Most people think of the characters from the short stories “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle” when they think of Washington Irving. They envision a headless horseman with a pumpkin for a head riding his ghostly horse through the forest or maybe a little old man waking after a long, deep sleep with a very long, fluffy, white beard. While those are the stories he is best known for; there is much more to the works of Washington Irving. He created a literary tradition through stories that used humor to point to deeper meanings and he had a literary life that cultivated his deep imagination.
Irving’s first book was A History of New York is derived from a handwritten manuscript by Dedrick Knickerbocker that he left in an imaginary hotel room. It tells the history of New York from the beginning of the world until the end of the Dutch Dynasty. Knickerbocker was one of many pseudonyms used by Washington Irving. It is obvious that the author has an interest in the customs and history of the people and families of New York. According to the book, the manuscript is composed from information received through answers to classified ads Knickerbocker placed in a New York newspaper asking controversial questions. It is a comical tell of well-to-do families in New York. It was in A History of New York that the city was first referred to as Gotham.
Several wealthy families actually tried to sue the publisher, but to no avail. They seemed to believe the storyline was too closed the the truth. A History of New York reveals the complexity of Irving’s imagination. Consider an imaginary manuscript based on imaginary classified ads written by an imaginary author, found in an imaginary hotel room. All written about imaginary families in New York.
The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon is a collection of short stories including “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and Rip Van Winkle. These two stories are responsible for the beginning of American mythology. Geoffrey Crayon is another of Washington Irvin’s aliases. One of Irving favorite places when he was young, was the Hudson River Valley. It was the inspiration for parts of Sleepy Hollow. It is easy to compare Irving to Ichabod Crane. Both are nervous and have a tremendous fear of women. Many of his works of romantic fiction were written to attract the attention of the young ladies. Irving put a lot of effort trying to be liked and accepted by American culture and the political world. Irving finished The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon in 1820 just as America was becoming a republic after the War of 1812.
Irving’s own notes show how he copied German folktale elements the one day made their way into “Rip Van Winkle”. Rip Van Winkle was in a deep sleep for a very long time waking to historical changes. The story reflects the influence of German storytellers such as Peter Klaus. “Rip Van Winkle” to this day remains one of the most influential stories in American History. Irving’s stories tell off the foundation of America and the bringing of nations together through storytelling. His writings represent the past and offered romanticized observations and conversations. He wrote under many pseudonyms, the first being Jonathan Oldstyle. It was the name he used while writing theatre reviews in his brother’s paper The Morning Chronicle. He wrote popular biographies of George Washington, whom he was named after, and Christopher Columbus. In both England and America, Irving’s literary works became so popular that he became the first American author to classified as rich.
In the 1850s American was nearing the beginning of the Ware Between the States. It was around that time that he wrote Our Old Home. It is about interaction with the “mother country” rather than showing England as a threat to America’s identity. Irving was reexamining his English ancestry and wrote for readers that were not familiar with London. In 1826, Irving was recommended by Daniel Webster for the job of consular in Madrid, Spain. This inspired him to write his works of fictional history about Spain. He remained in Europe for almost twenty years. He loved Europe and cherished the time he spent there, but he knew when it was time to return to America. He returned to America in 1853 and began writing about the wild West. He wrote a trilogy of Westerns: A Tour of the Prairies, Astoria or Anecdotes of an Enterprise, Beyond the Smokey Mountains, and The Adventures of Captain Bonnaville, U.S.A. He wrote about the hostility between the Native Americans and the settlers that were moving further and further west. He wrote stories that covered topics like the Mexican-American War, the California Gold Rush, and the Transcontinental Railroad.
Irving’s western books were filled with Indiana Chiefs and warriors, ships’ captains, Chinese merchants, and Scottish tradesmen. He placed battles and determination and the center of his westerns. His books made history not only educational, but interesting and fun to read. A Tour of the Prairies was like a wonderful guidebook to a beautiful west. It described landscapes with such detail the reader could see it as it was being read. Step by step details describing a hunt and colorful descriptions of the frontier characters. It could be take the reader on an adventure to places through the detailed descriptions of places and situations. He projected Native people as either noble of comic buffoons. One of Irving’s most important westerns is Astoria or Anecdotes of an Enterprise. Astoria is a history book published in 1836 and details the struggles between American and Great Britain. At the time it was even required reading in some schools.
Washington Irving died in 1859 while proofing Volume V of The Complete Works of Washington Irving, Volumes I - V. 533 pages of Irving’s original manuscripts are missing. Irving’s works tell of the founding of America and the bringing together of nations through storytelling. The introduction to The Complete Works of Washington Irving, Volumes I - 5 states that Irving got much of his material and information through interviews with survivors that lived through the history about which he wrote. Irving is revealed to be to be a hallowed but imperfectly known man who is a complex and sympathetic human being. The most recent portrait of Washington Irving paints a picture of a man that is flawed and conflicted. His works however are recommended for public and academic libraries. Stories such as “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle” are timeless and just as entertaining today as the were when they were written 200 years ago. Most likely they can be found in any library. Washington Irving (1783 - 1859) was a literal genius. Over time, he is still considered the Father of American Literature.
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