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Washington Irving, Esquire

This will be an open discussion on Washington Irving for those interested in exploring his rich literary and diplomatic legacy.  Irving is probably best remembered for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle.  His work was wide and varied, including his Knickerbocker's History of New York and a biography of George Washington, whom his parents named him in honor of.  He was probably the first commercially successful writer in America.  He was well traveled, spending a large period of time in Europe, where he took a particular interest in Spanish culture, penning several works of fiction and non-fiction, notably Tales of the Alhambra.  In 1842, he was appointed US ambassador to Spain.

With so much to draw from, one would think that Brian Jay Jones would have written a very compelling biography, but alas it falls flat.  One needn't read the biography to join in the discussion.  Irving is one of those writers we have all heard of, and there is much directly available on the Internet to draw from.  Here is one such example, Washington Irving, Esquire, which focuses on his diplomatic career.


  1. I agree that, sadly, this book was not the most compelling reading I have ever come across. Yet, Jones is able to illustrate that Irving was one of the most gifted and dynamic figures in American history. You'd amazed at the enormous sphere of his canon of writings as well as his gift of humor. There were times when I had to set aside Jones and had to go back to reading blurbs from Irving's writings in order to appreciate just what a great writer he was. In my youth he was my second favorite writer (Mark Twain was #1 back then) and it was a thrill to see those great writings again. But those literary gifts were only a fraction of Irving's abilities. If you read Jones you will see that his personal spectrum had the widest scope possible.

  2. Irving's milieu:

    ^ old picture of Irving Place in NYC

    new pic of Irving Place:


    Remember these gems? Two versions of the Rip van Winkle song from 1961:

    Back in the 50s & 60s there were many cartoons & comedy skits based on Irving's tales. I wonder if today's youth are as familiar with these stories as we were back in the day.

    1. I guess it helped having Tim Burton bring Sleepy Hollow to life,

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  4. I regret to report that in the 3,000 page two-volume edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature which I use, Irving is represented by his "The Author's Account of Himself" and "Rip Van Winkle." I will spare you the list of arguably less important writers who are more fully represented. This is primarily due to how all-inclusive the Norton Anthology has been forced to become.

  5. The Library of America has been more kind, devoting four volumes to him, starting with History, Tales and Sketches,

  6. Not to unnecessarily get ahead of myself or anyone else, but there appears to be a major contradiction in Jones' book:

    At the end he discusses some professional jealousy that existed between Edgar Allan Poe & Irving. Poe "argued that critics were inclined to be too forgiving of Irving's limitations". Jones said that Irving was handicapped because as the USA's first commercially successful writer he succeeded principally on his own: "Unlike Poe, Irving ... had to fend for himself." Yet, all throughout the book Jones shows where Irving was associated with prominent sophisticates such as Astor, the Hoffmans, Coopers, Breevort, Kembles, Biddles, and the van Rensselaers - families who remain highly prominent to this very day. These people opened every door possible for Irving so that he was enabled to work on his writings. Then, when he traveled to England, the highly prominent Sir Walter Scott opened up many doors for him as well. He was able to set aside his failed law practice and to write because of the patronage and support he got from them. He also got considerable help in the editing of his works.

    In a sense, unless I am reading this all wrong, Jones is invalidating his own research. The entire book is covered with vignettes in which these people patronize and support Irving to enable his success. Yet, at the end the author insists Irving did it almost exclusively on his own. I don't get it. Perhaps I'm missing something.

    1. You have good reason to be confused. If any early American writer had connections, it was Washington Irving. If any writer didn't have much in the way of connections, it was Poe.

      To add to some of what you have written in your post, there is this from a Paul Reubens' website, Perspectives in American Literature (PAL):

      Beginning in 1821, Irving spent one year in Paris and in 1822 went to Dresden, Germany for the Winter. Over these years, he worked on several anonymous farces with John Howard Payne, but little else. He courted two women over the course of these two years, Mary Shelley and Emily Foster. The latter he asked to marry, but they were never wed. Irving would remain a bachelor for the rest of his life. In 1824, Irving compiled the less popular Tales from the Traveler. As a member of U.S. Embassy American Diplomatic Corps, Irving traveled to Madrid in 1826. While he was in Madrid, he translated Navarette's Columbus, and did extensive research for A History of Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828). This was considered the greatest of his historical and biographical works and established Irving in these new genres. On another trip to Spain, Irving produced two additional works, Conquest of Granada (1829) and a Spanish sketchbook, Alhambra (1832).

      Irving was asked to return to London in 1829 to serve as the Secretary of the United States Legation. He was influenced by Martin Van Buren and Louis McLane, two prominent Democrats, and his alliances were changed from Federalist to Democrat. Irving was honored in England through a medal from the Royal Society of Literature and given an LLD degree from Oxford University.

      After seventeen years abroad, in 1832, Irving returned to America and was given a hero's welcome. Leaders of the Democratic Party, including President Andrew Jackson, sought Irving's company. Shortly after his return, Irving went to an expedition to the Western territories and visited the Osage and Pawnee Indian tribes, reawakening his earlier interest in the developing American Frontier. His works produced during this time had a Western flair and American themes. In 1835, the successful A Tour of the Prairies was published followed by Astoria (1836) also known as Anecdotes of an Enterprise Beyond the Rocky Mountains. Shortly after this publication, Adventures of Captain Bonneville, USA, in the Rocky Mountains and the Far West (1837) was inspired by the Captain's journal. In 1838, he began to work on the history of the conquest of Mexico and stopped working on the project when he found out another author was already writing on the same topic.

