Washington Irving: A Biography

A biography can be told from many different perspectives, so I thought it would be interesting to share this more modern version of Washington Irving’s life story here. The main biography provides a broader look at Irving’s life as a whole, but the focus of this one is mostly on his writing. I hope you enjoy getting a bit better acquainted with this early American author.

Washington Irving

A sketch of American author Washington Irving when he was a young man.

Engraving of American author Washington Irving, from The Life and Letters of Washington Irving by Pierre Munroe Irving (nephew of the author). Published by G. P. Putnam, 1864. In the public domain.

by Petri Liukkonen

American author, short story writer, essayist, poet, travel book writer, biographer, and columnist. Irving has been called the father of the American short story. He is best known for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” in which the schoolmaster Ichabod Crane meets with a headless horseman, and “Rip Van Winkle,” about a man who falls asleep for 20 years.

“I am always at a loss to know how much to believe of my own stories.” (from Tales of a Traveler, 1824)

Washington Irving was born in New York City, the youngest of 11 children. “The house in which I was born,” he recalled later, “was No. 131 William-street, about half-way between John and Fulton streets. Within a very few weeks after my birth the family moved into a house nearly opposite, which my father had recently purchased; it was No. 128. . . .” His father, William Irving, was a wealthy merchant, born in the Orkney Islands. Sarah (née Sanders), his mother, was the granddaughter of an English clergyman. According to a story, George Washington met Irving in 1789 in a shop, and gave his blessing on his namesake. Irving never forgot the moment. In the years to come he would write one of his greatest works, The Life of George Washington (1855-59).

Early in his life Irving developed a passion for books. He read Robinson Crusoe, Sinbad the Sailor, and The World Displayed; or, A Curious Cllection of Voyages and Travels. He studied law privately in the offices of Henry Masterton (1798), Brockholst Livingston (1801), and John Ogde Hoffman (1802), but practiced only briefly. From 1804 to 1806 he traveled widely around Europe, where he visited Marseilles and Genoa, saw the famous English naval officer, Nelson, in Sicily, and met Washington Allston, the painter, in Rome. After returning to the United States, Irving was admitted to New York bar in 1806. He was a partner with his brothers in the family hardware business in New York and Liverpool, England, and a representative of the business in England until it collapsed in 1818. During the war of 1812 Irving served as a military aide to New York Governor Tompkins in the U.S. Army.

Irving’s career as a writer started in journals and newspapers. He contributed to Morning Chronicle (1802-03), which was edited by his brother Peter, and published Salmagundi (1807-08), writing in collaboration with his brother William and James Kirke Paulding. From 1812 to 1814 he was an editor of Analectic magazine in Philadelphia and New York.

A personal tragedy cast its shadow on Irving’s success in social life and literature. He was engaged to be married to Matilda Hoffman, who died at the age of seventeen, in 1809. Later he wrote in a private letter, addressed to Mrs. Forster, as an answer to her inquiry why he had not been married: “For years I could not talk on the subject of this hopeless regret; I could not even mention her name; but her image was continually before me, and I dreamt of her incessantly.”

Irving’s comic history of the Dutch regime in New York, A History of New York (1809), was published under the name of the imaginary ‘Dietrich Knickerbocker’, who was supposed to be an eccentric Dutch-American scholar. It was one of the earliest fantasies of history. The name Knickerbocker was later used to identify the first American school of writers, the Knickerbocker Group, of which Irving was a leading figure. The book became part of New York folklore, and eventually the word Knickerbocker was also used to describe any New Yorker who could trace one’s family to the original Dutch settlers. This burlesque of life, set in New Amsterdam, was made into a Broadway production in 1938 under the title Knickerbocker Holiday, perhaps best remembered for ‘September Song’. The music was composed by Kurt Weil, the lyrics were written by Maxwell Anderson. John Huston sang and danced on a peg leg in the role of Governor Pieter Stuyvesant.

