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Washington Irving: An American Literary Legend

Washington Irving: An American Literary Legend

Picture of Vincent Amoroso
Updated: 15 November 2016
On the surface, Washington Irving was a star even in his own time. Women swooned in his presence, and New York City’s political elite sought to be near him. However, for all his relative fame and popularity, the private Irving was nothing short of a paradox to his public persona. Yet with all his flaws and personal discord, he was no less an American literary giant. This is a closer look at Washington Irving. 

Though born in New York City, Washington Irving came from a humble, middle-class background. He was the youngest of eleven children and son to conservative Presbyterian Deacon, William Irving, a proud and inflexible man who always seemed disappointed by Washington’s lack of academic prowess. From the time young Washington entered his first school on Ann Street, most of his teachers considered him to be a poor student, who often fell behind others in his class.

Courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.

However, if there was ever a sign that one day great things would come from Irving, it would have been defined by his birthday. He was born on April 4, 1783, which happened to be the day the British enacted a ceasefire that essentially ended the American Revolution. As a child, Irving attended President George Washington’s inauguration, and even had the man who he was named after rustle his hair.  

Growing up, Washington Irving found more joy in educating himself, rather than learning in school. He read newspapers and adventure stories, even as his teachers would prattle along with their daily lessons. Irving would eventually go on to study law, but had no love for the profession. His real passion came from writing. Brian Jay Jones, author of Washington Irving: An American Original, writes that he was ‘The first American to earn a living by pen, Washington Irving was America’s first bona fide best-selling author.’

Upon Washington Irving’s return to New York City, from a stint in Europe from 1804-06, he arrived home to a town that had transformed. New York City was not only a rapidly growing financial metropolis, with famed entrepreneurs like John Jacob Astor and John Beekman, but it had also become a social center as well. The population had expanded to a bustling 60,000 residents. Social clubs and parlors lined once largely rural streets. It had also become a place where most were not shy about public drinking and carousing. However, along with New York City’s social explosion, it became a highly sophisticated town where some sought to make at least a partial living from writing.

Washington Irving and his Literary Friends at Sunnyside | © Cliff / Flickr

Washington Irving was no stranger to New York City’s nightlife. He quickly became friends with the likes of Henry Brevoort Jr., Gouverneur Kemble, and James K. Paulding who would eventually become a partner in Irving’s first literary endeavor. Over drinks one night, Irving and Paulding landed on an idea. They decided to create a literary journal made up of humorous essays entitled Salmagundi. The pair teamed up with printer David Longworth. Their intent was to poke fun at all things from society to politics, writing under amusing pseudonyms like Launcelot Langstaff and Mustapha Rub-A-Dub Keli Khan. New Yorkers at the time would recognize the term salmagundi as a cold dish made with chopped meat, onions, and eggs.

Brian Jay Jones writes, ‘New York had never seen anything like it. Readers snapped up copies faster than Longworth could print them.” It is rumored that in a single day as much as 800 copies would be sold. Salmagundi was an instant success, and to its creators it brought a great deal of wealth. It was in this work where the term Gotham was used to describe New York City. So popular was the journal, New Yorkers soon became known as “Gothamites.” Others began to contribute essays and stories to the journal, such as his brother William, who Washington viewed as a surrogate father.

Despite the money the journal brought them, Washington Irving never seemed comfortable with his own success. ‘His manner and tastes were simple and unassuming,’ was how the writer was described by Henry W. Boynton, in his book Washington Irving. Moreover, in private Irving was said to be jealous and trivial. He was often terrified over his own finances, and sometimes highly belligerent towards literary critics. Though men and women of stature wanted to be near him, even at the height of his fame, Irving was cynical about politics, and highly critical of religion. After twenty issues, Salmagundi folded despite its popularity. Financial disputes over money with printer David Longworth, led to the downfall of the journal.

Washington Irving Rests in Sleepy Hollow / © John Fischer / Flickr

Shortly after, Washington Irving sought a new project, and one that would not only bring him local accolades, but would earn him national notoriety. Washington Irving paired with his brother Peter to make a spoof of a more pompous version of a New York tour book written by a Professor of Chemistry and Zoology at Columbia, Dr. Samuel Mitchell, called The Traveller’s Guide Through the Commercial Metropolis of the United States. Irving’s book was entitled A History of New York, under the pseudonym Dredrich Knickerbocker (which also became a name to describe New Yorkers) a Dutch historian.

Washington Irving’s fame and popularity became unstoppable. He would go on to write classics like The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, as part of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Irving would even go on to serve as ambassador to Spain on two separate occasions. Though his public and private personas will always be seen as conflicted, Irving’s greatest achievement remains his contribution to American literature.