(April 3, 1783 – November 28, 1859)
An American author, biographer, story teller, historian, diplomat, and essayist famous in the early 19th century.
Most known for his short stories Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, a resident of “North Tarrytown” which has been name-changed to the village of “Sleepy Hollow” in 1996/1997 to memorialize the stories and Washington Irving. The nearby Irvingtown is named after him and was called such even while Irving was still alive. He became famous in 1802 from the observational letters to the Morning Chronicle, written under his pen-name of Jonathan Oldstyle. After moving to England in 1815, he became world famous for his “Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.” in 1820 which contained the Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip VanWinkle. He alongside James Fenimore Cooper were the first American writers to earn acclaim in Europe, and were influential to other American writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Edgar Allan Poe. He also inspired European authors such as Walter Scott, Lord Byron, Thomas Campbell, Francis Jeffrey, and Charles Dickens. He also wrote a five volume biography of George Washington before his death in Tarrytown age 76 years of age.
Washington Irving loved the areas of Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown living just down the road from Sleepy Hollow in his Dutch-style estate he called “Sunnyside”. He fought to have the Tarrytown Cemetery to be called the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery upon which he wrote:
- My Dear Clark:
I send you herewith a plan of a rural cemetery projected by some of the worthies of Tarrytown, on the woody hills adjacent to the Sleepy Hollow Church. I have no pecuniary interest in it, yet I hope it may succeed, as it will keep that beautiful and umbrageous neighborhood sacred from the anti-poetical and all-leveling axe. Besides, I trust that I shall one day lay my bones there. The projectors are plain matter-of-fact men, but are already, I believe, aware of the blunder which they have committed in naming it the “Tarrytown,” instead of the “Sleepy Hollow” Cemetery. The latter name would have been enough of itself to secure the patronage of all desirous of sleeping quietly in their graves. I beg you to correct this oversight, should you, as I trust you will, notice this sepulchral enterprise.
I hope as the spring opens you will accompany me in one of my brief visits to Sunnyside, when we will make another trip to Sleepy Hollow, and (thunder and lightning permitting) have a colloquy among the tombs.
Yours, very truly,
Washington Irving ~ New York, April 27, 1849
He was born to two Scottish-English Immigrants – his father was William Irving, Sr. from Quholm, Orkney and Sarah née Sanders who were married in 1761. He had 10 other siblings, 8 of which survived as adults. The first two brothers named William had died in infancy, as well as the fourth – John. His surviving siblings were William, Jr. (1766), Ann (1770), Peter (1772), Catherine (1774), Ebenezer (1776), John Treat (1778), and Sarah (1780). They had settled in Manhattan, New York City. Washington Irving was born on April 3, 1783 at 131 William Street, during the same week city residents learned of the British ceasefire that ended the American Revolution. He was named after George Washington, the hero of the Revolution. While his siblings became merchants, he followed a career in writing. He had a hard time staying in class, often sneaking off taking adventures or attend theater events. After the 1798 yellow fever outbreak, his family moved up the Hudson to a healthier climate just outside of Sleepy Hollow. It was here he became fascinated with the local ghost stories and Dutch customs. He was inspired to write Rip Van Winkle after visiting the Catskill mountains where he wrote had the most “witching effect” on his boyish imagination. He wrote under many different pseudonyms, including Jonathan Oldstyle, William Wizard and Launcelot Langstaff. He began as a comic writer lampooning New York Culture and politics making him popular in the States by 1807. He also was the first to nickname New York City “Gotham” (Anglo Saxon term for “Goat’s Town”.
Washington lost his 17 year old fiancée Matilda Hoffman in 1809, the same year he finished his first major book titled “A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasy” under his name Diedrich Knickerbocker. He pranked the citizens of New York at the time by placing a series of missing persons ads in the papers looking for his pseudo-name Diedrich Knickerbocker as he listed being a crusty Dutch historian who had gone missing from his hotel in NYC. He also placed ads from the hotel manager saying that if Mr. Knickerbocker didn’t return to the hotel to pay his bill, the hotel would publish the manuscript that he left behind. Many followed the story and manuscript with interest. Rewards were placed for his return by NYC officials, all the while gaining interest in his book. He later adopted the pseudonym that December giving him immediate popular success making him a celebrity. After his NY success, he became the editor for Analectic Magazine writing biographies of naval heroes and was the first to reprint Francis Scott Key’s poem “Defense of Fort McHenry” which was later immortalized as the “Star Spangled Banner” becoming the anthem for the U.S.A. He originally opposed the War of 1812, but after the British attack on D.C. in 1814, he felt patriotism and enlisted, serving under Daniel Tompkins, the governor of NY and commander of the NY State Militia. Mid 1815 he left for England to attempt to salvage his family’s trading company, residing there for 17 years. He wound up filing bankrupty and continued writing from 1817-1818. He became great friends with Walter Scottt and continued writing, composing “Rip Van Winkle” overnight while staying with his sister in Birmingham England. By 1818, he became the chief clerk to the US Navy staying in England to pursue a writing career. By 1819 he published the “Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent” which contained Rip Van Winkle and in the second volume published the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. He struggled agains literary bootleggers, being victim of theft having numerouls of his sketches reprinted in periodicals without permission. He would up having to pay to have his first four American installments published as a single volume by John Miller in London, and through Walter Scott, procured a more reputable publisher for the rest of his book, London powerhouse John Murray who took on the sketch book. To protect from copyright fraud, since there was no international copyright laws at the time, he concurrently published in the U.S. and Britain to protect his copyright. Bouncing from Paris to London, he became a socialite who was honored as an anomaly of literature – “an upstart American who dared to write English well.” He continued travelling around Europe up through 1821, reading Dutch and German folk tales to get more material. After the death of his brother William, he reached a downfall with depression and writer’s block causing a slow down of his works. In 1822, he wrote “Bracebridge Hall” or “The Humorists, A Medley” that had a similarity to the Sketchbook narrating a series of 50 loosely connected short stories and essays. He then travelled back to German, settling in Dresden for the winter. He became involved with Amelia Foster and became attracted to her 18 year old daughter Emily. He was refused the marriage proposal to her. He then returned to Paris, collaborating with playright John Howard Payne translating various French plays for the English stage. By 1824, he published a collection of essays called “The Tales of a Traveller” which included another famous short story of his called “The Devil and Tom Walker”, all done under his pseudo-name of Geoffrey Crayon. The book wasn’t as well received as he hoped, depressing him, causing him to retreat back to Paris spending most of the year figuring out his finances and coming up with ideas that were never finalized.
