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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 897

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This is the grave of Washington Irving.

Born in 1783 in Manhattan, Irving was truly a child of the Early Republic, one of its first important writers, and also a mythmaker beyond any in American history, at least in terms of our popular conception of the past.

Irving was born to a well-off merchant family in the same week that word of the treaty that ended the American Revolution hit New York, so they named the baby “George Washington Irving.” Then, in 1789, Irving met Washington. He was old enough to remember this and later painted the scene. He was the youngest of a mere 11 children. Irving was a bit of a difficult kid and a terrible student. His older siblings, getting richer all the time as merchants like their father, encouraged him to write since he was going to be mostly worthless at anything else. They were so rich by this time that it’s not as if young Washington needed to work. In fact, his brothers gave him significant financial support for much of his career. As it is today, the best thing an artist can have is rich relatives.

Irving starting writing letters to a local paper that allowed him to serve as a drama critic and this is the first real writing he ever did, under a pseudonym. His brothers sent him to Europe, both to improve his health and to gain him the cultural knowledge they felt was necessary for an elite. He wasn’t that interested in the history but was quite taken by the people and became a lot more interested in dinner parties than seeing the Renaissance paintings. But he would later be one of the great conversationalists of the 19th century. He came back to the U.S. in 1806 after two years abroad, briefly studied law, and barely passed the bar. He wasn’t really interested in the law. Instead of practicing, he started a literary magazine in New York in 1807. In fact, that fall in his journal, he gave the city of New York the term “Gotham,” which it retains today. Irving would play an outsized role in lots of myth-making like this. He also came up with the term “Knickerbocker.” This happened in 1809, when he prepared to publish his first book, a satirical look at how seriously New Yorkers took themselves (glad that’s changed…). He started a hoax that he was looking for a guy named Dietrich Knickerbocker and if he couldn’t find him, he would publish his lost memoirs. This actually got people’s attention and they were amused when the truth came out. So Irving reached celebrity status in the city this way and the book sold well.

Irving initially opposed the War of 1812 (he was from a merchant family after all) but later joined the cause and the war after publishing Francis Scott Key’s patriotic poem “Defense of Fort McHenry,” which became “The Star-Spangled Banner” when set to bad music. But the war was bad for business. Two years of not trading with Britain was really not good for the merchant class. So Irving went to Europe in 1815 to work up financial connections for the family. He stayed there until 1832. He wasn’t successful at saving the firm and it declared bankruptcy in 1817. He was much better at joining British literary circles, thinking about his home nation from abroad (sometimes very useful), and starting a real literary career around it. That included writing “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” one of the first famous short stories in American history. He published it first in 1819 and then again in his book of stories The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent, in 1820. This became a big book because he was good friends with Sir Walter Scott and Scott set him up with his publisher, which meant royalties, which given the weak copyright laws of the period was often quite difficult for writers to procure.

A literary sensation now (and in Europe a sensation because they saw Americans as yokels and couldn’t believe the nation of rednecks and yahoos could produce someone like Irving), he traveled around in the most elite circles, choosing to settle in Dresden in 1822 and Paris the next year. The American ambassador to Spain invited him to Madrid. That’s because Irving’s specialty was historical romantic fiction, which was very popular at the time. Some of this was actually based on primary sources. A bunch of early sources had just become available in Spain and Irving was excited to review them. So he did and then wrote his 1828 book A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. This is an extremely important book today for one reason. Again, Irving loved mythology. He wanted to create big stories for the nation he loved. So he would just make things up. One of those things is that Christopher Columbus thought the world was flat. This was not true. Not at all. Everyone knew the world was round going back to the ancient Greeks. Columbus was more of a moron than anything else. He believed some rogue geographer/philosopher types who thought the Greeks had overestimated the size of the globe. Not many believed them. But Ferdinand and Isabella, having united Spain, basically figured if they throw some prisoners on ships and they all die, who cares. Low cost risk. Well, it turns out of course that Columbus was extremely wrong. About 1/3 of the way to Asia, he was running out supplies and faced mutiny from sailors who knew they were going to die and wanted to turn back. And then he randomly ran across this other continent that no one knew about. He was too dumb to realize that he was not in Asia, even though basically everyone else realized this immediately. So this was the guy that Irving decided to make a myth out of. But if you ask students today whether Columbus thought the world was round when everyone else thought it was flat, the majority of them will raise their hands. In fact, I was in college when a professor told me this and I didn’t know. This is a fairly harmless myth, as far as these things go, but it is incredibly pervasive. That’s the doing of both Washington Irving and a nation that wanted to believe it was exceptional.

Anyway, his Columbus book was so popular that he wrote a bunch of follow-up works on both Spain and Columbus. Irving then went back to England where he worked as part of the American diplomatic legation. Finally, in 1832, he returned home for the first time in almost two decades. He made a lot of bad investments and so had to continue writing, often about trips he took to the West, including a hack work biography of his friend John Jacob Astor. By this point, Irving’s reputation was starting to suffer in Europe because they recognized he writing crap just to get paid instead of actual good books. He made enough money to buy a big house in Tarrytown, New York, get plum positions, and have every author in the U.S. wanting to meet him. In 1842, John Tyler named him Ambassador to Spain. To be fair, he did have real diplomatic experience. He hoped it would be an easy job that he could ignore so he could write more books. But Spain had lots of issues so he actually had to work a bit. He returned to the U.S. in 1846 for good. He continued to write, became good friends with both Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce, was the executor of Astor’s estate, and wrote a big biography of George Washington that was full of his mythmaking ideas, though of course the cherry tree myth was already in existence by this time thanks to Parson Weems.

Irving died of a heart attack in 1859, at the age of 76.

Like a lot of this era’s writing, I find Irving to be basically unreadable, but he’s historically important.

Washington Irving is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Sleepy Hollow, New York.

As I mentioned the other day when I profiled Carson McCullers, I’ve visited surprising number of writers, even considering I live in New England. The first time the Library of America put out an Irving volume, it was Volume 16 in the series, so very little time had passed before the group decided to publish him. If you want this series to visit other Library of America-approved authors, you can donate here to cover the required expenses. I’ve visited Thomas Jefferson (Vol 17), but not Stephen Crane (Vol 18), who is Hillside, New Jersey. Then, I have visited Edgar Allan Poe (Vol 19-20), Mark Twain (Vol 21), Henry James (Vol 22-23), and Herman Melville (Vol 24). But I have not visited William Faulkner (Vol 25), who is in Oxford, Mississippi. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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