- New York City, New York
- April 3, 1783 – Born
“Many a man of passable information at the present day reads scarcely anything but reviews, and before long a man of crudition will be little better than a mere walking catalogue.” – Washington Irving
Life Sketch from The Other Eminent Men of Wilford WoodruffCopyright © Taken from the book: The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Special thanks to Vicki Jo Anderson. Please do not copy. Father of American Literature 1783-1859
Early LifeBorn at the end of the Revolutionary War, Washington Irving has been referred to as the Washington of American literature. He was born in New York on 3 April 1783, the eighth son and the youngest of eleven children. During the war New York had been devastated by the British, and Irving’s family had been driven to New Jersey because they were loyal to the colonies. His father and mother did what they could for the prisoners held in the holds of the British ships, often taking food off their own table to furnish the prisoners with clothes, blankets, and other necessities. This they did at the peril of their own lives. Though British themselves, these acts did not endear the Irvings to the British. The new baby boy was not baptized until after George Washington had retaken the city. At his mother’s request he was christened Washington Irving. “Washington’s work is ended, and the child shall be named after him.” she said. 2 In New York, in 1789, George Washington received the oath of office as president of the United States. Young Irving, age six, witnessed Washington as he was driven through the street on his way to his inauguration. Cannons roared, bells pealed, and the crowd shouted acclaim and cheered their hero. Everyone sensed that his occasion marked the real birth of the new nation. New York remained the nation’s capitol for a number of years. Irving in his later years recalls:
I remember George Washington perfectly. There was some occasion when he appeared in the public procession; my nurse, a good old Scotch woman, was very anxious for me to see him, and held me up in her arms as he rode past. This, however, did not satisfy her; so the next day when walking with me in Broadway, she espied him in a shop, she seized my hand, and darting, exclaimed in her bland Scotch, “Please, your excellency, here’s a bairn that’s called after ye!” General Washington then turned his benevolent face full upon me, smiled, laid his hand upon my head, and gave me his blessing, which… I have reason to believe has attended me through life. I was but five years old, yet I can feel that hand upon my head even now.3Historians acquainted with this occasion have written that if was fitting that the father of country bless the life the future father of the country’s literature. Because Irving was not as robust as his older brothers, not as much was expected of him. The older brothers and sisters doted over their younger brother, who repaid them generously with his warm heart and quick sense of humor. The father, William Irving, was a very strict Presbyterian. The family attended three sermons on Sundays and the children studied catechism on Thursday afternoon. It is little wonder that the Irving children’s favorite game was to play church preaching, and taking the sacrament. At an early age Irving began to wander through the nearby streets. He had a natural love of rambling and was willing to listen to any stories told along the way. He observed the custom in the different hamlets, enjoying visits with those who had a life-time of experience. He became familiar with the Hudson River and was the first to describe its beauty. He made friends with the Dutch, who introduced him to Sleepy Hollow and the majestic Highlands beyond. The Catskill Mountains had a most bewitching effect on his lively boyhood imagination. Irving describes himself as a saunterer and a dreamer. And rightly so, for Irving was not of the colonial or revolutionary period; he was of the new independent era when the government was assured and dreams could become a reality. In 1787, Irving entered kindergarten but did not find books and study very pleasant. Learning seemed to come hard to him. Irving, however, was a favorite of the headmaster, who often called him “General.” It was here, in the Romaine school, that he discovered his taste for the theater. At the age of eleven he performed in his first play. When it was time for the little star to make his grand entry, he was chewing on stick honey cake. There was no time to swallow it or get rid of it. He found himself on stage before an audience, unable to speak, his mouth gummed up with cake. There was nothing else to do but put his finger in his mouth, hook the offending piece, and take it out, much to the delight of the audience. At thirteen he wrote his first play in which the neighborhood children performed his thirst for the theater was insatiable. His father was much against the theater, believing that in some way pleasure was bad. So, often young Irving would go out his bedroom window after prayers and the roof of the coal shed, and attend the last acts of the play at the nearby theater. He returned to his room as quietly as he had slipped out.
