Washington Irving

Washington Irving
  • Born:

    New York, 3 April 1783

  • Died:

    Tarrytown, New York State, 28 November 1859

  • Father:

    William Irving, Shapinsay

  • Mother:

    Sarah Saunders, Falmouth

  • Married:

  • Children:

Washinton Irving's family were descended from William De Irwin, secretary and armour-bearer of Robert the Bruce, whose son had come to Orkney. For many years the Irvings of Sebay had been one of the leading families in Orkney but by the middle of the eighteenth century their glory days were behind them and Irving's branch of the family lived on the small farm of Quholm on Shapinsay. Like many other Orcadian farmers' sons, William went to sea. He became a petty-officer on an armed packet-ship that sailed between Falmouth and New York and in 1761 married Sarah Sanders from Falmouth. Two years later they emigrated to New York.

William went into trade but even the small success he had was lost in the Revolution. They were one of many families who fled New York when English ships threatened to fire on the city. They went to Rahway, New Jersey, where, being classed as rebels, they had troops billeted on them. Two years later they returned to New York, while it was still under British control, to find half the city destroyed by fire. Despite being very new Americans, William and Sarah seem to have thoroughly identified with the revolutionaries and took food, clothes and blankets to American prisoners-of-war. A few days before Washington and his army entered New York, one of the prisoners gave William a certificate to testify that he was a true Whig and had assisted the Americans.

Washington was born that same year, at 131 William Street, the youngest of eleven children. Three children had died in infancy; his surviving siblings were William, Ann, Peter, Catharine, Ebenezer, John and Sarah. When Washington was a few years old, a maidservant dragged him up to General Washington saying, "Sir, here is a boy named after you". The general is said to have patted the boy's head.

William was a strict, God-fearing father, to whom Washington must have been something of a trial. William insisted on his family's attendance at prayers at nine o'clock every evening. As Washington grew up, he would go to an early performance at the nearby theatre, return home for prayers and retire to bed. He would then climb out of the window and go back to the theatre. According to Washington's authorised biographer, his nephew Pierre Irving, when Washington was entertaining his mother with his wit, she would exclaim, in half-mournful admiration, "Oh, Washington, if only you were good!"

William Irving's reputation as a man of probity benefited his grandson Pierre when he was a student at Columbia College. A professor about to punish him for some misdeed, discovered who his grandfather was and said, "I knew him well, he was a worthy man. You may go."

Washington Irving trained as a lawyer and was admitted to the bar in 1806 but said himself that he knew very little law and never went into practice. He tried his hand at writing instead.

In 1807, with his brother William and James K Paulding, he created a satirical magazine, Salamagundi, which ran for 20 issues. It was intended primarily for their own amusement but caused a sensation in New York, selling 800 copies in a day.

He began his comic masterpiece, Dietrich Knickerbocker's History of New York with his brother Peter but, when Peter was called to Liverpool on business shortly after they began, Washington continued alone.

Six weeks before publication, an ingenious publicity campaign began, with a notice about a missing elderly gentleman called Dietrich Knickerboker. This carried on with notices of him being seen and leaving a manuscript behind in his lodgings. The book was published in December 1809.

When Henry Brevoort sent Sir Walter Scott a copy of the second edition, Sir Walter wrote to him,

"I have been employed these two evenings in reading them aloud to Mrs Scott and two ladies who are our guests and our sides have been absolutely sore with laughing… I beg you will have the kindness to let me know when Mr Irving takes pen in hand again."

The first edition made $3,000 for Irving and had a strangely lasting effect on popular culture. Christmas just wouldn't have been the same without Washington Irving. In the book, St Nicholas, the patron saint of Holland, appears in a dream, telling Von Kortlandt where to establish the city of New York. Until then, St Nicholas's image had been a standard saintly one but Irving described him as a jolly little Dutchman, wearing a broad-brimmed hat and smoking a pipe.

"And lo, 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… the shrewd Van Kortlandt knew him by his broad hat [and] his long pipe…the smoke from his pipe ascended into the air and spread like a cloud overhead [showing what New York should look like]…when St Nicholas had smoked his pipe, he twisted it in his hat-band, and laying his finger beside his nose, gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very significant look."