      When Irving returned from overseas, he chose to settle near Tarrytown and purchased an estate called Sunnyside. He lived here with two of his brothers and several of his nieces. He forged a friendship with John Astor and was influenced to become a founder of the Astor Library known today as the New York Public Library. Irving also signed on to make monthly contributions to the Knickerbocker Magazine. He continued to work on new pieces like Oliver Goldsmith (1840) and The Biography of Margaret Miller Davidson (1841-1842). Irving denied a number of political positions including the New York City Mayor, a Congressional seat, and Secretary of the Navy.

    2. "You have good reason to be confused. If any early American writer had connections, it was Washington Irving. If any writer didn't have much in the way of connections, it was Poe."

      That is precisely what I thought = from my recollection of past readings, Poe was orphaned, enlisted but was discharged from the military, was indebted due to drinking and gambling, worked at odd jobs, & never had the luxuries Irving was given for free. Poe did not enjoy the domestic acclaim Irving had and perhaps there was some professional jealousy (I'll take Jones' word for it). He did have a greater influence over French literature schools and created the mystery genre that is so popular today. But as for patronage, I just cannot recall ever reading where he had that type of advantage like Irving did.

  7. I would think if there was any rivalry it was between Irving and James Fenimore Cooper.

  8. Back in the 60s I remember how some critics suggested that Irving was a racist towards Native Americans because he referred to them as "savages". As Jones points, however, Irving was sympathetic towards them:

    ""THE SKETCH BOOK:TRAITS OF INDIAN CHARACTER," by Washington Irving.1819-20

    "THERE is something in the character and habits of the North American savage, taken in connection with the scenery over which he is accustomed to range, its vast lakes, boundless forests, majestic rivers, and trackless plains, that is, to my mind, wonderfully striking and sublime. He is formed for the wilderness, as the Arab
    is for the desert. His nature is stern, simple and enduring; fitted to grapple with difficulties, and to support privations. There seems but little soil in his heart for the support of the kindly virtues; and yet, if we would but take the trouble to penetrate through that proud stoicism and habitual taciturnity, which lock up his character from casual observation, we should find him linked to his fellow-man of civilized life by more of those sympathies and affections than are usually ascribed to him.

    It has been the lot of the unfortunate aborigines of America, in the early periods of colonization, to be doubly wronged by the white men. They have been dispossessed of their hereditary possessions by mercenary and frequently wanton warfare: and their characters have been traduced by bigoted and interested writers. The colonist often treated them like beasts of the forest; and the author has endeavored to justify him in his outrages. The former found it easier to exterminate than to civilize; the latter to vilify than to discriminate. The appellations of savage and pagan were deemed sufficient to sanction the hostilities of both; and thus the poor wanderers of the forest were persecuted and defamed, not because
    they were guilty, but because they were ignorant.

    The rights of the savage have seldom been properly appreciated or respected by the white man. "

    He was further stimulated to be this way by reports he received from his friend Brevoort who had taken a research odyssey across the West with Astor. Years later, Irving traveled west and witnessed the displacement of Black Hawk & the Sauk. He wrote with great sympathy towards the victims of the government imposed depredations. Thus, there is no basis for the claim that he was racist for using the term "savage" as this was the norm for that rather unenlightened period of time.

    1. The criticism you refer to has been going on for decades. Dead white male (DWM) writers have been charged with all kinds of sins and artistic failings. It's something of a cottage industry, the intent of which is to knock DWMs off their pedestals and replace them with politically correct alternatives, typically women and non-white writers.

      It is certainly true that women and non-white writers were grossly under-appreciated for a long time. I am always dismayed, however, that their elevation to the ranks of writers worth reading has been driven in some cases by absurd claims of racism or other shortcoming attributed to DWMs.

      Fortunately the DWMs are dead, so they are at least spared having to answer these charges.

    2. There was this great sketch on the "Founding Fathers" from SNL,

      but unfortunately I can't find a video clip.

    3. Not quite sure that the concept of DWM had been created in the late 60s. At that time we all read and quoted Shakespeare on a daily basis and just about everyone regarded Emerson's and Thoreau's writings as if they were Divine revelation. While some may have misinterpreted Irving's views on Native Americans, too many disregarded Walt Whitman's derisive use of the N word. Thankfully, despite their failings, their merits as writers have been historically emphasized.

      I do agree with some critics who say Blacks and other writers/scholars have been overlooked historically. As an example, we have discussed how Moses was raised in the house of a Black man but did not learn that he belonged to a different race of people until adulthood. This suggests that his skin tone must have been as dark as that of his host family and suggests that Black contributions to Western development have been far greater than previously supposed.

      Still, it is good to see that people now see Irving in a different light and that his sympathies towards Native Americans are now fully established and unimpeachable.

    4. I said it had been going on for decades. It is a specific example of political correctness which certainly dates from the 70s.

    5. Perhaps the later 70s but certainly not the 60s when I started college.

    6. And now back to that book . . .

  9. In reading the first chapter I was struck by the incredible political milieu Irving found himself in New York, yet the author focuses mostly on the theater reviews he wrote for his brother's newspaper and that Aaron Burr apparently read them. A little more background would have been nice, as I'm sure this experience had a profound impact on young Washington Irving.

  10. "dunce" "scribbler" "dawdler"

    These words were used to describe Irving in his youth - same words used to describe Edison, Einstein, and a myriad of others who went on to become highly distinguished writers.

