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Washington Irving

1783-1859

Washington Irving Steel Engraving

IRVING, Washington, author, born in New York city, 3 April, 1783; died at Sunnyside, Irvington, N. Y., 28 Nov., 1859. His father was William Irving, of the Orkneys, a man of good lineage, who a little after the middle of the last century had taken to a sea-faring life ; and it was while serving as petty officer upon a British armed packet, which plied between Falmouth and New York, that he encountered at the former port a beautiful girl--Sarah Sanders by name--who became his wife. He married in 1761, and in 1763 migrated with her to New York, where he established himself in trade in William street, at a point midway between Fulton and John. There are no traces now of that first Irving home into which were born eleven children, eight of them reaching maturity; of these, Washington, the subject of this notice, and the author of the " Sketch-Book," was the youngest. 

The father did fairly well in his business ventures, but had his tribulations, growing out of his fervid patriotism in the days of the Revolution, when his house lay within easy gun-shot of the British war-ships. Once, indeed, he had been compelled to decamp and take refuge in the Jerseys, but in 1784--a year after the birth of his son Washington --he was established in a new and commodious home. There are old New-Yorkers who remember its quaint stables, and our author's biographer tells us of a visit that Washington Irving made to this home of his boyhood ten years before his death, and of the merry twinkle of the eye with which he told of his escapades over this or that loft or through this or that window in the peaked gables, for a run to the theatre in John street, or for a foray upon adjoining roofs, whence he could safely discharge a little volley of pebbles down the chimney of some wondering neighbor. Such stories were not needed by any reader of the Knickerbocker chronicle to convince him of the love of mischief in the lad. 

Indeed, mischievous propensities declared themselves the more strongly in all likelihood because the father, Deacon Irving, was a strict disciplinarian. He was, indeed, a man of all probity, with a high sense of honor, and uniformly respected; but he held all play-houses in detestation, counted dancing a sin, and looked askance upon any Sunday reading in his household beyond the catechism or Bible story, or --delightful exception for the boy-- Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress." The mother of Washington had more of toleration in her judgments and of sunshine in her temperament; all accounts represent her as a dear, good, lively, cheery, sympathetic person, beloved in her household, and doubtless taking away the edge from many a paternal rebuke by her forgiving caresses.

At the age of four Irving went to a woman's school in Anti Street, and shortly afterward to that of an old soldier in Fulton Street. But these were not the busy thoroughfares that we know by those names. In going and coming, the lad must have caught sight many times, between the houses, of East river and of the heights of Long Island. There were gardens in his own street which reached down to the water, the old Dutch church had its green yard abutting upon Nassau street, and beyond Chambers cows were at pasture. The boy's schooling was not of a thorough sort, and when it ended, he being then sixteen, he had only, beyond the ordinary English branches, a smattering of Latin and of music, and such dancing skill as he had come by furtively. But he had read intelligently and voraciously such books as "Sindbad," " Gulliver," and "Robinson Crusoe." Why he was not presented for a course in Columbia college, which two of his elder brothers had taken, does not appear; instead, he entered a law-office, relieving his studies there (which, it would seem, were not very strenuous) by literary squibs, under the pen-name of "Jonathan Old-style," for the "Morning Chronicle," and later by a memorable sloop voyage up the Hudson, tacking and scudding under the Highlands, and floating for days together in sight of the blue Catskills, on his way to visit some kinsfolk who lived in the wilds of northern New York. 

The trip was undertaken partly for his health; continued invalidism, with threat of pulmonary trouble, determined his friends in the spring of 1804 to send him upon European voyaging. It was largely at the instance of his brother William, who was seventeen years his senior, and well established, that this scheme was effected. Washington was at that date twenty-one, a little below the average height, delicate, handsome of feature --Vanderlyn's somewhat too effeminate portrait of him gives doubtless a good notion of his appearance in that day -- full of all courtesies, too, and with a most winning manner. He had even then given token of strong literary aptitude and of a keen humor. He carried abundant letters, and was warmly received at Bordeaux, at Genoa, at Naples; a glamour of romance hangs over his story of the trip in home letters. Off Messina he saw the great fleet of Nelson, which was presently a-wing for Trafalgar; at Rome he met Washington Allston, and by interfusion of minds became almost mated to Allston's life of art. Meantime admonitory letters were coming from the staid brother William to see Florence, to see Venice, to improve his opportunities. But he had determined to make a straight way for Paris. He heard that excellent lectures on chemistry and botany were within free reach there, besides the chances for the language. And he goes, and has a gay "outing" in that capital ; there is, indeed, mention in his record of the costs of a botanical dictionary, and for two months' tuition in French; but there is more mention of Talma and of the theatres, which he takes by turn and follows up with alacrity and method.

