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Irving, Washington

Irving, Washington, 1783–1859, American author and diplomat, b. New York City. Irving was one of the first Americans to be recognized abroad as a man of letters, and he was a literary idol at home.

Early Life and Work

While he studied law, Irving amused himself by writing for periodicals such essays on New York society and the theater as the Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent. (1802–3). From 1804 to 1806 his older brothers financed his tour of France and Italy. On his return he joined William Irving and J. K. Paulding in publishing Salmagundi; or, The Whim-Whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff & Others (1807–8), a series of humorous and satirical essays. Under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker, he published A History of New York (1809), a satire that has been called the first great book of comic literature written by an American. Purporting to be a scholarly account of the Dutch occupation of the New World, the book is a burlesque of history books as well as a satire of politics in his own time.

Later Life and Mature Work

Irving went to England in 1815 to run the Liverpool branch of the family hardware business, but could not save it when the whole firm failed. Thereupon, with the encouragement of Walter Scott, Irving turned definitely to literature. The stories (including “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”), collected in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (London, 1820), appeared serially in New York in 1819–20; their enthusiastic reception made Irving the best-known figure in American literature both at home and abroad. Bracebridge Hall (1822), the next volume of essays, although inferior to the previous book, was well received. However, his Tales of a Traveller (1824), written after visits to Germany and France, was a failure.

Irving became a diplomatic attaché at the American embassy in Madrid in 1826. There he produced his biography of Columbus (1828), largely based on the work of the Spanish historian Navarrete; The Conquest of Granada (1829), a romantic narrative; and the soft, casually charming Spanish sketches of The Alhambra (1832). After a short period at the American legation in London, he returned to New York. In search of colorful material, he made a journey to the frontier and wrote about the American West in A Tour of the Prairies (1835). From records furnished by John Jacob Astor, he wrote Astoria (1836), with Pierre Irving, and The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, U.S.A. (1837).

Irving subsequently established himself at his estate, Sunnyside, near Tarrytown, N.Y., until he was sent to Madrid as American minister to Spain (1842–46). Once more at Sunnyside, he wrote a biography of Goldsmith (1849) and the miscellaneous sketches called Wolfert's Roost (1855) and labored at his biography of George Washington (5 vol., 1855–59), which he completed just before his death.

Irving was master of a graceful and unobtrusively sophisticated prose style. A gentle but effective satirist, he was the creator of a few widely loved essays and tales that have made his name endure.


Irving's journals were edited by W. P. Trent and G. S. Hellman (3 vol., 1919, repr. 1970); The Western Journals (1944) by J. F. McDermott. See also his life and letters by P. M. Irving (4 vol., 1864; repr. 1967); biographies by S. T. Williams (2 vol., 1935; repr. 1971), C. D. Warner (1981), and A. Burstein (2007); studies by W. L. Hedges (1965, repr. 1980) and J. Rubin-Dorsky (1988).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Irving, Washington


Born Apr. 3, 1783, in New York City; died Nov. 28, 1859, in Tarrytown. American writer; initiator of romanticism and the short story genre in the literature of the USA.

Son of a Scottish-born merchant who had taken part in the North American War of Independence of 1775–83, Irving made his literary debut with a series of humorous sketches on American life. His History of New York (1809), written by the fictitious Diedrich Knickerbocker, is a burlesquely comic chronicle of the city of New York when it was still a small Dutch settlement. The Sketch Book (1819–20) is a medley of short stories, essays, and articles. His Bracebridge Hall (1822) is a book that offers scenes from the lives of residents of a patriarchal English estate. In the Tales of a Traveller (1824) Irving condemned hypocrisy and Puritan intolerance. In the collection The Alhambra (1832) quaint fantasy is no obstacle to his denunciation of despotism. Astoria (1836), however, is a work in which Irving idealizes capitalist expansion westward.


Works, vols. 1–12. New York, 1910.
In Russian translation:
Rasskazy i legendy. Moscow-Leningrad, 1939.
Novelty. Moscow, 1954.


Istoriia amerikanskoi literatury, vol. 1. Moscow-Leningrad, 1947.
Sherstiuk, V. F. “Novelly V. Irvinga 20-kh gg.” Uch. zap. Moskovskogo
oblastnogo ped. in-ta: Zarubezhnaia literatura, 1963, vol. 130.
Warner, C. D. Washington Irving. Port Washington (N. Y.) [1968].


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Irving, Washington

(1783–1859) writer; born in New York City. He was educated privately, studied law, and began to write essays for periodicals. He traveled in France and Italy (1804–06), wrote whimsical journals and letters, then returned to New York City to practice law in a haphazard way. He and his brother William Irving and James Kirke Paulding wrote the Salamagundi papers (1807–08), a collection of humorous essays. He first became more widely known for his comic work, A History of New York (1809), written under the name of Diedrich Knickerbocker. In 1815 he went to England to work for his brothers' business; when that failed he composed a collection of stories and essays that became The Sketch Book, published under the name "Geoffrey Crayon" (1819–20); they included "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." In 1822 he went to the Continent, living in Germany and France for several years. In 1826 he went to Spain and became attaché at the U.S. embassy in Madrid; while in Spain he did the research for his biography of Christopher Columbus (1828) and his works on Granada (1829) and the Alhambra (1832). He was secretary of the U.S. legation in London between 1829–32. He would return to Spain as the U.S. ambassador (1842–46) but he spent most of the rest of his life at his estate, "Sunnyside," near Tarrytown, N.Y., turning out a succession of mainly historical and biographical works—including a five-volume life of George Washington. Although he never really developed as a literary talent, he has retained his reputation as the first American man of letters.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.