Washington Irving was born on 3rd April, 1783, the youngest child of his parents’ eleven, of whom three had died in infancy. His parents, William Irving, Sr. and Sarah were Scottish-English immigrants and, having married during William’s service as a petty officer in the British Navy, settled in Manhattan, New York City, as members of the new merchant class. The family were firmly established in that society by the time of Irving’s birth, and since the week of his birth also heralded the British ceasefire that would end the American Revolution, he was named after that revolution’s hero, George Washington. At the time of his birth the family lived at 131 William Street, and when he was six years old the young Washington met and was blessed by his namesake, George, who was living in Washington following his inauguration in 1789.
Irving was not a committed student, preferring adventure, both literary and physical. With his interest thus piqued, he became enthused by stories and drama, and by the age of fourteen would often steal away from evening classes in order to visit the theatre, where he indulged his love of dramatic escape. However, the following year saw a devastating outbreak of yellow fever which led to his parents sending him to stay with his friend James Kirke Paulding, who lived upriver in Tarrytown, New York. Now that he was living outside of the bustle of Manhattan he found himself able to undertake more adventures of his own, and through these he encountered the town of Sleepy Hollow and came to experience its Danish traditions and hear its ghost stories. Of course, to his fifteen year old imagination, these ghost stories had a last effect on him, and would later inspire one of his most recognised works, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. During the remainder of his teenage years Irving undertook several more adventures up the Hudson river which further inspired his later writing. Most notable of these is arguably a trip to Johnstown, New York, and the Catskill mountain region through which he passed and which would become the setting for another of his most celebrated works, Rip Van Winkle.
By the age of nineteen Irving had begun regularly writing letters to the Morning Chronicle, a New York paper. His submissions were commentaries on the city’s theatrical and social scenes, submitted under the pseudonym Jonathan Oldstyle. This was the first of several pseudonyms he would employ throughout his career. These letters were relatively successful and received the attention of the paper’s publisher, Aaron Burr, and the writer Charles Brockden Brown, who personally travelled to New York with the intention of recruiting Oldstyle for his Philadelphian literary magazine. By this time, several of Washington Irving's older brothers had become active New York merchants and they encouraged their younger brother's literary aspirations, often supporting him financially as he pursued his writing career. By this time, however, they had become so concerned about Irving’s health that they resolved to send him on a Grand Tour, a voyage through Europe undertaken as a rite of passage for any aspiring young gentleman. Though it was designed to compliment both his health and his cultural understanding, his elder brother William wrote that, though pleased with the reported improvements to Irving’s constitution he did not approve of his “gallop through Italy […] leaving Florence on [his] left and Venice on [his] right”. Of course, Irving had found a far better use of his time, at least by his standards, and had used the experience to develop such skills of convivial conversation that he would later be considered one of the most desirable dinner guests. As he wrote to his brother William from Italy in 1804, “I endeavour to take things as they come with cheerfulness, and when I cannot get a dinner to suit my taste, I endeavour to get a taste to suit my dinner”.
In 1806 Irving was back in New York City in order to study law under his mentor, Judge Josiah Ogden Hoffman. He scraped a pass at the bar in the same year, and fell into socialising with a literary group he nicknamed “the Lads of Kilkenny”, which included in its number James Kirke Paulding and Irving's brother William. Between the three of them they collaborated on the creation of the literary magazine Salmagundi which came to fruition in January 1807. Irving took on various pseudonyms including William Wizard and Launcelot Langstaff, under which he satirised New York City, its culture and politics. Indeed, in the seventeenth issue, Irving nicknamed the city “Gotham City”, alluding to the Anglo-Saxon word for “Goat’s Town”. This nickname is still in use today, in various medias from the graphic novel to cinema. Moderately successful, the magazine spread Irving’s reputation beyond New York and marks a significant point in the development of his literary career.
During this time, Irving had become engaged to Hoffman’s daughter Matilda, though she died at seventeen years old on the year of 1809. While still mourning her death Irving finished his first significant book, A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynsasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker. It satirised the self-important nature of local history, local historians and contemporary politics. In a precursor to the viral and guerrilla marketing techniques of the modern day, Irving oversaw a hoax involving the placement of missing persons advertisements in New York newspapers seeking details on the disappearance of Diedrich Knickerbocker, supposedly a Dutch historian absent from his hotel room in the city. A further false advertisement, this time allegedly the responsibility of the hotelier, assured readers that, if Knickerbocker were to fail to return to the hotel and pay the bill, he would have no recourse but to publish the manuscript Knickerbocker had left in the room. This garnered the interest of many unwitting readers, even prompting some concerned city officials to offer a reward for his return. Having whipped up enough interest in the manuscript, he published it on 6th December 1809 to great critical acclaim, and later remarked that “it took with the public and gave me celebrity, as an original work was something remarkable and uncommon in America”. Knickerbocker was later adopted as a nickname for Manhattan residents, though its usage is now swiftly dying out.
