Chautauqua 1998
Early America: A Search for Freedom

Washington Irving (1783-1859)

By John D. Anderson

Washington Irving was among the first generation born in the newly created United States of America. The year of his birth--1783--was also the year England officially recognized our new nation, ending the American Revolution. Irving was heir to the legacy of freedom won by the heroes of the war for American independence, a legacy that marked Irving's contemporaries as the first "lost" generation. With George Washington as their larger-than-life Founding Father, Irving's generation was unsure how to live up to his standard of achievement.

Irving eventually earned the title of the "Father of American Literature," but his journey to that goal was fraught with anxiety. His was a search for freedom from not political oppression, but from the uncertainty of what to do with the freedom won by the founding fathers; his was a search for identity. This search consisted of three distinct phases.

In the first phase, lasting until he was 33 years old, Irving's wealthy and indulgent family allowed him to drift casually through life. Irving, the youngest of eight children, was clearly the pet of the family. His father, William Irving, was a well-to-do merchant in New York City, a self-made Scotsman who had emigrated to America in 1763. An imaginative but sickly child, Irving was eventually groomed as a lawyer, but his real education took place on a grand tour of Europe in 1804-1806, in lieu of attending Columbia College as had his two older brothers, William and Peter. His adventures abroad included being attacked by pirates while en route to Sicily.

From this early time in his life, Washington Irving felt a tension between the New World and the Old. The absence of a cultural tradition in America created a vacuum that Irving sought to fill with borrowed traditions from Europe. Irving's early work as a writer showed the clear influence of the genteel English essayists Addison and Steele, with an uneasy infusion of American brashness. For example, Irving chose to make his literary debut in a series of Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent. (1802-03), Jonathan being the name of a popular stage stereotype of a bumptious American, and Oldstyle suggesting the Old World refinement of British gentility.

In 1807, Irving became a member of a social and literary club known as the "lads of Kilkenny" or the "nine worthies," with two of whom Irving wrote Salmagundi, a literary "stew" consisting of satirical essays on the social scene in New York and its environs. Some of the political satire of Jeffersonian democrats in these essays betrays Irving's Federalist leanings. During this time, Irving fell hopelessly in love with Matilda Hoffman, the young daughter of his employer, Judge Josiah Hoffman. The high and low points of this first phase of Irving's life both occurred in 1809. While he was writing his parodic History of New York, Matilda died of tuberculosis. Deep in mourning, Irving managed to complete this comic masterpiece, written in the voice of Diedrich Knickerbocker, a name now synonymous with New York City.

The next year, Irving's brothers Peter and Ebenezer made him an essentially inactive partner in their import business, based in Liverpool. Irving was enjoying his literary celebrity, being wined and dined up and down the Eastern seaboard. While in Washington, Irving crashed a party at the White House and became friends with Dolly Madison. When the British burned the White House in 1814, Irving was so incensed that he signed up as a colonel, serving on the Canadian frontier but never fighting in any battles.

During this first phase, Washington Irving wrote for his own enjoyment, not needing to concern himself with making money. In fact, he did not publish any significant work during the ten years between 1809 and 1819. Supported by his family and lionized by society for his early successes, Irving lived up to his reputation as a genial man of leisure.

The second phase of Washington Irving's search for identity commenced when he set sail in May of 1815 for Europe. He was not to return for 17 years. His brother Peter falling ill, Irving stepped in to help run the import business. When the War of 1812 ended in 1815, low demand in the U.S. for trade goods from England caused the business to fail. Finally, in 1818, the brothers declared bankruptcy.

Irving was devastated, becoming severely anxious about earning a livelihood. For the first time, he set out to write a commercially successful work that would also firmly establish his literary reputation both at home and abroad. He succeeded beyond his wildest imagination with The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-1820), writing this time in the persona of a charmingly self-effacing wanderer fascinated by the quaintness and antiquity of English landscapes and customs. Although the book's subtext reveals his anxiety about being dispossessed of home and security, the surface is famously genial and sentimental (Rubin-Dorsky 32-64). Although only four of the 34 literary sketches in the book are about America, two enduring American classics (actually based on European folk legends) are among them: "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."

The disorientation resulting from Rip Van Winkle's famous 20-year sleep is evocative of Irving's generation's loss of its bearings. One day the sign at the tavern in the Catskill village in which the story is set shows the image of George III; the next day (so it seems to Rip) the sign depicts General Washington. In the mysterious interval, Rip is also freed of the despotism of his shrewish wife, who has died: "Happily that was at an end--he had got his neck out of the yoke of matrimony, and could go in and out whenever he pleased without dreading the tyranny of Dame Van Winkle" (History, Tales, and Sketches 783).

Rip Van Winkle escaped the responsibilities of the prime of his life, just as Washington Irving and his generation on some level must have yearned to escape the pressures they faced. In fact, Irving was a lifelong bachelor (although he may have proposed to and been rejected by 18-year-old Emily Foster when he was 40). The sentimental explanation promulgated by his nephew Pierre was that Irving pined for Matilda Hoffman all his life, but some of the negative views of wives in his work suggest that Irving's search for freedom included freedom from the ties that bind (Banks).

The success of The Sketch Book made Irving the first American man of letters to have an international reputation. Irving, in typical self-deprecating fashion, wrote that the world was surprised to find a native American with a feather in his hand instead of on his head. Having become friends with Sir Walter Scott on their first meeting in 1817, Irving was now launched as an international celebrity. He followed The Sketch Book with two more miscellaneous collections of sketches "by Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.": Bracebridge Hall (1822) and Tales of a Traveller (1824), the latter so poorly received that Irving afterward essentially abandoned fiction and subjective essays to write history and biography.

