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Washington Irving was America’s first successful professional man of letters, a gifted teller of tales, a romantic historian, and an influential prose stylist. With The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon (1819-1820) he achieved both critical and financial success on both sides of the Atlantic, an exceptional feat considering the infancy of American publishing at the time. Never a major writer, he still remains significant for his best pieces and for landmark gains as a pioneering professional.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Becoming a Writer
Irving was born and raised in New York City, the youngest of eleven children of a prosperous merchant family. A dreamy and ineffectual student, he apprenticed himself in a law office rather than follow his elder brothers to nearby Columbia College. 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.
As a nineteen-year-old, Irving began contributing satirical letters under the pseudonym Jonathan Oldstyle to a newspaper owned by his brother Peter. His first book, Salmagundi; or, The Whim-Whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq., and Others (1807-1808), was a collaboration with another brother, William, and their friend James Kirke Paulding. This highly popular collection of short pieces poked fun at the political, social, and cultural life of the city. Irving enjoyed a second success in 1809 with A History of New York, from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, a comical, deliberately inaccurate account of New York’s Dutch colonization narrated by the fictitious Diedrich Knickerbocker, a fusty, colorful Dutch American.
His carefree social life and literary successes were overshadowed at this time, however, by the death of his fiancee, Matilda Hoffmann, and for the next several years he floundered, wavering between a legal, mercantile, and editorial career. In 1815, he moved to England to work in the failing Liverpool branch of the family import-export business. Within three years the company was bankrupt, and, finding himself at age thirty-five without means of support, Irving decided that he would earn his living by writing. He began recording the impressions, thoughts, and descriptions which, polished and repolished in his meticulous manner, became the pieces that make up The Sketch Book. The volume was brought out under the pseudonym of Geoffrey Crayon, who was purportedly a good-natured American roaming Britain on his first trip abroad.
The Sketch Book
The Sketch Book comprises some thirty parts: about half English sketches, four general travel reminiscences, six literary essays, two descriptions of the American Indian, three essentially unclassifiable pieces, and three short stories: ”Rip Van Winkle,” ”The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and ”The Spectre Bridegroom.” Although only the last-named tale is set in Germany, all three stories draw upon the legends of that country. The book was published almost concurrently in the United States and England in order to escape the piracy to which literary works were vulnerable before international copyright laws, a shrewd move that many subsequent authors copied. The miscellaneous nature of The Sketch Book was an innovation that appealed to a broad range of readers; the work received a great deal of attention and sold briskly, and Irving found himself America’s first international literary celebrity. In addition, the book’s considerable profits allowed Irving to devote himself full-time to writing.
Travel as Inspiration
Remaining abroad for more than a decade after the appearance of The Sketch Book,Irving wrote steadily, capitalizing on his international success with two subsequent collections of tales and sketches that also appeared under the name Geoffrey Crayon. Brace-bridge Hall; or, the Humorists: A Medley (1822) centers loosely around a fictitious English clan that Irving had introduced in several of the Sketch Book pieces. Bracebridge Hall further describes their manners, customs, and habits, and interjects several unrelated short stories, including ”The Student from Salamanca” and ”The Stout Gentleman.” Tales of a Traveller (1824) consists entirely of short stories arranged in four categories: European stories, tales of London literary life, accounts of Italian bandits, and narrations by Irving’s alter-ego, Diedrich Knickerbocker. The most enduring of these, according to many critics, are ”The German Student,” which some consider a significant early example of supernatural fiction, and ”The Devil and Tom Walker,” a Yankee tale that like ”Rip Van Winkle” draws upon myth and legend for characters and incident. After 1824, Irving increasingly turned his attention from fiction and descriptive writing toward history and biography. He lived for several years in Spain, serving as a diplomatic attache to the American legation while writing a life of Christopher Columbus and a history of Granada. During this period he also began gathering material for The Alhambra (1832), a vibrantly romantic collection of sketches and tales centered around the Moorish palace in Granada.
Irving served as secretary to the American embassy in London from 1829 until 1832, when he returned to the United States. After receiving warm accolades from the literary and academic communities, he set out on a tour of the rugged western part of the country, which took him as far as Oklahoma. The expedition resulted in three books about the region, notably A Tour on the Prairies (1835), which provided Easterners with their first description of life out west by a well-known author. Irving eventually settled near Tarrytown, New York, in a small estate on the Hudson River, which he named Sunnyside. Apart from four years in Madrid and Barcelona, which he spent as President John Tyler’s minister to Spain, Irving lived there for the rest of his life. Among the notable works of his later years is an extensive biography of George Washington, which Irving worked on determinedly, despite ill health, from the early 1850s until a few months before his death in 1859.
