Washington Irving was born in the city of New York, April 3, 1783. He was the eighth son of William and Sarah Irving, and the youngest of eleven children, three of whom died in infancy. His parents, though of good origin, began life in humble circumstances. His father was born on the island of Shapinska. His family, one of the most respectable in Scotland, traced its descent from William De Irwyn, the secretary and armorbearer of Robert Bruce; but at the time of the birth of William Irving its fortunes had gradually decayed, and the lad sought his livelihood, according to the habit of the adventurous Orkney Islanders, on the sea.
It was during the French War, and while he was serving as a petty officer in an armed packet plying between Falmouth and New York, that he met Sarah Sanders, a beautiful girl, the only daughter of John and Anna Sanders, who had the distinction of being the granddaughter of an English curate. The youthful pair were married in 1761, and two years after embarked for New York, where they landed July 18, 1763. Upon settling in New York William Irving quit the sea and took to trade, in which he was successful until his business was broken up by the Revolutionary War. In this contest he was a stanch Whig, and suffered for his opinions at the hands of the British occupants of the city, and both he and his wife did much to alleviate the misery of the American prisoners. In this charitable ministry his wife, who possessed a rarely generous and sympathetic nature, was especially zealous, supplying the prisoners with food from her own table, visiting those who were ill, and furnishing them with clothing and other necessaries.
Washington was born in a house on William Street, about half-way between Fulton and John; the following year the family moved across the way into one of the quaint structures of the time, its gable end with attic window towards the street; the fashion of which, and very likely the bricks, came from Holland. In this homestead the lad grew up, and it was not pulled down till 1849, ten years before his death. The patriot army occupied the city. “Washington’s work is ended,” said the mother, “and the child shall be named after him.” When the first President was again in New York, the first seat of the new government, a Scotch maid-servant of the family, catching the popular enthusiasm, one day followed the hero into a shop and presented the lad to him. “Please, your honor,” said Lizzie, all aglow, “here’s a bairn was named after you.” And the grave Virginian placed his hand on the boy’s head and gave him his blessing. The touch could not have been more efficacious, though it might have lingered longer, if he had known he was propitiating his future biographer.
New York at the time of our author’s birth was a rural city of about twenty-three thousand inhabitants, clustered about the Battery. It did not extend northward to the site of the present City Hall Park; and beyond, then and for several years afterwards, were only country residences, orchards, and corn-fields. The city was half burned down during the war, and had emerged from it in a dilapidated condition. There was still a marked separation between the Dutch and the English residents, though the Irvings seem to have been on terms of intimacy with the best of both nationalities. The habits of living were primitive; the manners were agreeably free; conviviality at the table was the fashion, and strong expletives had not gone out of use in conversation. Society was the reverse of intellectual: the aristocracy were the merchants and traders; what literary culture found expression was formed on English models, dignified and plentifully garnished with Latin and Greek allusions; the commercial spirit ruled, and the relaxations and amusements partook of its hurry and excitement. In their gay, hospitable, and mercurial character, the inhabitants were true progenitors of the present metropolis. A newspaper had been established in 1732, and a theater had existed since 1750. Although the town had a rural aspect, with its quaint dormer-window houses, its straggling lanes and roads, and the water-pumps in the middle of the streets, it had the aspirations of a city, and already much of the metropolitan air.
