Washington Irving(1783-1859)America‟s First Professional Writer
The European Attitude“In the four corners of the globe, who reads an American book?” Sydney Smith Edinburgh Review 1820
Washington Irving• Just a few months before Smith‟s question, an American writer named Washington Irving began publishing a series of essays and tales called The Sketch Book.• The Sketch Book made Washington Irving the first American writer to achieve international fame
Irving‟s Early Life• Born in New York City in April 1783, one of the first generations of new Americans• Attended school in NY until he was nearly 15 years old.• Later went to work in a law office to study law.• Irving became interested in writing as a teenager, and his first published works appeared in 1802 and 1803.
Irving‟s Early Life• These early works were in the form of letters to the Morning Chronicle, a New York City newspaper edited by his brother Peter. – The letters ridiculed New York society, and they made Irving known among New Yorkers.• In 1807 and 1808, he helped his brother write satirical essays for his magazine, Salmagundi.• Irving became a lawyer, but abandoned his law practice in 1809
Irving‟s Early Life• In 1809, Irving‟s finance died• He wrote in a private letter to a friend "For years I could not talk on the subject of this hopeless regret; I could not even mention her name; but her image was continually before me, and I dreamt of her incessantly."
A History of New York• His first book, A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, was written under the alias name of Diedrich Knickerbocker, an alleged eccentric historian in NY.• This book was a parody of another popular history of the day, and was. launched via a brilliant publicity campaign.
A History of New York• First, a newspaper noted the disappearance of a – “small, elderly gentleman, dressed in an old black coat and cocked hat, by the name of “Knickerbocker,” adding that there were “some reasons for believing he is not entirely in his right mind.”• After further “news” items, the old man‟s fictitious landlord announced that he had found in Knickerbocker‟s room a “very curious kind of written book” which he intended to publish in order to pay the past rent owed – The book was then published as though it were written by Diedrich Knickerbocker.
A History of New York• Knickerbocker‟s History of New York, is a satirical account of the state during its colonial past and in Irving‟s day.• Many prominent New York families were offended by the history because it ridiculed their ancestors.• The book was a major comic triumph and marked Irving‟s future writing: Designed solely for entertainment Taught no serious moral lessons
A History of New York• With the publication of The History of New York, Irving became a celebrity• Soon the word „Knickerbocker was used to describe the early American writers, and eventually the word was used to mean a person from New York. – This is where the New York basketball team got its name, The New York Knickerbockers (Knicks).
The Sketch Book• While working on this book, Irving met the famous English writer Sir Walter Scott, who directed Irving‟s attention to the wealth of unused literary material in German folktales.• There Irving found the source for “Rip Van Winkle.”• For this book, Irving adopted the new pseudonym Geoffrey Crayon.• The book included “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
Irving‟s Contributions to theShort Story Form• Source: F.L. Pattee‟s essay on Irving in Development of American Short Story1. He made short fiction popular – After the sensational triumph of The Sketch Book, sketches and tales became the literary fashion in America – These were so popular and there were so many, that publishers needed new venues for them – The various popular magazines that sprang up in the 1830‟s and 1840‟s were indirectly the fruit of Irving‟s success as a sketch writer.
Irving‟s Contributions to theShort Story Form2. He was the first prominent writer to strip the prose tale of its moral and didactic elements and to make of it a literary form solely for entertainment. – “I have preferred addressing myself to the feeling and fancy of the reader more than to his judgment . . . . My writings, therefore, may appear light and trifling to our country of philosophers and politicians.”
Irving‟s Contributions to theShort Story Form3. He added to the short tale richness of atmosphere and unity of tone.4. He added definite locality, actual American scenery and people. – He was a pioneer in that new school which demanded an American literature, an art that would work in native materials in an original manner.
Irving‟s Contributions to theShort Story Form5. He was the first foction writer to realize that the shorter form of narrative could be made something new and different, but that to do it required a peculiar nicety of execution and patient workmanship. – “. . . In these shorter writings every page must have merit . . . . Woe to [the author] if he makes an awkward sentence or writes a stupid page; the critics are sure to pounce upon it.”
Irving‟s Contributions to theShort Story Form6. He added humor to the short story and lightness of touch, and made it human and appealing.7. He was original – He constantly avoided, as he expressed it, the “commonplace of the day.”8. His characters are always definite individuals and not types or symbols.9. He endowed the short story with a distinctive and beautiful style.
The Other Side of Irving• Many literary critics say Irving was a detriment to the development of the short story.• So far as modern technique is concerned, Irving retarded its growth for a generation. – He became from the first a model to be followed by all. – His writing is the origin sentimentalism and unrestrained romance that occupied popular magazines for three decades.• Edgar Allan Poe was powerless in the 1830‟s and 1840‟s in his attempts to change the technique of the form.
Irving‟s Writing Style• Little traditional form in his writing – Pieces are rambling, characters are sketched as he goes – Little exciting dialog – Movement isn‟t interrupted by long descriptions – Several collisions/contrasts – Swift culmination of events and characters
Irving‟s Writing Style• Plot was not essential – “Rip Van Winkle” has six pages of material before there is any movement. – “For my part, I consider a story merely as a frame on which to stretch my materials.” – Of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” he said, “The story is a mere whimsical band to connect descriptions of scenery, customs, manners, etc.”
Irving‟s Writing Style• Irving never attempted anything serious – Irving finally wrote history; he was not interested in saying anything unique about the human condition.
Irving‟s Literary Influence• Irving introduced to American literature the form that has become its most distinctive literary product, the short story.• As schoolboys, Hawthorne and Longfellow were inspired by the success of The Sketch Book.• Irving was generous to younger writers all his life• The southwestern humorists of the 1840‟s learned from him that realistic details of rural life in America could be worked memorably into fiction.