When the most famous Christmas poem of all, 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, ascribed to Clement Clarke Moore, was published in 1823, just after Irving's book had been re-published, it was clear that the image of Father Christmas came directly from Irving's book.

"The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth, And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath…And laying his finger aside of his nose, and giving a nod, up the chimney he rose." It is probably also where he got the idea of St Nicholas travelling through the air, though he invented the reindeer and sleigh.

This poem in turn led directly to the drawings of Santa Claus by American artist Thomas Nast, which gave us our standard image of Santa, although he still didn't have his red coat.

Santa wasn't the only long-lasting legacy of Irving's book. The surname he invented for his fictional narrator is where the word knickerbockers comes from, as in the New York Nicks baseball team, the Knickerbocker Glory and the garments worn by golfers and country-sports enthusiasts, which acquired their name from their similarity to the knee-breeches worn by the Dutch settlers in the book's illustrations. This was abbreviated to knickers, so Orkney not only gave the world the suspender, courtesy of Andrew Thomson and James Drever, it also provided one of the names for the garment above them.

In 1810 Washington's brothers Peter and Ebenezer went into business together, as P& E Irving & Co, with Washington as a fairly inactive partner. Peter exported goods from Liverpool, which Ebenezer sold in New York. Washington received one fifth of the profits but was expected to spend most of his time on his literary pursuits.

During the 1812 War between Great Britain and the USA, Irving had a brief military career, as aide to Governor Tompkins of New York. After the war, Irving's friend Stephen Decatur was offered command of a squadron sailing to Algiers. He was doubtful about accepting the position but Irving persuaded him to do so and prepared to sail with him. This fell through but Irving decided to cross the Atlantic anyway and sailed to Liverpool in 1815.

He found himself staying longer in England and working harder than he expected, as Peter fell ill and Washington took over the business responsibilities during his long convalescence. In 1817 he had time to make the tour of Britain he described in his next successful book, The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Esq.

There is no evidence he had any interest at all in visiting his ancestral homeland but he did get as far as the Scottish Borders, where he presented himself at the gates of Abbotsford, home of Sir Walter Scott. The two men had never met before but Irving had a letter of introduction and was invited to stay for several days, which he described as "among the most delightful of my life". This proved to be the beginning of an enduring friendship.

After a long struggle against the inevitable, P&E Irving and Co failed and the brothers were declared bankrupt in 1818. Washington's friend Stephen Decatur secured a well-paid position for him, as first clerk in the Navy Department, but, to the surprise and disappointment of his brothers, he turned it down, deciding he would rather try to make a living with his writing.

The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon was first published as a periodical, priced at 75 cents. Two thousand copies of the first magazine, containing his most famous short story, Rip Van Winkle, were published simultaneously in four American cities, New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore. It was an immediate success, selling out in five months.

Several issues followed: the sixth included his other famous tale, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, set, like Rip Van Winkle, in his beloved Catskill Mountains. They were shortly afterwards published as a book and twenty years later the Chambers Cyclopedia of English Literature described the stories as, "perhaps the finest pieces of original fictitious writing that this century has produced, next to the work of Scott."

Not all the pieces were fiction and it is interesting that one of the pieces, Roscoe, was about Sir William Roscoe, a businessman and historian whom Irving had met in Liverpool. Roscoe was a close friend of Orcadian doctor Thomas Stewart Traill who went on to be professor of Medical Jurisprudence at Edinburgh University and editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica. They collaborated in the founding of the Royal Society of Liverpool. It seems very possible that Irving and Traill met. Did Irving tell Traill his father came from Orkney?

His writing was originally intended purely for the American market but Irving began to suspect they might sell in Britain as well. He turned for advice to his new friend, Sir Walter Scott, who assured him they would do well and introduced him to his own publisher, the celebrated John Murray. Murray recognised the quality of the work and published the Sketchbook followed shortly by Dietrich Knickerbocker's History of New York.

Irving became the first American writer to be famous outside his own country and acquired some illustrious fans. Byron wrote to Murray that "Crayon is very good" and later told a visiting American, Mr Coolidge of Boston, "I know it by heart, at least there is not a passage that I cannot refer to immediately". When Irving was introduced to the actress, Mrs Siddons, after the publication of the Sketch Book, her first words to him were "You've made me weep." He was rendered speechless and, fearful of the impression he made, was reluctant to be introduced to her again several years later. He was prevailed upon, and her greeting this time was, "You've made me weep again." This time he managed to reply suitably, on how moved he himself had been by her acting. The book that had made Mrs Siddons weep again was Braceridge Hall, published in 1822.

