Washington Irving, The Quintessential New York Writer

by Leonora Stein

“I thank God I was born on the banks of the Hudson!” wrote the “Father of the American Story” late in life. Never had a writer been so affected by a setting as Washington Irving was by the Hudson Valley of New York State. The old Dutch country pays homage to Irving. From the Rip Van Winkle Bridge at the foothills of the Catskill Mountains to the town of Irvington south of Sleepy Hollow, reminders of his fables permeate the countryside. Mountains, lakes, and rivers were his “allies,” the Catskills, his muse. In the early 1800s a trip up the Hudson River cost about as much as a trip to Europe; Irving was going to spend his life in one place or the other.

Washington Irving was born in New York City on April 3, 1783, to a prosperous trader and an English curate’s granddaughter, the youngest of eleven living children. The Revolutionary War was still fresh everybody’s mind; the last “lobster-bellies” did not leave American borders until five months after Irving was born. His mother named him after George Washington, and Irving’s last book was a biography of the first President. Coincidentally, Irving met Washington in a Broadway shop as a child.

It was a time of romanticism, when, as Irving said, “all the world had a tinge of fairy land,” and he embodied the inveterate sensitivity of the age. The Romantic Period roughly spanned Irving’s life (1783 – 1859) and signified a revolt against Western Europe’s “Age of Reason.” Romantics were deeply affected by nature and let strong emotions such as awe and horror influence them. Irving respected and learned a great deal from other Romantic writers like Sir Walter Scott whom he met in 1817 in Scotland.

En route to Europe in 1804, Irving was so overtaken with weakness that the voyage’s captain assumed he would die. On the same trip however, Irving was seen “climbing to the masthead and going out on the main topsail yard.” While traveling, his passport was revoked and his ship captured by pirates. The thrill of adventure outweighed his famous delicacy. Toward the end of his life, his nervousness and agitation caused him much grief. He suffered from insomnia and nervous horror; he developed asthma, which caused severe morale depletion, as well as difficult breathing. Despite this, Irving completed George Washington: A Biography in March 1859, but collapsed immediately afterwards. Surrounded by his caring nieces, he died on November 28, 1859, of an enlarged heart, entreating, “When will this ever end?”

Despite the perhaps psychosomatic ill health that had plagued him since childhood, Irving had an incalculable love of beauty and nature. One of his most beautiful descriptions was of his first trip up the Hudson River, when he found himself in the Hudson Valley:

“Of all the scenery of the Hudson, the Katskill Mountains had the most witching effect on my boyish imagination…part wild, woody, and rugged; part softened away into all the graces of cultivation. As we slowly floated along, I lay on the deck and watched them through a long summer’s day; undergoing a thousand mutations under the magical effects of the atmosphere…”

This romantic nature seems to fly in the face of Irving’s great respect for practicality, which probably came from a difficult relationship with his merchant father. In a letter to his sister in 1824, he advised against the intellectual development of children, saying “care should…be taken to cultivate and strengthen the more solid and useful properties of the mind.”

Irving became a lawyer after a rather jumbled education.  He excelled in subjects he liked, but otherwise preferred to roam around the pastures north of Warren Street in Manhattan. Irving said he was “a poor scholar–fond of roguery,” though he passed the bar exam in 1806. During his one trial experience, he appeared on the counsel defending Aaron Burr, who had fatally shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Irving developed a liking for Burr and the feeling was mutual. Burr later favorably commented on the writing of Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent., a pseudonym that Irving reportedly used so often that his real name didn’t appear in print until he was 50 years old. Other pseudonyms included: Anthony Evergreen, Gent., Diedrich Knickerbocker, Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., and sometimes simply A Gentleman of New York or An American Gentleman.

While still in school, Irving began contributing to his brother Peter’s publication, Morning Chronicle, in the form of letters from the eccentric and humorous Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent. These letters allowed Irving the unique opportunity to comment on theater, fashion, early feminism, and youth. Irving followed the popular Oldstyle letters with Salmagundi, a publication that he produced with his brother William and James K. Paulding, a novelist and who later became Secretary of the Navy. Salmagundi touched on subjects as varied as theater, politics, and fiction. After the publication folded, Irving came upon the idea of writing a parody history.

On October 26th, the New York Evening Post published a notice of a disappearance of “a small elderly gentleman by the name of KNICKERBOCKER.” Another notice, from a Traveler, appeared validating the first. Then the man’s landlord came forward with a book. Diedrich Knickerbocker’s A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty appeared on December 6, 1809, after one of the most elaborate farces in publication history.

A History of New York catapulted Irving to the forefront of the literary scene. However, Irving rejected the literary world at the height of his fame, writing little over the next ten years. Observed by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as a hard worker, Irving had a still more complicated nature. The man who delighted the world with his tales said of himself that he “staggered through the world like a drunken man. He was also marked a “drifter” and “a man incapable of deep conviction. This description bears an uncanny resemblance to one of Irving’s most beloved characters, Rip Van Winkle. It is the hero’s laziness and unobtrusive nature that allows him to travel through time.

