Washington Irving is best known as the creator of “Rip van Winkle,” a fact that may say as much about the relative status of stories and essays in the hierarchy of genres as it does about Irving’s formative contribution to American literature’s preoccupation with fables of identity. Irving was, indeed, one of the creators of the modern short story and, beyond that, of a distinctly American literary imagination; but in his time, both in the New World and the Old, he was widely celebrated not only as an engaging purveyor of fictitious and historical tales (often transplanted and adapted from other national traditions) but also as America’s answer to the stylish periodical essayists of 18th-century England.
The book in which Irving’s most famous story appears is predominantly a collection of essays, or—in the metaphor of its title, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.— sketches. These range from personal report (“The Voyage”) and sentimental narrative (“The Broken Heart”) to imaginative literary excursion (“A Royal Poet”), fanciful dream vision (“The Art of Bookmaking”), conciliatory polemic (“English Writers on America”), impassioned historical revisionism (“Philip of Pokanoket”), and warmly engaged social portraiture (the Christmas sketches). When the Sketch Book was issued (1819–20), to a transatlantic acclaim never quite matched by his later works, Irving was best known as the writer behind “Diedrich Knickerbocker’s” History of New York (1809), a masterpiece of Rabelaisian humor some chapters of which stand as self-contained ironic, even satiric, essays. At age 19, following essayists such as Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Dennie, and Philip Freneau in their use of fictional masks shaping Addison’s Spectator to an American mold, Irving had penned epistolary essays under the name “Jonathan Oldstyle” (1802–03), a theater-haunting bachelor much exercised about the “degeneracy of the present times.” Soon thereafter, under a whole array of whimsical bachelor masks, Irving collaborated on the rambunctiously parodic essay periodical Salmagundi (1807– 08). With the Sketch Book appeared his most durable and prolific persona, “Geoffrey Crayon,” the professional writer as traveling sketch artist and perpetual “stranger in the land” (“The Voyage”) also associated with several later medleys of short prose. These works contain (among various fictions, framing pieces, and narrative links) the greater part of Irving’s essays and include, besides the Sketch Book: Bracebridge Hall (1822);
The Alhambra (1832); The Crayon Miscellany (1835), incorporating A Tour on the Prairies and Abbotsford and Newstead Abbey; and Chronicles of Wolfert’s Roost (1855), which, although it dropped the name, was composed of “Crayon” pieces from the late 1830s and early 1840s.
Like his earlier authorial personae, the fiction of “Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.” functions as an announcement that these works are not occasions for the fullness and complexity of Washington Irving’s own thoughts and feelings as a person. But the English resonance of the name is more than a pseudonymous screen for an American writer (the first to support himself by his pen) who, all of his life, despite unprecedented popular and critical success, doubted the value of his work and especially his capacity for sustained production (although he wrote, among other work, a five-volume biography of George Washington). The itinerant Crayon is both the controlling metaphor of an often interrupted literary enterprise and a shifting locus of accommodation with the project of authorship as such. As the man of “vagrant imagination” “sketching” whatever his “sauntering gaze” takes to its fancy, he is the New World’s early 19th-century version of the continental traveler making drawings and notes for the entertainment of his friends back home. No cultural program, however, directs this sightseer’s idiosyncratic eye, only the whimsy impelling him to “bye places,” to “cottages…and obscure ruins” rather than to the standard tourist attractions. This earliest literary figure of the American abroad—a man of taste and sensibility, a voracious reader of wide sympathies, a worldly voyager limited only by the innocence of one who has not grown up in an old culture—Geoffrey Crayon is the keen-eyed Addisonian looker-on without his moral agenda, the Citizen of the World sans philosophic portfolio, the rambler as creature of “roving passion” and “idle humor” (“The Author’s Account of Himself”). A self-described loiterer in sundry locales of reverie and romance, he specializes in evoking vanished and vanishing pasts of old Europe—the urban and rural landscapes of England (Sketch Book and Bracebridge), the fabled haunts of Moorish Spain (Alhambra), the erstwhile Parisian hotel and the paradisiacal Dutch village (Wolfert’s Roost). Seventeen years later, back on his own continent but still a “stranger,” he rides the frontier in A Tour on the Prairies, discovering a literary Wild West that becomes the fount of picturesque enterprises, characters, and settings for the emergence of a national literature.
Washington Irving as Geoffrey Crayon is, most characteristically, the highly responsive observer fascinated by the great range of human life, from Granada, London, Paris, and the Scottish border country to the riverside Creole villages of Louisiana and the old Pawnee hunting grounds of Oklahoma. At times vibrantly present in his work, he more habitually recedes to the point of self-erasure, not a locus of introspection but a fluid sensibility—bemused, melancholy, shrewd, sentimental, ironical, romantic— embodied in a supplely adapted style. In the hands of this sojourning artist persona the Irvingesque essay as sketch—by definition preliminary and contingent—flows easily from scene painting and character study to fanciful elaboration; achieves unity not so much by way of thematic shaping as by focus on persons, places, or moods; prefers forays into the evocative domains of narration and description rather than reflection and analysis (except as irony or burlesque); enacts a potpourri of self-conscious techniques for rendering the immediate effects of experience rather than its profundities. Something resembling it may be found in parts of the Spectator, and much later, among the short nonfiction works of writers such as Dickens, Hawthorne, or Mark Twain, or, in modern times, Joan Didion.
