Washington Irving, 1783-1859

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Biographical note

Essayist and historian, born in New York, son of William Irving who had emigrated from Scotland. He was in his youth delicate, and his education was somewhat desultory, but his father had a fine library, of which he had the run, and he was an omnivorous reader. In 1799 he entered a law office, but a threatening of consumption led to his going, in 1804, on a European tour in search of health. On his return in 1806 he was admitted to the Bar. He did not, however, prosecute law, but joined his brothers in business as a sleeping partner, while he devoted himself to literature.

In 1807 he conducted Salmagundi, an amusing miscellany, and in 1809 appeared A History of New York by Diedrich Knickerbocker, a burlesque upon the old Dutch settlers, which has become a classic in America. He made in 1815 a second visit to Europe, from which he did not return for 17 years. In England he was welcomed by Thomas Campbell, the poet, who introduced him to Scott, whom he visited at Abbotsford in 1817. The following year the firm with which he was connected failed, and he had to look to literature for a livelihood. He produced The Sketch–Book [1819], which was, through the influence of Scott, accepted by Murray, and had a great success on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1822 he went to Paris, where he began Bracebridge Hall, followed in 1824 by Tales of a Traveller. In 1826 Everett, the American minister at Madrid, invited him to come and assist him by making translations relative to Columbus, which opened up to him a new field hitherto little cultivated. The result was a series of fascinating historical and romantic works, beginning with History of the Life and Voyages of Columbus [1828], and including The Conquest of Granada [1829], Voyages of the Companions of Columbus [1831], The Alhambra [1832], Legends of the Conquest of Spain [1835], and Mahomet and his Successors [1849]. Meanwhile he had returned to England in 1829, and to America in 1832. In 1842 he was appointed Minister to Spain, and in 1846 he finally returned to America. In the same year he published a Life of Goldsmith, and his great work, the Life of Washington, came out 1855–59, Wolfert’s Roost, a collection of tales and essays, appeared in 1855. Irving was never married: in his youth he had been engaged to a girl who died, and whose memory he faithfully cherished. His last years were spent at Sunnyside, an old Dutch house near his “sleepy hollow,” and there he died suddenly on Nov. 28, 1859.

Though not, perhaps, a writer of commanding power or originality, Irving, especially in his earlier works, imparted by his style and treatment a singular charm to every subject he touched, and holds a high place among American men of letters, among whom he is the first who has produced what has, on its own merits, living interest in literature. He was a man of high character and amiable disposition.

[From A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature by John W. Cousin, 1910]

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