America has gotten an odd reintroduction to one of America's most well-known authors, Washington Irving, lately. Fox television has found a surprising hit with their television show Sleepy Hollow, based very, very loosely on Irving's story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” first published in 1820. Widely thought of as America's first professional writer, Irving made his living as a historian, biographer and storyteller.
Irving was born on April 3, 1783 in Manhattan, New York City, and was named after one of the country's most famous individuals at the time, General George Washington, who would become the country's first president. Early in his life, Irving's mother, Sarah Sanders Irving, recognized General Washington in the street, and introduced her son to the man. It's fitting that Irving's last work was a five-volume biography of his namesake.
Irving's first professional publication came in 1802 under the assumed name of Jonathan Oldstyle, in a series of nine letters to the Morning Chronicle newspaper, covering topics such as marriage, the theater and dueling. Irving continued to write, and in 1809, he published the wildly popular A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, written under the fictional name Diedrich Knickerbocker. Irving put together an interesting scheme to bring attention to his book: He began to place ads in The Evening Post that appeared to be from an innkeeper trying to locate the fictional Knickerbocker, who had left a manuscript behind. Irving continued the hoax with a sort of narrative culminating with the innkeeper’s threat to publish the “very curious kind of a written book.” The book, of course, was A History of New-York, and upon its publication, the book proved to be a popular one, no doubt due in part to Irving’s proto-viral marketing.
Irving moved to England in 1815 to follow his family’s business. There, he began writing The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., a collection of essays and short stories, which included three fantasies: “Rip Van Winkle,” “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “The Spectre Bridegroom.” Irving was increasingly influenced by the “charms of storied and poetical association” that he found in Europe, and his works of fantasy seem to be a bridge between his homeland and his impressions of Europe.
Where Irving's predecessors and successors looked to the supernatural to frighten their readers, Irving turned to humor: His ghost stories are less malicious in nature. "His ghosts are generally harmless, his horror nor more than a Halloween-type rank," according to reviewer Robert E. Mosberger. Irving's stories, such as his History of New-York, seek to artificially deepen the history and legacy of the still-new American nation. Europe, in contrast, was the Old World, with a rich historical background that lent itself well to fantastic stories that form the backbone of gothic literature.
Irving's moniker Diedrich Knickerbocker was an attempt to provide some narrative for the young nation, with many of his stories set in New York's Old Dutch communities of the Catskills. This region between Albany and New York City contains the Allegheny Plateau, which can be described as a dissected plateau, with dark sedimentary rocks and numerous valleys and rivers. The plateau makes up some of the character of the region that provides background for numerous stories from American gothic authors.
The first of Irving's most famous stories, “Rip Van Winkle,” draws heavily from this landscape. Irving's tale of time passing someone by isn't totally original: He himself noted that he was inspired by the story of Karl Katz from the Grimm brothers. Katz is a goatherd who gets lost and distracted while searching for a lost animal. Like Katz, Van Winkle comes across the ghost of Henry Hudson, for whom the Hudson River is named. When Van Winkle stumbles out of the woods, 20 years have passed him by.
Irving's Legend of Sleepy Hollow is one of the best-known classics of American horror. In it, a school teacher, Ichabod Crane, works to court Katrina Van Tassel and is tormented by a fellow townsman, Brom Bones, who tells Crane of a ghostly horseman who had lost his head during the Revolutionary War. Shortly thereafter, Crane is chased out of town by a man on horseback, seemingly missing his head. Here, Irving works the then-recent past into a part of the country's heritage, complete with its own stories and mysteries.
The third fantasy in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., “The Spectre Bridegroom,” takes place in Germany. Like the other stories, Irving was influenced by German folklore, and in this story, a Baron and his daughter come across a ghost of a bridegroom. The ghost is really a concoction of the daughter and her groom to escape a family feud. Irving might be light on actual speculative nature here, but his story is steeped in the conventions of gothic and romantic literature.
Writing from Europe suited Irving well, and he used his time overseas to travel throughout the continent and continue to put together stories that played with the fantastic. Other sketch books by Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., were published: Bracebridge Hall in 1822, Tales of a Traveller in 1824 and The Crayon Miscellany in 1835, all of which contained some additional fantastic material and ghost stories, although none came to quite the same recognition or caliber of his original fantasy stories. His travels influenced his career as a writer and, interested in history, he began to write biographies, working on a biography of Christopher Columbus after visiting Spain and a follow-up companion soon after. In 1832, Irving returned home to the United States. Once home, he began to encourage other authors, including Edgar Allan Poe, who sought advice for some of his stories, including his famous “Fall of the House of Usher.” Poe was a fan of Irving’s, who noted that his book Tales of a Traveller was a “graceful and impressive” work, even as he took issue with his style of writing.
During this time, Irving was a monumentally successful author in the United States, and came into contact with a problem that plagues modern authors: piracy. American publishers at the time frequently pirated the works of European authors. As a result, Irving was careful with coordinating the copyrights of his stories in Europe and in the United States.
After completing his massive, five-volume biography on George Washington, Irving died several months later on November 8, 1859. He left behind an incredible legacy in the American literary world, helping to encourage and influence a number of authors who would likewise be known for their literary and gothic stories, especially Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville and Edgar Allan Poe. He wasn’t without his detractors: Poe among them, who noted that while he was a pioneering author, his writing wasn’t as sophisticated as the stories he told. Despite that, Irving’s work is notable in American literature, whose stories were distinctly American.