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Irving, Washington (1783-1859), American writer, the first American author to achieve international renown, who created the fictional characters Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane. The critical acceptance and enduring popularity of Irving's tales involving these characters proved the effectiveness of the as an American literary form.
Born in New York City, Irving studied law at private schools. After serving in several law offices and traveling in Europe for his health from 1804 to 1806, he was eventually admitted to the bar in 1806. His interest in the law was neither deep nor long-lasting, however, and Irving began to contribute satirical essays and sketches to New York newspapers as early as 1802. A group of these pieces, written from 1802 to 1803 and collected under the title Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent., won Irving his earliest literary recognition. From 1807 to 1808 he was the leading figure in a social group that included his brothers William Irving and Peter Irving and William's brother-in-law together they wrote Salmagundi, or, the Whim-Whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq., and Others, a series of satirical essays and poems on New York society. Irving's contributions to this miscellany established his reputation as an essayist and wit, and this reputation was enhanced by his next work, A History of New York (1809), ostensibly written by Irving's famous comic creation, the Dutch-American scholar Diedrich Knickerbocker. The work is a satirical account of New York State during the period of Dutch occupation (1609-1664); Irving's mocking tone and comical descriptions of early American life counterbalanced the nationalism prevalent in much American writing of the time. Generally considered the first important contribution to American comic literature, and a great popular success from the start, the work brought Irving considerable fame and financial reward.
In 1815 Irving went to Liverpool, England, as a silent partner in his brothers' commercial firm. When, after a series of losses, the business went into bankruptcy in 1818, Irving returned to writing for a living. In England he became the intimate friend of several leading men of letters, including. Under the pen name of Geoffrey Crayon, Irving wrote the essays and short stories collected in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-1820). The Sketch Book, as it is also known, was his most popular work and was widely acclaimed in both England and the United States for its geniality, grace, and humor. The collection's two most famous stories, both based on German folktales, are "Rip Van Winkle," about a man who falls asleep in the woods for twenty years, and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," about a schoolteacher's encounter with a legendary headless horseman. Set in rural New York, these tales are considered classics in American literature.
From 1826 until 1829 Irving was a member of the staff of the United States legation in Madrid. During this period and after his return to England, he wrote several historical works, the most popular of which was the History of Christopher Columbus (1828). Another well-known work of this period was The Alhambra (1832), a series of sketches and stories based on Irving's residence in 1829 in an ancient Moorish palace at Granada, Spain. In 1832, after an absence that lasted 17 years, he returned to the United States, where he was welcomed as a figure of international importance. Over the next few years Irving traveled to the American West and wrote several books using the West as their setting. These works include A Tour on the Prairies (1835), Astoria (1836), and The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, U.S.A. (1837).
In 1842 Irving was appointed U.S. minister to Madrid, where he lived until 1846, continuing his historical research and writing. He returned to the United States again in 1846 and settled at Sunnyside, his country home near Tarrytown, New York, where he lived until his death. (Sunnyside is now a historic house and museum.) Irving's popular but elegant style, based on the styles of the British writers Joseph Addison and Oliver Goldsmith,and the ease and picturesque fancy of his best work attracted an international audience. To a certain extent his romantic attachment to Europe resulted in a thinness and overrefinement of material. Much of his work deals directly with English life and customs, and he never attempted to come to terms with the democratic American life of his time. On the other hand, American writers were encouraged by Irving's example to look beyond the United States for subject matter.
Washington Irving earned his reputation as a major author by creating the short story. Later authors learned from and fashioned their short stories after his works. Irving was not boastful about his works. Instead, he had this to say, "If the tales I have furnished should prove to be bad, they will at least be found short," "Irving's early works set an example for humorous writing, which later became an important part of American literature. In addition, Irving helped establish the short story as a popular literature for the United States" (World Book Encyclopedia, 460). Irving also had a way of combining folklore with romanticism in his literary works. His contributions helped create America's romantic literary movement (World Book Encyclopedia, 460).
Irving caught people's attention with his comical 'poking fun' style. He especially liked to poke fun at the upper class New Yorkers. "Better than any man before him, and better also than many who came later, he catches the swing and rhythm of everyday, rough-and-ready language . . ." (Deakin, M. & Lisca, P., 1972, p. 20). Irving had the ability to reach out and touch the common man. His tales use vivid descriptions such as "his knees nearly up to the pummel of the saddle; his sharp elbows stuck out like grasshoppers" (Deakin, M. & Lisca, P., 1972, p. 25) Readers could relate to his characters because his writing had a way of tying into the American identity. Philip Young commented on one of Irving's most famous characters, Rip Van Winkle, "Rip was a near-perfect image of the way a large part of the world looks at us (Americans): likeable enough up to a point and at times, but essentially immature, self-centered, careless and above all-and perhaps dangerously-innocent." He is a carefree, overgrown child, incapable of understanding the world of adults, even that of his wife. He is "one of the boys", off for an evening of pleasure or a long day of hunting, released from responsibility (Deakin, M. & Lisca, P., 1972, p. 23). Basically, Rip was one of the guys that any common man could relate to.
Irving eventually earned the title of the "Father of American Literature," but his journey to that goal was fraught with anxiety. His was a search for freedom from not political oppression, but from the uncertainty of what to do with the freedom won by the founding fathers; his was a search for identity. This search consisted of three distinct phases.
In the first phase, lasting until he was 33 years old, Irving's wealthy and indulgent family allowed him to drift casually through life. Irving, the youngest of eight children, was clearly the pet of the family. His father, William Irving, was a well-to-do merchant in New York City, a self-made Scotsman who had emigrated to America in 1763. An imaginative but sickly child, Irving was eventually groomed as a lawyer, but his real education took place on a grand tour of Europe in 1804-1806, in lieu of attending Columbia College as had his two older brothers, William and Peter. His adventures abroad included being attacked by pirates while en route to Sicily.
From this early time in his life, Washington Irving felt a tension between the New World and the Old. The absence of a cultural tradition in America created a vacuum that Irving sought to fill with borrowed traditions from Europe. Irving's early work as a writer showed the clear influence of the genteel English essayists Addison and Steele, with an uneasy infusion of American brashness. For example, Irving chose to make his literary debut in a series of Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent. (1802-03), Jonathan being the name of a popular stage stereotype of a bumptious American, and Oldstyle suggesting the Old World refinement of British gentility.
In 1807, Irving became a member of a social and literary club known as the "lads of Kilkenny" or the "nine worthies," with two of whom Irving wrote Salmagundi, a literary "stew" consisting of satirical essays on the social scene in New York and its environs. Some of the political satire of Jeffersonian democrats in these essays betrays Irving's Federalist leanings. During this time, Irving fell hopelessly in love with Matilda Hoffman, the young daughter of his employer, Judge Josiah Hoffman. The high and low points of this first phase of Irving's life both occurred in 1809. While he was writing his parodic History of New York, Matilda died of tuberculosis. Deep in mourning, Irving managed to complete this comic masterpiece, written in the voice of Diedrich Knickerbocker, a name now synonymous with New York City.
The next year, Irving's brothers Peter and Ebenezer made him an essentially inactive partner in their import business, based in Liverpool. Irving was enjoying his literary celebrity, being wined and dined up and down the Eastern seaboard. While in Washington, Irving crashed a party at the White House and became friends with Dolly Madison. When the British burned the White House in 1814, Irving was so incensed that he signed up as a colonel, serving on the Canadian frontier but never fighting in any battles.
During this first phase, Washington Irving wrote for his own enjoyment, not needing to concern himself with making money. In fact, he did not publish any significant work during the ten years between 1809 and 18
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