In the 1820s, Irving traveled throughout Europe, making occasional extended stays. In Dresden, he became close with the Foster family and a favorite of the King of Saxony. In Paris, he collaborated unsuccessfully with playwright John Howard Payne, whose claim to fame is writing the song "Home, Sweet Home." In London, he resisted the flirtatious advances of Mary Shelley, widow of Percy Shelley and author of Frankenstein. Finally, in Madrid and Seville from 1826-29, he researched and wrote Life and Voyages of Columbus and A Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada. Enchanted by the Moorish palace in Granada, he was inspired to write The Alhambra (1832), a sort of Spanish Sketch Book.

In 1829, Irving took on another identity, that of diplomat. In September of that year he accepted an appointment as secretary at the American legation in London, eventually serving as acting chargé d'affaires until the new minister, Martin Van Buren, arrived in 1831. Irving's wide circle of friends in England proved useful in negotiating trade agreements with England.

By 1832, Irving had been abroad for 17 years. It was time to return and begin the third and final phase of his life, a phase marked by a renewed connection to America. Received with great ceremony in New York, Irving declared, quoting Scott, "This was my own--my native land!" He proceeded to travel throughout the fast-growing country, stopping in Washington to dine with President Andrew Jackson and his vice-presidential nominee, Irving's friend Martin Van Buren. (In the decade of the 1830s, Irving apparently supported the Democratic party, although he aligned himself with the opposing Whigs in later years.) He even ventured to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) in the company of Commissioner of Indian Affairs Henry Ellsworth in October of 1832. He published his account of this trip, A Tour on the Prairies, in 1835, following that work of "adventurous enterprise" with two more: Astoria (1836), an account of John Jacob Astor's fur trade in the northwest, and Adventures of Captain Bonneville, U.S.A. (1837), the story of a western explorer.

Irving's books about the west balance elements of his early rougher personae with the refined romanticism of Geoffrey Crayon. Similarly, in these books, Irving balanced the demands of commerce and art, of appeals to greed and to cultural values. According to Peter Antelyes, Irving produced a commercially viable "revised adventure tale form that endorsed expansionism while noting the dangers posed to American society by that expansion" (xv). After over a century of dismissal and neglect, Irving's western writings finally received attention from scholars more open to the complex balancing act Irving achieved in these works.

In 1835, Irving not only demonstrated his commitment to his American identity by publishing his first book about the West, but he also bought property on the Hudson River north of New York City. Over the years he expanded his home there, called "Sunnyside," and received a steady stream of visitors. Sunnyside remains a popular tourist site for fans of Irving to this day.

The only time Irving ventured back to Europe in this last phase of his life was when President John Tyler appointed him minister to Spain in 1842. After serving with distinction for four years, he returned to Sunnyside in 1846 to resume work on a long-planned life of George Washington. (The Founding Father had actually bestowed a blessing on the future Father of American Literature in 1789, when the six-year-old Irving's nurse had presented the child to Washington in a shop in New York.) The monumental Life of George Washington was eventually published in five volumes over a five year period, the last volume finally seeing print in the last months of Irving's life. After a long period of declining health, Irving died of a heart attack at Sunnyside on November 28, 1859, almost the eve of the Civil War. His lifespan linked the two wars that forged our nation.

Despite his fears of failure, Washington Irving's life-long search produced an enduring identity as America's first professional man of letters. Celebrated for his graceful prose style, he pioneered the short story as a genre and folklore as a source of literary narrative. He was, as William Makepeace Thackeray described, "the first ambassador sent by the new world of letters to the old."

Selected Bibliography

Primary Sources

Irving, Washington. The Complete Works. Gen. Ed., Richard Dilworth Rust. 30 vols. Boston: Twayne, 1969-19--. Including:

I-V. Journals and Notebooks.

VI. Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle and Salmagundi; or The Whim-whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq. & Others.

VIII. The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.

XI. The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus.

XV. Astoria, or Anecdotes of an Enterprise Beyond the Rocky Mountains.

XIX-XXI. Life of George Washington.

XXII. The Crayon Miscellany (includes A Tour on the Prairies).

XXIII-XXVI. Letters.

XXVIII-XXIX. Miscellaneous Writings.

----------. A History of New York, from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty. 1809 edition.

----------. History, Tales and Sketches. New York: The Library of America, 1983.

Secondary Sources

Antelyes, Peter. Tales of Adventurous Enterprise: Washington Irving and the Poetics of Western Expansion. New York: Columbia U P, 1990.

Banks, Jenifer S. "Washington Irving, The Nineteenth-Century American Bachelor." In Ralph M. Aderman, ed. Critical Essays on Washington Irving. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990. Pp. 253-65.

Bowden, Mary Weatherspoon. Washington Irving. Boston: Twayne, 1981.

Brooks, Van Wyck. The World of Washington Irving. New York: Dutton, 1944.

Hedges, William L. Washington Irving: An American Study, 1802-1832. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins P, 1965.

Hellman, George S. Washington Irving, Esquire. New York: Knopf, 1925.

McDermott, John Francis, ed. The Western Journals of Washington Irving. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1944.

Myers, Andrew B., ed. A Century of Commentary on the Works of Washington Irving, 1860-1974. Tarrytown, NY: Sleepy Hollow Restorations, 1976.

Rubin-Dorsky, Jeffrey. Adrift in the Old World: The Psychological Pilgrimage of Washington Irving. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.

Williams, Stanley T. The Life of Washington Irving. 2 vols. New York: Oxford U P, 1935.