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Washington Irving

Written by: Andrew Burstein, Louisiana State University

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain how and why a new national culture developed from 1800 to 1848

Suggested Sequencing

This Narrative should be assigned to students toward the end of the chapter to allow them to see the culture impact that Washington Irving had on the time the chapter covers.

What do Halloween, Christmas, and Columbus Day have in common? These national holidays share the wit and creative imagination of America’s first full-time professional author, Washington Irving (1783-1859), who had a major role in their popularization. Best known for his short stories “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” Irving was a native New Yorker who ranged far and wide in his travels and in his literary life. He was born just as the Revolution ended and was named after the victorious general. By the time of his death, the year before Abraham Lincoln’s election, Irving had met eight American presidents and was even an informal advisor to one of them, Andrew Jackson.

Daguerreotype of Washington Irving.

This portrait of Washington Irving from about 1861 is a daguerreotype, made with the first publicly available photographic process to use iodine-sensitized silvered copper plates and mercury vapor.

Irving gained national attention in his mid-twenties, with an 1809 satire on the politics of the young republic, A History of New-York. He removed himself from his text by narrating the tale in the voice of a mock-historian he named “Diedrich Knickerbocker.” (Knickerbockers were men’s baggy trousers.) As would so often be the case in the beloved author’s career, the character became so popular that New Yorkers were dubbed “Knickerbockers,” a nickname that has endured for more than two centuries – it’s where the New York Knicks basketball team got its name.

During the War of 1812, Irving altered his tone. Leaving political satire behind, he took over the editorship of a patriotic magazine, The Analectic, and penned heroic portraits of military figures. When the war concluded, relations with England were repaired and Irving moved to Liverpool, then London. There his popularity soared in 1819-1820 with the publication of Sketch Book, a collection of twenty-eight sentimental stories. “Diedrich Knickerbocker” was now “Geoffrey Crayon.” Two centuries later, the Sketch Book has never been out of print.

“Rip Van Winkle” takes place in the shadow of the Catskill Mountains of New York, sometime in the late colonial era. It tells the history of a roguish young father in a small village. Rip, Irving writes, was “one of those happy mortals of foolish, well-oiled dispositions, who take the world easy.” One day, Rip goes into the hills to hunt for squirrels, falls asleep, and hears voices. Startled, he finds himself in the company of miniature Dutchmen playing at ninepins (bowling). Joining them, he grows tired again, and the next time he wakes, nothing makes sense to him anymore. He has grown a foot-long beard, and on returning to his village, he no longer recognizes the townsfolk. He then comes upon “an urchin begetting his own likeness,” who turns out to be his son – all grown up. Twenty years have passed! Rip has even slept through the American Revolution. His grown daughter takes him in, and he becomes a local celebrity, delighting his fellows with the story of a twenty-year sleep that felt like a single night.

Painting of an old man with a long beard in a village surrounded by people.

This 1849 painting depicts the fictional Rip Van Winkle returning to his village with a long beard, much to the shock of his neighbors.

“Rip Van Winkle” delighted citizens all across the republic Irving had left behind when he moved to England. Readers embraced the title character’s playfulness and welcomed the story’s dreamy, escapist quality. The colonial past was dead but not buried: The writer’s imagination had turned back time and reinvented an age that rejected hard-nosed politicking in favor of neighborly communion. Rip was a new kind of national mascot, the antidote to the unscrupulous, money-hungry men that many in the United States had begun to feel were apt symbols of their expanding nation.

Washington Irving created humane characters: simple, honest, vulnerable, average. He delivered something else, too, by using the supernatural as a means to talk about the value of sympathy in an increasingly busy and complex world.

Also from the Sketch Book came “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” which introduced another historic character, the hapless schoolmaster Ichabod Crane, fleeing for his life from a pumpkin-headed demon on horseback. Like Rip’s Catskill village, Ichabod’s Sleepy Hollow was a spot where a “drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land.” Ancient spells linger there, and the ghost of a mercenary Hessian rider, killed by a cannon blast during the American Revolution, rules over the dark imaginations of the descendants of a war-torn village. Fear outstrips reality, until the reader realizes it is time to laugh at the absurdity of Ichabod’s refusal to think in practical ways. Irving did not wish to scare anyone, even when his tales hinted at deadly stirrings; the headless horseman of Sleepy Hollow is only a prankster, after all. It’s a tale of terror without any actual evil. Indeed, the author was never satisfied until he had transported readers to a kinder, softer place than the workaday world they inhabited.

