Washington Irving
Washington Irving was the first native American to succeed as a professional writer. He remains
important as a pioneer in American humor and the development of the short story. Irving was greatly
admired and imitated in the 19th century. Toward the end of his career, his reputation declined due to the
sentimentality and excessive gentility of much of his work ("Irving" 479). Washington Irving's time spent
in the Hudson Valley and abroad contributed to his writing of The Devil and Tom Walker, The Legend of
Sleepy Hollow, and Rip Van Winkle.
Irving was born in New York City on April 3, 1783, the youngest of eleven children in a merchant
family. Unlike his brothers, Irving did not attend nearby Columbia College, instead he was apprenticed in
1801 to a lawyer. In 1806, he passed the bar examination, but remained financially dependent on his
family until the publication of The Sketch Book. In the meantime, Irving did odd jobs for the family as
agent and lobbyist. It seems like he worked as little as possible, and for years pursued an amateur or
semiprofessional interest in literature ("Irving" 479). In his free time, he read avidly and wandered when
he could in the misty, rolling Hudson River valley, an area steeped in local folklore and legend that would
serve as an inspiration for his later writings. ("Washington Irving" DISC)
At nineteen, Mr. Irving began writing satirical letters under the pseudonym "Jonathan Oldstyle."
He wrote to a newspaper owned by his brother Peter, named the New York Morning Chronicle. His first
book, Salmagundi, was a collaboration with another brother, William and their friend James Kirke
Paulding. This book satirized early New York theater and poked fun at the political, social, and cultural
life of the city. Washington Irving's second book, A History of New York, from the Beginning of the
World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, is narrated by the fictitious Diedrich Knickerbocker. This book is
a comical, deliberately inaccurate account of New York's Dutch colonization ("Washington Irving" DISC).
Knickerbocker History and the almost thirty parts of Irving's next critically acclaimed book, The Sketch
Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., show that his roots in New York and travels abroad gave him the basis for
these works.
The lively story of "The Devil and Tom Walker" is the story of Tom Walker, his termagant wife,
and their separate confrontations with the devil. The New England folk tale is told with very little addition
says Sara Rodes:
Irving could have heard this tale in New York as well as in new England, for the general picture of the
sharp "Yankee" represented by Tom Walker fitted well into the New Yorkers' idea of the new England
character. Irving also uses the folk tradition as a base for his own imaginings rather than keeping close to
the folk versions for the whole story. However, he always keeps much of the true folk spirit in his stories
no matter how much he may add and romanticize.
He often eliminates the roughness of the folk version but his folk lore is authentic and his use of it
legitimate. (248)
In this folk tale we see again that Mr. Irving has used his background to basically retell a story that he
might have heard as a child. Also in, "The Devil and Tom Walker," which, despite its wildly improbable
plot, foreshadows the best of Hawthornes's fictional exposure of Yankee shrewdness and Puritan hypocrisy
(Ferguson 391).
The Sketch Book, also contains the classic tale of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." This is the
story of Ichabod Crane, which is from Hebrew meaning "inglorious," or literally, "without honor" (Bone 4).
Ichabod's encounter with the Headless Horseman is the dramatic climax of the story. In the folktale of
German origin Irving has once again transplanted the story to take places in the Hudson Valley of New
York and achieved something more than the routine tale of suspense or the bizarre anecdote ("Irving" 480).
His descriptions of Sleepy Hollow and the people were so realistic and homey that old timers of the lower
Hudson River claimed to have known Brom Bones himself (Rodes 248). ". . . Irving is thoroughly capable
of creating pure fiction form his own imagination. He is especially good at elaborating and embroidering
the skeleton of a local folk tradition . . .," says Sara Rodes (247).
Another tale from The Sketch Book, "Rip Van Winkle"