book on the same subject and abandoned his theme, “to be treated by one who will built up from it an enduring monument in the literature of our country.” Between the years 1842-45 Irving served as U.S. Ambassador in Spain. The appointment was sponsored by Daniel Webster, the Secretary of State. At the age of sixty-two Irving wrote to his friends in America: “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….”
Irving spent the last years of his life in Tarrytown. In spite of his success, money remained a constant worry and his family members lost much of his earnings in poor investments. Moreover, Irving suffered from writers block and battled a herpetic condition that periodically laid him up for months. From 1848 to 1859 he was President of Astor Library, later New York Public Library. Irving’s later publications include Mahomet and His Successors (1850), a careful presentation of the life, beliefs, and character of Mohammed, Wolfert’s Roost (1855), and his five-volume The Life of George Washington. Irving died in Tarrytown on November 28, 1859. Just before retiring for the night, the author had said: “Well, I must arrange my pillows for another weary night! If this could only end!” Irving’s major works were published in 1860-61 in 21 volumes.
Irving was the first American to earn a living by his pen. For six decades, he churned out books, and reviews, letters, and essays for newspapers. 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. Irving once said: “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.”
Irving’s best-known story, ‘Rip Van Winkle,’ was included in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. It was based on a German folktale, set in the Dutch culture of Pre-Revolutionary War in New York State. Rip Van Winkle is a farmer who wanders into the Catskill Mountains. He meets there a group of dwarfs playing nine-pins. Rip helps a dwarf and is rewarded with a draught of liquor. He falls into an enchanted sleep. When he awakens, 20 years later, the world has changed. He is an old man with a long, white beard. Rip goes into town and finds everything changed. His wife is dead, his children are grown. The old man entertains the people with tales of the old days and his encounter with the dwarfs. The theme of Irving’s story derives from Diogenes Laertius, Epimenides (c. 200), in which Epimenides is sent by his father into the field to look for a sheep; he lies down in a cave and sleeps fifty-seven years. When awake, he goes on looking for the sheep, thinking that he had been taking a short snap.
Irving also used other German folktales in his short stories, among them The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. “The headless horseman was often seen here. An old man who did not believe in ghosts told of meeting the headless horseman coming from his trip into the Hollow. The horseman made him climb up behind. They rode over bushes, hills, and swamps. When they reached the bridge, the horseman suddenly turned into a skeleton. He threw the old man into the brook and sprang away over the treetops with a clap of thunder.”
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was probably based on a story by Karl Musäus (1735-1787), a German academic writer, who was among the first to collect local folktales. This story popularized the image of the headless horseman, and formed the basis for an operetta by Douglas Moore, The Headless Horseman, with libretto by Stephen Vincent Benét. The tale was filmed as the second half of Disney’s animated movie The Adventures of Ichabold and Mr Toad (1949). Tim Burton’s screen adaptation from 1999 partly changed the plot. The film bears the airless quality typical for the director. Ichabold Crane, the protagonist, is a constable from New York, not a schoolteacher. He believes in rational methods of detection, and is sent to the farming community called Sleepy Hollow in upstate New York to investigate three recent murders. The townspeople know who the culprit is: a long-dead Hessian mercenary nicknamed the Headless Horseman who was killed during the Revolutionary War and buried in the Western Woods.
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