Irving’s success continued with The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-20), a collection of stories, which allowed him to become a full-time writer. The stories were heavily influenced by the German folktales. In Bracebridge Hall (1822), the sequel of The Sketch Book, Irving invites the reader to ramble gently with him at the Hall, stating that “I am not writing a novel, and have nothing of intricate plot, or marvelous adventure, to promise the reader.”

After the death of his mother, Irving decided to stay in Europe, where he remained for seventeen years, from 1815 to 1832. He lived in Dresden (1822-23), London (1824) and Paris (1825). In England Irving had a romantic liaison with Mary Shelley. Eventually he settled in Spain, working there for financial reasons for the U.S. Embassy in Madrid (1826-29). In 1829-32 Irving was a secretary to the American Legation under Martin Van Buren. During his stay in Spain, he wrote Columbus (1828), Conquest of Granada (1829), and The Companions of Columbus (1831), all based on careful historical research. In 1829 he moved to London and published  Alhambra (1832), concerning the history and the legends of Moorish Spain. Among his literary friends were Mary Shelley and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

In 1832 Irving returned to New York to an enthusiastic welcome as the first American author to have achieved international fame. He toured the southern and western United States and wrote The Cayon Miscellany (1835) and A Tour on the Prairies (1835), an account of a journey, which extended from Fort Gibson, at that time a frontier post of the Far West, to the Cross Timbers in what is now Oklahoma. His fellow-travelers included Henry Leavitt Ellsworth (1791-1858), who also wrote an interesting narrative of the tour, and Charles Joseph Latrobe (1801-1875), whom Irving described as a “man of a thousand occupations; a botanist, a geologist, a hunter of beetles and butterflies, a musical amateur, a sketcher of no mean pretensions, in short, a complete virtuoso.”

From 1836 to 1842 Irving lived at Sunnyside manor house, Tarrytown-on-Hudson. When his old friend, Charles Dickens, visited America, he saw also Irving and celebrated their reunion with a speech: “There is in this city a gentleman who, at the reception of one of my booksI well remember it was the Old Curiosity Shopwrote to me in England a letter so generous, so affectionate, and so manly, that if I had written the book under every circumstance of disappointment, of discouragement, and difficulty, instead of the reverse, I should have found in the receipt of that letter my best and most happy reward. I answered him, and he answered me, and so we kept shaking hands autographically, as if no ocean rolled between us. I came here to this city eager to see him, and [laying his hand upon Irvings shoulder] here he sits! I need not tell you how happy and delighted I am to see him here to-night in this capacity.”

After working for three months on the History of the Conquest of Mexico, Irving found out that the famous historian William Prescott had decided to write a book on the same subject and abandoned his theme, “to be treated by one who will built up from it an enduring monument in the literature of our country.” Between the years 1842-45 Irving served as U.S. Ambassador in Spain. The appointment was sponsored by Daniel Webster, the Secretary of State. At the age of sixty-two Irving wrote to his friends in America: “My heart yearns for home; and I have now probably turned the last corner in life, and my remaining years are growing scanty in number, I begrudge every one that I am obliged to pass separated from my cottage and my kindred….”

Irving spent the last years of his life in Tarrytown. In spite of his success, money remained a constant worry and his family members lost much of his earnings in poor investments. Moreover, Irving suffered from writers block and battled a herpetic condition that periodically laid him up for months. From 1848 to 1859 he was President of Astor Library, later New York Public Library. Irving’s later publications include Mahomet and His Successors (1850), a careful presentation of the life, beliefs, and character of Mohammed, Wolfert’s Roost  (1855), and his five-volume The Life of George Washington. Irving died in Tarrytown on November 28, 1859. Just before retiring for the night, the author had said: “Well, I must arrange my pillows for another weary night! If this could only end!” Irving’s major works were published in 1860-61 in 21 volumes.

