Washington Irving: The Definitive Biography of America's First Bestselling Author

Washington Irving: The Definitive Biography of America's First Bestselling Author

by Brian Jay Jones


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Brian Jay Jones crafts a deft biography of the author of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip van Winkle”: quintessential New Yorker, presidential confidant, diplomat, lawyer, and fascinating charmer. The first American writer to make his pen his primary means of support, Washington Irving rocketed to fame at the age of twenty-six. In 1809 he published A History of New York under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker, to great acclaim. The public’s appetite for all things Irving was insatiable; his name alone guaranteed sales.
At the time, he was one of the most famous men in the world, a friend of Dickens, Hawthorne, and Longfellow, as well as Astor, van Buren, and Madison. But his sparkling public persona was only one side of this gentleman author. In brilliant, meticulous strokes, Brian Jay Jones renders Washington Irving in all his flawed splendor—someone who fretted about money and employment, suffered from writer’s block, and doggedly cultivated his reputation. Jones offers a very human portrait of the often contrasting public and private lives of this true American original.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781611453546
Publisher: Arcade
Publication date: 11/15/2011
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 480
Sales rank: 387,421
Product dimensions: 6.08(w) x 8.94(h) x 1.34(d)

About the Author

Brian Jay Jones served as a speechwriter, ghostwriter, and policy analyst for two U.S. senators. A former associate superintendent of education in Arizona, he now works as a writer and policy analyst. He lives with his wife and daughter in Damascus, Maryland.

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My beloved island of Manna-hata!

— Washington Irving, A History of New York, 1809


That was the unfortunate assessment of Mrs. Ann Kil-master, his kindergarten teacher, in 1789. Every day six-year-old Washington Irving was marched from his family's home on William Street around the corner to Mrs. Kilmaster's classroom on Ann Street in New York City. William and Sarah Irving hoped their youngest child would learn to read and perhaps begin to write under Kilmaster's watchful eye, but the young charge only exasperated his instructor.

As disappointed as Mrs. Kilmaster was, her frustration didn't begin to compare with the wrath of Washington's father. Zealous, hardworking, and utterly humorless, William Irving — the Deacon, as he was known — lorded it over his family of five sons and three daughters ranging in age from twenty-three-year-old William Jr. to six-year-old Washington. A strict Presbyterian, the Deacon tolerated neither idleness nor stupidity.

Born of solid Scotch stock in the Orkney Islands in 1731, the Deacon had initially earned his living at sea, working on an armed packet in the service of Great Britain. While running slants between England and New York, petty officer Irving met Sarah Sanders, the pretty granddaughter of an upright British clergyman. The two were wed in Plymouth, England, and migrated to New York two years later, arriving in Manhattan on July 18, 1763.

By the time of the American Revolution, the Irvings had five children and a moderately successful business dealing mainly in wine, sugar, hardware, and auctioneering. The Deacon and his wife were staunch patriots, and British occupation during the war made New York an increasingly dangerous place for the Irving family. Concerned for their safety, the Irvings fled across the Hudson River to Rahway, New Jersey, and were fired on by British troops. As the war wound down, the family returned to a battle-scarred New York to reestablish the family business. By mid-1782, Sarah Irving was pregnant with their eighth child.

On the evening of April 3, 1783 — the same week New Yorkers learned of the British ceasefire that effectively ended the Revolutionary War — Washington Irving was born in Manhattan. There had never been any doubt as to the child's first name. "Washington's work is ended," Sarah Irving said to her husband, speaking reverently of the hero of the American Revolution, "and the child shall be named after him."

"The house in which I was born," Washington Irving remembered as an old man, "was No. 131 William-street, about half-way between John and Fulton streets. Within a very few weeks after my birth the family moved into a house nearly opposite, which my father had recently purchased; it was No. 128. ... It had been occupied by the British commissary during the war; the broad arrow was on the street door, and the garden was full of choice fruit-trees, apricots, green- gages, nectarines, etc. It is the first home of which I have any recollection, and there I passed my infancy and boyhood."

The house on William Street was large, but Washington never considered it spacious enough to provide an adequate distance from his father. The Deacon had "small sympathy with the amusements of his children," Washington's nephew and first biographer Pierre Munro Irving wrote forgivingly years later, "and lost no opportunity of giving their thoughts a serious turn."

There was no room for frivolity in the Irving home. Religion was decidedly tedious; church in the mornings and afternoons, followed by lectures in the evenings at which the Deacon sang the closing hymn with pious tears streaming down his face. The Irving children listened to it all dutifully, but the Deacon's passion never persuaded. Recalling his religious upbringing decades later, Wash-ington's bitterness still lingered: "When I was a child, religion was forced upon me before I could understand or appreciate it. I was made to swallow it whether I would or not, and that too in its most ungracious forms. I was tasked with it; thwarted with it; wearied with it in a thousand harsh and disagreeable ways; until I was disgusted with all its forms and observances."

