About the Author

Portrait of Washington Irving

American author, short story writer, essayist, poet, travel book writer, biographer, and columnist. Irving has been called the father of the American short story. He is best known for 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,' in which the schoolmaster Ichabold Crane meets with a headless horseman, and 'Rip Van Winkle,' about a man who falls asleep for 20 years.

"I am always at a loss to know how much to believe of my own stories." (from Tales of a Traveler, 1824)

Washington Irving was born in New York City as the youngest of 11 children. His father was a wealthy merchant, and his mother, an English woman, was the granddaughter of a clergyman. According to a story, George Washington met Irving, named after him, and gave his blessing. In the years to come Irving would write one of his greatest works, The Life of George Washington (1855-59).

Early in his life Irving developed a passion for books. He read Robinson Crusoe, Sinbad the Sailor, and The World Displyed (stories about voyages and travels). He studied law privately in the offices of Henry Masterton (1798), Brockholst Livingston (1801), and John Ogde Hoffman (1802), but practiced only briefly. From 1804 to 1806 he travelled widely Europe. He visited Marseilles, Genoa, Sicily, where he saw the famous English naval officer, Nelson, and met Washington Allston, the painter, in Rome. After return to the United States, Irving was admitted to New York bar in 1806. He was a partner with his brothers in the family hardware business, New York and Liverpool, England, and representative of the business in England until it collapsed in 1818. During the war of 1812 Irving was a military aide to New York Governor Tompkins in the U.S. Army.

Irving's career as a writer started in journals and newspapers. He contributed to Morning Chronicle (1802-03), which was edited by his brother Peter, and published Salmagundi (1807-08), writing in collaboration with his brother William and James Kirke Paulding. From 1812 to 1814 he was an editor of Analetic magazine in Philadelphia and New York.

Irving's success in social life and literature was shadowed by a personal tragedy. He was engaged to be married to Matilda Hoffmanm who died at the age of seventeen, in 1809. Later he wrote in a private letter, addressed to Mrs. Forster, as an answer to her inquiry why he had not been married: "For years I could not talk on the subject of this hopeless regret; I could not even mention her name; but her image was continually before me, and I dreamt of her incessantly."

In 1809 appeared Irving's comic history of the Dutch regime in New York, A HISTORY OF NEW YORK, by the imaginary 'Dietrich Knickerbocker', who was supposed to be an eccentric Dutch-American scholar. It was one of the earliest fantasies of history. The name Knickerbocker was later used to identify the first American school of writers, the Knickerbocker Group, of which Irving was a leading figure. The book became part of New York folklore, and eventually the word Knickerbocker was also used to describe any New Yorker who could trace one's family to the original Dutch settlers. Irving's success continued with The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-20), a collection of stories, which allowed him to become a full-time writer. The stories were heavily influenced by the German folktales. In 1822 appeared a sequel of The Sketch Book, Bracebridge Hall. Irving invites the reader to ramble gently with him at the Hall, stating that "I am not writing a novel, and have nothing of intricate plot, or marvelous adventure, to promise the reader."

After the death of his mother, Irving decided to stay in Europe, where he remained for seventeen years from 1815 to 1832. He lived in Dresden (1822-23), London (1824) and Paris (1925). After a romantic liaison with Mary Shelley he settled in Spain, where he worked for financial reasons for the U.S. Embassy in Madrid (1826-29). In 1829-32 he was a secretary to the American Legation under Martin Van Buren. During his stay in Spain, he wrote Columbus (1828), Conquest of Granada (1829), and The Companions of Columbus (1831), all based on careful historical research. In 1829 he moved to London and published Alhambra (1832), concerning the history and the legends of Moorish Spain. Among his literary friends were Mary Shelley and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

In 1832 Irving returned to New York to an enthusiastic welcome as the first American author to have achieved international fame. He toured the southern and western United States and wrote The Cayon Miscellany (1835) and A Tour of the Prairies (1835), an account of a journey, which extended from Fort Gibson, at that time a frontier post of the Far West, to the Cross Timbers in what is now Oklahoma. His fellow-travelers included Henry Leavitt Ellsworth (1791-1858), who also wrote an interesting narrative of the tour, and Charles Joseph Latrobe (1801-1875), whom Irving described as a "man of a thousand occupations; a botanist, a geologist, a hunter of beetles and butterflies, a musical amateur, a sketcher of no mean pretensions, in short, a complete virtuoso".