    The young Irving was said to be constantly dozing, incessantly coughing, and dreaming of paradise. His work as a lawyer/writer was highly "spasmodic" where he would pick up his pen but drop it just as often. Upon taking a trip to upstate NY while on a sabbatical, he was awed by the landscape and imagined it to be a land of witches and goblins:

    "What a time of intense delight was that first sail through the highlands ... all the scenery of the Hudson, the Kaatskill Mountains had the most bewitching effect on my boyish imagination ..."

    His adventure and the inspiration he drew from it would later be duplicated by Thoreau and Mark Twain. Dreamer that he was, he became very constructive later on in many ways.

  11. An Innocent Abroad

    Irving took full advantage of the patronage given to him by his family and traveled to Europe. The adventure widely expanded his horizons and fueled his imagination. This again belies the myth that he relied on his own resources as the record clearly shows he was the beneficiary of other people's beneficence.

    I was fascinated by the gallery of characters he came across such as Dr Henry* - a short but well decked out character who was witty, full of tales, a bit of a charlatan, but who proved to be quite useful in translating and in keeping him from getting gypped.

    Irving found the French to have too much artifice and generally did not speak well of them. He claimed that part of the trip was for research study but he spent more time succumbing to many temptations of a personal sort. Because of that, his patron-brother wondered if the money was well spent. Interestingly, Irving was one a vessel that was stopped by privateers. Luckily, he was not subjected to the garrote or we would have missed out on his great literature! But he liked England and generally viewed the trip favorably. Interestingly the vessel he used to return to the States was called the "Remittance" - hmmm, ironic title in view of the fact that he was given much financial credit and, it appears, he failed to pay back a good deal of it.

    * Side bar if you please --- This guy reminds me of the famous Mr Jimmy from the Rolling Stones hit "You Can't Always Get What You Want". He actually did exist and was well known and liked for his eccentricities here in the Twin Cities:

  12. Here was a golden opportunity to explore Europe through the eyes of Irving, but the chapter was little more than name dropping, with the only juicy nugget being Irving apparently falling in love with some dashing young male artist in Italy, testing the patience of his brother back in the States, when he spent too much time in Italy. He was in Europe during the Revolution! Yet, it seems Irving had little interest in the changes taking place to read Jones. For him it was just one grand adventure.

  13. Here's a copy of his Notes and Journals from 1804-05,

    1. Thanks for sharing that excerpt - I just read of his misadventure with the cut throats. It turned out to be a bit more comical than I expected. While he misapprehended the possibility of impalement in his sleep, they had enough civility to kindly request food so that they could make their escape without impediment. Still, not an adventure that I'd like to experience!

  14. Back in our days in the NY Times, I mentioned ''Puck'' magazines as being one of my all time favorites:

    There had been some talk of taking down this great building. Luckily, it has been preserved as a landmark:

    This great magazine was noted for its satire and political commentary. Its humor still gets a few laughs even to this day.

    According to Jones, Puck was inspired by Irving's "Salmagundi":

    "Salmagundi; or The Whim-whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq. & Others" is what gave NYC its nick name of "Gotham". Like Ben Franklin many years before, Irving used a disguised name in order to mask his identity as he attacked icons of that era. Though the publication only lasted for two years, its impact (such as being the inspiration for "Mad" magazine) remains over 200 years later. An extraordinary achievement for Irving.

  15. Interesting that Jones chose to compare Salmagundi to Mad Magazine. Maybe Harvard's National Lampoon would be a better analogy? Whatever the case it sounds like those merry boys were having quite a bit of fun with their journal, but again why not share more from it?

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  17. Made an error in my post. Had to re-write it:

    The Old Knick(erbocker).

    Has anyone seen this man:

    I remember reading the story back in '69 and have never stopped laughing ever since. Irving's "A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker" (1809) was sheer genius. Irving started a hoax by planting a newspaper story in which an obscure but somewhat dignified old timer owed a sum of money because of a prolonged stay at a NYC hotel. The stubborn Dutchman left behind a well researched manuscript and the proprietor threatened to use it as indemnification if the Old Knick did not come forward to claim it and to pay his bill. The public got quite excited over this news and bought into it as if it was for real! Soon the book was published and it became a best seller. Irving profited quite handsomely from the book and the sales campaign.

    Funny as the book was, it caused some controversy - back then several old NY Dutch families were offended by its satire. Generations later, some folks from the 1960s also objected because it had a segment that defended the concept of "right of discovery" where European settlers had the right to take Indian lands for a variety of reasons upon "discovering" them. In fact, Irving, as we discussed above, was sympathetic towards Native Americans and did not affirm "right of discovery". Nor was he attacking old NY Dutch as he had friends and extended family descended of those early settlers.

    The book did contain much historical accuracy. But its real impact came from attacking the pomposity of the politics and mores of the day. Thomas Jefferson, who has largely been idealized historically, was lampooned as William "the Testy" Kieft - a hen pecked buffoon who "enriched the Province by a multitude of good-for-nothing laws, and which came to be the Patron of Lawyers and Bum-Bailiffs" rather than enrich the common people as he is reputed historically to have done.

    Irving also came up with a clever explanation for the name "Manhattan". Supposedly, its origin came from the practice of certain men wearing peculiar hats. The TV show "Beverley Hillbillies" used a similar line when Phil Silvers was a featured guest and tried to con the Clampett clan out of a few bucks.

    It was the success of the book that made Irving into a household name, allowed him to leave the legal profession, and to become the great writer that he became. To this day, though not used as often as in the past, a New Yorker is referred to as a Knickerbocker because of Irving.

