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Washington Irving (1783-1859) Image Courtesy Library of Congress. Key Facts about Irving. Born to a prosperous New York family in 1783, he was the youngest of eleven children. He studied law at age 16 and was admitted to the bar at age 23.

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Washington irving 1783 1859 image courtesy library of congress

Washington Irving (1783-1859)Image Courtesy Library of Congress

Key facts about irving

Key Facts about Irving

  • Born to a prosperous New York family in 1783, he was the youngest of eleven children.

  • He studied law at age 16 and was admitted to the bar at age 23.

  • At 19, he published satires under “Jonathan Oldstyle” in his brother’s newspaper.

  • In his twenties, he roamed the Hudson Valley and traveled throughout Europe.

  • In 1807, with his brother William and James Kirke Paulding, he produced the Salmagundi papers on New York society.

Key facts about irving1

Key Facts about Irving

  • In 1809, he published A History of New York, by Diedrich Knickerbocker, a classic of American humor.

  • In 1810, his life changed when his fiancée died and he had to work in his family’s business.

  • In the War of 1812, he served as a military aid to New York Governor Tompkins in the U.S. Army.

  • In 1815 he returned to Europe where he largely resided for the next seventeen years.

  • When his family business, which had sustained him, collapsed in 1818, he turned to writing to earn a living.

  • The Sketch Book (including “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle”) appeared serially in 1819-1820 and met with international success.

Key facts about irving2

Key Facts about Irving

  • Bracebridge Hall appeared in 1822, followed by Tales of a Traveller in 1824, and a comedy for the stage with John Howard Payne, Charles the Second, or The Merry Monarch.

  • From 1826-1829, he lived in Spain on diplomatic business, which inspired several literary works, including The Alhambra (1832).

  • From 1828-31, he published A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, A Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada, and Voyages and Discoveries of the Companions of Columbus.

  • Irving served as secretary of the American legation in London from 1829-1831.

  • In 1835, he published “Legends of the Conquest of Spain” in The Crayon Miscellany.

Key facts about irving3

Key Facts about Irving

  • From 1835-37, Irving published three books on the American West: A Tour on the Prairies (1835), Astoria (1836), a history of the Astor’s fur trade, and The Adventures of Captain Bonneville (1837), on explorations of the Rocky Mountains.

  • In 1836, Irving settled in his home, Sunnyside, near Tarrytown, NY. In 1840, he published Life of Oliver Goldsmith

  • Having previously declined running for a seat in the U.S. Congress, he now declined running for mayor of New York City and he declined President Van Buren’s offer to become secretary of the navy.

  • He did serve as minister to Spain from 1842-1845.

  • He wrote the five-volume Life of George Washington, published 1855-1859, the standard Washington biography for many years.

  • He died on November 28, 1859.

Key facts about irving4

Key Facts about Irving

  • Upon his return to America in 1832, Irving was celebrated as one of the first American authors to meet with international acclaim and success. (James Fenimore Cooper was the other.)

  • Because he was abroad for so long, some, however, questioned his American spirit. He may have written the following in Tour of the Prairies as a way to secure his public persona:

    We send our youth abroad to grow luxurious and effeminate in Europe; it appears to me, that a previous tour on the prairies would be more likely to produce that manliness, simplicity, and self-dependence, most in unison with our political institutions.

Key issues irving as humorist

Key Issues: Irving as Humorist

Irving intended his work to be enjoyed. Consider how he creates humor through the following:

  • His plots and, within his “histories,” his anecdotes with their surprises and twists and turns.

  • His characters, often unusual and idiosyncratic.

  • His physical descriptions of people and places.

  • His ironic and unreliable narrators. Can we always believe them?

  • His prose style which in its polish seems incongruous with the simplicity of many of his characters and their lives.

Key issues irving s prose style

Key Issues: Irving’s Prose Style

  • Irving’s prose style is not innovative or especially American, like Twain’s or Hemingway’s.

  • Irving’s sentences tend to be long, well balanced, polished and graceful, the kind of sentences later written by Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Cheever, and John Updike.

  • Irving’s tone tends to be relaxed, conversational, and frequently facetious.

Key issues irving s prose style1

Key Issues: Irving’s Prose Style

Irving may have described his style better than anyone else:

It is the play of thought and sentiment and language; the weaving in of characters, lightly yet expressively delineated; the familiar and faithful exhibition of scenes in common life; and the half-concealed vain of humour that is often playing through the whole – these are what I aim at, and upon which I felicitate myself in proportion as I think I succeed.

Key issues irving as ironist

Key Issues: Irving as Ironist

Consider also the statement from “Rip Van Winkle” concerning Rip’s “aversion to all kinds of profitable labor” (p. 305), or the following paragraph about his family farm (p. 305):

In fact, he declared it was of no use to work on his farm; it was the most pestilent little piece of ground in the whole country; every thing about it went wrong, and would go wrong, in spite of him. His fences were continually falling to pieces; his cows would either go astray, or get among the cabbages; weeds were sure to grow quicker in his fields than anywhere else; the rain always made a point of setting in just as he had some outdoor work to do; so that though his patrimonial estate had dwindled away under his management, acre by acre, until there was little more left than a mere patch of Indian corn and potatoes, yet it was the worse conditioned farm in the neighborhood.

