Washington Irving Biography
- Irving’s family
- European travels
- Rising fame
- Love and poverty
- Tragedy, memorialized
- Literature as a profession
- Home at Sunnyside
- Minister to Spain
- Personal appearance and character
- End of life
- Other resources
Washington Irving Biography
Washington Irving was born in the city of New York in 1783, the youngest of eleven children born to his parents. At that time New York was a rural city of twenty-three thousand inhabitants clustered about the Battery, the southern end of Manhattan where the Dutch settlers erected a fort and gun battery in the 17th century (“Battery Park”). The Irvings were descendants of the old Scotch Covenanters, and were strict Presbyterians.
The home rule was one of austerity and repression. The children were brought up on the catechism and the Thirty-Nine Articles. As they grew older all were repelled from the church of the father by the severity of its dogmas, and all except one attached themselves to the Episcopal Church. Washington, we are told by Mr. Warner, “in order to make sure of his escape and feel safe, while he was still constrained to attend his father’s church, went stealthily to Trinity Church at an early age and received the rite of confirmation.”
He was of a joyous and genial temperament, full of life and vivacity, and not at all inclined to religious seriousness. He was born with a passion for music, and was also a great lover of the theatre.
These things, in the eyes of his father, were serious evils, and he felt great anxiety for the son’s spiritual welfare. The gladsomeness and sportiveness of the boy’s nature were things which he could not understand, and he feared that they were of the Evil One. There was no room in the darkness of his religions creed for anything that was simply bright and joyous. To save one’s soul was the business of life; all things else were secondary and of small importance.
Of course, he worried much over this handsome, dashing, susceptible, music-loving, laughter-loving son, and doubtless shed many tears over his waywardness. Yet there was nothing wild about the boy. The writing of plays seems to have been his worst boyish offence. His first published writings were audacious satires upon the theatre, the actors, and the local audiences. They had some promise, and attracted some attention in the poverty of those times.
At the age of twenty-one he was in such delicate health that a voyage to Europe was looked upon as the only means of saving his life. He accordingly embarked for Bordeaux and made an extended tour of Europe, loitering in many places for weeks at a time, and laying up a store of memories which gave him pleasure throughout life. In Rome he came across Washington Allston, then unknown to fame. He was about three years older than Irving, and just establishing himself as a painter. They formed a close friendship.
Irving even dreamed of remaining in Rome and turning artist himself, that he might always be near his friend. He had a great dread of returning to the New World and settling down to the uncongenial work of the law, and he fancied he had some talent for art. He certainly had one essential qualification,—a passionate love of color, and an eye for its harmonies. This love was a great source of pleasure to him throughout life. He always thought that he might have succeeded as a landscape painter. However this might be, the gift of color-loving is in itself a rich endowment to any mind. There are few purer and higher sources of enjoyment in this life than this love of color, and it is a possession which ought to be cultivated in every child.
But the art scheme was soon abandoned, and he went on to London, where he began his literary work. His name of Washington attracted considerable attention there, and he was frequently asked if he was a relative of General Washington.
A few years later, after he had written the “Sketch Book,” two women were overheard in conversation near the bust of Washington in a large gallery. “Mother, who was Washington?” “Why, my dear, don’t you know?” was the reply, “he wrote the ‘Sketch Book.'”
Soon after the book was published Irving met Mrs. Siddons, the Queen of Tragedy. She carried her tragic airs even into private life, it is said, and when Irving was presented to her, he, being young and modest, was somewhat taken aback on being greeted with the single sentence, given in her grandest stage voice and with the most lofty stateliness, “You have made me weep.” He could find no words to reply, and shrank away in silence. A very short time after he met with her again, and, although he sought to avoid her, she recognized him and repeated in tones as tragic as at first, “You have made me weep;” which salutation had the effect of discomfiting Irving for the second time.
He returned to New York in 1806, and was much sought after in society from that time on. It was a very convivial company, that of old New York in the early part of the century, and Irving entered into its pleasures with the rest of his friends. Late suppers and good wine sometimes rendered these young men rather hilarious, and one evening, going home, Harry Ogden, Irving’s chum, fell through a grating into a vault beneath. He told Irving next day that the solitude was rather dismal at first, but in a little while, after the party broke up, several other guests came along and fell in one by one, and then they all had a pleasant night of it, “who would have thought,” said Irving to Governor Kemble, in alluding, at the age of sixty-six, to these scenes of high jollity, “that we should ever have lived to be two such respectable old gentlemen!”
