Washington Irving, America’s First Professional Writer

By | November 22, 2019

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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.

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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.