From 1836 to 1842 Irving lived at Sunnyside manor house, Tarrytown-on-Hudson. After working for three months on the History of the Conquest of Mexico, Irving found out that the famous historian William Prescott had decided to write a book on the same subject and abandoned his theme, "to be treated by one who will built up from it an enduring monument in the literature of our country." Between the years 1842-45 Irving was U.S. Ambassador in Spain. The appointment was sponsored by Daniel Webster, who was the Secretary of State. At the age of sixty-two Irving wrote to his friends in America: "My hear yearns for home; and I have now probably turned the last corner in life, and my remaining years are growing scanty in number, I begrude every one that I am obliged to pass separated from my cottage and my kindred...."

Irving spent the last years of his life in Tarrytown. From 1848 to 1859 he was President of Astor Library, later New York Public Library. Irving's later publications include Mahomet and His Successors (1850), a carefull presentation of the life, beliefs, and character of Mohammed, Wolfert's Roost (1855), and his five-volume The Life of George Washington. Irving died in Tarrytown on November 28, 1859. Just before retiring for the night, the author had said: "Well, I must arrange my pillows for another weary night! If this could only end!" Irving's major works were published in 1860-61 in 21 volumes.

As an essayist Irving was not interested in the meaning of nature like Emerson or self-inspection like Montaigne. He observered the vanishing pasts of old Europe, the riverside Creole villages of Louisiana, the old Pawnee hunting grounds of Oklahoma, and how ladies fashion moves from one extreme to the other. 'Geoffrey Crayon' was his most prolific fictional mask. Irving once wrote: "There rise authors now and then, who seem proof against the mutability of language, because they have rooted themselves in the unchanging principles of human nature." He was the earliest literary figure of the American abroad, who appeared in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., in which also Irving's best-known story 'Rip Van Winkle' was included. It was based on a German folktale, set in the Dutch culture of Pre-Revolutionary War in New York State.

Rip Van Winkle is a farmer who wanders into the Catskill Mountains. He meets there a group of dwarfs playing ninepipes. Rip helps a dwarf and is rewarded with a draught of liquor. He falls into an enchanted sleep. When he awakens, 20 years later, the world has changed. He is an old man with a long, white beard. Rip goes into town and finds everything changed. His wife is dead, his children are grown. The old man entertains the people with tales of the old days and his encounter with the dwarfs. - The theme of Irving's story derives from Diogenes Laertius, Epimenides (c. 200), in which Epimenides is sent by his father into the field to look for a sheep; he lays down in a cave and sleeps fifty-seven years. When awake, he goes on looking for the sheep, thinking that he had been taking a short snap.

Irving also used other German folktales in his short stories, among them The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. "The headless horseman was often seen here. An old man who did not believe in ghosts told of meeting the headless horseman coming from his trip into the Hollow. The horseman made him climb up behind. They rode over bushes, hills, and swamps. When they reached the bridge, the horseman suddenly turned into a skeleton. He threw the old man into the brook and sprang away over the treetops with a clap of thunder." The story was probably based on a story by Karl Musäus (1735-1787), a German academic writer, who was among the first to collect local folktales. This story popularized the image of the headless horseman, and formed the basis for an operetta by Douglas Moore, The Headless Horseman, with libretto by Stephen Vincent Benét. The tale was filmed as the second half of Disney's animated movie The Adventures of Ichabold and Mr Toad (1949). Tim Burton's film version from 1999 has darkened and partly changed the story. The protagonist, Ichabold Crane, is a constable from New York, not a schoolteacher. He believes in rational methods of detection, and is sent in the farming community of Sleepy Hollow in upstate New York to investigate three recent murders. The townspeople know who the culprit is: a long-dead Hessian mercenary nicknamed the Headless Horseman who was killed during the Revolutionary War and buried in the Western Woods.

Most author biographies courtesy of Author's Calendar. Used with permission.