He goes thence to London, via Holland, and is "put out there," as he says, by his "gray coat, embroidered white vest, and colored small-clothes," a gay young fellow! He is enraptured with Mrs. Siddons, who is playing in those days; is in the theatre, indeed, when news of Nelson's death comes to England like a thunderbolt. On his return to New York in 1806 with re-established health and with critical faculty whetted by foreign life, he undertook, in conjunction with his friend James K. Paulding (q. v.) and his brother William, the publication of "Sahnagundi," a periodical of the "Spectator" stamp, but lacking its finish and vitality. He took up law again, but never showed a love for it. There entered also a disturbing element into his studies of whatever sort at this period, by reason of a strong attachment with tragic ending which he formed for the accomplished daughter of his friend and legal instructor, Judge Hoffman. In a confidential communication to an intimate friend many years later he says: " I was by her when she died; all the family were assembled round her, some praying, others weeping, for she was adored by them all. I was the last one she looked upon. The despondency I had suffered for a long time in the course of this attachment, and the anguish that attended its catastrophe, seemed to give a turn to my whole character and throw some clouds into my disposition, which have ever since hung about it. When I became more calm and collected, I applied myself, by way of occupation, to the finishing of my work. I brought it to a close as well as I could, and published it; but the time and circumstances in which it was produced rendered me always unable to look upon it with satisfaction." 

The work alluded to was the "History of New York by Diedrich Knickerbocker" (1809), a work which in his latter years Irving was able to look upon with more complacency. It had great success; it established his early fame; even its pecuniary returns, $3,000, were notable in that day. There are traces in it of his love of Sterne and of Rabelais; there are broader sallies in it than he would have ventured upon in his maturity; but there is a breezy and boisterous fun that is all his own, and that has brought the echoes of its rollicking humor distinctly down to our times. There is some coquetting with tile law after this; he even appeared at the trial of Aaron Burr (Richmond, 1807)in a quasi-legal capacity; but he was more apt in the social junketings he encountered and enlivened in Philadelphia and Baltimore.

In 1810 he became a partner, with one-fifth interest, in a commercial house that was established by his brothers -- Peter, in England, and Ebenezer, in New York. This promised, and for a time gave, a fair revenue, which allowed such easy dalliance with literature as his humors permitted; there followed, indeed, certain editorial relations with the old "Analectic Magazine" in Philadelphia in 1813-'14, in which appeared one or two papers that were afterward incorporated in the "Sketch-Book." Yet his literary methods were scarcely more business-like than his law. 

In 1815 he sailed for Europe, old recollections luring him; besides which, his brother Peter was in England; a married sister had a charming home, gay with young voices, near Birmingham; scores of old friends were ready to welcome him in London, and Napoleon was just started on a new career, after Elba. But, on Irving's arrival in Liverpool, Waterloo had befallen, his brother Peter was ill, and the affairs of the house of P. and E. Irving were shaky. As a consequence much commercial task-work fell to his hands ; there was relief, however, in the trips to London, and to the charming home near Birmingham ; in the meeting with Allston and Leslie, who contributed to an illustrated edition of the Knickerbocker history ; in the theatre-going, where Kean and the O'Neil were shining; in quiet sauntering about Warwickshire; in encounters with Campbell and Disraeli, and with Scott at Abbots-ford. The "Knickerbocker" fame opened doors to him everywhere, and his delightful humor, bonhomie, and courtesy kept them open. 

