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Washington Irving

One of the most successful and popular early American writers, Washington Irving couldn't have had a clue as to what legacy he would leave behind while he still walked the earth.  Thinking of himself primarily as an essayist and a humorist, he had no inkling that his true calling would be to transform foreign folk tales into appealing moralistic stories for an eager American audience.

Irving was born on April 3, 1783, in New York City.  His father was a soldier in the Revolutionary War who named his son after George Washington.  Young Irving was the youngest of eleven children.  Unlike his older brothers, he chose not to attend college but rather served briefly as a law clerk, beginning a legal career he intended to pursue.  In his free time, he contributed sketches to newspapers and began to publish, with his brother and brother-in-law, a series of satirical pamphlets called Salmagundi; or, the Whim-Whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq. & Others (1807). 

In one of the pamphlets, he referred to New York City as "the renowned and ancient city of Gotham."  It was the first recorded history of the word used to describe New York.  The original town of Gotham, England, was a village legendary for the indefatigeuable stupidity of its inhabitants.

In 1809, Irving published his first book, A History of New York, a satirical history of the city from the point of view of an eccentric old Dutch professor named Diedrich Knickerbocker.  Irving promoted the book by claiming that Knickerbocker was a real person and that he had left the manuscript for the book at the front desk of his hotel before disappearing without a trace.  The book became so popular among New Yorkers that they began calling themselves Knickerbockers.  The term became the name for the city's professional basketball team.

As he was working on the book, Irving fell in love with a young woman named Matilda Hoffman, whom he decided to marry.  But in the same year that his book came out, Matilda died of consumption.  Irving was devastated.  He found that he could no longer write and spent the next few years working as an editor and traveling aimlessly around Europe.  He was able to live comfortably in part because of money he received from his father.  But in 1818, the family business went bankrupt, and suddenly Irving had to support himself.

With no other choice, Irving finally began writing seriously.  He turned out a book of essays and short stories entitled The Sketch Book (1819).  Most of the pieces in it were descriptions of England, where he'd spent a lot of time.  But two of the stories were rewritten German folktales which he transplanted in American soil.  The first of these was Rip Van Winkle, the tale of a man who falls asleep during the British rule of the American Colonies, only to wake up years later to find himself in the newly created United States of America.

The other American story in his Sketch Book was the most famous one Irving would ever write.  It was set in an area of the Hudson River Valley that he described as " of the quietest places in the whole world...[where] a drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere...this sequestered glen...known by the name of Sleepy Hollow."

In The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," Irving invented one of the first memorable characters of American literature, the visiting schoolteacher, Ichabod Crane, whom Irving described as "tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together.... To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one might have mistaken him for...some scarecrow eloped from a corn-field."

Both Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow were revolutionary American short stories because they suggested that the fledgling nation actually had a history.  When Sleepy Hollow was published, there were no internationally known American fiction writers, leading one English wag to write in 1818, "The Americans have no national literature and no learned men."  Another said, "In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?"  Irving's Sketch Book was the first international bestseller by an American author, and it was greatly admired by British writers, including Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens.

Irving became something of a celebrity, himself, when he returned to New York, where the locals wanted him to run for mayor.  He chose instead to settle into a farmhouse in the part of the Hudson River Valley that he had named Sleepy Hollow, happy to find that it had changed little since his boyhood days.  He wrote, "Though many years have elapsed since I trod the drowsy shades of Sleepy Hollow, yet I...still find the same trees and the same families vegetating in its sheltered bosom."

He went on to publish many more books, most of them bestsellers, but he is still best remembered for his two fairytale reformations, stories that greatly influenced many early American writers, including Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allen Poe.

Irving said, "There is a certain relief in change, even though it be from bad to worse; as I have found in traveling in a stage-coach, that it is often a comfort to shift one's position and be bruised in a new place."

Irving spent the last years of his life in upstate New York near Tarrytown.  From 1848 to 1859, he served as President of Astor Library, which would eventually become the New York Public Library.  Irving's later publications include Mahomet and His Successors (1850), a carefully researched presentation of the life, beliefs, and character of Mohammed; Wolfert's Roost (1855); and his five-volume The Life of George Washington (1859). 

By fall of 1859, Irving was beginning to feel the strains of life's many challenges.  His health was beginning to fail, and he was winding down.  On November 28, while preparing to retire, he commented, "Well, I must arrange my pillows for another weary night.  If this could only end!"  Washington Irving died that very evening. 

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