Washington Irving's parents were William Irving, Sr., originally of Quholm, Shapinsay, Orkney, and Sarah (née Sanders), Scottish-English immigrants. They married in 1761 while William was serving as a petty officer in the British Navy. They had eleven children, eight of whom survived to adulthood. Their first two sons, each named William, died in infancy, as did their fourth child, John. Their surviving children were: William, Jr. (1766), Ann (1770), Peter (1772), Catherine (1774), Ebenezer (1776), John Treat (1778), Sarah (1780) and Washington.
The Irving family settled in Manhattan, New York City, and was part of the city's small, vibrant merchant class when Washington Irving was born on April 3, 1783, the same week city residents learned of the British ceasefire that ended the American Revolution; Irving’s mother named him after the hero of the revolution, George Washington. At age six, with the help of a nanny, Irving met his namesake, who was then living in New York after his inauguration as president in 1789. The president blessed young Irving, an encounter Irving later commemorated in a small watercolor painting, which still hangs in his home today. The Irvings lived at 131 William Street at the time of Washington Irving's birth. The family later moved across the street to 128 William St. Several of Washington Irving's older brothers became active New York merchants, and they encouraged their younger brother's literary aspirations, often supporting him financially as he pursued his writing career.
An uninterested student, Irving preferred adventure stories and drama and, by age fourteen, was regularly sneaking out of class in the evenings to attend the theater. The 1798 outbreak of yellow fever in Manhattan prompted his family to send him to healthier climes upriver, and Irving was dispatched to stay with his friend James Kirke Paulding in Tarrytown, New York. It was in Tarrytown that Irving became familiar with the nearby town of Sleepy Hollow, with its quaint Dutch customs and local ghost stories. Irving made several other trips up the Hudson as a teenager, including an extended visit to Johnstown, New York, where he passed through the Catskill mountain region, the setting for "Rip Van Winkle". "[O]f all the scenery of the Hudson", Irving wrote later, "the Kaatskill Mountains had the most witching effect on my boyish imagination".
The 19-year-old Irving began writing letters to the New York Morning Chronicle in 1802, submitting commentaries on the city's social and theater scene under the name of Jonathan Oldstyle. The name, which purposely evoked the writer's Federalist leanings, was the first of many pseudonyms Irving would employ throughout his career. The letters brought Irving some early fame and moderate notoriety. Aaron Burr, a co-publisher of the Chronicle, was impressed enough to send clippings of the Oldstyle pieces to his daughter, Theodosia, while writer Charles Brockden Brown made a trip to New York to recruit Oldstyle for a literary magazine he was editing in Philadelphia.
Concerned for his health, Irving's brothers financed an extended tour of Europe from 1804 to 1806. Irving bypassed most of the sites and locations considered essential for the development of an upwardly mobile young man, to the dismay of his brother William. William wrote that, though he was pleased his brother's health was improving, he did not like the choice to "gallop through Italy... leaving Florence on your left and Venice on your right". Instead, Irving honed the social and conversational skills that would later make him one of the world's most in-demand guests. "I endeavor to take things as they come with cheerfulness", Irving wrote, "and when I cannot get a dinner to suit my taste, I endeavor to get a taste to suit my dinner". While visiting Rome in 1805, Irving struck up a friendship with the American painter Washington Allston, and nearly allowed himself to be persuaded into following Allston into a career as a painter. "My lot in life, however", Irving said later, "was differently cast".
First major writings
Irving returned from Europe to study law with his legal mentor, Judge Josiah Ogden Hoffman, in New York City. By his own admission, he was not a good student, and barely passed the bar in 1806. Irving began actively socializing with a group of literate young men he dubbed "The Lads of Kilkenny". Collaborating with his brother William and fellow Lad James Kirke Paulding, Irving created the literary magazine Salmagundi in January 1807. Writing under various pseudonyms, such as William Wizard and Launcelot Langstaff, Irving lampooned New York culture and politics in a manner similar to today's Mad magazine. Salmagundi was a moderate success, spreading Irving's name and reputation beyond New York. In its seventeenth issue, dated November 11, 1807, Irving affixed the nickname "Gotham" — an Anglo-Saxon word meaning "Goat's Town" — to New York City.
