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Washington Irving, Most Popular American Writer of the Early 1800s

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Washington Irving

Washington Irving

Matthew Brady/Library of Congress

Washington Irving was the first American to make a living as an author and during his prolific career in the early 1800s he created celebrated characters such as Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane.

His youthful satirical writings popularized two terms still closely associated with New York City, Gotham and Knickerbocker.

Irving also contributed something to holiday traditions, as his conception of a saintly character with a flying sleigh delivering toys to children at Christmas evolved into our modern depictions of Santa Claus.

Early Life of Washington Irving

Washington Irving was born April 3, 1783 in lower Manhattan, during the week that New York City residents heard of the British ceasefire in Virginia that effectively ended the Revolutionary War. To pay tribute to the great hero of the time, General George Washington, Irving's parents named their eighth child in his honor.

When George Washington took the oath of office as the first American president at Federal Hall in New York City, six-year-old Washington Irving stood among the thousands of people celebrating in the streets. A few months later he was introduced to President Washington, who was shopping in lower Manhattan. For the rest of his life Irving told the story of how the president patted him on the head.

While attending school, Washington Irving was believed to be slow-witted, and one teacher labeled him "a dunce." He did, however, learn to read and write, and became obsessed with telling stories.

Some of his brothers attended Columbia College, yet young Washington's formal education ended at the age of 16. He was far more interested in wandering about Manhattan and studying the daily life of New Yorkers than he was in the classroom.

Early Political Satires

Irving's older brother Peter, a physician who was actually more interested in politics than medicine, was active in the New York political machine headed by Aaron Burr. Peter Irving edited a newspaper aligned with Burr, and in November 1802 Washington Irving published his first article, a political satire signed with the pseudonym "Jonathan Oldstyle."

Irving wrote a series of articles as Oldstyle over the next few months. It was common knowledge in New York circles that he was the real author of the articles, and he enjoyed the recognition. He was 19 years old.

One of Washington's older brothers, William Irving, decided that a trip to Europe might give the aspiring writer some direction, so he financed the voyage. Washington Irving left New York, bound for France, in 1804, and didn't return to America for two years. His tour of Europe broadened his mind and gave him material for later writing.

Salmagundi, a Satirical Magazine

After returning to New York City, Irving resumed studying to become a lawyer, but his real interest was in writing. With a friend and one of his brothers he began collaborating on a magazine that lampooned Manhattan society.

The new publication was called Salmagundi, a familiar term at the time as it was a common food similar to present day chef's salad. The little magazine turned out to be shockingly popular and 20 issues appeared from early 1807 to early 1808. The humor in Salmagundi was gentle by today's standards, but 200 years ago it was a sensation.

One lasting contribution to American culture was that Irving, in a joking item in Salmagundi, referred to New York City as "Gotham." The reference was to a British legend about a town whose residents were reputed to be crazy. New Yorkers enjoyed the joke, and Gotham became a perennial nickname for the city.

Diedrich Knickerbocker's A History of New York

Washington Irving's first full-lenth book appeared in December 1809, a history of his beloved New York as told by an eccentric old Dutch historian, Diedrich Knickerbocker. Much of the book plays upon the rift between the old Dutch settlers and the British who supplanted them in the city.

Some descendants of old Dutch families were offended, but most New Yorkers appreciated the humor and the book was successful. And while some of the political jokes don't make sense 200 years later, much of the humor in the book is still quite charming.

During the writing of A History of New York a woman Irving intended to marry, Matilda Hoffman, died of pneumonia. Irving, who was with Matilda when she died, was crushed. He never again became seriously involved with a woman and remained unmarried.

For years after the publication of A History of New York Irving wrote little. He edited a magazine, but also engaged in the practice of law, a profession which he never found very interesting.

In 1815 he left New York for England, ostensibly to help his brothers stabilize their importing business after the War of 1812. He remained in Europe for the next 17 years.

The Sketch Book

While living in London Irving wrote his most important work, The Sketch Book, which he published under the pseudonym of "Geoffrey Crayon." The book first appeared in several small volumes in American in 1819 and 1820.

Much of the content in The Sketch Book dealt with British manners and customs, but the American stories are what became immortal. The book contained "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," the account of schoolmaster Ichabod Crane and his otherworldly nemesis the Headless Horseman, and "Rip Van Winkle," the tale of a man who awakens after sleeping for decades.

The Sketch Book also contained a collection of Christmas tales which influenced the celebrations of Christmas in 19th century America.

Revered Figure at his Estate on the Hudson

While in Europe Irving researched and wrote a biography of Christopher Columbus along with a number of travel books. He also worked at times as a diplomat for the United States.

Irving returned to America in 1832, and as a popular writer he was able to buy a picturesque estate along the Hudson near Tarrytown, New York. His early writings had established his reputation, and when he died on November 28, 1859 he was a beloved grand old man of American letters.

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