Washington Irving, America’s First Professional Writer

CULTURE | December 16, 2019

American author, biographer, historian, and diplomat Washington Irving (April 3, 1783 - November 28, 1859) Source: (gettyimages.com)

Best known for his short stories, “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Washington Irving has gone down in history as the first professional writer of the United States. In addition to pioneering American literature, he was also instrumental in introducing the short story form to the United States and an advocate for stronger copyright laws.

Irving was born in New York City on April 3, 1783, the youngest of eleven children born to Scottish-English immigrants, William and Sarah Irving. He was named after George Washington, a hero of the American Revolution and soon-to-be first official president of the new United States. In fact, Irving was president at Washington's inauguration in 1789. Though he was part of a wealthy merchant family, Irving had little interest in education, choosing to work as an apprentice in a law office rather than attending college as his older siblings had done. He was, however, an avid reader and was greatly interested in the local folklore of the Hudson River Valley, just north of New York City, and that interest would later be reflected in his writings.

Washington Irving. Source: (Digital Library)

At the age of nineteen, Irving began writing essays under the pseudonym, Jonathan Oldstyle, for his brother Peter’s newspaper, the Morning Chronicle. From 1804-06, he toured Europe before coming back to New York City to practice law, just barely passing the bar exam in 1806. However, he was still interested in writing and, in 1807, collaborated with his friend, James Kirke Paulding, and his elder brother William, to publish Salmagundi, a collection of satirical essays. In 1809, he published a similar book, A History of New York, from Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, under the pen name Diedrich Knickerbocker.  

Legend of Sleepy Hollow trailer by Penguin Classics. Source: (youtube.com)

Both books were successful; however, the death of Irving’s fiancée, Matilda Hoffman, caused him to fall into a slump for several years during which he briefly worked as editor of Analectic Magazine and served in the military during the War of 1812. Then in 1815, he moved to England where his brothers were struggling to keep the Liverpool branch of the family’s merchant business afloat. However, the company went bankrupt within three years, leaving Irving unemployed. So, he turned once again to his writing.

Rip Van Winkle. Source: (The Daily Star)

His next work, The Sketch Book, was published in installments from 1819-20 under the pen name Geoffrey Crayon. The book was an eclectic collection, including English sketches, travel essays, literary essays, and short stories. The three short stories were “Rip Van Winkle,” “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and “The Spectre Bridegroom.” The wide range of material appealed to a broad audience, making Irving something of a celebrity in both England and the United States. It also allowed him to continue writing full time. In 1822, he published Bracebridge Hall and followed with Tales of a Traveler in 1824.

In 1826, Irving moved to Madrid where he worked as a diplomatic attaché for the American embassy. While there, he worked on his next three works: A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828), Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada (1829) and Tales of Alhambra (1832). Form 1829-32, he served as secretary to the American embassy in London before finally returning to the United States.

Washington Irving’s estate Sunnyside. Source: (pinterest.com)

Back in the states, Irving set off on an expedition of the western part of the country, inspiring his next work, A Tour on the Prairies (1835). He followed with Astoria (1836) and The Adventures of Captain Bonneville (1837). He briefly returned to Spain from 1842-46 before settling near Tarrytown, New York, on a small estate which he named Sunnyside. He spent his later years writing historical and biographical works, including the Life of George Washington (1855-59). This five-volume biography of his namesake was published just a few months before Irving’s death on November 28, 1859.

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