This success opened doors for Irving and he was able to secure work as an editor of Analectic Magazine, for which he wrote biographies of such key naval figures as James Lawrence and Oliver Perry. Notably, he was among the earliest magazine editors to reprint “Defense of Fort McHenry”, the poem by Francis Scott Key which would be made famous as “The Star-Spangled Banner”, national anthem of the United States of America. The publishing of this poem at such a time is significant as its assumed national importance simultaneously to, and perhaps as a result of, the War of 1812. Irving, along with many of the merchant classes and those living in New York, was initially opposed to the war, though, again like many of those around him, he was convinced to enlist following the 1814 British attack on Washington D.C. and the White House itself. Serving under the governor of New York and commander of the New York State Militia, Daniel Tompkins, he saw little real action beyond a reconnaissance mission in the region of the Great Lakes. However, the war had disastrous effects on many American merchant families, including Irving’s own, and he was left with no choice but to leave for England in 1815 in order to salvage his family’s trading company.
He spent the next two years in England, endeavouring to recoup the family’s losses and reestablish them as a trading family, but at the end of this time he found himself with no alternative but to declare bankruptcy. This left him in England with no real employment prospects, and so he proceeded with his writing, spending 1817 and 1818 principally at his desk. A visit to Sir Walter Scott in 1817 galvanised Irving to his writing, and marked the beginning of a lifetime friendship, both personal and professional. While visiting his sister and her husband, Henry van Wart, at their home in Birmingham, Engliand, Irving drew on his earlier experiences in the Catskill mountain range north of New York City and composed Rip Van Winkle. Birmingham itself would later inspire other later works. Though his brother William managed to secure for him a position as chief clerk to the United States Navy, which meant also the opportunity to return home, Irving elected to remain in England where he continued to pursue his writing career.
True to his intentions Irving dispatched a set of short stories, which he requested be published as The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. The first instalment contained Rip Van Winkle and was extremely successful. This prompted the completion of the work which was published in seven instalments in New York between 1819 and 1820. The sixth of the New York instalments contained The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Irving, like many of his contemporaries, was beset by literary piracy, for there was no international copyright law at the time. In order to stamp out the theft of his intellectual property he set about publishing the first four instalments of The Sketch Book as one volume in England, where bootleggers had already published the individual instalments having gained access to them in America. By officially publishing his own volumes, Irving sought to outwit the bootleggers responsible for these illicit publications. He published the volume with John Miller and, though this had the desired effect of eradicating the pirate versions, he was not happy with the arrangement he had with Miller and so, following a recommendation from Walter Scott, published the second volume of the four remaining American instalments under the English publishing giant John Murray. This marked the beginning of international publishing coherency, for from now on Irving published concurrently in America and England in order to render piracy obsolete. This also marked the beginning of Irving’s partnership with Murray. Irving enjoyed great success from The Sketch Book, both in America and England, and his inflated reputation enabled him to lead a very active social life in both Paris and Britain. As a successful American writer in England, he was unusual, and the journalist and critic William Godwin went so far as to remark on Irving as an ‘anomaly’ of literature in that respect.
Now that Irving had established a working partnership with the publisher John Murray, they were both eager to ride the wave of Irving’s popularity by following up on the success of The Sketch Book. In order to find new material for the follow up, Irving returned to Europe in 1821 where he read Dutch and German folklore. However, the recent death of his brother William, whose offer of a return to America he had recently turned down and about he which he was beset by guilt, compounded the writer’s block he was already experiencing and so his writing was slow and laboured. Eventually, though, he produced the manuscript for Bracebridge Hall, or The Humorists, A Medley and Murray published it in June 1822. The Bracebridge Hall and Bracebridge family of the title and stories were loosely based on the Bracebridge family, who lived at Aston Hall near his sister’s home in Birmingham. Though some critics considered the book merely an imitation of The Sketch Book, the publication was met with similar popular success, a reception which filled Irving with relief. The critic Francis Jeffrey wrote in the Edinburgh Review “we have received so much pleasure from this book that we think ourselves bound in gratitude […] to make a public acknowledgement of it. Not only was Irving relieved by this reception, but he found that it confirmed and furthered his reputation among European and British high society.
Buoyed by the success of Bracebridge Hall, but still suffering writer’s block, Irving took to Germany where he spent the winter of 1822 in Dresden, in the company of the German royal family. Here he romanced Emily Foster, eighteen years of age, though she ultimately refused his hand in marriage in spring 1823. Shortly thereafter he returned to Paris, where a fruitless collaboration with the playwright John Howard Payne was unsuccessful in a series of translations of French plays for English audiences. Here Irving learned, though Payne, that the famous English novelist Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley bore a romantic interest in him. Irving, however, did not pursue this interest. Instead, in August 1824, he published a collection of essays entitled Tales of a Traveller. These included the popular story The Devil and Tom Walker, and Irving considered the collection, in a letter to his sister, “some of the best things [he had] ever written”. Critics, however, were less encouraging. The United States Literary Gazette was particularly unimpressed, bluntly announcing that “the public have been led to expect better things”. This was Irving’s first real bad press and he took it poorly, resolving to return to the safety of Paris where he spent a year without literary inspiration.
