Washington Irving


First among American writers to obtain universal recognition abroad, our first true literary artist and our earliest "classic", is Washington Irving. If some few among our earlier pioneers in letters had already detected in American soil the germs of a native literature, it is Irving to whom belongs the honor of successfully developing those germs in works which still preserve their freshness, their delicacy, and their charm. To the inspiration of native themes, Irving owed much of his ample success.

Family and Birth.

Washington Irving was born in the city of New York, April 3, 1783. It was the year which marked the end of the long struggle for liberty and the beginning of peace. The British troops evacuated the city and the Continental forces assumed possession. "Washington's work is ended," said Mrs. Irving, "and the child shall be named after him." Some six years later, we are told, when the first president returned to New York, then the seat of government, a Scotch maid-servant of the family finding herself and the child by chance in the presence of Washington, presented the lad to him. "Please, your honor," said Lizzie, all aglow, "here's a bairn was named after you." And the Father of his Country gravely laid his hand upon the head of his future biographer and blessed him.

The household in William Street was comfortably well-to-do. The father, William Irving, a Scotchman, born in the Orkney Islands, and until his marriage an officer upon a vessel plying between Falmouth and New York, was now engaged in the hardware trade. He was a man of strict integrity, rather severe in his attitude toward life, with a good deal of the old strict Covenanter spirit in his make-up. He took little interest in amusements, required that at least one of the half-holidays in every week should be piously employed with the catechism, and saw to it that his children were well grounded in sound Presbyterian doctrine. The mother, daughter of an English curate, was far less rigid in her views and more vivacious in temperament. Needless is it to say that the future chronicler of the Knickerbocker legends resembled the mother more closely than the father in his inheritance of spirits. Full of drollery and mischief, the boy ran merry riot, sometimes a source of perplexity even to the more indulgent parent, who once was heard to exclaim: "O Washington, if you were only good!" He loved music and delighted in the theatre, whither, in spite of his father's prejudices, the boy often betook himself, secretly, in company with his young comrade, Paulding.


Irving's training was desultory, and his schooling ended at sixteen. This cutting short of the school-days was due to the state of his health in these early years, which forbade confinement or close association with books. Yet he read, and read intelligently, becoming familiar with the best, especially books of travel, voyages, and adventure. In his rambles about the city -- for he lived much out of doors -- he oftenest turned toward the docks, dreamily wandering among the piers and along the waterside with mind apparently stirred by the sight of the shipping and the romantic suggestions of foreign lands. Up the Hudson, also, he wandered -- into the Highlands and over all the country-side, until the suburbs of Manhattan and the picturesque region of the Catskills were familiar ground.

Law vs. Literature.

Nevertheless young Irving settled down more or less seriously to a professional career. Upon leaving school, he began the study of law. Tradition has it, however, that Irving's reading was more upon works of general literature than on those concerned with legal practice. His excursions continued. In 1798, he thoroughly explored that idyllic region of Sleepy Hollow, afterward immortalized in the Sketch-Book. In 1800, he took an extended trip up the Hudson and into the Mohawk Valley. Although he had become in 1802 a law clerk in the office of Josiah Hoffman, he was at least to outward appearance a good deal of an idler. He had always been fond of society and entered with zest into its pleasures. In the wide circle of his friendships, he was a conspicuous and favorite figure, admired for his genial, happy gayety, and for his warmth and kindliness of heart. His first contributions to literature were made at this time.

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