Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Irving, Washington from Philip's Encyclopedia

US essayist and short-story writer. He wrote the burlesque History of New York (1809) under the pseudonym Dietrich Knickerbocker. He is most famous for the stories Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which were written during his 17 years in Europe. He returned to the USA in 1832, where his continuing literary output included Astoria (1836).


Summary Article: Irving, Washington
from The Columbia Encyclopedia

1783–1859, American author and diplomat, b. New York City. Irving was one of the first Americans to be recognized abroad as a man of letters, and he was a literary idol at home.

Early Life and Work

While he studied law, Irving amused himself by writing for periodicals such essays on New York society and the theater as the Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent. (1802–3). From 1804 to 1806 his older brothers financed his tour of France and Italy. On his return he joined William Irving and J. K. Paulding in publishing Salmagundi; or, The Whim-Whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff & Others (1807–8), a series of humorous and satirical essays. Under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker, he published A History of New York (1809), a satire that has been called the first great book of comic literature written by an American. Purporting to be a scholarly account of the Dutch occupation of the New World, the book is a burlesque of history books as well as a satire of politics in his own time.

Later Life and Mature Work

Irving went to England in 1815 to run the Liverpool branch of the family hardware business, but could not save it when the whole firm failed. Thereupon, with the encouragement of Walter Scott, Irving turned definitely to literature. The stories (including “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”), collected in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (London, 1820), appeared serially in New York in 1819–20; their enthusiastic reception made Irving the best-known figure in American literature both at home and abroad. Bracebridge Hall (1822), the next volume of essays, although inferior to the previous book, was well received. However, his Tales of a Traveller (1824), written after visits to Germany and France, was a failure.

Irving became a diplomatic attaché at the American embassy in Madrid in 1826. There he produced his biography of Columbus (1828), largely based on the work of the Spanish historian Navarrete; The Conquest of Granada (1829), a romantic narrative; and the soft, casually charming Spanish sketches of The Alhambra (1832). After a short period at the American legation in London, he returned to New York. In search of colorful material, he made a journey to the frontier and wrote about the American West in A Tour of the Prairies (1835). From records furnished by John Jacob Astor, he wrote Astoria (1836), with Pierre Irving, and The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, U.S.A. (1837).

Irving subsequently established himself at his estate, Sunnyside, near Tarrytown, N.Y., until he was sent to Madrid as American minister to Spain (1842–46). Once more at Sunnyside, he wrote a biography of Goldsmith (1849) and the miscellaneous sketches called Wolfert's Roost (1855) and labored at his biography of George Washington (5 vol., 1855–59), which he completed just before his death.

Irving was master of a graceful and unobtrusively sophisticated prose style. A gentle but effective satirist, he was the creator of a few widely loved essays and tales that have made his name endure.

Bibliography
  • Irving's journals were edited by W. P. Trent and G. S. Hellman (3 vol., 1919, repr. 1970);.
  • The Western Journals (1944) by McDermott, J. F. .
  • See also his life and letters by P. M. Irving (4 vol., 1864; repr. 1967);.
  • biographies by S. T. Williams (2 vol., 1935; repr. 1971),.
  • C. D. Warner (1981), and A. Burstein (2007);.
  • studies by W. L. Hedges (1965, repr. 1980) and J. Rubin-Dorsky (1988).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2018

Related Articles


Full text Article Irving, Washington
Continuum Encyclopedia of American Literature

I. is best described as the first successful professional man of letters in the U.S. This had to mean a risky commitment to...

Full text Article Irving, Washington (1783 - 1859)
The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English

Born in New York, he studied law. His letters to the Morning Chronicle , a newspaper edited by his brother Peter, were...

Full text Article Irving, Washington 1783-1859
The Cambridge Guide to Children's Books in English

American author of over 20 books, including the groundbreaking The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. ( 1819 ) , a slim...

See more from Credo