Today, many critics concur with Fred Lewis Pattee’s assertion that the ”American short story began in 1819 with Washington Irving.” Commentators agree, moreover, that in ”Rip Van Winkle” and ”The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Irving established an artistic standard and model for subsequent generations of American short story writers. As George Snell wrote: ”It is quite possible to say that Irving unconsciously shaped a principal current in American fiction, whatever may be the relative unimportance of his own work.” In their continuing attention to the best of Irving’s short fiction, critics affirm that while much of Irving’s significance belongs properly to literary history, such stories as ”Rip Van Winkle” and ”The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” belong to literary art.
Works in Literary Context
Irving’s early writings were primarily satirical essays. The essay form suited Irving well, allowing him to publish his impressions of American and European customs without the restrictions of a novel’s controlling narrative line. The Sketch Book also contained several stories whose origins, although based on native history, can be found in legend and myth. In this way, Irving fused his own Hudson River Valley experiences with Old World storytelling traditions. The mix, skillfully handled, resulted in characters and themes that had both local and universal appeal and meaning.
Satire is a literary device that blends a critical attitude with humor and wit for the purpose ofimproving human institutions. A satirist often appears to support an opinion that is opposite of his or her true feelings as a way of exposing the shortcomings of the ”supported” opinion. Satire can be found in the literature of Greece and Rome, through the Middle Ages, and on to eighteenth-century England. At that time, writers such as Dryden, Swift, Addison, Steele, and Pope wrote poetry, essays, drama, and criticism that made liberal use of the genre. Early American satire, such as Irving’s, naturally followed English satire in style. In modern literature, satire is usually found in fictional narratives, particularly the novel. Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, Aldous Huxley, Joseph Heller, and Thomas Pynchon have all used extended fictional narratives as vehicles for their satiric treatment of humans and their institutions.
Works in Critical Context
Irving’s body of work, especially his best known Sketch Book, has been praised for its style as well as its content. He borrowed the elegant prose of writers such as Joseph Addison and Oliver Goldsmith—their lightly humorous and lyrical essays were highly influential—and injected his tales with innovation. In doing so, he captured a wider, broader range of readers and secured for himself international literary celebrity that continues nearly two hundred years after being published.
The Sketch Book
The Sketch Book prompted the first widespread critical response to Irving’s writings. Reviewers in the United States were generally delighted with the work of their native son, and even English critics, normally hostile in that era to American authors, accorded the book generally favorable—if somewhat condescending—notice. Among the pieces singled out for praise in the early reviews were most frequently the three short stories, particularly ”Rip Van Winkle.” Critics found Irving’s style pleasingly elegant, fine, and humorous, although some, including Richard Henry Dana, perceived a lack of intellectual con-tent beneath the decorative surface. Dana also observed that in adopting the authorial persona of Geoffrey Crayon—with his prose style modeled after the eighteenth-century essayists—Irving lost the robustness, high color, and comic vigor of his previous incarnations as Jonathan Old-style, Launcelot Langstaff, and Diedrich Knickerbocker, an observation that was echoed by later critics. Subsequent ”Crayon” works, such as Bracebridge Hall, Tales of a Traveller, and The Alhambra, while generally valued for their prose style, tended to prompt such complaints as that by the Irish author Maria Edgeworth that ”the workmanship surpasses the work.”
Beginning in the 1950s, however, critics began to explore technical and thematic innovations in Irving’s short stories. These include the integration of folklore, myth, and fable into narrative fiction; setting and landscape as a reflection of theme and mood; the expression of the supernatural and use of Gothic elements in some stories; and the tension between imagination and creativity versus materialism and productivity in nineteenth-century America. Many critics read Rip’s twenty-year sleep as a rejection of the capitalistic values of his society—ferociously personified by the shrewish Dame Van Winkle—and an embracing of the world of the imagination. Ichabod Crane, too, has been viewed by such critics as Robert Bone as representing the outcast artist-intellectual in American society, although he has also been considered, conversely, as a caricature of the acquisitive, scheming Yankee Puritan, a type that Irving lampooned regularly in his early satirical writings.
- Bleiler, E. F., ed. Supernatural Fiction Writers: Fantasy and Horror 2: A. E. Coppard to Roger Zelazny. New York: Scribners, 1985.
- Bowden, Mary Weatherspoon. Washington Irving. Boston: Twayne, 1981.
- Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography: Colonization to the American Renaissance, 1640-1865. Detroit: Gale, 1988.
- Harbert, Earl N. and Robert A. Rees, eds. Fifteen American Authors Before 1900: Bibliographic Essays on Research and Criticism. Madison, Wis.:University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.
- Hedges, William L. Washington Irving: An AmericanStudy, 1802-1832. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins Press, 1965.
- Holman, C. Hugh and William Harmon. A Handbook to Literature. New York: Macmillan, 1986.
- Leary, Lewis. Washington Irving. Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1963.
- Myers, Andrew B., ed. A Century of Commentary on the Works of Washington Irving, 1860-1874.
- Tarrytown, N.Y.: Sleepy Hollow Restorations, 1976.
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