Key issues irving s characters

Key Issues: Irving’s Characters

  • Consider the humorous elements in the characters: their eccentricities, their self-deceptions, their physical appearances and mannerisms, their modes of expression, etc.

  • Consider too if they reflect anything about a new nation.

Key issues irving s characters1

Key Issues: Irving’s Characters

In “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” the conflict between Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones is between two insecure men, reflections perhaps of a nation trying to establish and secure an identity, domestically and abroad, through pronouncements such as the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (the year the story was published) and the Monroe Doctrine of 1823. Ichabod represents artificiality, pretentious intellectualism, and the cowardice and frailty association with the bookworm, while Brom represents brute force and anti-intellectualism, but also rustic ingenuity and “mettle and mischief” (p. 592). Neither seems to have the complete sympathy of Irving or the reader, but Brom does win Katrina and we could admire his cunning resourcefulness, however devious.

Are these two types of characters alive and well in America today?

Key issues irving s characters2

Key Issues: Irving’s Characters

Consider the following statement on Rip Van Winkle by Leslie Fiedler in his Love and Death in the American Novel:

The figure of Rip Van Winkle presides over the birth of the American imagination; and it is fitting that our first successful home-grown legend should memorialize, however playfully, the flight of the dreamer from the shrew–into the mountains and out of time, away from the drab duties of home and town toward the good companions and the magic keg of beer. Ever since, the typical male protagonist of our fiction has been a man on the run, harried into the forest and out to sea, down the river or into combat–anywhere to avoid ‘civilization,’ which is to say, the confrontation of a man and woman which leads to the fall, to sex, marriage, and responsibility. One of the factors that determines theme and form in our great books is this strategy of evasion, this retreat to nature and childhood which makes our literature (and life!) so charmingly and infuriatingly ‘boyish.’

Key issues irving s characters3

Key Issues: Irving’s Characters

Is it possible:

  • That Rip deliberately ran away from his wife and his responsibilities of child rearing and farming?

  • That in a time with little mass communication that he could have lived in relative isolation and never heard of the American Revolution?

  • That his alibi is merely adapted from a myth he had heard many times?

  • That his description of the figures he meets are derived from a painting in the parlor of the village parson?

  • That, upon his return, he only identifies himself after he hears that his wife is dead?

  • That he changes his story until he finally settles on the one we now have?

  • That not all the villagers believed his story? Some did put “their tongues in their cheeks” and “there was a general shaking of the head.”

Key issues irving s unreliable narrators

Key Issues: Irving’s Unreliable Narrators

Irving’s narrators cannot always be taken at face value.

Consider the narrator’s own comment at the end of “Sleepy Hollow”:

  • “Faith, sir . . . as to that matter, I don’t believe one-half of it myself” (p. 333). Can we say this ourselves about the other Irving selections in the text?

    Consider “Rip Van Winkle”:

  • Is the narrator overly sympathetic and protective of Rip?

  • Is the portrait of Dame Van Winkle fair?

Key issues irving as american romantic

Key Issues: Irving as American Romantic

Irving is America’s first major Romantic.

  • His nationalism reveals itself in the creation of an American mythology with Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane.

  • He celebrates nature with his descriptions of the Hudson Valley (see “Rip,” bottom, p. 304). In “Sleepy Hollow,” the following passage suggests the luminist paintings of Sanford Gifford and George Inness, among the painters in the Hudson River School:

    “… the sky was clear and serene, nature wore that rich and golden livery which we always associate with the idea of abundance”

Key issues irving as american romantic1

Key Issues: Irving as American Romantic

Consider “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in terms of Emerson’s “American Scholar”:

  • Does Ichabod’s failure and incompleteness result from his conception of himself as a bookworm?

  • Is Brom Bones Emerson’s idea of a man of action? Is Brom any more complete than Ichabod?

  • Which character would be more acceptable to the American Romantic imagination?



The American Tradition in Literature 11/e

  • Read the heading and selections for Washington Irving (pp. 301–33).

Writing topics

Writing Topics

  • Compare Rip Van Winkle to other male protagonists who flee civilization or marriage: Mr. Hooper in “The Minister’s Black Veil” (pp. 649–57) or the narrator and Bartleby in Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” (pp. 699–724) .

  • Compare Irving’s Gothicism in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (pp. 314–33) with that in one of Poe’s Gothic stories, such as “The Fall of the House of Usher” (pp. 591–604), “The Cask of Amontillado” (pp. 616–20), or with that in Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” (pp. 640–49) and “Ethan Brand” (pp.686–97).

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