Painting of a headless horseman on a horse chasing another man on a horse through the woods.

In this 1858 painting by John Quidor, Washington Irving’s creation, the headless horseman, pursues Ichabod Crane.

Journeying across the continent of Europe in search of new stories to tell, Irving hit pay dirt in Spain. Here, he became a biographer, using sixteenth-century Spanish sources to compose a four-volume life (the first in the English language) of Christopher Columbus, published to international acclaim between 1829 and 1832. Singlehandedly, Irving produced an enduring portrait of an honorable and ingenious mariner, “lofty” in character and with “pious” purposes. Irving’s conquering hero did not face the charges for which he would have to answer to modern historians, who see him as a slave-taking destroyer of Native American culture.

After seventeen years in Europe, the renowned writer came home to Manhattan and a hero’s welcome in 1832. His stories about Christmas had truly taken hold. It had all begun with the patron saint of the colonial Dutch, whom Irving transformed into jolly St. Nicholas in Knickerbocker’s history. The magical gift-giver whose wagon sailed through the skies had by now merged with his Sketch Book renderings of a traditional English country Christmas, replete with stockings over the fireplace and mistletoe suspended from above. When the celebrated English novelist Charles Dickens prepared to sail to the United States for the first time, he wrote to his fellow author and praised him: “There is no living writer, and there are very few among the dead, whose approbation I should feel so proud to earn.” He went on to say, “Diedrich Knickerbocker I have worn to death in my pocket.” Without Irving’s urgings, there would probably have been no such book as A Christmas Carol. Dickens’ immortal tale was not published until 1843, and many wrongly assume him to be the original writer behind modern Christmas lore.

In 1832, after visiting the frontier-bred President Andrew Jackson at the White House, Irving embarked on a daring expedition into mostly unsettled territory that is now the state of Oklahoma. He accompanied a party of U.S. Army rangers for weeks, dined with them on such homely fare as venison fritters fried in salt pork, and saw firsthand how rough life amid the elements was for both would-be settlers from the eastern states and such Indian tribes as the Creek, Osage, and Pawnee. His colorful memoir of the journey, A Tour on the Prairies (1835), featured a buffalo hunt on the Great Plains and a series of encounters between his army companions and unexpected parties of Indians. Taken by the West’s open skies and natural enchantment, Irving went on to narrate the harrowing Rocky Mountain adventures of the West Point graduate and accomplished fur trapper Captain Benjamin Bonneville. The West was a picturesque proving ground for young men, Irving attested, a vast terrain on which to learn American-style courage.

Step by step, Irving mastered several genres of literature. After contributing to the art of satire, he indulged in popular tear-jerkers. Then he advanced the Gothic imagination, with acknowledged influence on horror-story specialist Edgar Allan Poe. He gave life to a tradition of wild west adventures. In the spirit of his Columbus biography, he produced an abundance of patriotic literature, capping his career in the 1850s with a multivolume Life of George Washington.

Before Washington Irving, writing was a gentleman’s hobby. Irving tapped the popular imagination and opened authorship to new kinds of writers. He believed that a republic was more than a political form: A republic of the imagination invested in the promise of a spirited people by keeping alive the memory of a host of appealing characters, whether fictional or real.

Review Questions

1. Washington Irving gained national attention in the early decades of the nineteenth century as a(n)

  1. Whig challenger to Andrew Jackson
  2. textile manufacturer and innovator
  3. American writer
  4. evangelical preacher

2. Locations in which state served as the settings for many of Washington Irving’s early works?

  1. Massachusetts
  2. Missouri
  3. New York
  4. California

3. Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle”

  1. offered a nostalgic look at the Puritan experience
  2. rejected the republican values of the Revolutionary Era
  3. suggested that the new economic values led to tensions in society
  4. set classical mythological tales in American settings

4. The publication of Washington Irving’s essays and books focusing on the American West coincided with

  1. the Treaty of Paris of 1783
  2. the Jacksonian Era
  3. the Mexican-American War
  4. the close of the frontier

5. The development of an American literary tradition is associated with all the following writers except

  1. Washington Irving
  2. Edgar Allen Poe
  3. Ralph Waldo Emerson
  4. Charles Dickens


Painting of a headless horseman on a horse chasing another man on a horse through the woods.

Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane by John Quidor (1858)

Refer to the image provided.

6. The painting depicts a scene associated with

  1. colonial New England
  2. southern plantation culture
  3. Manifest Destiny
  4. American Romanticism

Free Response Questions

  1. Explain how Washington Irving helped to define an “American” identity.
  2. Explain the characteristics of Washington Irving’s work that made him a Romantic writer.

AP Practice Questions

“Though a biography, and of course admitting of familiar anecdote, excursive digressions, and a flexible texture of narrative, yet, for the most part, it is essentially historic. Washington, in fact, had very little private life, but was eminently a public character. All his actions and concerns almost from boyhood were connected with the history of his country. In writing his biography, therefore, I am obliged to take glances over collateral history, as seen from his point of view and influencing his plans, . . .

I have endeavored to execute my task with candor and fidelity; stating facts on what appeared to be good authority, and avoiding as much as possible all false coloring and exaggeration. My work is founded on the correspondence of Washington, which, in fact, affords the amplest and surest groundwork for his biography. This I have consulted as it exists in manuscript in the archives of the Department of State, to which I have had full and frequent access. I have also made frequent use of Washington’s Writings, as published by Mr. Sparks; a careful collation of many of them with the originals having convinced me of the general correctness of the collection, and the safety with which it may be relied upon for historical purposes.”

– Washington Irving, 1855

Irving, Washington. The Life and Times of Washington. New York: G.P. Putnam and Sons, J.B. Holland, 1876

Refer to the excerpt provided.

1. According to the author’s preface, what was his main purpose in writing this biography?

  1. To write a work of fiction with entertaining digressions
  2. To retell familiar stories
  3. To produce an accurate history
  4. To justify collateral history

2. What steps did the author take to keep his work as true as possible to the actual events he described in the book?

  1. He had Martha Washington review early drafts of the book.
  2. He studied Washington’s letters and other writings.
  3. He plagiarized the work of Mr. Sparks.
  4. He searched for previously unknown collections of secondary sources.

3. Where did the author acquire many of the records he used for the book?

  1. He visited the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.
  2. He consulted materials in the archives of the Department of State.
  3. He visited Mount Vernon to interview Washington himself.
  4. He guarded his privacy and concentration by having research materials shipped to him at home.

4. Why does the author say that Washington was “eminently a public character”?

  1. Washington was always aware that everything he did would be carefully scrutinized.
  2. Washington spent his whole life trying to build his personal fortune.
  3. Washington refused to engage in personal correspondence but wrote only letters intended for the public.
  4. Washington sought vows of secrecy from those engaged in his actions and concerns.

Primary Sources

Irving, Pierre M. The Life and Letters of Washington Irving. 4 vols. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1862.

Irving, Washington. The Alhambra. Edited by William T. Lenehan and Andrew B. Myers. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983.

Irving, Washington. A History of New York. Edited by Michael L. Black and Nancy B. Black. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984.

Irving, Washington. Sketch Book. Edited by Haskell Springer. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978.

Irving, Washington. A Tour on the Prairies. Edited by John Francis McDermott. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1956.

Suggested Resources

Bowers, Claude. The Spanish Adventures of Washington Irving. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1940.

Burstein, Andrew. The Original Knickerbocker: The Life of Washington Irving. New York: Basic Books, 2007.

Ferguson, Robert A. “Rip Van Winkle and the Generational Divide in American Culture.” Early American Literature 40, no. 3 (2005): 529-44.

Hedges, William L. Washington Irving: An American Study, 1802-1832. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1965.

Williams, Stanley T. The Life of Washington Irving. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1935.

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