Irving’s salvation from this empty year came on the 30th January 1826, when Alexander Hill Everett, American Minister to Spain, invited him to Madrid where several manuscripts pertaining to the Spanish conquest of the Americas had recently entered the public domain. Irving, enthused by the prospect of new, exciting material which was directly relevant to his home country, departed for Madrid as soon as he could and set to investigating the narrative potential of these documents. With unlimited access to the library of the American consul and its vast resources on Spanish history, Irving found enough material to begin work on several books simultaneously. The first of these works to see publication, in January 1828, was A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. It was very popular in Europe, and was printed in 175 different editions before the turn of the century. Following its publication, the Duke of Gor invited Irving to stay at his palace where he was granted full access to an extensive library of medieval manuscripts. This enabled Irving to finish his second Spanish book, Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada, which was published the year after his History. In 1831, Irving completed the third of his Spanish books, Voyages and Discoveries of the Companions of Columbus. Though Irving had plans to remain in Spain, intending to living in Granada’s ancient palace Alhambra, “determined to linger there until [he got] some writings under way connected with the place”, he was soon obliged to return to London to take an appointment as Secretary to the American Legation in London. Perhaps still feeling guilty for turning down his brother’s offer some years earlier, he cited fear of disappointing friends and family if he did not take the position.
Though Irving’s time as secretary was fruitful, assisting with the seeing through of an established trade agreement between the United States and the British West Indies, he felt restricted by the clerical nature of the work. Having received a medal from the Royal Society of Literature and an honorary doctorate of civil law from Oxford University in 1831, he resigned his post to focus on his writing. Shortly thereafter he completed the work he had intend to see through in Granada, and published Tales of the Alhambra in 1832. Following the model he had already established, this was published concurrently in the United States and England. Following the completion of Tales of the Alhambra, Irving returned to America after seventeen years overseas on 21st May 1832. He embarked on a surveying expedition to the Indian subcontinent that September with various American officials, the Commissioner on Indian Affairs and a handful of friends, and, on his return, travelled though Washington, D.C. and Baltimore.
Bad investments necessitated a continuation of his writing and so he published A Tour on the Prairies, a work pertaining to his recent travels to Baltimore. Following its success the American fur magnate John Jacob Astor commissioned a history of his fur trading company, of which Irving made light work and presented in February 1836. While staying with Astor Irving met the explorer Benjamin Bonneville, whose maps and stories recording the territories beyond the Rocky Mountains seemed ripe for narration, and so, for the price of $1000, Irving convinced Bonneville to sell him his maps which he used as the inspiration for The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, published in 1837. While the principle motivation for these three works had been financial, they also served to put to rest several criticisms about Irving’s apparent disregard for American history. The propensity of his work written in and pertaining to Europe had left his American contemporaries and critics with a sour taste in their mouths, convinced that he had abandoned American tradition in favour of the English aristocracy and European society. The American audience received these ‘Western’ books well, and welcomed Irving back into their literary tradition with open arms. Financial matters were not on Irving’s side, however, and the constant repairs required for his newly acquired cottage in Tarrytown, New York, meant that he was compelled to write articles and essays for the Knickerbocker magazine, which he did, reluctantly.
It was around this time that Irving really became a figurehead for American literature, and several future celebrated novelists came to him for advice, most notable of whom was Edgar Allan Poe, seeking thoughts on his early stories William Wilson and The Fall of the House of Usher. Furthermore, he became an advocate of American copyright legislation, following his experiences with early piracy in England. Though the legislation did not pass, his words “we have a young literature springing up and daily unfolding itself with wonderful energy and luxuriance, which […] deserves all its fostering care” served to highlight the need for such legislation, and it was soon to follow.
A three year stint as Minister to Spain left Irving disheartened with the disarray of the country’s complex political structure, and also afforded him no time to write while there, as he had hoped. On his return from Spain he began revising his earlier writings for an “Author’s Revised Edition”, agreeing an unprecedented deal guaranteeing 12 per cent of the retail profits returned to him. Following John Jacob Astor’s death in 1848, Irving acted as executor of his estate and, according to Astor’s will, was appointed as chairman of Astor’s library which would go on to become the New York Public Library. Irving now began a stint of biographies, covering his namesake George Washington, the prophet Muhammad and the poet Oliver Goldsmith, while maintaining his presence in the social circles which surrounded him. Senator William . Preston wrote “I don’t believe that any man, in any country, has ever had a more affectionate admiration for him that that given to you in America”. Irving died of a heart attack on the 28th November, 1859, only eight months after the completion of the fifth and final volume of his Washington biography. According to legend, his final words were “well, I must arrange my pillows for another night. When will this end?” He is buried in the cemetery at Sleepy Hollow.