Love and poverty
It was during these years that he made the acquaintance and learned to love so deeply Matilda Hoffman, a beautiful young girl, daughter of one of his older friends. She was a most lovely person, in body and mind, and in his eyes the paragon of womanhood. He was young, romantic, full of sensibility, and his love for this beautiful girl filled his whole life.
He was poor and could not marry, but he had many arguments with himself about the propriety of doing so even without an income. “I think,” he finally writes, “that these early and improvident marriages are too apt to break down the spirit and energy of a young man, and make him a hard-working, half-starving, repining animal all his days.” And again: “Young men in our country think it a great extravagance to set up a horse and carriage without adequate means, but they make no account of setting up a wife and family, which is far more expensive.”
But while he was looking about on every side for some way to better his fortunes, that he might take to his home this woman he loved so tenderly, her health began to fail, and in a short time he was deprived by death of her companionship. His sorrow was life-long, and it was a sorrow which he held sacredly in his own heart. He never mentioned her name, even to family friends, and they learned to avoid any allusion to her, he was so overcome with emotion when merely hearing her name spoken. This was in his early youth, and throughout a long life he held himself faithful to her memory,—never, it is believed, wavering once in his allegiance. Thackeray refers to this as one of the most pleasing things he knew of Irving.
It was at this time that he was writing the “History of New York.” He wrote afterward:—
“When I became more calm and collected I applied myself by way of occupation to the finishing of my work. I brought it to a close as well as I could, and published it; but the time and circumstances in which it was produced rendered me always unable to look upon it with satisfaction.”
His countenance long retained the trace of his melancholy, and he was ever after a more subdued and quiet man. After his death a beautiful picture and lock of hair were found among his private papers marked in his hand-writing, “Matilda Hoffman.” He also kept by him throughout life her Bible and Prayer-Book. He lay with them under his pillow in the first days of his anguish, and carried them with him always in all lands to the end of his life. In a little private notebook intended only for his own eye were found these words after his death: “She died in the beauty of her youth, and in my memory she will ever be young and beautiful.”
In 1817 he went again to Europe, and while there definitely made up his mind to look upon literature as his profession,—an almost unheard of thing in America at that time. He writes to his brother:—
“For a long while past I have lived almost entirely at home, sometimes not leaving the house for two or three days, and yet I have not had an hour pass heavily; so that if I could see my brothers around me prospering, and be relieved from this cloud that hangs over us all, I feel as if I could be contented to give up all the gayeties of life; I certainly think that no hope of gain, however flattering, would tempt me again into the cares and sordid concerns of traffic. . . . In protracting my stay in Europe, I certainly do not contemplate pleasure, for I look forward to a life of loneliness and of parsimonious and almost painful economy.”
Some time after this he wrote to a friend:—
“Your picture of domestic enjoyment indeed raises my envy. With all my wandering habits, which are the result of circumstances rather than of disposition, I think I was formed for an honest, domestic, uxorious man; and I cannot hear of my old cronies snugly nestled down with good wives and fine children round them, but I feel for the moment desolate and forlorn. Heavens! what a hap-hazard, schemeless life mine has been, that here I should be at this time of life, youth slipping away, and scribbling month after month, and year after year, far from home, without any means or prospect of entering into matrimony, which I absolutely believe indispensable to the happiness and even comfort of the after-part of existence.”
He was thus described at this time:—
“He was thoroughly a gentleman, not merely in external manners and looks, but to the innermost fibres and core of his heart; sweet-tempered, gentle, fastidious, sensitive, and gifted with warmest affections; the most delightful and invariably interesting companion; gay and full of humor, even in spite of occasional fits of melancholy, which he was, however, seldom subject to when with those he liked; a gift of conversation that flowed like a full river in sunshine,—bright, easy, and abundant.”
In his fiftieth year he returned to America, far from rich, though he had made money from his books. Although he had thought he could not support a family of his own, he found himself with two brothers and several nieces upon his hands for whom he must provide. He was very fond of them all; and, being the least selfish of men, enjoyed making them all comfortable. But to do so he had to be industrious with his pen, and he never gave himself much rest.
Home at Sunnyside
He bought a home at Tarrytown, upon the Hudson, which he called Sunnyside, and where he resided till his death. The farm had on it a small Dutch cottage, built about a century before, and inhabited by the Van Tassels. This was enlarged, still preserving the quaint Dutch characteristics; it acquired a tower and a whimsical weathercock, the delight of the owner, and became one of the most snug and picturesque residences on the river. A slip of Melrose ivy was planted, and soon overrun the house; and there were shaded nooks and wooded retreats, and a pretty garden.
