Week Eight: Reason and Revolution Part III / The Romantic, the Real and the American Indian
Perkins−Perkins: Selections from American Literature
Washington Irving Author Bio © The McGraw−Hill Companies, 2003
Washington Irving (1783–1859)
R With Cooper, Poe, and Hawthorne, Irving has survived all other American writers of fiction before Melville, and he still finds new readers with every passing generation. He was the first great prose stylist of American romanticism, and his familiar style was destined to outlive the formal prose of such contemporaries as Scott and Cooper, and to provide a model for the prevailing prose narra- tive of the future.
The apparent ease of his writing is not simply that of the gifted amateur; it results from his purposeful identification of his whole personality with what he wrote. He was urbane and worldly, yet humorous and gentle; a robust connoisseur, yet innately reserved; a patrician, yet sympathetic toward the people. His vast reading, following only the impulse of his own enthusiasms, resulted in a rich if random literary inheritance, revealed in all that he wrote. His response to the period of Addison, Swift, and Johnson, with its great and graceful style, and his enthusiasm for the current European romanticism, enabled him to combine these with his independent literary personality and American roots.
It is instructive to consider the number of his literary innovations. He was our first great belletrist, writing always for pleasure, and to produce pleasure; yet readers of all classes responded to him in a country in which the didactic and utilitarian had formerly prevailed. He gave an impetus both to the extravagant American humor of which Mark Twain became the classic, and to the urbane wit that has survived in writers ranging from Holmes and Lowell to the New Yorker wits of the past and present. In his Sketch Book appeared the first modern short stories and the first great American juvenile literature. He was among the first of the moderns to write good history and biography as literary entertainment. He introduced the familiar essay to America. On his own whimsical terms, Irving restored the waning Gothic romances which Poe soon infused with psychological subtleties. The scope of his life and his writing was international, and produced a certain breadth of view in his readers; yet his best-known stories awakened an interest in the life of American regions from the Hudson valley to the prairies of the West. His influence abroad, as writer, as visitor, and as diplomat, was that of a gifted cultural ambassador, at home on both continents, at a time when his young country badly needed such representation. He was the only American writer of his generation who could chide the British in an atmosphere of good humor.
The events of Irving’s life are characterized by the same casual approach and distinguished results. Gently born and well educated, the youngest of eleven children of a prosperous New York merchant, he began a genteel reading for the law at sixteen, but preferred a literary Bohemianism. At nineteen he published, in his brother’s newspaper, his “Jonathan Oldstyle” satires of New York life. By the age of twenty-three, when he was admitted to the New York bar, he had roamed the Hudson valley and been a literary vagabond in England, Holland, France, and Italy, reading and
The standard edition of Irving’s work has been The Works of Washington Irving, Author’s Uniform Revised Edition, 21 vols., 1860–1861, reissued in 12 vols., 1881. The Complete Works of Washington Irving, ed. Henry A. Pochmann and others, was published in 30 volumes, 1969–1989. The Journals of Washington Irving, 3 vols., 1919, were edited by W. P. Trent and G. S. Hellman, and a number of volumes of the letters have been published. Several later editions, individual volumes, are easily available; note especially Knickerbocker’s History of New York, edited by Stanley T. Williams and Tremaine McDowell, 1927; and Edwin T. Bowden, ed., A History of New York, 1964. Washington Irving: Representative Selections, edited by Henry A. Pochmann, American Writers Series, 1934, has a useful introduction and bibliography.
Pierre M. Irving published the first standard Life and Letters, 4 vols., 1862–1864; other good lives are those by Charles Dudley Warner, 1890, and G. S. Hellman, 1925. However, the definitive biographical and critical study is that by Stanley T. Williams: The Life of Washington Irving, 2 vols., 1935. See also Edward Wagenknecht, Washington Irving: Moderation Displayed, 1962; William L. Hedges, Washington Irving, an American Study, 1965; Haskell Springer, Washington Irving: A Reference Guide, 1976; Andrew B. Myers, A Century of Commentary on the Works of Washington Irving, 1976; Martin Roth, Comedy and America: The Lost World of Washington Irving, 1976; Mary W. Bowden, Washington Irving, 1981; and Jeffrey Rubin-Dorsky, Adrift in the Old World: The Psychological Pilgrimage of Washington Irving, 1988.