Irving was the first American to earn a living by his pen. For six decades, he churned out books, and reviews, letters, and essays for newspapers. As an essayist Irving was not interested in the meaning of nature like Emerson or self-inspection like Montaigne. He observed the vanishing pasts of old Europe, the riverside Creole villages of Louisiana, the old Pawnee hunting grounds of Oklahoma, and how ladies fashion moves from one extreme to the other. ‘Geoffrey Crayon’ was his most prolific fictional mask. Irving once said: “There rise authors now and then, who seem proof against the mutability of language, because they have rooted themselves in the unchanging principles of human nature.”

Irving’s best-known story, ‘Rip Van Winkle,’ was included in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. It was based on a German folktale, set in the Dutch culture of Pre-Revolutionary War in New York State. Rip Van Winkle is a farmer who wanders into the Catskill Mountains. He meets there a group of dwarfs playing nine-pins. Rip helps a dwarf and is rewarded with a draught of liquor. He falls into an enchanted sleep. When he awakens, 20 years later, the world has changed. He is an old man with a long, white beard. Rip goes into town and finds everything changed. His wife is dead, his children are grown. The old man entertains the people with tales of the old days and his encounter with the dwarfs. The theme of Irving’s story derives from Diogenes Laertius, Epimenides (c. 200), in which Epimenides is sent by his father into the field to look for a sheep; he lies down in a cave and sleeps fifty-seven years. When awake, he goes on looking for the sheep, thinking that he had been taking a short snap.

Irving also used other German folktales in his short stories, among them The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. “The headless horseman was often seen here. An old man who did not believe in ghosts told of meeting the headless horseman coming from his trip into the Hollow. The horseman made him climb up behind. They rode over bushes, hills, and swamps. When they reached the bridge, the horseman suddenly turned into a skeleton. He threw the old man into the brook and sprang away over the treetops with a clap of thunder.”

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was probably based on a story by Karl Musäus (1735-1787), a German academic writer, who was among the first to collect local folktales. This story popularized the image of the headless horseman, and formed the basis for an operetta by Douglas Moore, The Headless Horseman, with libretto by Stephen Vincent Benét. The tale was filmed as the second half of Disney’s animated movie The Adventures of Ichabold and Mr Toad (1949). Tim Burton’s screen adaptation from 1999 partly changed the plot. The film bears the airless quality typical for the director. Ichabold Crane, the protagonist, is a constable from New York, not a schoolteacher. He believes in rational methods of detection, and is sent to the farming community called Sleepy Hollow in upstate New York to investigate three recent murders. The townspeople know who the culprit is: a long-dead Hessian mercenary nicknamed the Headless Horseman who was killed during the Revolutionary War and buried in the Western Woods.

For further reading

Washington Irving: An American Original by Brian Jay Jones (2008); Washington Irving: The Critical Reaction, ed. by James W. Tuttleton (1993); Critical Essays on Washington Irving by Ralph M. Aderman (1990); Adrift in the Old World: The Psychological Pilgrimage of Washington Irving by Jeffrey Rubin-Dosky (1988); Washington Irving by William L. Hedges (1965); The Life and Letters of Washington Irving by B.M. Irving (1967, 4 vols.; original edition 1862-64); The Life of Washington Irving by Stanley T. Williams (1935, 2 vols.)

Note 1: Among Irving’s friends in England was Sir Walter Scott.

Note 2: In Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 the central character, Captain Yossarian, signs the censored letters of the soldiers with the name Washington Irving (or Irving Washington).

See also: Mark Twain whose early short stories arouse from the various folk and humorous traditions.

In Finnish: Irvingin novelli ‘Rip Van Winkle’ on suomennettu antologiassa Amerikkalaisia kertojia.