  18. All throughout the book, Jones paints a very flattering portrayal of Henry Brevoort, Jr. I knew the name from living in Brooklyn, NY where a park is named for him in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Today my nephew is a police officer who works in that area. A large building in Manhattan is named for the family which remains extremely wealthy. They made their fortune from their association with the Astors and from real estate dealings.

    Brevoort traveled West and, as discussed above, was appalled at the way Native Americans were abused. He requested via letter that Irving publish accounts of these abuses but Jones does not indicate whether these accounts were published. While on that venture he distributed copies of Irving's writings in order to spread his fame. He continued to travel to Europe in order to promote business as commerce was largely stopped due to international hostilities.

    Interestingly, Jones reveals that Brevoort, like Irving, was one of the "Lads" ~ a group of bon vivants who may have had relationships that exceed the bounds of normal friendship. Jones even reveals some contents from Irvings personal letters which show that there had been a closer than usual bond between them. Whatever the case, there is no doubt that Brevoort turned out to be a good friend and one who made many lasting contributions to society.

  19. The club young Washington Irving and the lads created was new to me and I enjoyed reading about it. Interesting that Jones spends so much time on Irving's sexual proclivities. I think it was quite common to seek companionship among males and writing was very much a male endeavor which was why Mary Ann Evans and Lucile Aurore Dupin would later take male noms de plume. Not that Irving might have gotten romantically attached to some of his dashing fellows as Jones implies, but Jones seems to focus a bit too much energy on this.

  20. A thought occurred to me re a thread on another forum which is frequented by a younger crowd many of whom are subscribers to the Fox network:

    The issue was re "classic American literature". Evidently, some of today's generation only believes that the first "classics" were written after World War II and that some of them were written by British authors. Some mistook a photo of Mark Twain for Lloyd Bridges and they think that Hemingway was the first American classicist.

    Jeezo weezo!!!

    I listed a few early classics but nobody appears to know who or what the heck I'm talking about. Man, I'm telling you - some of those guys are utterly pathetic. They know next to nothing about American literature. Unless a movie, book, or story features endless bloodletting, sex, and profanities, it is of no value to them. Their intellectual (if it can be called that) horizons are so narrow, their thoughts so controlled, and their minds so closed, that anything from the past to them is ancient history and of no value at all. What a shame.

  21. They probably don't know that Washington Irving wrote Sleepy Hollow. They probably think Tim Burton did. It does seems as though America's 19th century writers are getting lost in the fog, resurrected through movie adaptations, not through readings.

    1. Still another episode in the world of right wing ignorance:

      The topic in that same forum ~ American presidents.

      One right winger said he hated FDR because he was so biased against his hero Douglas MacArthur and fired him from his job.

      A lefty pointed out that it was Truman who did so.

      The ignorant righty replies by saying that Truman did so in response to a secret memo from FDR.

      I replied, FDR had already been dead for about 7 years when Truman took that action.

      Uh, right wing ignorance!!!

      "When will they ever learn,

      When will they ever learn ...."

  22. On another note I recently acquired an 1887 translation of Leo Tolstoy's Sepastapol Sketches through Abebooks. It was surprisingly inexpensive. I guess not much call for this particular chapter in Tolstoy's life, but seeing a recent documentary on Tolstoy when he served in the Russian army during the Crimean War. The narrator said that these stories would impel him to write War and Peace. It is very pleasant having a book that was around when Tolstoy was still alive. I don't know how good the translation is. It was apparently drawn from a French translation of the work, not the original Russian text.

  23. BTW, I've gone back to Dzimas mostly for consistency through the blogs I participate in, and it is the Lithuanian version of my name.

  24. There's an old story (one no longer used) that goes, behind every great man there is a great woman. Jones reveals that there were a lot of great women in Irving's life. Starting with his mom, sisters, an occasional lover or patroness, and his nieces. While he remained unmarried all through his life (the untimely death of a lover possibly being a reason for this), there is no doubt that he had a lot of really good women on his life. When he was in Spain he befriended the young Queen Isabella II which promoted his diplomatic career and financial strength. His great knowledge of Spanish and resourcefulness played a great role in that regard.

    I am rather intrigued by the lovely pic of Sarah Irving Van Wart (just before p 277). She seems so charming and warm hearted. No wonder he loved her so much!

    I thought Jones did a good job of revealing how important these women were to Irving and what a positive impact they had on his long and productive life.

    1. A couple of quotes from Irving about women are appropriate here:

      ~ A woman's whole life is a history of the affections. ~

      ~ There is in every woman's heart a spark of heavenly fire which lies dormant in the broad daylight of prosperity, but which kindles up and beams and blazes in the dark hour of adversity. ~


  25. Quote of the day:

    Man must be aspiring; ambition belongs to his nature. He cannot rest content but is continually reaching after higher attainments and more felicitous conditions. To rest satisfied with the present is a sign of an abject spirit.

    ~ Washington Irving

    Journals, 1817

    This says much about Irving and what inspired him in life.

  26. Irving's friendship with Sir Walter Scott proved to be very profitable for him. Once again, this was possible thanks to Brevoort who had given the latter a copy of Irving's "History of New York". The book fascinated him. Both writers used disguised names when publishing their early works, were of Scottish origin, and had trained as lawyers. Therefore, they had a good deal in common.

    The meeting inspired Irving to do some more writing and reading of books he had not been familiar with before. Some of these he sent back to NY for publication in the family publishing business.

    During his trip to Scotland his friend Brevoort got married and this appeared to have made him jealous. {Ahem!} What exactly that says about the two remains unclear. But soon enough they settled their differences over that and continued to be friends as well as business associates.