It soon became the dearest spot on earth for him; and although it ate up his money almost as fast as he could earn it, he never thought of parting with it. The little cottage soon became well stocked. He writes:—
“I have Ebenezer’s five girls, and himself also whenever he can be spared from town, sister Catherine and her daughter, and occasional visits from all the family connection.”
Thackeray describes him as having nine nieces on his hands, and makes a woeful face over the fact. He dispensed a charming hospitality here, and no friend who ever visited him forgot the pleasure. He was a most genial and cordial host, and loved much to have his friends bring the children, of whom he was passionately fond. His nieces watched over his welfare with most tender solicitude; and the cottage at Sunnyside, although without a mistress, was truly a home.
It was with great reluctance that he left it after his appointment as minister to Spain in 1842, and all the pleasure he received from that high mark of the appreciation of his country did not compensate him for the hardship of leaving home. During this third visit to Europe, it is clear from his letters that “the glamour of life is gone for him… he is subject to few illusions; the show and pageantry no longer enchant, — they only weary” (Warner 176). He writes home: “Amidst all the splendors of London and Paris I find my imagination refuses to take fire, and my heart still yearns after dear little Sunnyside.”
Those were exciting times in Spain (1842-1846), and Irving entered into all the dramatic interest of the situation with a real enthusiasm, and wrote most interesting letters to friends at home, describing the melodrama in which he had sometimes an even perilous interest. Throughout his four years’ stay the excitement continued, and the duties of minister were sometimes perplexing enough. From the midst of court life, in 1845, he wrote:—
“I long to be back once more at dear little Sunnyside, while I have yet strength and good spirits to enjoy the simple pleasures of the country, and to rally a happy family group once more around me. I grudge every year of absence that rolls by. To-morrow I shall be sixty-two years old. The evening of life is fast drawing over me; still I hope to get back among my friends while there is a little sunshine left.”
In 1846 he did return, and enjoyed thirteen years more of happy life there.
Personal appearance and character
George W. Curtis thus delightfully sketches the man:—
“Irving was as quaint a figure as Diedrich Knickerbocker in the preliminary advertisement of the ‘History of New York.’ Thirty years ago he might have been seen on an autumnal afternoon, tripping with an elastic step along Broadway, with low-quartered shoes neatly tied, and a Talma cloak,—a short garment that hung from his shoulders like the cape of a coat. There was a chirping, cheery, old-school air in his appearance, which was undeniably Dutch, and most harmonious with the associations of his writings. He seemed, indeed, to have stepped out of his own books; and the cordial grace and humor of his address were delightfully characteristic.”
Through all the honors which he received—and he was one of the most honored men of his day—he was always modest, unassuming, and even diffident. He was the most cheerful of men, and seemed to diffuse sunshine wherever he went. He was essentially lovable, and could hardly be said to have made an enemy during his life. Indeed, one of his lacks was that of aggressiveness; it would have given a deeper force to his character and brought out some qualities that were latent in him.
End of life
He died on the 28th of November, 1859, at the close of a lovely Indian-summer day, and was buried on a little elevation overlooking Sleepy Hollow. Near by winds the lovely Hudson, up and down which go the white-winged boats bearing tourists to view the river he so loved, and over which hangs the blue haze he has so often described, softening everything in its gauzy folds. The feet of those he loved go in and out at Sunnyside, and his memory is a benediction.
This biography has been adapted from Home Life of Great Authors by Hattie Tyng Griswold (Chicago: McClurg, 1902).
“Battery Park.” New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. City of New York. Web. 14 Mar. 2014.
Warner, Charles Dudley. Washington Irving. Boston: Houghton, 1881. Google Book Search. Web. 14 Mar. 2014.
If you want to read a little more about Irving, we have a second short biography that is primarily focused on his writing life.
Irving had the honor of being mocked (along with other great writers) in “A Fable for Critics” by James Russell Lowell.
On a more serious note, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a beautiful poem in memory of Irving.
Here is a brief podcast on the Historic Hudson Valley and Washington Irving:
When will you read Irving’s writing in Excellence in Literature?
E3.2 Focus texts: Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
E3.2. Honors texts: Your choice of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. [found in the book shown above for the focus texts–Rip van Winkle and Sleepy Hollow are part of The Sketch Book],
OR The Life of George Washington (shown below)