Selected works

Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, 1802
Salmagundi,or, The Whim-Whams and Opinions of Lancelot Langstaff, Esq. and Others, 1807-08 (2 vols., with William I. and J.K. Paulding)
A History of New York: From the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, 1809 (2 vols., as Dietrich Knickerbocker)
• Biographical Memoir of Capt-David Porter, 1814
The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., 1819-20 (as Geoffrey Crayon, includes ‘Rip Van Winkle’ and ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’) – film adaptations: Rip Passing Over the Mountain (1896), starring Joseph Jefferson; Rip’s Twenty Years’ Sleep (1896), starring Joseph Jefferson; Exit of Rip and the Dwarf (1896), starring Joseph Jefferson; Rip’s Toast (1896), starring Joseph Jefferson; Rip’s Toast to Hudson (1896), starring Joseph Jefferson; Rip Leaving Sleepy Hollow (1896), starring Joseph Jefferson; Awakening of Rip (1896), starring Joseph Jefferson; Rip Meeting the Dwarf (1896), starring Joseph Jefferson; La Légende de Rip Van Winkle (1905), dir.  Georges Méličs; Rip Van Winkle (1908), dir. Otis Turner, starring Hobart Bosworth; Rip Van Winkle (1914), starring Thomas Jefferson, Clarette Clare, Harry Blakemore; Rip Van Winkle (1921), dir. Edward Ludwig, starring Thomas Jefferson, Milla Davenport, Daisy Jefferson; The Headless Horseman (1922), dir.  Edward D. Venturini, starring Will Rogers, Lois Meredith, Ben Hendricks Jr.; The Headless Horseman (1934, animation film), dir. Ub Iwerks; The Adventures of Ichabold and Mr Toad (1949), dir. James Algar and Clyde Geronimi, narrated by Bing Crosby, Basil Rathbone; The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1958, animation), dir. Clyde Geronimi & Jack Kinney, narrated by Bing Crosby; The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1980, TV film), dir. Henning Schellerup, starring Jeff Goldblum, Paul Sand, Meg Foster; Sleepy Hollow (1999), dir. Tim Burton, starring Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Michael Gambon, Miranda Richardson, Christopher Walken, Casper Van Dien, Jeffrey Jones, Martin Landau; Headless Horseman (2007), dir. Anthony C. Ferrante, starring Billy Aaron Brown, Rebecca Mozo, Richard Moll, Arianne Fraser, Vasile Albinet
Bracebridge Hall; or, The Humorists, 1822 (2 vols., by Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.)
Tales of a Traveller, 1824 (2 vols., by Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.)
The Beauties of Washington Irving, Esq., 1824 (illustrated with six etchings, by William Heath, Esq.)
A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, 1828 (3 vols.)
The Chronicles of the Conquest of Granada, 1829
• The Devil and Tom Walker, Together with Deacon Grubb and the Old Nick, 1830
Voyages and Discoveries of the Companions of Columbus, 1831
• The Alhambra, 1832 – Alhambra (suom. R. Mellin, 1880; Annukka Aikio, 1969)
The Complete Works of Washington Irving, 1834 (in one volume, with a memoir of the author)
• A Tour on the Prairies, 1835
Abbotsford and Newstead Abbey, 1835
• The Crayon Miscellany, 1835 (3 vols.)
Astoria, 1836
The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, 1837
• Essays and Sketches, 1837
The Life of Oliver Goldsmith, 1840 (rev. ed., 1849)
Illustrations of Rip Van Winkle, 1848 (designed and etched by Felix O. C. Darley)
Works of Washington Irving, 1848-51 (15 vols.)
Illustrations of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, 1849 (designed and etched by Felix O.C. Darley)
A Book of the Hudson. Collected from the Various Works of Diedrich Knickerbocker, 1849 (edited by Geoffry Crayon)
The Lives of Mahomet and his Successors, 1849-50 (2 vols.)
Illustrations of Washington Irvings Dolph Heyliger, 1851 (designed and etched by John W. Ehninger)
The Life of George Washington, 1855-59 (5 vols.)
Wolfert’s Roost, and Other Papers, 1855
Legend of Sleepy Hollow. From “The Sketch-Book” of Washington Irving, 1864 (illustrated with original designs by Huntington, Kensett, Darley)
