Washington Irving


Washington Irving was the youngest of eleven children born to a pair of Scottish-English immigrants living in New York City. He was born just as the American Revolution officially ended, and his mother celebrated by naming him after George Washington. Irving himself met the presidential candidate six years later, and the elder Washington gave him his blessing. As he grew up, Irving became fascinated with literature and drama, and he would regularly sneak out of class to attend the theater. In 1798, yellow fever broke out and Irving was sent upriver to Tarrytown, New York. He began writing letters to the New York Morning Chronicle under the pseudonym Jonathon Oldstyle.

Washington Irving
From 1804 to 1806, Irving took an extended tour of Europe, where he bypassed most of the famous historical sites and instead spent his time improving his social and conversational skills. Upon his return, he began studying law, and he barely passed the bar in 1806. Irving then collaborated with brother and friend to create the satirical magazine Salmagundi. Two years later, following the death of his 17-year-old fiancée Matilda Hoffman, Irving completed his first book, A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker. In 1814, after a British attack on Washington, D.C., he enlisted in the U.S. Army but saw little action. The war proved ruinous for Irving’s family’s business, and after the fighting concluded he moved to England in an attempt to save their company. After two years, he was forced to declare bankruptcy. With no job prospects, he focused solely on his writing, and in 1819 he sent to his brother a collection of stories to be published as The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. All seven installments, published both in New York and London, were immensely successful, and Irving’s population soared. He began looking for new material, but a case of writer’s block kept him from publishing anything until Bracebridge Hall, a collection of stories similar to The Sketch Book, in 1822. He published a third book, but it was not well received by his critics, and, depressed and defeated, Irving retreated to Paris in search of new material.

While in Paris, Irving received a letter from the American Minister to Spain, urging the author to visit at once. There, Irving was given access to the American consul’s library of Spanish history, and he soon published several books on the life and voyages of Christopher Columbus. He was only able to remain in Spain for three years, however, when he was recalled to England and appointed Secretary to the American Legislation in London. He and American Minister Louis McLane spent the next year negotiating a trade agreement between the U.S. and the British West Indies, at which time Irving was awarded a medal by the Royal Society of Literature as well as an honorary doctorate of civil law from Oxford University. Irving remained in his post until McLane was replaced by Martin Van Buren, at which point he finally returned to New York. In need of money, the author published another book, his second to be written while on American soil. He later wrote a history of the fur trading company—though rather unenthusiastically—before throwing himself fully into his next project, a biography of explorer Benjamin Bonneville. In 1842, after ten years of living at his home, a cottage manor nicknamed Sunnyside, Irving was appointed Minister to Spain, and he returned to Europe once more.

When Irving arrived, Spain was in political upheaval, and after several years of negotiation and warfare, the author and diplomat was finally able to return home. He took up permanent residence in Sunnyside, where he wrote regularly until his death in 1859, only eight months after completing his final work, a five-volume biography of George Washington. He was buried in Sleepy Hollow cemetery.

Key events during the life of Washington Irving:

Born in New York City.
Met George Washington.
Forced to move northward to Tarrytown, NY.
Published a series of letters under the pseudonym Jonathon Oldstyle.
Went on an extended tour of Europe.
Created the satirical magazine Salmagundi.
Death of fiancée Matilda Hoffman.
Enlisted in the U.S. Army during the War of 1812.
Moved to England to help out the family business.
Published The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.
Proposed to Emily Foster but was refused.
Moved to Spain and wrote several books.
Returned to England to take up a position as Secretary to the American Legislation in London.
Returned to America.
Appointed Minister to Spain.
Returned to America once more.
Published a five-volume biography of George Washington.
  Died of a heart attack.

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
Washington Irving as a Boy  in  Stories of Great Americans for Little Americans  by  Edward Eggleston

Image Links

Irving in Mischief
 in Stories of Great Americans for Little Americans

Short Biography
Merriwether Lewis With William Clark, followed the Missouri river to its source, crossed the Rockies and followed the Columbia to the Pacific Ocean.
William Clark Led an expedition up the Missouri River, map-making, gathering information, and looking for a passage to the Pacific Ocean.
George Washington Leader of the Continental Army of the U.S. during the Revolutionary War, and first President.
Thomas Jefferson Third President. Author of the Declaration of Independence. Founder of Democrat-Republican Party.