There were two or three years of such pleasures, dampened by commercial forebodings, till at last, in 1818, the house went into bankruptcy. William Irving meantime had used influences at Washington, through which a secretaryship in the navy department, with $2,500 per annum, was offered to the author; but it was peremptorily declined. He was feeling his power to do somewhat with his pen of better worth ; yet for a long time the very exaltation of his purpose palsied his writing faculty. It was not until 1819 that he transmitted to this country, for publication in New York and Philadelphia, the first number of the "Sketch-Book." It appeared in June, ninety-two pages, octavo, "large type and copious margins," and sold for seventy-five cents. Among the papers in this first number was the story of Rip Van Winkle, the tatterdemalion of the Kaatskills, who is still living a lustyyouthhood. Other numbers quickly succeeded, and were approved and hugely enjoyed in New York and Philadelphia, before yet British applause of them had sounded. But this came in its time, and with a fervor that had never before been kindled by work from an American hand. 

John Murray became eventually (1820) the publisher of the "Sketch-Book," as also of the succeeding works of "Bracebridge Hall" (2 vols., London, 1822), and "Tales of a Traveller" (1824). For the first he paid $2,400, for the second $5,250, and for the third $7,875 -- sums which most readers will regard as bearing inverse ratio to their merits, but which marked lrving's growing popularity. The "Sketch-Book" was approved by the best critical judgment of those days, for its graces of language, its delicate fancies, its touches of pathos, and its quiet humor; and, although there may be modern question of this judgment at some points, there is a leaven of charm in it for the average mind which has kept it in favor and made it the most popular of the Irving books.
Meantime the author was enjoying himself in travelling. 

In 1826 he found himself in Madrid, going thither at the instance of U. S. minister Alexander H. Everett, who made him attaché of the legation, and advised his translation of Navarrete's "Voyages of Columbus," which was then in course of publication. This work he entered upon with zeal; but soon, inspired by the picturesque aspects of the subject, gave over the project of translation and determined to make his own "Life of Columbus." Upon this he worked with a will, and as early as July, 1827, advised Murray of its completion. It was published (3 vols., 1828) by Murray in London and Carvill in New York, their joint payments reaching the sum of $18,000. The sale did not equal the expectations of Mr. Murray ; an abridgment, however, without honorarium to the author, had large success. The research requisite to this work gave Irving a footing with serious readers, who had ignored him as a romancer: its accuracy, its clearness of style, and its safe judgments have given it place in all historic libraries. Two succeeding books, of a more popular cast, which grew out of Irving's study of Spanish chronides, were the "Conquest of Granada " (1829) and the "Alhambra" tales (1832). This last was the result of the author's enjoyable occupancy, by favor of the governor, of a suite of rooms in the old Moorish palace in the summer of 1829. There is in it pleasant description of his surroundings there--the towers, the courts, the dusky-eyed attendants--with a fantastic dressing up of old Moorish legends. The "Granada" chronicle is a romantic narrative of the actual struggles which belonged to the Moorish subjugation in Spain. It was while a resident of the Alhambra, in 1829, that Irving received news of his appointment to the post of secretary of legation in London. With some hesitancy he accepted, bade adieu to his Spanish friends, and went to a pleasant renewal of his old alliances in England. He passed three years there, taking to diplomatic lines of life not ungraciously, and making new friendships; and with a medal of the Royal society of literature (1830), a doctorate from Oxford (1831), and other enviable honors, he sailed for New York in 1832, after seventeen years of absence. The greeting that met him was most marked and sincere; even the stammering hesitancy with which he met it, at a public dinner, provoked new cheers of hearty welcome. Neither diplomacy nor great literary successes had spoiled his modesty.


 Copyright© 2001 by VirtualologyTM

It was at this period that he purchased and put in shape the stone cottage that formed his
after-home, and that of his brother and nieces, at Sunnyside, which is shown in the accompanying illustration. But the travelling habit was strong upon him, and within a year he was away upon the prairies, the trip having delightful outcome thereafter in his "Tour on the Prairies" (1835). A friendly association, too, with John Jacob Astor, at whose home on Harlem river he spent much time, resulted in the compilation, in conjunction with his nephew Pierre, of the records of "Astoria " (2 vols., Philadelphia, 1836). This was followed by the "Adventures of Captain Bonneville " (1837).
A project for writing a history of Mexico that he had long entertained was given up on learning, in 1839, that William H. Prescott was engaged upon the theme. A temporary association with the " Knickerbocker Magazine" became the occasion of putting to press a few papers of various quality, which served later to make up the bulk of a book of miscellany, called "Wolfert's Roost" (New York, 1854). In the year 1842, while Irving was living quietly at Sunnyside, he was appointed by President Tyler, at the instance of Daniel Webster, then secretary of state, minister to Spain. The United States senate promptly confirmed the appointment, and the whole country gave a quick and loud approval. 