Spanish Papers and Other Miscellanies, Hitherto Unpublished or Uncollected, 1866 (arranged and edited by Pierre M. Irving)
Christmas in England, 1867
The Hudson Legends. Rip Van Winkle. Sleepy Hollow, 1867 (from The Sketch-Book)
Rip Van Winkle: A Legend of the Kaatskill Mountains, 1870
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and The Spectre Bridegroom, 1875
Old Christmas: from the Sketch Book of Washington Irving, 1878 (3rd ed., ilustrated by R. Caldecott)
Moorish Chronicles, 188-?
Selections from Washington Irving, 1894 (selected and arranged by Isaac Thomas)
Knickerbocker Stories from the old Dutch Days of New York, 1897 (ed. with introduction and notes, by Edward Everett Hale, Jr.)
Selected Essays from The Sketch Book, 1901 (with a biographical sketch, introduction and notes by Arthur Marvin)
The Letters of Washington Irving to Henry Brevoort, 1915 (2 vols., edited with an introd., by George S. Hellman)
The Journals of Washington Irving, 1919 (3 vols., ed. by William P. Trent and George S. Hellman)
Notes and Journal of Travel in Europe, 1804-1805, 1921 (3 vols., with an introduction by William P. Trent)
Abu Hassan, 1924 (with an introduction by George S. Hellman)
Irving, 1924 (edited by Bliss Perry)
The Wild Huntsman, 1924 (with an introduction by George S. Hellman)
An Unwritten Drama of Lord Byron, 1925 (with an introduction by Thomas Ollive Mabbott)
Washington Irving Diary, Spain 1828-1829, 1926 (edited from the manuscript in the library of the society by Clara Louisa Penney)
Notes While Preparing Sketch Book &c. 1817, 1927 (edited, with a critical introduction, by Stanley T. Williams)
Tour in Scotland, 1817, and Other Manuscript Notes, 1927 (edited, with a critical introduction, by Stanley T. Williams)
Letters from Sunnyside and Spain, 928 (edited by Stanley T. Williams)
Tales by Washington Irving, 1928 (selected and edited by Carl Van Doren)
Journal of Washington Irving (1823-1824), 1931 (edited by Stanley T. Williams)
The Poems of Washington Irving, 1931 (edited by William R. Langfield)
Washington Irving and the Storrows: Letters from England and the Continent, 1821-1828, 1933 (edited by Stanley T. Williams)
Journal, 1803, 1934 (edited by Stanley T. Williams)
The Western Journals of Washington Irving, 1944 (edited and annotated by John Francis McDermott)
Selected Writings of Washington Irving, 1945 (edited, with an introduction, by Saxe Commins)
Selected Prose, 1950 (edited with an introd. by Stanley T. Williams)
The Complete Works of Washington Irving, 1969-89 (30 vols., general editors, Henry A. Pochmann, Herbert L. Kleinfield, Richard D. Rust)
The Complete Tales of Washington Irving, 1975 (edited with an introd. by Charles Neider)
Letters, 1978-1882 (4 vols., edited by Ralph M. Aderman, Herbert L. Kleinfield, and Jenifer S. Banks)
The Wit and Whimsy of Washington Irving, 1979 (compiled and edited by Bruce D. MacPhail)
Miscellaneous writings, 1803-1859, 1981 (2 vols., edited by Wayne R. Kime)
Washington Irvings Tales of the Supernatural, 1982 (selected and with an introd. by Edward Wagenknecht, illustrated by R.W. Alley)
Selected Writings of Washington Irving, 1984 (introduction by William P. Kelly)

Some rights reserved Petri Liukkonen (author) & Ari Pesonen. Kuusankosken kaupunginkirjasto 2008

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You may also enjoy the Washington Irving Timeline.

You can also learn more about Irving’s most famous work The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.


When will you read Washington Irving’s writing in Excellence in Literature?

E3.2 Focus texts: Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

E3.2. Honors texts: Your choice of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. [found in the book shown above for the focus texts–Rip van Winkle and Sleepy Hollow are part of The Sketch Book],
OR The Life of George Washington (shown below)