Readable, once-over-lightly biography of “America’s first bona fide best-selling author.”
The dreamy son of a Manhattan merchant, Washington Irving (1783–1859) desultorily studied law but devoted most of his early 20s to travels financed by his indulgent older brothers and to drinking and general rowdiness with a close-knit band of pals. Their boyish high spirits, committed to paper in 1807 in a periodical called Salmagundi, won Irving local fame for his easy wit; he cemented his reputation with the gently satirical A History of New York in 1809. The death of his fiancée and a floundering brother in Liverpool sent him in 1815 to Europe, where he remained for 17 years, prompting charges from jealous rival James Fenimore Cooper that he was too busy sucking up to the European aristocracy to be a real American writer. But Irving held on to his American fans with The Sketch Book (1819–20), which contained his two most famous stories, “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and later published successful books about Columbus, the Alhambra and George Washington. He was economically secure and generally revered during his final years back home in America. He had helped the youthful United States see itself as a nation through the landscapes sketched in his graceful, lightweight essays and sketches. First-time author Jones, a former political speechwriter and current policy analyst, doesn’t provide much context to explain the writer’s importance to America’s fledgling literature, and he tries a bit too hard to bring Irving up-to-date: It’s not really necessary to know that land speculation was “the nineteenth-century equivalent of dot-com ventures,” nor are Jones’s occasional references to Irving’s “possible homosexuality” substantiated by anything except warm epistolary expressions of affection that were commonplace among male friends during that period. Still, his breezy approach suits his agreeable subject, who never took himself too seriously.
A solid introduction to an interesting life, but nothing definitive about a pivotal figure in American culture.