Who was Washington Irving?
Erin Gruodis-Gimbel has taught college and graduate writing for over 3 years. She has a Bachelor in Arts in Theater with a concentration in Playwriting and Dramaturgy from Drew University.
Heather teaches high school English. She holds a master’s degree in education and is a National Board Certified Teacher.
Learn about early nineteenth-century American writer, Washington Irving. Explore Washington Irving’s biography and examine his best-known contributions to literature. Updated: 05/25/2022
Table of Contents
Washington Irving was one of the most prolific writers in 19th century America. He was also a lawyer, diplomat, and colonel. His writings, most famously “Rip van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” earned him a place in American literary history as one of the first fairy tale writers in the United States. His sense of humor and storytelling made him an excellent fiction writer, known throughout America and Europe, but he was also a non-fiction writer, penning one of the first biographies of George Washington. He was a uniquely American writer, often repurposing stories from other countries and turning them into American narratives.
Irving was born in 1783 in New York City to British immigrant parents who named him after George Washington. Initially, Irving showed very little promise in his reading and writing ability in the classroom, but honed it outside, reading adventure books that enthralled him. When yellow fever took over New York, he and his siblings were shipped to upstate New York, where he found the geography that would inspire his later works. As a young man, Irving began to study law back in Manhattan, but soon he left for upstate again, feeling drawn to the beauty of the countryside. He did return reluctantly to New York City, where he got a job as a law clerk and got married.
Maturity and Career
Irving started writing for the Morning Chronicle (a newspaper run by Aaron Burr and Peter Irving, Washington’s brother) under the pen name “Johnathan Oldstyle”. He took a break from publishing for two years when he traveled to Europe, but quickly resumed writing when he returned to New York (often instead of practicing law). After the death of his wife in 1816, Irving went back upstate and finished A History of New York, a humorous book narrated by a fictional Dutch historian, which became enormously popular.
During the British invasion in 1814, Irving became a colonel in the New York militia. After the war, he traveled to Europe, where he took over his brother’s business in England and began writing what would be one of his most famous works, “Rip van Winkle”. Upon returning to New York, he continued to write essays, which he saved for his second book, The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Irving was once again using a pen name. The book included “Rip van Winkle,” an adapted German fairytale about a man in Dutch colonial New York who falls asleep for 20 years. In an intentional slip, a friend of Irving’s revealed Crayon was a pen name, and the connection was drawn between The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent and A History of New York. Irving’s sense of humor and unique style gave him a niche within American literature. After the first edition of The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent was published, Irving released more stories, including “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” the spooky tale of Ichabod Crane (a schoolteacher), and his encounter with the Headless Horseman, a ghostly figure fabled to be a decapitated Hessian soldier. Much like the story of Rip van Winkle, this was adapted from a German fairytale about a headless horseman featured in German storytelling traditions.
Irving became a very popular writer; his books sold out in America and England and he was praised for his humorous stories and his dedication to the American setting (even when writing about England). In 1850, Irving decided to take up his most American project yet- a biography of his namesake, George Washington.
Washington Irving was the first American author who found success both in Europe and in America. He’s actually considered the father of American literature because it is his writing that began shaping the American identity.
Washington Irving was born April 3, 1783. He grew up in Manhattan, New York and was a pretty goofy, adventurous kid who liked to go wandering and dreamed of the day when he could start traveling. This frustrated his parents a bit because as he got older, he’d often skip class to attend plays.
When Irving was around the age of 15, yellow fever had broken out in Manhattan, so his parents sent him away with some friends in Tarrytown, New York. Tarrytown and the near-by village of Sleepy Hollow are, of course, where his later stories are set. It was during this time too that he first saw the Catskill Mountains, which set the scene for his character Rip Van Winkle’s 20-year sleep.
At the age of 17, his father sent Washington to Europe to help with the family business, which he was not real keen on and finds he can’t save once he’s there. But even though his business endeavors there are a bit disheartening, he does get involved with the literary scene there and befriends Sir Walter Scott. Sir Walter Scott gives him some advice about writing. Scott tells him to begin reading the German Romantic authors and to consider folklore and legends for some inspiration. Washington, of course, takes this advice, and it works well for him. He begins to set himself apart from the other writers in America at that time.
Washington Irving in Granada: literature and commitment
One of the most read books on the Alhambra is Tales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving. Without a doubt, it is a essential reading for those who love the Nasrid palace. However, there is even more to the mark left by Washington Irving on Granada. Do you know that he was crucial to recovering the Alhambra? That he was the precursor of the Guest Book?
Washington Irving and his beginnings in literature
The 19th century is the century of Romanticism. A time when people started to fight to control their destiny. To achieve this freedom many sought refuge in art and literature.Washington Irving was one of them. He was born in New York, into a wealthy family originally from Britain. This was important, because for the upper class in Britain, travelling was essential. They thought it was necessary to help their children become adults. In fact, this custom came out of what was known as the “Grand Tour”, of which we first see in the 17th century.