The author, aged fifty-nine, and beginning to feel somewhat the weight of years, was reluctant to leave home; but the expenses of his household were large; all his earlier books were out of print and bringing no revenue; his vested property was tied up largely in non-paying stocks or lands ; his purpose of engaging upon the "Life of Washington" might, he thought, find execution in Madrid. He accepted, therefore, and in a letter from Paris, on the way to his post, he says: "I am somewhat of a philosopher, so I shall endeavor to resign myself to the splendor of courts and the conversation of courtiers, comforting myself with the thought that the time will arrive when I shall once more return to sweet little Sunnyside, to be able to sit on a stone fence and talk about politics and rural affairs with neighbor Forkel and Uncle Brom [Ebenezer]." His residence of four years at the court of Spain was uneventful; but his letters of that period afford interesting glimpses of the young queen, of Christina, of Espartero, of Narvaez, of the insurrections of 1843. Even his diplomatic correspondence shows at times the old glow that belonged to his Andalusian life. He was never weaned from a yearning fondness for the atmosphere of Spain, for the dark-eyed women, and for the proud grandees that once gave dignity to its history. Little was accomplished, however, in these years upon his "Life of Washington." Over and over, in his private letters, he lamented his literary inactivity; but the round of diplomatic courtesies and the larger round of friendly socialites were in the way of methodic work. Uncertain health, too, compelled repeated absences, and seriously interfered with that old blitheness of mood under which only his best work could find accomplishment.


Resigning his post some months before the appointment of his successor, he returned to the United States, reaching his home of Sunnyside in September, 1846, where thirteen years of happy life still remained for him. One of his first tasks upon arrival was to enlarge the country home and make it ample for a household which, by his generous insistence, now included his brother Ebenezer and his family. The squat tower, with its pagoda-like roof, added at this time, is perhaps the most salient architectural feature of the homestead. There were periodic dashes from year to year at. his long-delayed "Life of Washington"; and in 1848 an agreement with George P. Putnam --a liberal and energetic publisher of New York, who became a fast friend--demanded revision of all his published works for a new and uniform edition (15 vols., 1848-'50). This enterprise proved extraordinarily successful and Irving was induced to add to his older books a "Life of Mahomet and his Successors" (1849-'50), which had been long floating in his mind, but not of the author's best; also a "Life of Goldsmith" (1849)--this last was an extension of a sketch that was originally printed in the Paris (Baudry) library of British authors, and offered a subject which was at one with all of Irving's tastes and sympathies. It is a delightful biography, and sparkles throughout with the author's best touches. In 1852 he writes, "My ' Life of Washington' lags and drags heavily"; indeed, age had begun to tell seriously upon him; nor did he find in his study of old home records the picturesque aspects which so kindled his enthusiasms in his former gropings among the Moorish and Spanish chronicles. Yet he put an honest hand to the work and a clear head; but it was not until 1855 that the first volume appeared. It was well received ; but it was easy to see that esteem for the author and for his past triumphs lent no inconsiderable force to the encomiums bestowed upon the new work. 

At the close of 1855 the second volume appeared; the third in 1856; the fourth in 1857; the fifth dragged wearily. "I have taken things to pieces," he says, "and could not put them together again." "A streak of old age" had come upon him; he had "wearisome muddles" in his work; his asthma was very afflictive: his years counted seventy-five; nor was it until 1859, within less than a twelvemonth of his death, that the fifth and last volume appeared. The conditions had not been such as favor vigorous literary work. We must go back to the days of his full strength and vigor to measure his true forces. In this book of "Washington" there is a clear, pale outline of the distinguished American leader, wonderfully vivid transcripts of the battles, sagacious judgments, great fairness, and sturdy American feeling; but there is no such strong grasp of the subject or such sustained vigor of treatment as will rank it with his earlier works or with great biographies.\