The bleary romanticism expressed in his writing entertained readers but didn’t please Irving’s practical side. He tried to become the Clerk of the Court at Albany and applied at the American embassy in Paris. However, his reputation as a great American writer was set. “He diffused sweetness and light in an era marked by bitterness and obscuration,” wrote Bliss Perry. Irving attributed this light to a magic diffused from the Hudson Valley.

…As the day declined they [the Catskill mountains] deepened their tone and later in the evening their whole outline was printed in deep purple against an amber sky. As I beheld them a host of fanciful notions concerning them was conjured into my brain, which have haunted it ever since.

So haunted was he that two quintessential American tales were inspired by a single day that he spent on the Hudson River. In the preface to The Sketch Book by “Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.,” Irving recalls that all the stories therein had been written in England between 1819 and 1820 except two. We know that Irving completed Rip Van Winkle one night while staying with his sister Sara and her husband Henry van Wart in Birmingham, England. However, as the story unfolds, the description is so poignant it leads one to believe that he was standing “at the foot of these fairy mountains.” It is supposed that Irving’s other masterpiece, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, was also written in Birmingham, though no specific knowledge places it there.

Irving distinguishes “Tarry Town,” a name created by local women after the tendency of their men to “tarry” on market day, from its spookier alternative. “From the listless repose of the place, and the peculiar character of its inhabitants, who are descendants from the original Dutch settlers, this sequestered glen has long been known by the name of SLEEPY HOLLOW…” In the case of Sleepy Hollow, the sluggish way of life is attributed to a German or Indian spell.

One man who may have had more influence on Irving’s work than we know was an Indian trader who recognized the young Irving’s affinity for what is now the Hudson Valley. The trader entertained Irving throughout the trip with Indian legends about every conceivable river hole. Irving’s impressive memory called to mind this first trip up the Hudson so many times in writing and his impressions were always so similar that we can assume his tales were influenced by the trader and the land. And although he often refers to the Dutch ancestry in the Hudson Valley, many of his stories had other influences, such as Indian and German.

Irving’s tales could not be praised for originality. His stories had many sources. For example, Rip Van Winkle, Irving’s sleepy hero, could be said to have first appeared in the year 200 C.E. as a shepherd who sleeps for 57 years in Diogenes Laertius’ Epimenides. Also, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is similar both to J.C.C. Nachtigal’s Peter Klaus the Goatherd, which is set in a German village, and the Grimm Brothers’ Karl Katz. However, the legend itself probably crossed the ocean with German immigrants who settled in the Hudson Valley. It is said, although not known for sure, that the principal source of the tale came from Karl Musus, an Eighteenth Century German academic writer and one of the first collectors of local folklore.

Irving is regarded as the Father of the American Story for having created some of the first American folktales. Many of them came from his experiences in the Hudson Valley, which helped put the area–and America–on the literary map. It is no wonder then that Charles Dickens, on a tour of America in 1842, stopped off in New York to have dinner with Irving and a few others. He reportedly gave this toast: “Washington Irving! Why, gentlemen, I don’t go upstairs to bed two nights out of seven…without taking Washington Irving under my arm…” Irving greatly admired Dickens and this heartfelt compliment from the master storyteller attests to Irving’s impact in Europe.

Irving keenly observed every place he ever set foot in–first the Hudson Valley and then Europe–with fondness and accuracy. The favor is still returned. Irving is remembered in both Spain and Tarrytown, New York. Though he lived for much of his life in Europe including a youthful year in the social scenes of Paris and London, which Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent. had criticized his most notable books take place within the territory of New York State. During an 1832 homecoming dinner, Irving vowed to stay in New York as long as I live! And there he did stay in a home he named Sunnyside, in the birthplace of Ichabod Crane and Rip Van Winkle in Tarrytown, NY. Except for one more sojourn in Spain, Sunnyside was Irving’s home for the rest of his life. Many blossoming writers and friends visited him from all over the world, and Sunnyside is still one of the most popular tourist attractions in New York State.

Even now, driving up the Taconic Parkway at dusk, the Catskill Mountains bring to mind the patriotic lyric “purple mountains majesty.” The fields look the way they might have in the Nineteenth Century. There is still the beauty that Irving spoke of when he wrote, “Never need an American look beyond his own country for the sublime and beautiful of natural scenery.”

Tarrytown/Sleepy Hollow continues to be an inspiration to writers and travelers who cross its borders for a taste of the magic that still resides there. Walking across the Sleepy Hollow Bridge, one gets an eerie sight of the cemetery where not only Irving, but also two of his characters, which were based on real people, are laid to rest. The Old Dutch Church, where Ichabod was chased by the specter, stands today, a staunch castle across from Philipsburg Manor. But perhaps the most simply startling connection to Irving’s time is the closeness of the river. Driving up Broadway or Rte. 9, the mighty Hudson stretches alongside the town, as though it has been watching everything going on for the past two hundred years.

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