The most famous of Irving's British admirers led to his other influence on our Christmas celebrations. Not content with being Santa's god-father, Irving had a hand in the celebration of Christmas itself.

In the Sketch Book he wrote an account of travelling by coach on Christmas Eve and spending Christmas Day at Braceridge Hall, the country seat of a friend's father. Some of the descriptions sound clichéd and there is a very good reason for this: it is where we get our image of the Victorian Christmas. Charles Dickens freely admitted that he used Irving's descriptions of old-style Christmas celebrations in Pickwick Papers and A Christmas Carol, the novel that had a profound and long-lasting effect on Christmas celebrations in Britain and America.

Christmas was hardly celebrated in the first half of the 19th century. Irving wrote in the Sketch Book,

"One of the least pleasing effects of modern refinement is the havoc it has made among the hearty old holiday customs… Many of the games and ceremonials of Christmas have entirely disappeared."

He and Dickens both felt it would do people good to celebrate Christmas. Irving wrote of the advantage of a festival in mid-winter,

"when the dreariness and desolation of the landscape, the short gloomy days and darksome nights make us more keenly disposed for the pleasures of the social circle. We feel more sensibly the charm of each other's society, and are brought more closely together by dependence on each other for enjoyment."

Dickens and Irving were good friends, having established a mutual admiration society when Irving wrote a fan letter to Dickens after reading The Old Curiosity Shop. When Dickens visited America, the year before the publication of A Christmas Carol the farewell dinner, for eight-hundred of New York's finest, was hosted by Irving and Dickens spent more than half his farewell speech praising him.

"Washington Irving! Why, gentlemen, I don't go upstairs to bed two nights out of the seven without taking Washington Irving under my arm."

It seems very likely that the two writers discussed their shared view of Christmas before Dickens sat down to write his influential novel. One other interesting fact is that Ebenezer Scrooge shares his unusual first name with one of Washington Irving's brothers.

Although Irving had determined to make a living with his pen, he had no ambition to be a novelist. His next collection of short stories and articles was Tales of A Traveller, published in 1824, while he was living in France. He thought they were some of the best pieces he had written but it was not as well received as the Sketch Book. Discouraged by this, he was also disturbed by news being sent him anonymously from New York, of unkind reviews and criticism. The American public seemed to object to his apparent abandonment of America for Europe. To one who found it "ten times more gratifying to be liked than admired", this was hard to bear. His friend James Paulding wrote to him encouragingly, "Your works continue to be regularly called for and sold, now that the moment of novelty is passed, and this is the best indication of a substantial reputation."

Although tempted to return home, he believed it was more valuable to his career to experience more of Europe and he travelled to Madrid in 1826. He had originally been asked to translate a biography of Christopher Columbus but eventually decided he should write his own account. This was a quite different book from any he had written before and required several months of research.

Irving had a life-long gift of making and keeping friends and it is unsurprising this held true in Spain. What is unexpected are two of the names; the American poet Henry Longfellow and the Scottish artist Sir David Wilkie. Longfellow had come to Madrid to brush up on his Spanish, in preparation for becoming professor of Modern languages at Bowdoin College, Maine, although he was only twenty-one. In a talk to the Massachussets Historical Society after Irving's death, Longellow said, "I had the pleasure of meeting Mr Irving in Spain, and found the author, whom I had loved, repeated in the man." He observed how hard Irving had worked on his book, having found him hard at work at six in the morning.

The Life and Voyages of Columbus was finally complete and sent to John Murray in August 1827. He showed it first to the poet Robert Southey, who gave it unqualified praise. Yet again there was an unintended long-term effect. Although the book was very thoroughly researched, his readers didn't realise that he was centuries ahead of his time and had written a docu-drama, entirely inventing some scenes. These included Columbus facing a council of theologians and inquisitors, all convinced the earth was flat. There is no historical justification for this but the idea caught hold and lives on.