There were no financial anxieties to disturb his later years; the revenue from his books was very large ; he could and did make his old generosities more lavish ; his hospitalities were free and hearty ; he loved the part of entertainer and graced it. His mode of living showed a quiet elegance, but was never ostentatious. At the head of his table--cheered by the presence of old friends--his speech bubbled over with young vivacities, and his arching brow and a whimsical light in his eye foretold and exalted every sally of his humor. His rides and drives and cheery smiles of greeting brought him
to the knowledge of all the neighborhood. When he died, the grief there was universal and sincere. On the day of his funeral (1 Dec., 1859), a remarkably mild day for the season, the village shops were closed and draped in mourning, and both sides of the high-road leading from the church, of which he had been warden, to the grave by Sleepy Hollow, where his body lies, were black with the throngs of those who had come from far and near to do honor to his memory. 

We cannot class Washington Irving among those strenuous souls who delve new channels for thought; his touch in literature is of a gentler sort. We may safely, however, count him the best beloved among American authors--his character was so clean, his language so full of grace, his sympathies so true and wide, and his humor so genuine and abounding. After his death appeared his "Life and Letters," edited by his nephew, who also collected and edited his "Spanish Papers and other Miscellanies" (3 vols., 1866). During Irving's lifetime, 600,000 volumes of his works were sold in the United States, and from his death till the present, time (1887) the annual sale has averaged 30,000 volumes. Of the portraits of Irving, that by his friend, Gilbert Stuart Newton, painted in 1820, was most esteemed by the family, and best liked by the author. The portrait by John Vanderlyn, painted in 1805, that by John Wesley Jarvis, in 1810. and that by Charles Martin, an English artist, in 1851, are well known by engravings. The Jarvis picture was considered excellent, and with the bust by Ball Hughes, which is also good, is still preserved at the Irving homestead of Sunnyside. Portraits by Escacena, painted in Seville, Spain, in 1829, by Vogel in Dresden in 1823, and by Foy in Paris in 1824, which are named in Pierre Irving's biography, are not known by engravings, nor has their present, ownership been traced. Sir David Wilkie's sketch of "Washington Irving consulting the Archives Of Cordova" (25 April, 1828), which forms the frontispiece to one of Wilkie's published volumes, can hardly be considered a likeness. the steel portrait that accompanies this article is from a photograph. Busts of Irving have been set up in Central park and in Prospect park, Brooklyn. The latest edition of Irving's works is that published in New York (27 vols., 12mo, 1884-'6). A tabulated list of books and pamphlets relating to the author's life and writings appeared in the "reference lists" of the Providence public library for April, 1883. 

In the same year was founded a Washington Irving association at Tarrytown, which commemorated the hundredth anniversary of the author's birth by a public meeting and addresses, of which record was made in a memorial volume (New York, 1884). The standard life of Irving is that by his nephew, Pierre M. Irving (4 vols., 1862-'3 ; memorial ed., 4to, 1883; German abridgment by Adolph Lann, Berlin, 1870). See also William C. Bryant's address before the New York historical society (New York, 1860); that of Henry W. Longfellow before the Massachusetts historical society, published in its "Proceedings" (Boston, 1860): "Irvingiana" (New York, 1860); Charles Dudley Warner's " Life of Irving" in the "American Men of Letters" series (Boston, 1881) ; and James Grant Wilson's " Bryant and his Friends" (New York, 1886).--

His brother, William Irving, merchant, b. in New York city, 15 Aug., 1766 ; d. there, 9 Nov., 1821, engaged in commercial pursuits, and from 1787 till 1791 was a fur-trader with the Indians on the Mohawk river, residing at Johnstown and Caughnawaga, N.Y. In 1793 he settled in New York city, and married a sister of James K. Paulding, one of the authors of "Salmagundi." In the preparation of the latter work he took an active part, contributing most of the political pieces " from the mill of Pindar Cockloft." He also furnished hints and sketches for several of the prose articles, as the letters of "Mustapha" in Nos. 5 and 14, which were elaborated by his brother Washington. His extensive experience, combined with his wit and genial manners, made his house a literary centre, and although his poetical and other contributions to "Salmagundi," if issued separately, would have given him a distinct place among American humorists, he was entirely unambitious of literary fame. He was elected to congress three times as a Democrat, serving from 22 Jan., 1814, till 1818, when he resigned in consequence of declining health.