    Irving enjoyed the Scottish and British countryside so much that he felt as if he had been in a dream. After a visit to his married sister's home he was inspired to write the story of a man who woke up from a prolonged sleep ~ Rip Van Winkle! And it was this trip that stimulated him to earn his living as a writer.

  27. Dunno about anyone else but I have been greatly disturbed by the recent Swarz fiasco and his subsequent suicide due to over zealous prosecution. As a member of JSTOR, I was glad to see them drop their suit against him. Like many others, I want to guarantee public access to every manner of literary and historical information. The information he disclosed, I felt, did not infringe upon anyone and, if anything, would have stimulated further research and study into many topics. This, in turn, promotes the sales of books and other research matters. Unfortunately, MIT and the regional prosecutor did not see it that way and needlessly pursued criminal charges against Swarz. You know the rest of this unfortunate story.

    In Irving's time it was a different story. There was no international protection against copyright infringement. Because of this, ideas could be stolen without a guarantee of proper attribution. Further, he missed out on some royalties which he needed badly because of bad investments and managerial incompetence by his siblings. Therefore, Irving contrived a plan to publish British works in the USA and American works in Britain with proper attribution. This protected everybody's copyrights while insuring him some profits from his publications. These included writings in science, law, and literature. Evidently, the effort was successful in promoting many book sales.

    pp 147 et seq

    ... more ...

    1. Can't say I followed the Swarz fiasco, beyond noting the headline recently. I agree that publishers are overprotective, not realizing that this free-flow of information often contributes to book sales, not lessens it. Also, publishers need to find a way to bring the price of valuable research books down and make them competitively priced, so that there is greater access to these books.

    2. EXCELLENT post.

      Precisely what I have been trying to convey to scholars and publishers for years. In the long run it would benefit them financially while promoting scholarship & the spreading of good ideas.

    3. Just one last point on this side issue:

      A recent controversial article by attorney Harvey A. Silverglate indicates that Schwarz would likely have won his case quite handily:

      While some of the contents of this essay are legal jabberwocky this particular point is accurate:

      "... many experts on the CFAA have powerfully argued that he did not violate any reasonable interpretation of the statute, and defense counsel had a highly respected electronics expert prepared to testify why that was so."

      Had Schwarz employed Silverglate he would have won the case and strengthened the movement he was a part of. This would have galvanized the Internet protection reform movement. Instead, the choice he made may have caused the movement a serious fallback.


  28. Years later after garnering much fame from his work in diplomacy and success as a writer, he strove to strengthen copyright laws even more because the system was subjected to considerable abuse:

    "if the copy right law remains in its present state ... our native literature will have to struggle with encreasing difficulties ... we have a young literature springing up and and daily unfolding itself with wonderful energy and luxuriance which ... deserve all its fostering care".

    pp 335,336

    I do believe that this did have a positive impact historically as the Antebellum period saw a huge rise in the amount of great American writers. Perhaps it was the profits from royalties that stimulated much of those efforts. If so, then Irving is the man to properly credit for this. I'm sure that Hawthorne, Melville, Whittier, and Stowe would readily agree.

  29. This book, Washington Irving's Contributions to the Corrector, goes a littler further in explaining the relationship between Burr and Washington Irving, which Jones briefly touched upon,

    Washington was working for his brother Peter at the time (1802-1804), at The Morning Chronicle, a paper sponsored by the Burrites. Washington contributed articles largely in defense of Burr in his bid for governor of New York, an effort Burr felt Hamilton sabotaged, thus leading to their famous duel. Washington appeared to be a reluctant contributor, but his pen was much sharper than Peter's, and drew the attention of Martin Van Buren.

    The author notes that papers were very partisan, and that Burr wanted a paper to counter the scathing attacks by Cheetham and others who supported his opponents. Seems Burr had a number of wounds after the 1800 election and wasn't content as VP to Thomas Jefferson.

    It was Peter, not Washington, who Burr apparently knew well, and referenced in his letters to Theodosia.

    Interesting reading.

  30. Writer's block (what some - especially those who are wannabe writers like me - call 'battle fatigue'):

    Irving had innumerable bouts with this syndrome. Some were attributable to business or family concerns, the giddy life he often lived, bankruptcies, or diplomatic duties. Despite all these distractions he overcame them. In fact, very often they served as inspiration for some of his remunerative stories or fiction.

    Initially he wrote, "I cannot bring myself to write, I had grown indifferent to literary reputation." [p 103]

    Years later he had somewhat of a change of heart:

    "He who has to fag* his pen for a livelihood, has very little inclination to take it up when he is not driven thereto by sheer necessity". This in a letter to his beloved sister. [p 316]

    Remuneration and the adulation he got from his creative works solved the problem on many occasions. His great canon of works was the result.

    * = meaning "burn" such as through overuse

  31. Seems like the success of Knickerbocker spoiled him. He had all that money burning a hole in his pocket and what better to do than finds ways of spending it. Seems Irving's primary occupation was social butterfly.

    1. Reminds me of Mark Twains' many lamentations about his financial problems. Especially those created by his brother Orion the dreamer. He, too, was given a political appointment (by Lincoln) but dreamed up schemes that hurt him financially. Then he went broke and was bailed out by Twain whose own financial situation was jeopardized by Orion's ineptitude. But at least he served as inspiration for a number of characters in MK's stories so that ultimately he profited from the dreamer.

      But there were other problems with land speculation, foreign mines that failed to pan out, failed investments in steamboats, and other unwise financial ventures. The need for $$$ fueled his later remunerative writings many of which lacked the high spirits in his earlier works.