Love for Reading and Other thingsEven though study was difficult, Irving loved reading, particularly adventure books. Among these were Robinson Crusoe’’ and Robin Hood’’. His father permitted no reading after the children were in bed. But these adventures held such a facination for him he used stubs of candles to read by. Even at school he was found under his desk reading, instead of doing his work. He also loved to wander down to the wharfs and watch the ships come in. He decided that he would become a sailor and go to sea. There was however, one small problem: his distaste for living on salt pork. Rather than give up his plan, he began to practice eating salt pork and sleeping on the floor, It soon became evident that such measures were of no help. He gave up the idea entirely. Because Irving wanted to see places outside New York, his brothers and sisters convinced their father to let him go up the Hudson to visit his oldest sister Ann. This visit was the beginning of his almost continual wanderings. He began to study law out of necessity, but his heart was not in it. He studied in the law office of Judge Josiah Hoffman and became an intimate friend of the family.
Tour of EuropeNot long after this his brothers and sisters, who were concerned for his health, sent him to England. He attended the theaters throughout England and toured Europe for two years. In Paris he was invited to a gathering put on by Mme. de Stael, where he met the great Alexander von Humboldt. In Italy, he saw the fleet of Lord Horatio Nelson sweeping by the port on its way to the great naval battle of Trafalgar. In Spain, he almost took up art as a profession. Upon his return to the states he began to write using the name of “Jonathan Oldstyle.” His brother William published his work in a periodical called the Salmagundi. These writings do not contain the polish of his later work but they were brighter and livelier than anything that had yet been published in America. Irving fell deeply in love with the daughter of Judge Hoffman and they became engaged. Although he was still studying law his heart was not in it. He wrote:
In the midst of this struggle and anxiety she was taken ill with a cold. Nothing was thought of it at first; but she grew rapidly worse… I cannot tell you what I suffered… I saw her fade rapidly away; beautiful, and more beautiful and more angelic to the last… For three days and nights I did not leave the house, and scarcely slept. I was by her when she died. 4In his sorrow he wrote his brother, Peter: “May her gentle spirit have found that heaven to which it ever seemed to appertain! She was too spotless for this contaminated world.” 5 Irving never married. In his grief, Irving immersed himself in the work he had already begun: Knickerbocker’s History of New York. It was to become the forerunner of American literary humor. The poor Dutch were not accustomed to such gentle ribbing and Irving sent them a letter of explanation. Not long after, because of his knowledge and acquaintances at the Capitol, his brother sent him to lobby on behalf of the merchants in New York. This occupation was great medicine for his sorrowful heart. While in Washington, Irving attended the balls given by Dolly Madison and became good friends with the first Lady. When the dreadful news reached Irving that the British had captured the nation’s capitol in the war of 1812, he was sailing on a steamboat. He had been against the war but when the announcement was made on the boat, he overheard a snide remark about what President “Jimmy Madison” would say now. Irving sprang to his feet and said: “Sir! do you seize on such a disaster only for a sneer? Let me tell you, sir, it is not a question now about ‘Jimmy’ Madison or ‘Jimmy Armstrong’ or any other ‘Jimmy.’ The pride and honor of the nation are wounded, the country is insulted and disgraced by the barbarous success, and every loyal citizen should feel ignominy.” 6 The whole cabin broke in applause. Irving volunteered his services to the governor and became a colonel.
