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Washington Irving  

The short story writer and historian, Washington Irving is considered America's first professional writer whose works such as "Rip Van Winkle" are still read today
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Washington Irving (1783-1859)

 

Portrait of Irving as a young man

 

Brief Biography

Viewed by many as almost a quaint figure now, Washington Irving was a well respected author in his time both in the  young United States and in Europe.. The author of  satirical, yet never cruel stories -and a "history" of New York. Irving was born in 1783 and raised in New York City, a town with dusty streets, narrow lanes, rolling hills , open fields and sailing ships in its busy port--a town one can only imagine today.  The dutch influence was still strong and Irving used it to his advantage in his works.  He was the youngest of eleven children of a well to do merchant family whose pride in their young country is evident in Irving's first name--he was named after America's first president..  While never a good student- he chose not to go to Columbia College like his older brothers- he did "read" the law in a law office and passed the New York bar examination.  He practiced law for a short time, but his heart was not in it.  He found writing stories more to his liking.  Before he began writing, at  the age of 15 he was sent to Tarrytown to live with family friends in order to avoid an outbreak of yellow fever in Manhattan.  He fell in love with the beautiful countryside, the dutch influence and the area's friendly people.  He would use the landscape in his stories and would eventually live there when he was older and famous. 

During his lifetime, Irving used various pseudonyms. He began this habit at age 19 when, under the name Jonathan Oldstyle, he contributed letters to a newspaper owned by his brother, Peter.   His first book, "Salmagundi" ( 1808) written in collaboration with another brother and friend poked gentle fun at the social and political life of New York City.  The short pieces in the book struck a cord with New Yorkers and were well received.  In 1809 he wrote another successful book "narrated" by "Diedrich Knickerbocker" an aged historian. The book, "A History of New York, from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty" was purposely full of comic inaccuracies.  "Knickerbocker" would return in other books.  The name, as well as the  label "Gotham" for New York City is still with us today.  Irving's early success was overshadowed, however, by the death of his fiancee, Matilda Hoffman, who died at the age of 18.  He  never fully recovered from this loss--he never married and took contentment in his many relatives and friends.Matilda's death taught him how fragile life is and how fate can intervene in our lives.  Later in life  (1835) he asked some of his extended family to  live with him in his restored farmhouse along the beautiful Hudson river.   Guests would visit by train or boat.   He was an excellent host and frequently had parties for his many guests who enjoyed the beautiful grounds of his small, but well run estate.

In 1815, Irving moved to England to work in his family's Liverpool branch of their export-import business.   He could not save the company and at age 35 he found himself without any means of support.   He decided, bravely, to make his living by his pen.  After much effort and revision, he published "The Sketch Book," under the name Geoffrey Crayon.  The book contains sketches, travel pieces, essays and three short stories:  "Rip Van Winkle,", " The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, " and "The Spectre Bridegroom."   The idea for "Rip Van Winkle" came from a German legend.   Irving placed the gothic, romantic story in the "Kaatskill" mountains.  The "tale", Irving writes, was found among the papers of the late Diedrich Knickerbocker, Irving's fictional historian.  Rip's encounter with the ghosts of Henry Hudson and his crew, bowling with them and then falling asleep for twenty years is colorfully written.  The story, upon reflection, deals with serious themes: the importance of memory, growing older, fleeting time, the value of family, place and human connection,   This story, and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" have become a part of American folk culture.  They have been made into plays and movies.   Tim Burton directed "Sleepy Hollow" in 1999.  Loosely inspired by Irving's story, it starred Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci.

Irving lived in Europe for several years after the publication of the very popular "The Sketch Book."   In time, he turned to writing history and biography.  He served as a diplomat in Spain and while there published a biography of Christopher Columbus and a history of Granada.  For three years he was the secretary to the American embassy in London.

In 1832 Irving returned to the United States.  He found himself well liked, indeed famous.  Restless, he toured the western part of the country-as far as Oklahoma.  He wrote three books about his travels, most  notably "A Tour on the Prairies."   He finally settled down near Tarrrytown, purchasing an old farmhouse and 10 acres of land along the Hudson River.  He renovated the house and carefully planned gardens with many trees and other plants.  He called his home "Sunnyside" and lived there with his extended family, entertaining his many friends and other writers.  Eventhough in ill health, he wrote a five volume biography of his namesake, George Washingston.   He finished this multivolume work a few months before his death from a heart attack in 1859.   His extended family cared for him as he became weaker due to his heart condition.  He was 76 years old at the time of his death.

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