Biography of Washington Irving

Washington Irving was born in 1783 in New York City. He was the youngest of eleven children of a wealthy merchant father, a Scottish immigrant who had sided with the rebels during the Revolution. From an early age, Washington was influenced by the literary tastes of his older brothers William and Peter. When he graduated from private school in 1798, however, he went into a law office as an attempt to avoid business, which he hated.

The law quickly bored him, however. Even so, he worked in it in various offices until 1804. During this time he also wrote articles for The Morning Chronicle and The Corrector, two newspapers edited by his brother Peter. From 1802-1803 he wrote a series of youthful satires of New York City for the Chronicle, called the Letters of Jonathon Oldstyle, Gent.

Irving traveled through Europe from 1804-1806 for reasons relating to his health, but also to further his education, like many young people did. He would use material collected during this trip later in his stories and essays. Upon his return to America and New York City, Irving was readmitted to the bar, but he quickly lost interest in the career that he had never really enjoyed. He turned more seriously to literature.

From 1807-08, he contributed to a satirical collection of essays, Salmagundi; or, The Whim-Whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq., and Others, along with his brothers. He then set to work on Diedrich Knickerbocker’s History of New York, which was a satirical history that commented on the history of the Dutch occupation, critiqued Jeffersonian democracy with a Federalist bent, and mocked literary history. It was called “the first great book of comic literature written by an American.”

Before its completion in 1809, Irving’s fiancée, Matilda Hoffman, died tragically. Although History of New York was highly successful, Irving did not write any more creative literature for the next six years. During this time, his brothers made him a partner in the family business with only minimal responsibilities, as a way to subsidize his writing. This arrangement did not work out perfectly, however, because although Irving’s tasks were minimal, he managed to draw them out and could not seem to complete them efficiently.

During these years he also collected the poems of Thomas Campbell, which were published in 1810, and edited the Analectic Magazine from 1813-14, which was a popular magazine that reprinted miscellaneous articles from foreign periodicals.

By 1815 his brother Peter, who was in charge of the Liverpool office, had fallen ill, and the company was veering towards bankruptcy. An extended non-business trip thus turned into Washington Irving trying to run the family’s importing firm in Liverpool. Although for two years he tried to prevent the business from failing, by 1818 it was forced to declare bankruptcy.

Forced to turn to his writing to make a living, Irving went to work on what would become his most famous book, The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon (1819-20). Knowing that he would now have to make money from his writing, he studied popular tastes and learned to soften his satire and employ milder forms of romanticism, such as sentimentalism. The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon contained Americanized versions of European folktales, as well as familiar essays on English life.

The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon was highly successful, and critics praised it. It was the first work of fiction by an American author to be given good reviews in Europe, which had previously not shown any respect for American literature—even denying that there was such a thing. Its success turned Irving into a celebrity, both in America and Europe, and he socialized with the famous writers of the time. In 1820, he collaborated on plays with J.H. Payne in Paris, and in 1822 he published Bracebridge Hall, another book of romantic sketches, which was equally well received but not considered as important as The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon.

Irving continued to travel through Europe, publishing the ill-received Tales of a Traveller in 1824. He then became a diplomatic attaché in Spain, where he researched his History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, published in 1832, which was more scholarly than his other works but still popular. He published two more works, A Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada and The Alhambra while in Europe, before finally returning to New York in 1832 after 17 years abroad.

He was welcomed back enthusiastically as the first American author to achieve international fame (Benjamin Franklin had achieved even greater international fame, but more for his scientific achievements and statesmanship than for his writings). He soon began to travel again, going on an adventure to the Western frontier in search of more settings for his stories. This trip resulted in three works, A Tour on the Pra(i)riesAstoria, and The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, U.S.A., published between 1835 and 1837.

Irving returned to Europe for three years and then spent the final thirteen years of his life in New York. He continued writing, even as his authorial powers declined, until his death.


Study Guides on Works by Washington Irving