Washington Irving

Portrait of Washington Irving

Washington Irving was an American short-story writer, essayist, biographer, historian, and diplomat. He was born in New York, USA on 3rd April 1783 and died in Tarrytown, New York on 28th November 1859 aged 76.

Major Works

“History of New York” (1809)
“Rip van Winkle” (1819)
“The Spectre Bridegroom” (1819)
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820)

Biography Timeline

Washington Irving was born on 3rd April 1783 in New York City, USA. His father was Washington Irving senior who was originally from the Orkney Islands in Scotland and met his wife whilst serving as a petty officer in the British Royal Navy. His mother was Sarah (nee Saunders) who was originally from Falmouth in Cornwall, England. Washington junior was the youngest of eleven children. The Irving family lived at William Street in Manhattan, New York City and Irving was born in the same week as the British ceasefire which ended the American Revolution.

1789: He meets George Washington, after whom he was named, after his inauguration as American President.         

1798: He is not a great scholar and prefers stories and drama and he sneaks out of school on many occasions to attend the theatre. Yellow Fever in Manhattan means that his family send him to Tarrytown to stay with his friend James Kirke Paulding. There the two visit local areas especially Sleepy Hollow to hear about the ghost stories and Johnstown, New York which would later be the setting for “Rip van Winkle”.

1802: He travels up the Hudson river in Canada. He begins writing letters to the New York “Morning Chronicle” newspaper about the local theatre and social scene under the pseudonym Jonathan Oldstyle. One of the publishers of the newspaper Aaron Burr was so impressed with these he sent them to his daughter. The novelist Charles Brockden Brown is so impressed he visits New York to persuade him to write for his literary magazine in Philadelphia.

1804: His brothers are so concerned for his failing health that they finance a tour of Europe for himIrving, however, is more concerned with the social life whilst there than visiting the artistic and historical sites.

1805: In Rome he meets and becomes friends with the painter Washington Allston and is almost persuaded to become a painter himself. 

1806: He returns to New York on 24th March and begins to study law with Judge Josiah Ogden Hoffman. He is not a good student and scrapes through hs legal examinations.

1807: He spends a great deal of time socialising with his friends whom he dubs the “The Lads of Kilkenny”. Together with his brother William and his friend James Kirke Paulding he creates a literary magazine entitled “Salmagundi”. He uses several pseudonyms including William Wizard and Launcelot Langstaff. “Salmagundi” is a partial success and he becomes known outside of New York. In the seventeenth issue he gives New York the nickname “Gotham” meaning “Goat’s Town” in Anglo-Saxon.

1809: His seventeen-year-old fiancée Matilda Hoffman dies. He publishes “A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty” under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker after placing hoax missing person advertisements about Diedrich in local newspapers. The work is a great popular success.

1812: He opposes the War of 1812 against Britain as he fears it is bad for trade. 

1813: He becomes editor of the Analectic Magazine and writes biographies there of naval heroes James Lawrence and Oliver Hazard Perry.

1814: The British attack Washington DC and he enlists in the army. He serves on the staff of Daniel Tompkins, governor of New York and commander of the New York State Militia, but sees no military action.

1815: The war is disastrous for many American merchants and Irving leaves for England to try and shore up the family business. He stays in Birmingham with his sister Sarah and her husband Henry van Wart where he writes “Rip van Winkle”.

1817: The family firm is declared bankrupt despite his best efforts. In the summer he visits Walter Scott which is the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

1818: In October his brother William manages to get him the post as chief clerk to the United States Navy and urges him to return home although Irving turns it down in order to pursue a writing career in England.

1819: “The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent” is published in seven instalments in New York (two in London) and contains the story of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. Walter Scott recommends his own publisher John Murray in London and he publishes concurrently in Britain and the USA to protect copyright as literary theft is prevalent at the time.

1821: His Brother William dies. Irving spends time traveling through Europe looking for new material in Dutch and German folk tales.

1822: “Bracebridge Hall, or the Humourists, A Medley” is published in June and the location is loosely based on Aston Hall in Birmingham near his sister’s home. Afterwards he visits Paris and Madrid and finally settles in Dresden, Germany for the winter.

1823: He lives with the American Amelia Foster in Dresden and her five children. He is attracted to her 18-year-old daughter Emily although she turns down his marriage proposal. He returns to Paris and works with the American playwright John Howard Payne on translations of French plays for the English stage but they engender little success. Payne informs him that Mary Shelley is attracted to him but he does nothing to pursue her.

1824: In August he publishes the essays “Tales of a Traveller” under the pseudonym of Geoffrey Crayon. The book is not a success.

1826: Still in Paris he receives a letter from Alexander Hill Everett on 30th January. Everett is the American Minister to Spain and asks him to join him in Madrid. With access to the consul’s large library he is enthused and begins writing several new books at once.

1828: “A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus” is published in January. This is the first of his works to be published under his own name.

1829: He moves into the Alhambra Palace in Granada and “Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada” is published later in the year. Meanwhile he is elected to the American Philosophical Society. In July he is notified of his appointment as Secretary to the American Legation in London and joins the staff of American Minister Louis McLane later in the month.

1830: The two work to negotiate a trade agreement between the United States and the British West Indies finally reaching a deal in August. Irving is awarded a medal by the Royal Society of Literature. 

1831: “Voyages and Discoveries of the Companions of Columbus” is published. Irving is awarded an honorary doctorate of civil law from Oxford University. After McLane’s return to the USA Irving stays on to serve as Secretary of Treasury until the new incumbent Martin Van Buren arrives.

1832: “Tales of the Alhambra” is jointly published in the USA and Britain and is a great success making him especially famous in Spain. Irving returns to New York City on 21st May and tours the American West on horseback in September accompanying the Commissioner on Indian Affairs, Henry Leavitt Ellsworth on a surveying expedition.

1834: He is asked by John Jacob Astor to write a history of his fur trading colony in Astoria, Oregon.

1835: “A Tour on the Prairies” is published in “The Crayon Miscellany”. He founds the Saint Nicholas Society of New York charity with Astor and several others. He also buys a run-down cottage in Tarrytown, New York.

1836: He settles in his new house and publishes his book “Astoria” in February.

1837: He publishes “The Adventures of Captain Bonneville”.

1839: He continues to write under the Knickerbocker and Crayon pseudonyms in order to fund restorations at his cottage.

1840: In the January issue of “Knickerbocker”, he endorses the copyright legislation pending in Congress. The legislation does not pass.

1841: He is elected to the National Academy of Design as an Honorary Academician. He begins to write to Charles Dickens. He renames his house “Sunnyside”.  

1842: He hosts Dickens and his wife at Sunnyside during his American tour. He is appointed Minister to Spain in February by President John Tyler. His time in Spain is quite difficult as different factions are fighting against each other during the infancy of Queen Isabella. 

1846: He returns to Sunnyside in September and begins work on an Author’s Revised Edition of his works for the publisher George Palmer Putnam.

1848: He is an executor of John Jacob Astor’s estate and in Astor’s will he is made the first chairman of the Astor Library (the forerunner of the New York Public Library).

1849: He publishes a biography of Oliver Goldsmith.

1850: He publishes a biography of the prophet Muhammad.

1855: He publishes “Wolfert’s Roost”, a collection of stories and essays written for “The Knickerbocker”. He begins publishing his five-volume biography “The Life of George Washington” which is completed in 1859. He is elected an Associate Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Washington Irving died in his bedroom at Sunnyside on 28th November 1859 of a heart attack. He was buried at Sleepy Hollow cemetery on 1st December 1859. 

Further Information

List of works by Irving by popularity.