      Like Twain, Irving retired to a home in the NY-Conn area. The home cost a great deal of money and he continued to write in order to maintain upkeep. The large homes provided much comfort to both. Twain found personal comfort and fulfillment by corresponding and associating with little girls in a local school or club (I believe he helped establish it). Irving found much solace and fulfillment by having his nieces at home. For all the work and traveled both accomplished in their long lives, both ultimately found that the old saying is true: there's no place like home!

  32. Like our friend Robert Whelan and myself, Irving was fascinated by the history of Spain. While there, he wrote three books on its history:

    The Alhambra

    Life & Voyages of Columbus

    Legends of the Conquests of Spain

    Because of his renown, status as diplomat, and knowledge of Spanish, he was given access to historical records in order to write these books. This brings up certain questions in my mind:

    First, many of the historical books were written in Castillian (the original Spanish, that is the language of Cervantes) and some in Aragonese. The history was not written in the modern Spanish or Español which you studied in high school. So where did he learn these languages? Or did he rely on books or studies that were rendered in modern Spanish?

    Hispanic scholars were well known in NYC during Irving's time as Portuguese-Spanish Sefardics were the second group of Europeans to settle there. The Dutch, of course, were the first ones. Did he learn from them? Or did he employ translators to assist in rendering the old records into modern Spanish, then into English?

    Second, I distrust Spain's historical renditions as it tends to downplay the brutalities of the Inquisition and conquests in the New World. The historical record shows that The Aragonese-Castillian empire was highly brutal towards the other regions such as Andaluçia, Catlunya, & Vasconia. It was even more brutal towards Marranos, Moriscos, and the New World. But the Spaniards have white washed much of the historical depredations it has imposed on everyone else. Therefore, did Irving do the same? Was he given access to those records with the understanding that he would also give a pristine account of Spain's brutal history? Not having read those three books above, I wonder how he approached these matters.

    Whatever he did, the books sold successfully and he was richly rewarded for his efforts.

  33. I find myself enjoying the book much more in the middle chapters. I guess largely because I knew nothing of this period in England and Europe. There most have been a lot of disguised tension between the brothers, as Washington found himself having to bail out his brother Peter who allowed the trading business to flounder badly in Liverpool. But, Washington seems to keep a sense of humor in his letters to Breevort, which Jones draws largely from to paint this picture of Washington having to deal with the family business.

    Jones also speculates once again on Irving's affinity for Breevort, which seems to go far beyond the usual friendly camraderie. Irving very much sees Breevort as a soul mate, with him to share his trials and tribulations, eventually falling into favor with famed London publisher, John Murray.

    1. Irving was noted for his witty characters and plots. But he was also a great sentimentalist. His biographical writing of Margaret Miller Davidson is an example. Not only did he write a book on her brief life and works, he insured that all profits from royalties would be used to benefit her family.

      I was intrigued by this and did a bit of research for more information. Turns out that her mom was a known poetess & writer:

      Another daughter named Lucretia was also a gifted writer but she, too, died young. Young Margaret (same name as her mom) was a delicate girl but caught Irving's attention for her writing abilities:

      It appears the entire family was sickly despite the fact that the father was a medic. Sadly, it's the old story of the cobbler whose children did not have shoes. The family traveled in the hopes of finding healthier climes. One such area was Saranac, NY (this would later be a sight used by the Navy to train recruits - my dad was trained there in the 1940s and he enjoyed its scenic beauty). Young Margaret wrote a poem in praise of that area's pastoral beauty:


      Thy verdant banks, thy lucid stream,
      Lit by the sun’s resplendent beam,
      Reflect each bending tree so light
      Upon thy bounding bosom bright
      Could I but see thee once again,
      My own, my beautiful Champlain!
      The little isles that deck thy breast,
      And calmly on thy bosom rest,
      How often, in my childish glee,
      I’ve sported round them, bright and free!
      Could I but see thee once again,
      My own, my beautiful Champlain!
      How oft I’ve watch’d the fresh’ning shower
      Bending the summer tree and flower,
      And felt my little heart beat high
      As the bright rainbow graced the sky.
      Could I but see thee once again,
      My own, my beautiful Champlain!
      And shall I never see thee more,
      My native lake, my much-loved shore?
      And must I bid a long adieu,
      My dear, my infant home, to you?
      Shall I not see thee once again,
      My own, my beautiful Champlain

      Young Margaret:

      Sad story. But it shows that Irving was one to set aside any wish for material gain in order to help others in need.

  34. Irving as diplomat in Spain:

    The once "great" Spanish empire was crumbling as Libertadores such as Simon Bolivar & Jose de San Martin fought off the Spanish imperialists. Similarly, liberators in Brazil fought off Portuguese imperialists. Both used former slaves to help in their efforts to ward off the Europeans. The wars limited the two nation's credit standing and this led to further political intrigue in their capitals.

    Madrid had a young Queen named Isabella II. A regent was appointed to oversee her work. His name was Espartero and he was far more interested in gaining power than in supervising the queen for the good of Spain. While all this intrigue was going on, some blood was being spilled on the streets of Madrid and in other regions. Irving was quite understandably unsettled by all this. He presented his diplomatic credentials to the regent who introduced him to the young queen. Irving was quite tactful during his years in diplomacy. This despite leg problems and concerns about his writings. The battles continued in Spain and stateside politics were leading to an eventual war with Mexico. Luckily, the now aging Irving survived all that intrigue and returned home.

