Who is Washington Irving?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: Sara Z. Potter
  • Last Modified Date: 08 September 2019
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Washington Irving was an American author of the 19th century, best remembered for his short stories "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle," both published in 1819. He also wrote essays, biographies, and historical works, in addition to working as a lawyer and a diplomat to England and Spain. Washington Irving was one of the first American authors to gain critical acclaim abroad, and he was an influence on later American authors including Hawthorne and Poe.

Washington Irving was born in Manhattan, New York on 3 April 1783 to William Irving, a Scotsman and officer in the Royal Navy, and his wife Sara. The youngest of eight children, he was named after George Washington, whom his parents greatly admired. Washington Irving wrote his first book, a satirical history of New York City, in 1809 under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker. At the age of 32, he began his first diplomatic post abroad, in England, but he also had time to travel the continent. He enjoyed reading German and Dutch folktales, which influenced some of his later short stories.


In 1819, Irving published The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon in America, though British publishers also released a version without the author's permission. The book mainly consisted of picturesque vignettes of English life, but it also contained what would become his two most famous stories and gained him a following in Europe. Washington Irving lived in Spain from 1828 to 1832, during which time he wrote four fictionalized Spanish history books, focusing on the topics of Christopher Columbus and the Moorish occupation. The Royal Society of Literature in London awarded Irving with a gold medal in history in 1830, and the author also earned honorary degrees from Columbia Oxford, and Harvard.

After returning to the United States, Irving traveled on the Western frontier and was inspired by the experience and the people he met to write a series of American frontier histories similar in tone to his Spanish ones. He also published a fifth book about Spain in 1835. Irving returned to Spain as the United States ambassador from 1842 to 1846.

In 1835, Irving purchased a home in Tarrytown, New York that became known as Sunnyside. With the collaboration of painter George Harvey, Irving had the property enlarged and remodeled. After returning from Spain a second time, he spent most of his time there, living with his brother Ebenezer and his five nieces. Irving frequently entertained illustrious guests in his home and spent his later years completing his most ambitious work, a biography of George Washington in five volumes. In 1949, he became an honorary member of the Smithsonian Institution.

Washington Irving died in his Sunnyside bedroom on 8 November 1859. His descendants continued to occupy the property until 1945, when John D. Rockefeller Jr. purchased it. In 1947, it was opened to the public, and it is now a museum. A partial replica of the house can be seen at the Washington Irving Memorial Park and Arboretum in Bixby, Oklahoma.


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Post 1

Another fact about Washington Irving is that he served in the military and fought in the War of 1812. After that, he went to England for almost 20 years to try to save his family’s very damaged fortune.

Also, a fun fact: Washington Irving’s story “Rip Van Winkle” was inspired by a visit to his sister’s home in England.

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