Irving is largely credited as the first American Man of Letters, and the first to earn his living solely by his pen. Eulogizing Irving before the Massachusetts Historical Society in December 1859, his friend, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, acknowledged Irving's role in promoting American literature: "We feel a just pride in his renown as an author, not forgetting that, to his other claims upon our gratitude, he adds also that of having been the first to win for our country an honourable name and position in the History of Letters".
Irving perfected the American short story, and was the first American writer to place his stories firmly in the United States, even as he poached from German or Dutch folklore. He is also generally credited as one of the first to write both in the vernacular, and without an obligation to the moral or didactic in his short stories, writing stories simply to entertain rather than to enlighten. Irving also encouraged would-be writers. As George William Curtis noted, there "is not a young literary aspirant in the country, who, if he ever personally met Irving, did not hear from him the kindest words of sympathy, regard, and encouragement".
Some critics, however—including Edgar Allan Poe—felt that while Irving should be given credit for being an innovator, the writing itself was often unsophisticated. "Irving is much over-rated", Poe wrote in 1838, "and a nice distinction might be drawn between his just and his surreptitious and adventitious reputation—between what is due to the pioneer solely, and what to the writer". A critic for the New-York Mirror wrote: "No man in the Republic of Letters has been more overrated than Mr. Washington Irving". Some critics noted especially that Irving, despite being an American, catered to British sensibilities and, as one critic noted, wrote "of and for England, rather than his own country".
Other critics were inclined to be more forgiving of Irving's style. William Makepeace Thackeray was the first to refer to Irving as the "ambassador whom the New World of Letters sent to the Old", a banner picked up by writers and critics throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. "He is the first of the American humorists, as he is almost the first of the American writers", wrote critic H.R. Hawless in 1881, "yet belonging to the New World, there is a quaint Old World flavor about him".
Early critics often had difficulty separating Irving the man from Irving the writer—"The life of Washington Irving was one of the brightest ever led by an author", wrote Richard Henry Stoddard, an early Irving biographer—but as years passed and Irving's celebrity personality faded into the background, critics often began to review his writings as all style, no substance. "The man had no message", said critic Barrett Wendell. Yet, critics conceded that despite Irving's lack of sophisticated themes—Irving biographer Stanley T. Williams could be scathing in his assessment of Irving's work—most agreed he wrote elegantly.
Impact on American culture
Irving popularized the nickname "Gotham" for New York City, later used in Batman comics and movies as the name of Gotham City, and is credited with inventing the expression "the almighty dollar".
The surname of his Dutch historian, Diedrich Knickerbocker, is generally associated with New York and New Yorkers, and can still be seen across the jerseys of New York's professional basketball team, albeit in its more familiar, abbreviated form, reading simply Knicks. In Bushwick, Brooklyn, a neighborhood of New York City, there are two parallel streets named Irving Avenue and Knickerbocker Avenue; the latter forms the core of the neighborhood's shopping district.
One of Irving's most lasting contributions to American culture is in the way Americans perceive and celebrate Christmas. In his 1812 revisions to A History of New York, Irving inserted a dream sequence featuring St. Nicholas soaring over treetops in a flying wagon—a creation others would later dress up as Santa Claus. In his five Christmas stories in The Sketch Book, Irving portrayed an idealized celebration of old-fashioned Christmas customs at a quaint English manor, that depicted harmonious warm-hearted English Christmas festivities he experienced while staying in Aston Hall, Birmingham, England, that had largely been abandoned. He used text from The Vindication of Christmas (London 1652) of old English Christmas traditions, he had transcribed into his journal as a format for his stories. The book contributed to the revival and reinterpretation of the Christmas holiday in the United States.
The Community Area of Irving Park in Chicago was named in Irving's honor. The Irving Trust Corporation (now the Bank of New York Mellon Corporation) was named after him. Since there was not yet a federal currency in 1851, each bank issued its own paper and those institutions with the most appealing names found their certificates more widely accepted. His portrait appeared on the bank's notes and contributed to their wide appeal.
In his biography of Christopher Columbus, Irving introduced the erroneous idea that Europeans believed the world to be flat prior to the discovery of the New World. Borrowed from Irving, the flat-Earth myth has been taught in schools as fact to many generations of Americans.
The American painter John Quidor based many of his paintings on scenes from the works of Irving about Dutch New York, including such paintings as Ichabod Crane Flying from the Headless Horseman (1828), The Return of Rip Van Winkle (1849), and The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane (1858).
Washington Irving's home, Sunnyside, is still standing, just south of the Tappan Zee Bridge in Tarrytown, New York. The original house and the surrounding property were once owned by 18th-century colonialist Wolfert Acker, about whom Irving wrote his sketch Wolfert's Roost (the name of the house). The house is now owned and operated as a historic site by Historic Hudson Valley and is open to the public for tours. The Washington Irving Memorial by Daniel Chester French stands near the entrance to Sunnyside in the village of Irvington, which renamed itself from Dearman in his memory, and visitors to Christ Episcopal Church in nearby Tarrytown, where he served as a vestryman in the last years of his life, can see his pew. West, over the Catskills and in the Finger Lakes, Cornell University's oldest continuous student-run organization, The Irving Literary Society, is named for Washington Irving. His name is also frequently mentioned in Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22 in a recurring theme where his name is signed by other people to documents which triggers several military investigations as to who Washington Irving is. Throughout the United States, there are many schools named after Irving or after places in his fictional works. A Washington Irving Memorial Park and Arboretum exists in Oklahoma.
The city of Irving, Texas, states that it is named for Washington Irving. Local historians believe that Irving co-founders Otis Brown and J. O. Schulze decided in 1902 to name the city after the favorite author of Otis Brown's wife, Netta Barcus Brown. Schulze, a graduate engineer from the University of Iowa and member of the Washington Irving Literary Society, also was partial to the name Irving. The Irving City Council officially adopted author Washington Irving as the city's namesake in 1998. The Indianapolis, Indiana neighborhood of Irvington is named after Washington Irving. The Chicago, Illinois neighborhood of Irving Park is also named after him. The town of Knickerbocker, Texas, was founded by two of Irving's nephews who named the town in honor of their uncle's literary pseudonym.