  35. James Fenimore Cooper:

    Irving's relationship with JFC was strained to say the least. At first, he succeeded in getting some of Cooper's works published in England. This involved some intense negotiation with John Murray who, evidently, was not always of a friendly sort. Years later, Cooper praised Irving for succeeding in getting the rights to produce bios of Columbus and Astor. Yet, he wrote unflattering comments about Irving's association with wealthy elites from both sides of the Atlantic such as "English upper crust ...{and} the snooty American aristocracy that Cooper so loathed ... Irving frittered away the goodwill of his American readers by catering to sycophants and wannabes". Cooper went so far as to exaggerate the amount of Irving's fees from settling Astor's estate. He even referred to him as "double dealer" & "below the ordinary level , in moral qualities".

    [pp 315-317, 390]

    Why Irving's deeds provoked such cynicism from Cooper or how his writings reflected so poorly on the USA (in his opinion) is not entirely clear. Irving acknowledged that their relationship was stained. But he said JFC was the antagonist. When Cooper died Irving appeared genuinely grieved, praised him for his good writings, and was at a loss for words at his commemorative dinner. Perhaps Jones should have developed that issue more thoroughly so that we could have a greater understanding of it. Seems to me that this matter deserves an entire chapter's worth of discussion.

    Perhaps a bio of Cooper may fill us in on the details.

    1. Did I say "stained"???

      Oops, sorry - meant "strained".

      Just getting old & can't avoid all the misspellings & malaprops just like Harry Caray. It's tough to get old, gosh darn it ...

  36. Enjoyed his meeting with Sir Walter Scott. It seemed a much smaller world back then. Jones conjures up a great image of Scott coming out to greet Irving at Abbotsford. Here is a facsimile of the journal Irving kept at the time, from the John Murray archive,

  37. Two Hollywood gems:

    Irving's stories were a big part of life throughout the land for many decades. Perhaps some day there will be a revival of old style American culture and future generations will enjoy this as much as we did.

    Though not as popular as in the past, Sleepy Hollow, NY remains a tourist attraction:

  38. Those were fun. I remember the Sleepy Hollow cartoon, but didn't see the Popeye meets RVW before.

  39. The old Astor Library:

    Irving as appointed as principle trustee because of his great friendship with Astor. He managed it so well that it grew and was ultimately merged with the Lenox Library & Tilden Foundation. Then it evolved into the great institution it is today:

    Like our good friend Rob Whelan, I spent much time there many moons ago. Who knows? We likely rubbed elbows and didn't know it!

  40. Interesting chapter on the release of his "Crayon" sketches, but there is something lacking in the way Jones describes the relationship between Washington and his brothers. As I noted before, Peter was responsible for giving his younger brother entry into the newspapers as well as introducing him to the New York social circle, which helps to explain why Washington was willing to give so much in return, even if it was decidedly against his own interests. The two also seemed to have a special relationship that cemented them in ways he they didn't relate to their two older brothers. None of this comes out in the book. All we get are Peter's numerous failures and Washington there to bail him out, while brothers William and Ebenezer fret back in New York. The successful release of the "Crayon" sketches allowed Washington some measure of independence, but he still felt beholden to Peter to invest all his money in the steamboat venture. But, we really don't get any understanding of this relationship. Instead, Jones has Washington skip off to Germany where he settles in Dresden for the window, wooing a young socialite and gaining entry into King Friedrich's court.

  41. It seems the Crayon sketches became a curse moreso than a blessing for Irving, as he couldn't write enough of them to please readers. Rip Van Winkle and Sleepy Hollow both emerged from these "Sketches," which ran over 7 volumes, with four to five sketches per volume. He was even able to eventually convince John Murray to publish them in London when an initial London printing proved very successful. Murray was able to buy the copyright from Irving when he was strapped for money following brother Peter's failed steamboat venture.

    You get a very interesting publishing history in this book. Jones also discusses the early battle over copyrights and how there was a lot of pirating going on, not much unlike that we see today on the Internet. Apparently, Irving's "Sketches" were translated into both French and German without his knowledge, but Jones makes it seem that Irving wasn't put out by this, but rather enamored by French and Germans taking interest in his works.

    1. Jones starts to discuss how Irving was responsible for creating an American literature identity. He should have discussed just what was held to be that identity prior to and after his works became available.

      It appears that where Irving really succeeded was in currying favor with British folks and that this is why suddenly American writing became palatable to them. It follows that this is how the literature's acceptance evolved throughout Europe as a consequence. Irving's personal charisma, his writing skill, and his work in diplomacy all combined to help his marketing and ultimate success. But who exactly did he influence among Europe's writers? A few words in that regard should have been included.

      There is no doubt that the American experience which was created from colonization, slavery, exploitation of Native Americans, slavery, pioneering out west, sectionalism, the Industrial Revolution - all these led to the creation of the USA's unique literature. They certainly influenced WI. Irving's famous stories of RVW & Sleepy Hollow read in part like old Mohawk tales and are somewhat surrealistic. In the past I have read where some modern day critics referred to him as a proto-surrealist because of those stories (there were anti-materialist elements in those stories as well ~ a matter not touched upon in Jones). While the book is a bio and not a study on literary criticism, I think all of these issues should have been considered and developed more fully to make the bio more complete.

  42. I would agree, Trip. There is a decided lack of how Irving developed as a writer, outside of the influence Sir Walter Scott apparently exerted upon him. There is very little discussion of what he read, much less assimilated into his writing. The only aspect Jones develops is Irving's love for theater.