In late 1809, while mourning the death of his seventeen-year-old fiancée Matilda Hoffman, Irving completed work on his first major book, A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker (1809), a satire on self-important local history and contemporary politics. Prior to its publication, Irving started a hoax akin to today's viral marketing campaigns; he placed a series of missing person adverts in New York newspapers seeking information on Diedrich Knickerbocker, a crusty Dutch historian who had allegedly gone missing from his hotel in New York City. As part of the ruse, Irving placed a notice—allegedly from the hotel's proprietor—informing readers that if Mr. Knickerbocker failed to return to the hotel to pay his bill, he would publish a manuscript Knickerbocker had left behind.
Unsuspecting readers followed the story of Knickerbocker and his manuscript with interest, and some New York city officials were concerned enough about the missing historian that they considered offering a reward for his safe return. Riding the wave of public interest he had created with his hoax, Irving—adopting the pseudonym of his Dutch historian—published A History of New York on December 6, 1809, to immediate critical and popular success. "It took with the public", Irving remarked, "and gave me celebrity, as an original work was something remarkable and uncommon in America". Today, the surname of Diedrich Knickerbocker, the fictional narrator of this and other Irving works, has become a nickname for Manhattan residents in general.
After the success of A History of New York, Irving searched for a job and eventually became an editor of Analectic Magazine, where he wrote biographies of naval heroes like James Lawrence and Oliver Perry. He was also among the first magazine editors to reprint Francis Scott Key's poem "Defense of Fort McHenry", which would later be immortalized as "The Star-Spangled Banner", the national anthem of the United States.
Like many merchants and New Yorkers, Irving originally opposed the War of 1812, but the British attack on Washington, D.C. in 1814 convinced him to enlist. He served on the staff of Daniel Tompkins, governor of New York and commander of the New York State Militia. Apart from a reconnaissance mission in the Great Lakes region, he saw no real action. The war was disastrous for many American merchants, including Irving's family, and in mid-1815 he left for England to attempt to salvage the family trading company. He remained in Europe for the next seventeen years.
Life in Europe
The Sketch Book
Irving spent the next two years trying to bail out the family firm financially but eventually had to declare bankruptcy. With no job prospects, Irving continued writing throughout 1817 and 1818. In the summer of 1817, he visited Walter Scott, beginning a lifelong personal and professional friendship. Irving continued writing: he composed the short story "Rip Van Winkle" overnight while staying with his sister Sarah and her husband, Henry van Wart in Birmingham, England, a place that also inspired other works. In October 1818, Irving's brother William secured for Irving a post as chief clerk to the United States Navy, and urged him to return home. Irving turned the offer down, opting to stay in England to pursue a writing career.
In the spring of 1819, Irving sent to his brother Ebenezer in New York a set of short prose pieces that he asked be published as The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. The first installment, containing "Rip Van Winkle", was an enormous success, and the rest of the work would be equally successful; it was issued in 1819–1820 in seven installments in New York, and in two volumes in London ("The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" would appear in the sixth issue of the New York edition, and the second volume of the London edition).
Like many successful authors of this era, Irving struggled against literary bootleggers. In England, some of his sketches were reprinted in periodicals without his permission, a legal practice as there was no international copyright law at the time. To prevent further piracy in Britain, Irving paid to have the first four American installments published as a single volume by John Miller in London. Irving appealed to Walter Scott for help procuring a more reputable publisher for the remainder of the book. Scott referred Irving to his own publisher, London powerhouse John Murray, who agreed to take on The Sketch Book. From then on, Irving would publish concurrently in the United States and Britain to protect his copyright, with Murray being his English publisher of choice.