In 1826 he was invited to Madrid to help process newly discovered documents about the Spanish conquest of the Americas. He stayed in the Alhambra palace in 1829 that gave him new inspirations. He began working on several books at once, publishing “A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus” by 1828 which wound up having 175 editions. These were the first of his to be published with his real name. A year later he published “The Chronicles of the Conquest of Granada” and then in 1831, the “Voyages and Discoveries of the Companions of Columbus”. His works on Columbus were a mixture of fiction and history giving birth to the genre of “historical fiction” or “romantic history”. One of these works was the source of the the myth that the Earth was flat. In 1829 he left for England to become the Secretary to the American Legation in London. He also joined the staff of the American Minister Louis McLane and being assigned the role of “aide de camp”. That year they worked on a trade agreement between the U.S. and the British West Indies, sealing a deal in 1830. It was then he was awarded a medal by the Royal Society of Literature and a honorary doctorate of civil law from Oxford by 1831. He returned to writing again later that year, finishing the “Tales of the Alhambra” that was published in 1832. Mid 1832 he returned to America to assist Henry Leavitt Ellsworth, Charles La Trobe, and Count ALbert-Alexandre de Pourtales on a surveying mission in Indian territory. Through this he became acquainted with novelist John Pendleton Kennedy.
Again hitting accounting issues in his life, he started writing for more income and published “A Tour on the Prairies” which was a grand success. He was asked in 1834 to write a history of the fur trading colony in the American Northwest (Astoria, Oregon) highlighting fur magnate John Jacob Astor as “Astoria” finished in 1836. In 1835 Irving and Astor with help of some others founded the Saint Nicholas Society in New York. He also became friends with Benjamin Bonneville, an explorer who influenced Irving to have interest in the territories beyond the Rockies. He bought out Bonneville’s maps and ntoes, which he used in his book “The Adventures of Captain Bonneville” in 1837. During his time he built his Tarrytown New York home – the Sunnyside. It took him 20 years to get it the way he wanted it, and funding it was his articles sold to Knickerbocker magazine under his names Knickerbocker and Crayon. He mentored and advised many aspiring writers, including Edgar Allen Poe. He was also a forefront initiator to stopping piracy and establishing international copyright law.
In 1842 he hosted Charles Dickens and his wife at Sunnyside during Dicken’s tour. Later that year he was appointed Minister to Spain. He became too busy to write, and was wrapped up in politics and warfare. He fell with a crippling skin condition, and needed to return home in 1846 taking up permanent residence at Sunnyside working on an “Author’s Revised Edition” for George Palmer Putnam and made a deal that guaranteed him 12 percent of the retail price of all copies sold which was a first for that time period. In 1848 John Jacob Astor passed away and Irving became the executor of his estate and the first chairman of the Astor library. He continued writing during this position writing biographies of Oliver Goldsmith in 1849 and a work on the Islamic prophet Muhammad in 1850. By 1855 he published “Wolfert’s Roost” another collection of stories and essays first written for the Knickerbocker, as well as a biography for George Washington within 5 volumes published between 1855-1859. At 9 pm on November 28, 1859 he finished the final volume of the Washington biography, he died of a heart attack in his home of Sunnyside. He was buried in the Sleepy Hollow cemetery on December 1, 1859.
His grave marker was commemorated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his 1876 poem “In the Churchyard at Tarrytown”. Irving was considered the first American Man of Letters and was the first to earn his living solely by his pen. He was seen to be the one to perfect the American Short Story with his stories firmly placed in the U.S. even though he borrowed from European lore. Many authors however saw him as over-rated, including Edgar Allen Poe who stated “Irving is much over-rated .. and a nice distinction might be drawn between his just and his surreptitious and adventitious reputation—between what is due to the pioneer solely, and what to the writer”. In addition to nicknaming NYC as “Gotham” used in Marvel comics, he also came up with the expression “The Almighty Dollar”. His pseudo-name “Diedrich Knickerbocker” is often still associated with NY and New Yorkers becoming a common use name amongst New Yorkers. He also changed how Americans celebrate and view Christmas – he inserted a dream sequence in his “History of New York” depicting St. Nicholas soaring over tree-tops in a flying wagon leading to the practice of individuals dressing up as Santa. He portrayed the idealic Xmas customs in a quaint English manor from which many Americans draw in their observation of the customs for the holiday. Chicago made “Irving Park” in his honor and The Bank of New York Mellon Corporation coined the “Irving Trust Corporation” after him as well. He is often quoted by the Flat Earth Society to prove the Earth was flat prior to the discovery of the New World.