    Jones does note a few precedents Irving set, like his collection of Christmas tales in one of the set of Crayon "Sketches," which Jones claims Dickens later developed into a literary form. He also notes that one of Irving's sketches read like a detective story, although Poe is generally regarded as the father of the detective story.

    I'm also bemused by the lack of any development of Irving's political interest given the political ferment of the US, Britain and France, which he was a part of. Surely, he had some interest in what was going on around him politically, but outside of Irving's connection with Burr and the fun and games he and Paulding had at the expense of Jefferson in Salmagundi, Jones appears to indicate Irving had almost no interest at all in politics.

    We see Irving largely presented as a social butterfly, using his writing to gain entry into aristocratic societies, which he seemed to relish. I think there was much more to Irving than that.

  43. Very interesting chapter on Irving's time in Spain and his work on Columbus, Granada and the Alhambra. What a treat to be able to live in the Alhambra. I visited with the family a few years back and we were all overwhelmed. Such a beautiful place. I bought a copy of Irving's book at the time, which was available at the bookstore there.

    It was also interesting to me how he differentiated between his biography of Columbus and his historic romance of Granada. He wanted his name on the former and an alias on the other. Seems like he got a lot of help from Navarette on the former, at least as far as research went, but still it sounded like a tremendous amount of work on his part. Doesn't seem like Murray appreciated his efforts, was simply intent on selling the volumes. I can well image how vexed Irving was with Murray over the publications.

    1. The Spaniards treated the Moriscos with great cruelty and disdain. Therefore, one would not expect them to embrace the Alhambra as part of their culture. Yet, it remains one of Spain's greatest tourist attractions. Indeed, Spanish-Arabic architecture remains one of the best in the world and influenced the design of many currently used sports arenas.

      Irving's book looks like a good read:

    2. Actually, from what I saw and heard, the Spanish treated the Alhambra with great respect, largely out of its beauty. The tour guide pointed to one place where Queen Isabella had her crest carved over some Moorish details, but otherwise it is preserved virtually intact.

    3. The Alhambra "the entire site fell into significant disrepair in the 1700s, and was only placed under protection as an international monument in about 1870. ''

      My understanding from past readings is that with the industrial revolution and the rise of the upper classes, tourism became a big industry in Southern France, Italy, and Spain. The Spaniards decided that rebuilding the decaying Alhambra would be a good investment in attracting tourists from the upper classes. Don't know of any links to proof for this as this is only my recollection from past readings. But if this is true, then it sure was a wise move.

      more fotos:

    4. Judging from the site, which I visited, the significant disrepair was mostly the gardens, which have been magnificently restored. The buildings themselves had remained largely intact. There was no serious vandalism done to them over the centuries. It fell into this state largely from disuse. But, it was being kept to some degree during Washington Irving's time there, as he lived within Alhambra itself, and considered it quite an honor.

    5. BTW, the Alhambra dates back to the 9th century,

      and was continuously added onto through the 14th century. However, it does seem that Charles V wasn't as kind to the Alhambra as had been Isabella. Fascinating history.

  44. Moorish architecture served as the inspiration for the Gothic style, so there had already been widespread acceptance of the buildings throughout Spain. One of my favorites, La Mezquita de Cordoba,

  45. This is my last post on the subject and it deals with something touched upon in Jones:

    How Christmas Became Merry [thanks to Irving]

    "Nowhere are the roots of Christmas more apparent than in Irving's tales of Oloffe the dreamer. Over several episodes in the life of the Dutch community, Irving focuses on Oloffe, a mixture of prophet and land speculator, who dreams one night that "the good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children." Irving's Nicholas smokes a pipe and places gifts in the stockings that children have hung by the chimney. "

    Many schools have been named for Irving as have many streets and towns or sections of towns. He gave us stories that are still cherished today and is largely responsible for creating the type of Christmas festivities we all enjoy. But those are only a fragment of his many accomplishments. While Jones' may have been put together a little better, it does provide the reader with much insight into his great record of achievements.

  46. I finally made it to the end of the book. I could only handle one chapter at a time, usually with one or two days between readings. Jones was apparently a political speechwriter and self-proclaimed pop culture junkie before turning to biography. He certainly had no literary flair and didn't seem to get at the heart of Irving.

    I still can't figure out why all that interest in Irving's sexual preferences, imagining some kind of long distance romance between him and Henry Brevoort. I was glad Jones finally got past that in the middle chapters, but instead of focusing on Irving's writing, he focused largely on Irving's publishing history. I guess he figured this was relatively easy to parse out.

    Not that there weren't some interesting tidbits, like Irving's relationship with publisher John Murray, but the slapdash treatment of Irving's trips through Europe and on the American Prairie, leading to a great number of "sketches," left me stone cold.

    He touches on Irving's relationship with Martin van Buren, and how it was sorely tested when van Buren wouldn't secure Irving's older brother, Ebeneezer, a government position in his administration, but again we get very little of what seemed to be a very interesting connection between the two, and one that probably circled back to Irving's relationship with Aaron Burr, who was van Buren's father. Jones makes no such connection.

    It was interesting that Dickens apparently owed an early debt to Irving in modeling his early sketches after those of Geoffrey Crayon, but here again Jones leaves it after a few pages and moves on to Irving's return to Spain.

    Not a great book, not even a good book, yet here is Jones boasting of it being the definitive biography on Irving,

    not by any stretch of the imagination.

  47. I see Brian Jay Jones turned to Jim Henson and the Muppets,

    He will be pitching his new book on The Daily Show this week.

  48. My daughter's birthday present. She is a HUGE Henson fan.


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