In the case of Irving, since he was a small boy he had shown a great interest in literature and journalism. He read non-stop, although One Thousand and One Nightsand Robinson Crusoe in particular made large impact on him: these choices say a lot about his personality. However, his father wanted him to work in the family business, so he studied Law.After finishing his degree, it was then time for the Grand Tour. He travelled around Europe for two years (1804-1806), more specifically around France, Italy, Switzerland and Spain. When he arrived back in New York, he founded a company with his brothers. Yet, his call to writing was unstoppable.
In 1802 his first articles appeared in a local paper as the Morning Chronicles, edited by his own brother. In 1809 he published A History of New-York by Dietrich Knickerbocker. This book became his first hit. It became so successful that New Yorkers of Dutch ancestry in New York began to be called the name of the novel’s lead character. He continued his career as a journalist for Analectic Magazine until 1814.
In 1815, business obligations left him with no choice but to return to Europe, to Liverpool, where he met people as important as Walter Scott. When the company he founded with his brother went bankrupt, he saw the perfect opportunity to fully dedicate himself to literature. Furthermore, after the death of his mother, he decided to stay in Europe. He did not return to the United States until 1832.
Washington Irving in Granada
He began a very productive literary period, publishing The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. As you can see, his work was very much in the line of the romantic interest in the mysterious and dark, connecting them to History and the roots of nations. In the same way, he was also particularly fond of Andalusia and its links to oriental cultures. Romantics like Irving saw it as an exotic place within Europe, full of tales and legends to surround oneself in. At the same time, they were also sure that those mysteries contained the spiritual essence of the nations. This explains why he would look for any excuse to be able to travel to southern Spain, something that was much easier when he was named consul. That was how he came to Granada.
With the excuse of researching Christopher Columbus, he was able to stay in Seville and access the Indias Archive. As a result, he published A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. From there, he travelled around different Andalusian cities, including Granada. He was able to come twice, but it was on his second visit to Granada when he stayed in the Alhambra itself, from 4 may to 29 August 1829. He didn’t do it alone, but was also accompanied by his friend, the Russian Prince Dolgorouki.
Washington Irvin lives in the Alhambra
The Alhambra of 1829 was not as we know it today. It was abandoned and inhabited by vagabonds and travellers that, like him, found the Andalusian Palace fascinating. This truly surprised them. However, what really shocked them was seeing the walls of the Alhambra covered in graffiti. This was the way many travellers immortalised the date of their visit. Irving realised what an outrage this was and arranged, as a good rebel, to fight for the preservation and reconstruction of the Alhambra.
Thus, during his second stay in Granada, he didn’t just swim in the pools in the Alhambra’s courtyards and eat breakfast with his friend in the Court of the Lions. He also went for walks through the Albaicin, looking for legends and folk tales about the monument. He already had a certain degree of knowledge thanks to his Spanish studies, but folk culture, what had survived in the oral tradition fueled his imagination and pen.At the same time, it solidified his idea that the Alhambra was worthy of much more than what the authorities were doing for it.
Therefore, the Russian prince and the American diplomat decided to give the First Guest Book of the Alhambra, so that visitors and travellers could sign it instead of the palace’s impressive walls. Additionally, well-established as a journalist, Hispanist and Diplomat, he wrote articles where he explained the need to recover the Alhambra and give it the place in the history of Granada and Humanity that it deserved.
If Tales of the Alhambra caused Europe to be more drawn to the legends lying within the palace, that first guest book established a precedent: there is still the tradition of immortalizing our visits by signing it. Furthermore, his commitment to the monument was crucial for Granada properly valuing its monument. If we know what we do today about the Alhambra, if today it is one of the top three most important monuments in Europe, a large part of that is thanks to this romantic American and the support of his friend Dolgorouki.
While Tales of the Alhambra helped Europe to feel even more attracted to the legends the Palace treasures, that first Guestsbook set a reference: today, we keep the habit of immortalizing our vistits on the book. In addition, his commitment with the monument was vital for the recognition of its value. If today we know what we know about the Alhambra, if it is among the most important monuments in Europe, it is due to this Romantic Northamerican embassador y and his friend Dolgorouki support.
Biography of Washington Irving, Father of the American Short Story
Washington Irving (April 3, 1783–November 28, 1859) was a writer, essayist, historian, biographer, and diplomat most famous for the short stories “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” These works were both a part of “The Sketch Book,” the collection of short stories that won him international recognition. Washington Irving has been called the father of the American short story because of his early and unique contributions to the form.
