Washington Irving was one of the most famous American authors of the nineteenth century. While he is primarily remembered for short stories such as “Rip van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” he also penned an extensive biography of George Washington.
born in new york city, irving was the eighth child in his family. His parents emigrated from England to New York twenty years earlier, and his father became a merchant to support the family. writing.2 At the age of nineteen, he began to pursue his passions by writing essays in his brother’s newspaper, the Morning Chronicle. in 1819, he made the bold decision to try writing for a living alone. Irving felt that he was unfit for any other form of occupation and that he was determined to make a name for himself by writing literature. however, if he were not successful, he would be willing to accept other forms of employment in order to survive.3
Fortunately for him, the gamble paid off after the publication of Geoffrey Crayon’s Sketchbook Essays throughout 1819 and 1820. As one reviewer noted, Irving’s series of short stories helped demonstrate His unique sense of humor and style, best demonstrated by “Rip Van Winkle.”4 The Sketchbook drew attention not only in the United States, but in England as well. One Englishman described Irving’s writing as kind and warm-hearted, personally favoring the “essay on rural life in England.”5
around the 1850s, irving decided to write a biography of george washington. At the beginning of the 19th century, the biography was an increasingly popular literary genre, and the much-admired Washington was an ideal subject. Earlier biographies of Washington had been written by Mason Locke Weems (who invented the cherry tree myth) and Chief Justice John Marshall, but given Irving’s recent literary reputation, a biography of George Washington written by him would very likely fail. sell.6
in 1853, irving began his research on washington. He used two major sources for the biography: the writings of George Washington and a series of letters from George Washington acquired through the State Department.7
After two years of research, Irving began writing his Washington biography at his home in Sunnyside, New York. In his preface, Irving explained that he had long wanted to write a biography of Washington, although ill health and his many trips to Europe delayed the project.8 According to Irving, he sought to write in a narrative style that also grounded rigorously in historical fact.9
Irving published the biography in multiple volumes between 1855 and 1859. The work dealt with subjects including George Washington’s military exploits, presidency, his personal life. Irving’s creative style rendered a highly readable account of Washington’s life centered on exploring the great man as a human being.
Some critics argued that by exploring Washington’s personal and military life in a realistic way, Irving was able to transform Washington from a demigod figure to a much more accessible and understandable subject for the average reader. Historian George Bancroft praised Irving for writing with both the qualities of a good historian and a narrative tone that made the events portrayed seem natural.10 Another historian, William H. Prescott, after reading the fourth volume, congratulated Irving for making Washington someone people could relate to.11 Irving had managed to establish himself not only as a successful fiction writer, but also as a successful historian.
irving died the same year he released the last installment of the biography. many were shocked and saddened by his passing. flags were flown at half mast at the news of his passing, and many paused and reflected on his achievements as a literary figure.12
Modern Washington Irving is best remembered for his short stories that humorously explored American history and culture. George Washington’s biography of him, by contrast, also demonstrated his great ability to present history in a professional and engaging manner. it became one of the most important biographies of the 19th century and still serves as one of the most famous depictions of washington life.
james beveridge george mason university
1. irving pierre, life and letters of washington irving vol. 1 (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1863) 19.
2. Washington Irving to John Furman, July 26, 1802. The Life and Letters of Washington Irving Vol. 1.
3. washington irving to ebenezer irving, march 3, 1819. life and letters of washington irving vol. 1.
4. new york evening post, june 26, 1819.
5. washington irving to ebenezer irving, march 3, 1819. life and letters of washington irving vol. 1.
6. Casper Scott, Building American Lives (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 22-23
7. Washington Irving to Robert C. winthrop, may 23, 1853. life and letters of washington irving vol. 1.
8. irving washington, george washington: a biography (new york: da capo press, 1994) preface: 1.
9. irving washington, george washington: a biography (new york: da capo press, 1994) 623-624.
10. George Bancroft to Washington Irving, May 30, 1855. Life and Letters of Washington Irving Vol. 1.
11. William H. prescott to washington irving, august 7, 1857. life and letters of washington irving vol. 1.
12. “The Metropolis Tribute”, New York Herald, Dec. 2, 1859.
“Death of Washington Irving” Farmer’s Cabinet, (Amherst, N.H.), Dec. 7, 1859
hedges, william. irving, washington. American national biography online, 2000.
irving, washington. The Washington Irving Works: Washington Life: Part Four. new york and london: the cooperative publishing society, 1904.