Written by Blaise Durivage


Biography of Washington Irving

“There is nothing I relish more than a marvellous tale.” (Washington Irving)

   Humankind has always been keen on storytelling. Since the first epic verse of Gilgamesh, we have been exposed to thousands of stories. Thrilling heroes daring to rescue the princess, fierce enemies, tragic love affairs, family dramas, murders, monsters, and so on and so forth. The sustained interest of human beings in exploring their lives and putting them into of texts is visible with the numerous written works used to tell stories : myths, legends, epics, literature and particularly folk tales. Folk tales are verbal or written expression of a particular culture. They can be tales, legends, proverbs or jokes, presenting ideologies, values, norms and popular beliefs shared by this culture. Folk tales are often a good resource for historians to find what creates a nation’s culture. One of the most interesting nations to observe at the moment is of course the most powerful nation in the world, the United States. American folklore came around the 16th century, in a time of tumult when settlers of the old world were confronted to modernism. American folklore is a fusion of European idealism of settling with the vision of the American “new world”. American folklore is essentially about immigrants and their misunderstanding of each other, and of the new landscape they found themselves conquering, and of the people that had already been there when the first European colonists arrived. These themes were greatly popularized by one author, Washington Irving.

Mostly known for his short stories, Washington Irving was an American author of the early 19th century. One of the first author to be renowned in Europe, Irving is also believed to have been a mentor for many subsequent great authors, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. Writer of biographies, essays and historical books, Irving is notorious for two of his stories, the subtle, fantastic and whimsical “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”.

Born on April 3, 1783, at the end of the Revolutionary War, he was named after General George Washington. Irving’s parents, Scottish-English immigrants who were living in Manhattan, New-York, were great admirers of the General. Youngest of eleven children, Irving grew up in wealth and care. Early on, he developed a passion for reading and books and gradually studied to become a lawyer. However, before he actually practised as a lawyer, Irving went on to travel in Europe, from 1804 to 1806. After returning to the United States, he was admitted to the New York bar. He became a partner with his brothers in the family hardware business and a representative of the business in England. His many travels helped him learn several languages, including Spanish to German.

Irving’s brother, Peter, became editor for the Morning Chronicle and so Irving’s career in writing slowly began. Irving wrote short essays and comments and went on to publish his first book, A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty (1809)  under the pseudonym Dietrich Knickerbocker.  The book, satirising the local history of the New-York settlers, is notorious for bringing the expression "Knickerbocker" into the American lexicon and general English usage, the famous basketball team named the New-York Knicks for example. Irving moved to Europe, from 1815 to 1832, shortly after his mother’s death. He became a member of the American Legation to England, but in his spare time he often traveled to Spain and Germany, where he began to read folk tales. He then wrote his most famous work, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-20), a collection of short stories such as “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, which allowed him to become a full-time writer. Irving traveled a lot afterwards and then stayed four years in Spain, where he continued writing many important books such as Columbus (1828), Conquest of Granada (1829) and The Companions of Columbus (1831), all based on careful historical research. Irving moved back to America, to Tarrytown, New York, to his now famous home, Sunnyside. From 1848 to 1859 he was President of Astor Library, later The New York Public Library. Irving's later publications include Mahomet and His Successors (1850), Wolfert's Roost (1855), and his five-volume The Life of George Washington (1855-59). Washington Irving died in Tarrytown on November 28, 1859.

Surnamed "The First American Man of Letters", Washington Irving lived a life in the pursuit of knowledge. He helped develop and popularize American literature throughout his various works. He helped to popularize many terms we used today, from “Knicks” to “Gotham”. Man of words, ideologies and American values, Washington Irving is still considered a pioneer in the popularization of the American folk tale.