Fast Facts: Washington Irving
- Known For: Father of the American short story, biographer, historian, diplomat
- Also Known As: Dietrich Knickerbocker, Jonathan Oldstyle, and Geoffrey Crayon
- Born: April 3, 1783 in New York City
- Parents: William Irving and Sarah Sanders
- Died: November 28, 1859 in Tarrytown, New York
- Education: Elementary school, law school
- Published Works: A History of New York, The Sketch Book (including the stories Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow), Bracebridge Hall, The Alhambra, The Life of George Washington
- Fiancée: Matilda Hoffmann
- Notable Quote: “There is a certain relief in change, even though it be from bad to worse; as I have found in travelling in a stage-coach, that it is often a comfort to shift one’s position and be bruised in a new place.”
Early Life and Education
Washington Irving was born on April 3, 1783, in New York City. His father William was a Scottish-American merchant, and his mother Sarah Sanders was the daughter of an English clergyman. At the time of his birth, the American Revolution was just ending.
His parents were patriotic. His mother said upon the birth of her 11th child,
“[General] Washington’s work is ended and the child shall be named after him.” According to Irving biographer Mary Weatherspoon Bowden, “Irving maintained close ties with his family his entire life.”
Washington Irving read a great deal as a boy, including “Robinson Crusoe,” “Sinbad the Sailor,” and “The World Displayed.” His formal education consisted of elementary school until he was 16, where he performed without distinction.
Early Writing Career
Irving began writing when he was 19 as a journalist using the pseudonym Jonathan Oldstyle. As a reporter for his brother Peter’s newspaper The Morning Chronicle, he covered Aaron Burr’s treason trial.
Diedrich Knickerbocker (right) is Washington Irving’s narrator in “A History of New York.”. Culture Club / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Irving traveled widely in Europe from 1804 to 1806 on a “grand tour,” paid for by his family. After returning, using the pseudonym Dietrich Knickerbocker, Irving published the 1809 comic history of Dutch life in New York, “A History of New York.” Some literary scholars consider this work of burlesque fiction to be his greatest book. He then studied law and he passed the bar in 1807.
Washington Irving was engaged to marry Matilda Hoffmann, the daughter of a prominent local family. She died of consumption on April 26, 1809, at the age of 17. Irving never became engaged or married anyone after the tragedy.
This loss indeed scarred his life. In response to an inquiry about why he had never married, Irving wrote in a letter, saying: “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.”
Europe and Literary Acclaim
Irving returned to Europe in 1815 and lived there for 17 years. In 1820, he published “The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent,” a collection of stories including his best-known works, “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” These stories are thought to be the first examples of the genre of the short story, and they are both gothic and humorous.
Washington Irving was in London when his artist-friend Charles Leslie painted this portrait of him in 1820. The New York Public Library / public domain
“The Sketch-Book” was a milestone in American literary history because it was the first piece of American writing to garner European recognition. James Fenimore Cooper was the only other contemporary American writer to receive international acclaim. Later in his life, Irving would encourage the careers of great American authors Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, and Herman Melville.
This print imagines Washington Irving entertaining his literary contemporaries at Sunnyside. Library of Congress / public domain
In 1832 while living in Spain, Irving published “Alhambra,” which described the history and stories of Moorish Spain. After a few years back in the United States, Irving returned to Spain, serving as the U.S. minister to Spain from 1842–1845 under President John Tyler.
Irving returned to the United States in 1846 and moved back to his home of Sunnyside in Tarrytown, New York. In his later years, he wrote less fiction. His works include essays, poetry, travel writing, and biography. Over his lifetime, he published biographies of poet Oliver Goldsmith, the prophet Muhammad, and Christopher Columbus.
Washington Irving’s beloved Sunnyside estate is now open to visitors. Eden, Janine and Jim / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Irving’s contributions to the American idiom include coining the word “Gotham” as a nickname for New York City. Irving was also the first to use the phrase “the almighty dollar.”
Later Years and Death
With his popularity high, Irving kept up with work and correspondence into his 70s. He completed his five-volume biography of his namesake George Washington only eight months before his death.
Washington Irving died of a heart attack in Tarrytown, New York on November 28, 1859. He seemed to foretell his death, as he said before going to bed: “Well, I must arrange my pillows for another weary night! If this could only end!” Irving was, fittingly, buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.
American literary scholar Fred Lewis Pattee summarized Irving’s contributions as follows:
“He made short fiction popular; stripped the prose tale of its didactic elements and made it a literary form solely for entertainment; added richness of atmosphere and unity of tone; added definite locality and actual American scenery and people; brought a peculiar nicety of execution and patient workmanship; added humor and lightness of touch; was original; created characters who are always definite individuals; and endowed the short story with a style that is finished and beautiful.”
In 1940, Irving was the first author to be featured on the “Famous Americans” series stamps.