Starting to WriteWhen the war was over, he set sail for Europe. He intended to help his brother’s business in London. But the business failed, providentially causing Irving to return to writing for maintenance. His fame had already preceded him to England, and he was invited to Abbotsford in Scotland to stay as a guest of Sir Walter Scott. Scott delighted in the writings of the young American. Concerning the occasion Scottrelates; “He [Irving] is one of the best and pleasantest acquaintances, that I have made this many a day.”7 Irving chose the pen name of “Geoffrey Crayon” and made notes of all he heard and saw as he traveled. Using his notes he wrote his immortal Sketch Book. This work thrust him into instant stardom. The reviews were enthusiastic on both sides of the Atlantic. This publication not only established him as America’s first man of letters but also gave him financial independence. It was in this book which held the account of Rip Van Winkle, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “The Mutability of Literature,” among many delightful others. Tales of this kind were until then unknown in English literature. The tradition of Christmas feasting experienced a revival as a result of one of the stories in the book. It was this Sketch Book that caused Americans traveling to England to seek out and visit Westminster Abbey and other English places of note. It also helped Americans who had been estranged from the land of their heritage to feel more warmth toward it, The English writer William Thackeray called him: “the first ambassador whom the New World of Letters sent to the old.” 8 Praising him for his constant good will to the mother country Lord Byron wrote: “Irving[‘s] … writing are my delight.” Mary Mitford wrote: “Few, very few, can show a long succession of volumes so pure, so graceful and so carried.” The comments of noted people of Europe continued. The great Shakespearean actress, Mrs. Sarah Siddons told Irving that he made her weep, and her actor brother John Kemble shared her admiration for the young American author.9 In 1826, Irving received an appointment from the U.S. government to go to Spain. Martin Fernandez de Navarrete asked him to translate the documents he had gathered on Columbus. Irving’s interest was so sparked by these documents that he decided to write a biography of Columbus, It was only fitting that the man who took the new world to the old world should write the biography of the man who opened the way to the new world. The Life of Columbus was followed Companions of Columbus and A Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada. Then Irving wrote the Alhambra, which referred to by the historian Prescott as “the Spanish Sketch Book.” For all this work he was elected to the Spanish Royal Academy of History. After a seventeen-year absence, Irving returned to America. He was given a hero’s welcome. He dined with President Jackson and became an unofficial adviser on foreign affairs. He settle in at his home, Sunnyside, in the state of New York, and wrote the biography of Oliver Goldsmith.
Becoming a Minister to SpainIn 1842, at the urging of then Secretary of State, Daniel Webster, President Tyler appointed Irving as minister to Spain. He was well-known and well-received in Madrid. Spain was in tremendous turmoil during this time but Irving skillfully maneuvered among all factions. His correspondence and dispatches to Webster revealed his work. He championed Spain’s possession of Cuba against English and French threats. He also promoted American trade interests in Cuba. After four years he returned again to America. Spain regretted the loss of her great defender.
Irving’s DeathOn his return, Irving fulfilled his life’s dream of writing the biography of George Washington. He had taken notes on the man for twenty-five years. So much of his life went into this work that after he finished the first two volumes he heard to remark that if he could only live to finish it, he would be willing to die the next moment. Irving greatly suffered as he continued his work on the next volumes. He finished the fifth volume on 15 March 1859, then collapsed. His strength failed him but he had finished his work, and finally on 28 November 1859, he died. Copyright © Taken from the book: The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Special thanks to Vicki Jo Anderson. Please do not copy. 10
- Anderson, Vicki Jo. (1994). The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Cottonwood, AZ: Zichron Historical Research Institute.
- Mathew Brander. An Introduction to the Study of American Literature. New York: American Book Company, 1918 p. 41
- Wood, James Playsted. Sunnyside, A Life of Washington Irving. Pantheon Books, n.d., p. 11.
- Irving Pierre E. The Life and Letters of Washington Irving. London: H.G. Bohn, 1864, p. 128-29.
- Ibid., p. 127.
- Wright, Mabie Hamilton, and Hale Edward Everett. Men and Women of Achievement: Self-Help. Philadelphia: The After School Club, 1909, 9:161.
- Congresional Record, Entered According to Act of Congress, In The Year 1860, By William Cullen Bryant, In The Clerk Office OF The District Court Of The United States, For The Southern District Of New York On The Life, Character, And Genius Of Washington Irving p. 21.
- Matthew, p. 49.
- See iid.
- Anderson, Vicki Jo. (1994). The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Cottonwood, AZ: Zichron Historical Research Institute.