Generically volatile, by turns eclectic and experimental, as varied and variable as the mundane, culturally inflected textures of life itself, Washington Irving’s artfully staged essay of immediate response is to be sharply distinguished from its near contemporary Emersonian counterpart, in which nature becomes the deep of meaning to be plumbed.
As far removed from the Montaignean essai of ruminative self-portraiture as from the elegant moral and political counsels of Bacon, Irving’s essay as sketch adumbrates a journalistic practice to come, where the surface of experience is taken to be what is most natural, most worth portraying, and most appealing to a broadly literate audience. What may engage the postmodern reader as generic transgression is, in its historical context, an exploration of short prose forms by a literary pioneer whose work itself outlined their possibilities and thereby contributed materially to a new literature in the making.
Born 3 April 1783 in New York City. Studied law in the offices of Henry Masterton, 1798, Brockholst Livingston, 1801, and Josiah Ogden Hoffman, 1802; admitted to New York bar, 1806, and practiced occasionally. Contributor, including “The Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, Gentleman,” Morning Chronicle, 1802–03. Traveled in Europe, 1804– 06. Coeditor, Salmagundi, 1807–08. Engaged to Martha Hoffman (died, 1809). Partner with his brothers in the family hardware business, New York and Liverpool, England, 1810, and representative of the business in England until it collapsed, 1815–18. Military aide to New York Governor Tompkins in U.S. Army during the War of 1812. Editor, Analectic magazine, Philadelphia and New York, 1812–14. Lived in Dresden, 1822–23, London, 1824, and Paris, 1825; worked for the U.S. Embassy, Madrid, 1826–29, and secretary to the U.S. Embassy, London, 1829–32; returned to New York, then toured the southern and western United States, 1832. Lived at Sunnyside manor house, Tarrytownon- Hudson, New York, 1836–42. U.S. Ambassador to Spain, 1842–45, then returned to Tarrytown. President, Astor Library (later New York Public Library), 1848–59.
Awards: Royal Society of Literature Medal, 1830; honorary degrees from three universities.
Corresponding member, Royal Academy of History (Spain), 1829. Died in Tarrytown, 28 November 1859.
Essays and Related Prose
Salmagundi; or, The Whim-Whams and Opinions of Launcelot Longstaff, Esq. & Others, 2 vols., 1807–08; revised editions, 1814, 1824
A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, 2 vols., 1809; revised editions, 1812, 1848
The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., 7 vols., 1819–20
Bracebridge Hall; or, The Humorists, a Medley by Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., 2 vols., 1822
Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent., 1824
The Alhambra, 2 vols., 1832
A Tour on the Prairies, 1835
Abbotsford and Newstead Abbey, 1835
The Crayon Miscellany (includes A Tour on the Prairies and Abbotsford and Newstead Abbey), 3 vols., 1835
Essays and Sketches, 1837
Chronicles of Wolfert’s Roost and Other Papers, 1855
Other writings: tales, histories, and biographies (Tales of a Traveller by Geoffrey Crayon, 1824; The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, 1828; A Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada, 1829; Voyages and Discoveries of the Companions of Columbus, 1831; Astoria, or Anecdotes of an Enterprise Beyond the Rocky Mountains, 1836; The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, 1837; Oliver Goldsmith: A Biography, 1840, revised 1849; Biography and Poetical Remains of the Late Margaret Miller Davidson, 1841;
Mahomet and His Successors, 1850; Life of George Washington, 1855–59), five volumes of journals and notebooks, four volumes of correspondence, and miscellaneous writings.
Collected works editions: Works (Author’s Revised Edition), 15 vols., 1848–51;
Complete Works (Twayne Edition), general editors Henry A.Pochmann, Herbert L.Kleinfeld, and Richard Dilworth Rust, 30 vols., 1969–89.
Bowden, Edwin T., Washington Irving: Bibliography (vol. 30 of the Complete Works), Boston: Twayne, 1989
Springer, Haskell, Washington Irving: A Reference Guide, Boston: Hall, 1976
Aderman, Ralph M., Critical Essays on Washington Irving, Boston: Hall, 1990
Antelyes, Peter, Tales of Adventurous Enterprises: Washington Irving and the Poetics of the Western Experience, New York: Columbia University Press, 1990
Hedges, William L., Washington Irving: An American Study, 1802–1832, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965
Irving, Pierre M., The Life and Letters of Washington Irving, Detroit: Gale Research, 4 vols., 1967 (original edition, 1862–64)
Kasson, Joy S., Artistic Voyagers: Europe and the American Imagination in the Works of Irving, Allston, Cole, Cooper, and Hawthorne, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1982
McFarland, Philip, Sojourners, New York: Atheneum, 1979
Roth, Martin, Comedy and America: The Lost World of Washington Irving, Port Washington, New York: Kennikat, 1976
Rubin-Dorsky, Jeffrey, Adrift in the Old World: The Psychological Pilgrimage of Washington Irving, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988
Seed, D., “The Art of Literary Tourism: An Approach to Washington Irving’s Sketch Book,” Ariel 14, no. 2 (1977):67–82
Tuttleton, James W., editor, Washington Irving: The Critical Reaction, New York: AMS Press, 1993
Wagenknecht, Edward, Washington Irving: Moderation Displayed, New York: Oxford University Press, 1962
Williams, Stanley T., The Life of Washington Irving, New York and London: Oxford University Press, 2 vols., 1935
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