Irving's reputation soared, and for the next two years, he led an active social life in Paris and Britain, where he was often feted as an anomaly of literature: an upstart American who dared to write English well.
Bracebridge Hall and Tales of a Traveller
With both Irving and publisher John Murray eager to follow up on the success of The Sketch Book, Irving spent much of 1821 travelling in Europe in search of new material, reading widely in Dutch and German folk tales. Hampered by writer's block—and depressed by the death of his brother William—Irving worked slowly, finally delivering a completed manuscript to Murray in March 1822. The book, Bracebridge Hall, or The Humorists, A Medley (the location was based loosely on Aston Hall, occupied by members of the Bracebridge family, near his sister's home in Birmingham) was published in June 1822.
The format of Bracebridge was similar to that of The Sketch Book, with Irving, as Crayon, narrating a series of more than fifty loosely connected short stories and essays. While some reviewers thought Bracebridge to be a lesser imitation of The Sketch Book, the book was well received by readers and critics. "We have received so much pleasure from this book", wrote critic Francis Jeffrey in the Edinburgh Review, "that we think ourselves bound in gratitude... to make a public acknowledgement of it." Irving was relieved at its reception, which did much to cement his reputation with European readers.
Still struggling with writer's block, Irving traveled to Germany, settling in Dresden in the winter of 1822. Here he dazzled the royal family and attached himself to Mrs. Amelia Foster, an American living in Dresden with her five children. Irving was particularly attracted to Mrs. Foster's 18-year-old daughter Emily, and vied in frustration for her hand. Emily finally refused his offer of marriage in the spring of 1823.
He returned to Paris and began collaborating with playwright John Howard Payne on translations of French plays for the English stage, with little success. He also learned through Payne that the novelist Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was romantically interested in him, though Irving never pursued the relationship.
In August 1824, Irving published the collection of essays Tales of a Traveller—including the short story "The Devil and Tom Walker"—under his Geoffrey Crayon persona. "I think there are in it some of the best things I have ever written", Irving told his sister. But while the book sold respectably, Traveller was dismissed by critics, who panned both Traveller and its author. "The public have been led to expect better things", wrote the United States Literary Gazette, while the New-York Mirror pronounced Irving "overrated". Hurt and depressed by the book's reception, Irving retreated to Paris where he spent the next year worrying about finances and scribbling down ideas for projects that never materialized.
While in Paris, Irving received a letter from Alexander Hill Everett on January 30, 1826. Everett, recently the American Minister to Spain, urged Irving to join him in Madrid, noting that a number of manuscripts dealing with the Spanish conquest of the Americas had recently been made public. Irving left for Madrid and enthusiastically began scouring the Spanish archives for colorful material.
With full access to the American consul's massive library of Spanish history, Irving began working on several books at once. The first offspring of this hard work, A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, was published in January 1828. The book was popular in the United States and in Europe and would have 175 editions published before the end of the century. It was also the first project of Irving's to be published with his own name, instead of a pseudonym, on the title page. He was invited to stay at the palace of the Duke of Gor, who gave him unfettered access to his library containing many medieval manuscripts. Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada was published a year later, followed by Voyages and Discoveries of the Companions of Columbus in 1831.
Irving's writings on Columbus are a mixture of history and fiction, a genre now called romantic history. Irving based them on extensive research in the Spanish archives, but also added imaginative elements aimed at sharpening the story. The first of these works is the source of the durable myth that medieval Europeans believed the Earth was flat. (See Myth of the Flat Earth.)
In 1829, Irving moved into Granada's ancient palace Alhambra, "determined to linger here", he said, "until I get some writings under way connected with the place". Before he could get any significant writing underway, however, he was notified of his appointment as Secretary to the American Legation in London. Worried he would disappoint friends and family if he refused the position, Irving left Spain for England in July 1829.