One more curious little effect Irving had on popular culture goes right back to the Salamagundi magazine with which his writing career began. Gotham was a village in Nottinghamshire, whose inhabitants famously pretended to be stupid, for reasons of their own, by trying to rake a reflection of the moon from a pond, saying they thought it was a cheese. Irving decided the image of clever idiots was perfect for his fellow New Yorkers and christened New York Gotham City, which is, of course, now the home of Batman.

In the spring of 1828, Irving went on a tour of southern Spain, to Granada, Cordova and Seville. The country was regarded as dangerous and Irving and his friends hired an escort, though they did wonder if it improved their safety. Irving described the escort as "half-reformed robbers, retired from business, but who seemed to have a great hankering after their old trade."

Irving was so captivated by Granada that he asked for access to the splendid Moorish Alhambra Palace, which had fallen into disrepair. Thanks to his celebrity, he was allowed to stay in the Palace and began to write stories inspired by his surroundings.

Within a few months this work was interrupted by his appointment as Secretary to the American Legation in London. He had a busy couple of years, helping to negotiate a trade deal between the United States and the West Indies and receiving a doctorate from Oxford but he got back to Spain in 1832 and finished Tales of the Alhambra. It was published in 1832 and played a very important part in awakening the interest of the Western world, which led to the palace's restoration.

That same year Irving returned to America after seventeen years in Europe and over the next five years wrote his Western series, A Tour on the Prairies; Astoria, a biography of John Jacob Astor and The Adventures of Captain Bonneville

In 1842 Irving had to return reluctantly to diplomacy, when he was appointed Minister to Spain but he got back to Sunnyside, the home he had created at Tarrytown, New York in 1846 and remained there for the rest of his life.

Orcadians only became aware of their connection with the famous American writer in 1850. According to Wayne R Kime in his 1977 book, Pierre M Irving and Washington Irving: a collaboration in life and letters, Henry G Bohn, described as the "redoubtable London literary pirate", published Irving's works in his cheap "Popular Library" series in that year. Irving's publisher, John Murray, objected strenuously to the breach of copyright but Bohn claimed that, as an American citizen, Irving did not enjoy protection in Britain.

Murray asked Irving for help in proving his "English" ancestry and Irving told him his family came from Shapinsay. Murray requested information from Orkney, arousing the interest of James Robertson, the Sheriff Substitute and George Petrie, the County Clerk. Pleased to hear of the connection, they put great effort into producing a detailed family tree.

The Irving family's interest in their genealogy rapidly waned when Bohn settled out of court in 1851, paying Murray $2000 for the copyright. Then, in 1855, Pierre Munro Irving, son of Washington's brother William, read a review in a London journal of James Dennistoun's biography of the Kirkwall-born engraver, Memoir of Sir Robert Strange. Dennistoun had written that if Washington knew of his step by step descent from John de Erwyn in 1438 he'd surely be interested. Pierre certainly was and immediately sought more details, writing to James Robertson. Robertson sent him some information and promised more, once he had consulted with George Petrie and David Balfour, the owner of Shapinsay.

Before he could do so, and by sheer coincidence, another nephew Pierre, Rev Pierre Paris Irving, visited Orkney at the end of a European tour. His visit was received with delight and he was shown the family home and quantities of historic documents, departing with three of the oldest. He took them back to America, where Washington and the rest of the family were delighted to find themselves descended from Irving of Bonshaw, famous for sheltering Robert the Bruce.

Washington wrote to Sarah Storrow,

"The whole story of Pierre's visit to the Orkneys is interesting, and the genealogical research in question, which had been going on for several months before his arrival, is a curious instance of Scottish antiquarianism and the national propensity to trace up pedigree."

Petrie sent Washington Irving an expanded family tree, "in token of the pleasure he had taken in connecting him so closely with Orkney".

Irving died four years later, aged 76, admired and loved by his father's adopted country. On news of his death, flags on shipping and public buildings were flown at half mast. There were one hundred and fifty carriages in the funeral procession and a thousand people filed past his coffin.

In 1876 Longfellow wrote In The Churchyard at Tarrytown, which ends,

How sweet a life was his; how sweet a death!

Living, to wing with mirth the weary hours,

Or with romantic tales the heart to cheer;

Dying, to leave a memory like the breath

Of summers full of sunshine and of showers,

A grief and gladness in the atmosphere.