The first major biography in a half-century of one of America’s first professional writers, from a historian (History/Univ. of Tulsa) who specializes in early America (Jefferson’s Secrets, 2005, etc.).
Burstein’s is a conventional telling of a literary life. He begins with a glance at post-Revolutionary New York, brings his hero onstage, tells his life story, ends with an assessment of his influence. But Irving has long needed such a thorough, sympathetic treatment. Burstein shows the enormous influence of Irving’s family (he was the youngest of 11), illustrates thoughtfully his political life (he met presidents, was friends with Aaron Burr, officially served his government, in the U.S. and abroad), chronicles his relationships with iconic colleagues—Walter Scott, Poe, Godwin, Mary Shelley (who, in widowhood, wished for more than mere friendship with Irving), Dickens, Bryant, James Fenimore Cooper (who barked at and bit his fellow New Yorker). Burstein also does an intelligent job of explicating Irving’s works—and it’s sad to note that he must summarize even “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” neither of which, he says, retains its prominence in the public-school curriculum. Using Irving’s volumes of correspondence and travel journals (with the acknowledged help of the scholarly editions of Irving’s work prepared decades ago by the Univ. of Wisconsin and Twayne Publishers), Burstein is able to explore the origins of Irving’s prose. Irving emerges here as a highly professional, productive and satiric writer who published travel books, sketches, stories, histories, biographies (including his final work, a five-volume life of George Washington, whom he met and for whom he was named). Like other scholars, Burstein is troubled by Irving’s sex life. Did he have one? Was he gay? Or was he a stereotypical asexual bachelor uncle who enjoyed the company of women, especially younger ones? Burstein believes the evidence is insufficient to make a definitive answer.
An important reassessment of Irving that restores him to his rightful place as a founder of American literature.