--Another brother, Peter Irving, author, b. in New York city, 30 Oct., 1771; d. there, 27 June, 1838, was graduated as a physician in Columbia in 1794, but never practiced his profession. In October, 1802, he began the publication of the "Morning Chronicle," a Democratic newspaper, which advocated the election of Aaron Burr to the presidency. Among the contributors were the editor's brothers, Washington and John Treat, J. K. Paul-ding, William A. Duet, and Randolph Bunner. In 1807 he traveled in Europe, and on his return projected, with his brother Washington, the work that the latter developed into " Knickerbocker's History of New York." He again visited Europe in 1809, established himself in business there, and remained until 1836. During his residence abroad he published "Giovanni Sbogarro, a Venetian Tale " (New York, 1820).

--Another brother, John Treat Irving, lawyer, b. in New York city in 1778; d. there, 18 March, 1838, was graduated at Columbia in 1798. He studied law, was admitted to the bar, and from 1817 until his death served as presiding judge of the New York court of common pleas. By his contributions to his brother's "Chronicle" he acquired some reputation through his poetical attacks on his political opponents. "He was," says the biographer of Washington Irving, "a man of perfect uprightness and great refinement of character, and enjoyed through life the high respect of the community. In his earlier days he had something of a literary turn, which, however, was soon quenched under the dry details of the law and the resolute fidelity with which he gave himself up to the claims of his profession."

--William's son, Pierre Munroe Irving, lawyer, b. in 1803; d. in New York city, 11 Feb., 1876, was graduated at Columbia in 1821, studied law, and was admitted to the bar. Meeting his uncle, Washington, in Spain in 1826, during a "youthful tour of Europe," he, at the latter's request, took charge of the work of getting the "Life of Columbus" correctly through the press in London. Subsequently he acted as his uncle's literary assistant, managed his business affairs, and attended him in his last illness. Some years before his death, Washington Irving appointed Pierre his biographer, and in 1862-'3 the latter published "The Life and Letters of Washington Irving" (New York). He also edited his uncle's "Spanish Papers and Other Miscellanies" (1866).-Theodore, educator, son of Washington's brother, Ebenezer, b. in New York city, 9 May, 1809; d. there, 20 Dec., 1880, joined his uncle in Spain, and remained three years abroad, attending lectures and devoting himself to the study of modern languages. He subsequently read law in London and New York. In 1836 he was appointed professor of history and belles-lettres in Geneva (now Hobart) college, where he remained until 1848, when he accepted the corresponding chair in the Free academy (now College of the city) of New York.

This he resigned in May, 1852, and two years later, having studied theology, was ordained a priest of the Protestant Episcopal church. He became rector of Christ church, Bay Ridge, Long Island, and for several years had charge of St. Andrew's and afterward of Ascension parish, Staten island. In 1874 he again engaged in teaching, becoming rector of a young ladies' school in New York city. He received the degree of A. M. from Columbia in 1837, and that of LL. D. from Union in 1851. Besides contributing frequently to periodical literature, Mr. Irving was the author of "The Conquest of Florida by Hernando de Soto" (Philadelphia and London, 1835; revised ed., uniform with the collective edition of Washington Irving's works, New York and London, 1851) ; "The Fountain of Living Waters" (New York, 1854 ; 4th ed., 1855) ; "Tiny Footfalls" (1869); and "More than Conqueror" (1873).

--John Treat's son, John Treat Irving, author, b. in New York city, 2 Dec., 1812, was graduated at Columbia in 1829, studied law, and was admitted to the bar. He is the author of "Sketches in an Expedition to the Pawnee Tribes" (2 vols., Philadelphia and London, 1835) ; "Hawk Chief" (Philadelphia and London, 1836) ; "The Attorney" and "Harry Harson, or the Benevolent Bachelor," the last two being first published in the "Knickerbocker Magazine" over the signature of "John Quod" in 1842-'3 ; and "The Van Gelder Papers and Other Sketches" (New York, 1887).
-- Edited American Biography Copyright© 2001 by VirtualologyTM

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