Secretary to the American legation in London
Arriving in London, Irving joined the staff of American Minister Louis McLane. McLane immediately assigned the daily secretary work to another man and tapped Irving to fill the role of aide-de-camp. The two worked over the next year to negotiate a trade agreement between the United States and the British West Indies, finally reaching a deal in August 1830. That same year, Irving was awarded a medal by the Royal Society of Literature, followed by an honorary doctorate of civil law from Oxford in 1831.
Following McLane's recall to the United States in 1831 to serve as Secretary of Treasury, Irving stayed on as the legation's chargé d'affaires until the arrival of Martin Van Buren, President Andrew Jackson's nominee for British Minister. With Van Buren in place, Irving resigned his post to concentrate on writing, eventually completing Tales of the Alhambra, which would be published concurrently in the United States and England in 1832.
Irving was still in London when Van Buren received word that the United States Senate had refused to confirm him as the new Minister. Consoling Van Buren, Irving predicted that the Senate's partisan move would backfire. "I should not be surprised", Irving said, "if this vote of the Senate goes far toward elevating him to the presidential chair".
Return to America
Washington Irving arrived in New York, after seventeen years abroad, on May 21, 1832. That September, he accompanied the U.S. Commissioner on Indian Affairs, Henry Leavitt Ellsworth, along with companions Charles La Trobe and Count Albert-Alexandre de Pourtales, on a surveying mission deep in Indian Territory. At the completion of his western tour, Irving traveled through Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, where he became acquainted with the politician and novelist John Pendleton Kennedy.
Frustrated by bad investments, Irving turned to writing to generate additional income, beginning with A Tour on the Prairies, a work which related his recent travels on the frontier. The book was another popular success and also the first book written and published by Irving in the United States since A History of New York in 1809. In 1834, he was approached by fur magnate John Jacob Astor, who convinced Irving to write a history of his fur trading colony in the American Northwest, now known as Astoria, Oregon. Irving made quick work of Astor's project, shipping the fawning biographical account titled Astoria in February 1836. In 1835 Irving, Astor and a few others founded the Saint Nicholas Society in the City of New York.
During an extended stay at Astor's, Irving met the explorer Benjamin Bonneville, who intrigued Irving with his maps and stories of the territories beyond the Rocky Mountains. When the two met in Washington, D.C. several months later, Bonneville opted to sell his maps and rough notes to Irving for $1,000. Irving used these materials as the basis for his 1837 book The Adventures of Captain Bonneville.
These three works made up Irving's "western" series of books and were written partly as a response to criticism that his time in England and Spain had made him more European than American. In the minds of some critics, especially James Fenimore Cooper and Philip Freneau, Irving had turned his back on his American heritage in favor of English aristocracy. Irving's western books, particularly A Tour on the Prairies, were well received in the United States, though British critics accused Irving of "book-making".
In 1835, Irving purchased a "neglected cottage" and its surrounding riverfront property in Tarrytown, New York. The house, which he named Sunnyside in 1841, required constant repair and renovation over the next twenty years. With costs of Sunnyside escalating, Irving reluctantly agreed in 1839 to become a regular contributor to The Knickerbocker magazine, writing new essays and short stories under the Knickerbocker and Crayon pseudonyms.
He was regularly approached by aspiring young authors for advice or endorsement, including Edgar Allan Poe, who sought Irving's comments on "William Wilson" and "The Fall of the House of Usher". Irving also championed America's maturing literature, advocating stronger copyright laws to protect writers from the kind of piracy that had initially plagued The Sketch Book. Writing in the January 1840 issue of Knickerbocker, he openly endorsed copyright legislation pending in the U.S. Congress. "We have a young literature", he wrote, "springing up and daily unfolding itself with wonderful energy and luxuriance, which... deserves all its fostering care". The legislation did not pass. In 1841, he was elected in the National Academy of Design as an Honorary Academician.
