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Featured Books

Featured Books

Knickerbocker’s History of New YorkSummary and Reviews of Knickerbocker’s History of New York
The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey CrayonSummary and Reviews of The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon
George Washington: A BiographySummary and Reviews of George Washington: A Biography
The AlhambraSummary and Reviews of The Alhambra
The Adventures Of Captain Bonneville. Digested From His JournalSummary and Reviews of The Adventures Of Captain Bonneville. Digested From His Journal
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Washington Irving

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Washington Irving (1783-1859) was indisputably the first great American author of fiction.  He is the first of a long line of authors who have a permanent place in the American canon of literature.  His name belongs alongside names like Poe, Twain, Hawthorne, and Melville.  Irving was born into a merchant New York City family, and he felt the pressure of society to enter the commercial world and be a businessman.  The legal profession was a socially acceptable alternative, and he pursued that as well as his business endeavors for many years.  He was, at heart, however, a writer.  He had published satire in the local newspaper while still a teenager, and he only continued in his other pursuits because of the prevailing opinion in his social circles that writers were lazy.

Finally, in 1818, when he lost his means of financial stability with the bankruptcy of his brother’s business, Irving boldly decided to attempt a living with writing.  By 1820, his first professional major work, The Sketch Book, was popular enough that he could claim to be the first American to make a living as an author.  The Sketch Book was hardly his first piece of artistic literature, though.  He had teamed up with his brother to publish a comic magazine called Salmagundi while he was still unenthusiastically trying to make a living at other things.  The pieces he wrote for this magazine addressed a local audience, but literary scholars appreciate them for their broad wit.

Irving spent most of 17 years in Europe between 1815 and 1832, and his writing began to reflect what he knew of both the Old World and the New.  He wrote using a narrator named Geoffrey Crayon, who ostensibly wrote the short pieces as commentary relating to what Irving himself observed.  This device gave him the freedom to give a softer voice to any criticism that he had.  Crayon was a retiring and sometimes melancholy character who could subtly poke fun at European culture and maintain the sympathy of the reader.  He also utilized the mechanism of placing himself into the narrative as a fictional character, which brought the disparate pieces that he wrote together with a unifying thread.

Modern scholars often describe Irving as an aristocrat in democratic clothing.  He was unsure that complete democracy was the way to go for the young American society.  However, the concrete opinions of Irving are more complex, and contradictions in his work during this period make it hard to label him as anything but unsure of the appropriate societal and governmental form America should adopt.

Irving was not immune to the influence of romanticism of the 1820s.  He used the romantic elements of dreaming and descriptions of scenery and spectacle as a foundation for subtle realism, however, especially in stories like “Rip Van Winkle.”  Though he indulged his nature as an idealist more in his histories and biographies, his short stories reflected his awareness that dreamers could not usually change harsh realities.  Eventually, his romantic side won out, consciously or not, and he turned to writing mostly history and biography.  Access to mostly unknown material about Christopher Columbus that inspired him to write about the man who “discovered” America marked the beginning of this shift.  He wrote several more pieces of history, among his major work and mostly about the American west, after he had returned a national hero in 1832, and he capped his unprecedented career by finishing his monumental Life of Washington just before he died in 1859.


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