These were the surroundings in which the boy’s literary talent was to develop. His father was a deacon in the Presbyterian church, a sedate, God-fearing man, with the strict severity of the Scotch Covenanter, serious in his intercourse with his family, without sympathy in the amusements of his children; he was not without tenderness in his nature, but the exhibition of it was repressed on principle — a man of high character and probity, greatly esteemed by his associates. He endeavored to bring up his children in sound religious principles, and to leave no room in their lives for triviality. One of the two weekly half-holidays was required for the catechism, and the only relaxation from the three church services on Sunday was the reading of “Pilgrim’s Progress.” This cold and severe discipline at home would have been intolerable but for the more lovingly demonstrative and impulsive character of the mother, whose gentle nature and fine intellect won the tender veneration of her children. Of the father they stood in awe; his conscientious piety failed to waken any religious sensibility in them, and they revolted from a teaching which seemed to regard everything that was pleasant as wicked. The mother, brought up an Episcopalian, conformed to the religious forms and worship of her husband, but she was never in sympathy with his rigid views. The children were repelled from the creed of their father, and subsequently all of them except one became attached to the Episcopal Church. Washington, in order to make sure of his escape, and feel safe while he was still constrained to attend his father’s church, went stealthily to Trinity Church at an early age, and received the rite of confirmation. The boy was full of vivacity, drollery, and innocent mischief. His sportiveness and disinclination to religious seriousness gave his mother some anxiety, and she would look at him, says his biographer, with a half-mournful admiration, and exclaim, “O Washington! if you were only good! “He had a love of music, which became later in life a passion, and great fondness for the theater. The stolen delight of the theater he first tasted in company with a boy who was somewhat his senior, but destined to be his literary comrade — James K. Paulding, whose sister was the wife of Irving’s brother William. Whenever he could afford this indulgence, he stole away early to the theater in John Street, remained until it was time to return to the family prayers at nine, after which he would retire to his room, slip through his window and down the roof to a back alley, and return to enjoy the after-piece.
Young Irving’s school education was desultory, pursued under several more or less incompetent masters, and was over at the age of sixteen. The teaching does not seem to have had much discipline or solidity; he studied Latin a few months, but made no other incursion into the classics. The handsome, tender-hearted, truthful, susceptible boy was no doubt a dawdler in routine studies, but he assimilated what suited him. He found his food in such pieces of English literature as were floating about, in “Robinson Crusoe” and “Sindbad;” at ten he was inspired by a translation of “Orlando Furioso;” he devoured books of voyages and travel; he could turn a neat verse, and his scribbling propensities were exercised in the composition of childish plays. The fact seems to be that the boy was a dreamer and saunterer; he himself says that he used to wander about the pier heads in fine weather, watch the ships departing on long voyages, and dream of going to the ends of the earth. His brothers Peter and John had been sent to Columbia College, and it is probable that Washington would have had the same advantage if he had not shown a disinclination to methodical study. At the age of sixteen he entered a law office, but he was a heedless student, and never acquired either a taste for the profession or much knowledge of law. While he sat in the law office, he read literature, and made considerable progress in his self-culture; but he liked rambling and society quite as well as books. In 1798 we find him passing a summer holiday in Westchester County, and exploring with his gun the Sleepy Hollow region which he was afterwards to make an enchanted realm; and in 1800 he made his first voyage up the Hudson, the beauties of which he was the first to celebrate, on a visit to a married sister who lived in the Mohawk Valley. In 1802 he became a law clerk in the office of Josiah Ogden Hoffman, and began that enduring intimacy with the refined and charming Hoffman family which was so deeply to influence all his life. His health had always been delicate, and his friends were now alarmed by symptoms of pulmonary weakness. This physical disability no doubt had much to do with his disinclination to severe study. For the next two or three years much time was consumed in excursions up the Hudson and the Mohawk, and in adventurous journeys as far as the wilds of Ogdensburg and to Montreal, to the great improvement of his physical condition, and in the enjoyment of the gay society of Albany, Schenectady, Ballston, and Saratoga Springs. These explorations and visits gave him material for future use, and exercised his pen in agreeable correspondence; but his tendency at this time, and for several years afterwards, was to the idle life of a man of society. Whether the literary impulse which was born in him would have ever insisted upon any but an occasional and fitful expression, except for the necessities of his subsequent condition, is doubtful.
Irving’s first literary publication was a series of letters, signed Jonathan Oldstyle, contributed in 1802 to the “Morning Chronicle,” a newspaper then recently established by his brother Peter. The attention that these audacious satires of the theater, the actors, and their audience attracted is evidence of the literary poverty of the period. The letters are open imitations of the “Spectator” and the “Tatler,” and, although sharp upon local follies, are of no consequence at present except as foreshadowing the sensibility and quiet humor of the future author, and his chivalrous devotion to woman. What is worthy of note is that a boy of nineteen should turn aside from his caustic satire to protest against the cruel and unmanly habit of jesting at ancient maidens. It was enough for him that they are women, and possess the strongest claim upon our admiration, tenderness, and protection.
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