Irving at this time also began a friendly correspondence with the English writer Charles Dickens and hosted the author and his wife at Sunnyside during Dickens's American tour in 1842.
Minister to Spain
In 1842, after an endorsement from Secretary of State Daniel Webster, President John Tyler appointed Irving as Minister to Spain. Irving was surprised and honored, writing, "It will be a severe trial to absent myself for a time from my dear little Sunnyside, but I shall return to it better enabled to carry it on comfortably".
While Irving hoped his position as Minister would allow him plenty of time to write, Spain was in a state of perpetual political upheaval during most of his tenure, with a number of warring factions vying for control of the twelve-year-old Queen Isabella II. Irving maintained good relations with the various generals and politicians, as control of Spain rotated through Espartero, Bravo, then Narvaez. However, the politics and warfare were exhausting, and Irving—homesick and suffering from a crippling skin condition—grew quickly disheartened:
I am wearied and at times heartsick of the wretched politics of this country. . . . The last ten or twelve years of my life, passed among sordid speculators in the United States, and political adventurers in Spain, has shewn me so much of the dark side of human nature, that I begin to have painful doubts of my fellow man; and look back with regret to the confiding period of my literary career, when, poor as a rat, but rich in dreams, I beheld the world through the medium of my imagination and was apt to believe men as good as I wished them to be.
With the political situation in Spain relatively settled, Irving continued to closely monitor the development of the new government and the fate of Isabella. His official duties as Spanish Minister also involved negotiating American trade interests with Cuba and following the Spanish parliament's debates over slave trade. He was also pressed into service by the American Minister to the Court of St. James's in London, Louis McLane, to assist in negotiating the Anglo-American disagreement over the Oregon border that newly elected president James K. Polk had vowed to resolve.
Final years and death
Returning from Spain in 1846, Irving took up permanent residence at Sunnyside and began work on an "Author's Revised Edition" of his works for publisher George Palmer Putnam. For its publication, Irving had made a deal that guaranteed him 12 percent of the retail price of all copies sold. Such an agreement was unprecedented at that time. On the death of John Jacob Astor in 1848, Irving was hired as an executor of Astor's estate and appointed, by Astor's will, as first chairman of the Astor library, a forerunner to the New York Public Library.
As he revised his older works for Putnam, Irving continued to write regularly, publishing biographies of the writer and poet Oliver Goldsmith in 1849 and the 1850 work about the Islamic prophet Muhammad. In 1855, he produced Wolfert's Roost, a collection of stories and essays he had originally written for The Knickerbocker and other publications, and began publishing at intervals a biography of his namesake, George Washington, a work which he expected to be his masterpiece. Five volumes of the biography were published between 1855 and 1859. Irving traveled regularly to Mount Vernon and Washington, D.C. for his research, and struck up friendships with Presidents Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce.
He continued to socialize and keep up with his correspondence well into his seventies, and his fame and popularity continued to soar. "I don’t believe that any man, in any country, has ever had a more affectionate admiration for him than that given to you in America", wrote Senator William C. Preston in a letter to Irving. "I believe that we have had but one man who is so much in the popular heart". By 1859, author Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. noted that Sunnyside had become "next to Mount Vernon, the best known and most cherished of all the dwellings in our land".
On the night of November 28, 1859, at 9:00 pm, only eight months after completing the final volume of his Washington biography, Washington Irving died of a heart attack in his bedroom at Sunnyside at the age of 76. Legend has it that his last words were: "Well, I must arrange my pillows for another night. When will this end?" He was buried under a simple headstone at Sleepy Hollow cemetery on December 1, 1859.
Irving and his grave were commemorated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his 1876 poem, "In The Churchyard at Tarrytown", which concludes with:
How sweet a life was his; how sweet a death!
Living, to wing with mirth the weary hours, Or with romantic tales the heart to cheer; Dying, to leave a memory like the breath Of summers full of sunshine and of showers,A grief and gladness in the atmosphere.