For the rest of his life, Washington recalled the Deacon and his lessons with derision: "When I was young, I was led to think that somehow or other everything that was pleasant was wicked." Fortunately, there was a compassionate, mitigating presence in the house; his mother, Sarah, who taught him that what was pleasant could also be beautiful.

While Washington remained understandably skeptical of all things religious, he was nevertheless convinced that his mother was a saint. Apart from protecting him from his disapproving father, Sarah Irving understood that gentleness, even in a man, could be a strength, and she tolerated — perhaps even slyly encouraged — her youngest son's dreamy endeavors. Washington never forgot this; his mother remained both his solace and his inspiration for the rest of his life. "The purest and strongest affection that winds itself round the human heart," he wrote in his journals years later, "is that between the mother and the son." The Deacon may have hoped to save Wash- ington's soul, but it was Sarah Irving who salvaged his spirit.

The abundance of brothers and sisters provided another buffer between the Deacon and his youngest son. All the Irving children were unusually close, despite the spread in their ages, and remained so for the rest of their lives. Washington was especially reverential of his brother William, viewing him as not only his oldest brother but a surrogate — and ideal — father figure.

New York's economy was thriving, thanks in no small part to the efforts of the Federalists and Alexander Hamilton, who argued forcefully that loyalist money was just as vital to the economy as that of their patriot neighbors. While never overtly political, the Deacon, along with sons William and Ebenezer, adhered to the Federalist party line, which catered to the interests of the merchant class. The Deacon's business was moderately prosperous, though the Irvings never became part of the powerful Federalist clique of businessmen that evolved into the New York aristocracy. Neither did another New York merchant, a German music shop owner with an interest in fur named John Jacob Astor. Astor ignored politics and went on to amass a fortune, while the Irvings remained solidly and reliably middle class.

Despite Astor's indifference, politics were becoming increasingly important in New York — so important, in fact, that following ratification of the Constitution in 1787, the Continental Congress designated New York as the temporary seat of the new American government. On April 23, 1789, as cannons boomed and music swelled, President-elect George Washington arrived in New York for his inauguration. A week later, at New York's new Federal Hall, Washington stepped onto the second-floor balcony to take the oath of office. As fireworks lit up the skies above Manhattan that night, six- year-old Washington Irving was among the tens of thousands of dazzled bystanders.

Irving's Scottish nursemaid, Lizzie, was something of a presidential groupie, following the president doggedly over the next few weeks as he strolled among the shops on Broadway or made his way along the narrow streets to his residence on Cherry Street. Holding Irving aloft on her shoulders every time the president rode past, Lizzie was determined to catch the great man's attention.

Her perseverance paid off, for she finally cornered him in a shop, where she proudly presented Washington Irving to the bemused president. "Please your Honor," she appealed in her Scottish burr, "here's a bairn was named after you." To her delight, the father of the nation placed his hand upon Washington's head, bestowing his blessing upon his namesake. Irving never forgot the moment. He recounted the story with little variation for the rest of his life, and as an old man had a small watercolor painting of the episode hanging in his bedroom.

Apart from his brush with the president, Irving had no memories of the political glitterati — Vice President John Adams, Congressman James Madison, the fiery partisans Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, or Chief Justice John Jay — with whom he and his family mingled in their William Street business. That was largely because the political splendor lasted only a little more than a year. In 1790 the compromise brokered by President Washington and his inner circle that allowed the federal government to assume state debts as part of the new national economy also moved the seat of the national government from New York to Philadelphia. New Yorkers shrugged, and went on making money. Manhattan ceased to be a capital city, but was content to be a city of capital.

The Deacon had every reason to be confident about the future, yet his youngest son had just been labeled a dunce by his frazzled kindergarten teacher. The Deacon growled, Sarah Irving made reassuring noises, but Washington escaped Mrs. Kilmaster's classes with a mastery of the alphabet and not much else.

His new teacher, Revolutionary War veteran Benjamin Romaine, taught a classroom full of boys and girls in a schoolhouse on Partition Street, still scorched by the fires of the American Revolution. Over the next seven years in Romaine's classroom, Irving learned little more than how to read and write — he was such a dismal student that one fellow classmate later remembered him as "a sluggish and inapt scholar of great diffidence — what teachers call stupid." Yet Irving and Romaine grew to appreciate each other, recognizing in the other a similar good-natured, easygoing attitude. Romaine teasingly referred to Irving as "the General," alluding not only to his student's famous namesake but also his seeming inability to tell a lie, so frequently and willingly did Irving admit his role in any mischief or scuffle. He went largely unpunished for his part in any trouble not because he was a teacher's pet but because his delicate stomach made it nearly impossible for him to bear the sight of his classmates being disciplined. Romaine's punishments were somewhat severe, and he was not above a practice known as "horsing," in which ill-behaved male students were rigorously swatted on their bare backsides. When Romaine exposed the rear ends of the other boys in preparation for the whipping, it was all the nauseous Irving could do to stagger miserably out of the classroom with the girls.

Outside the classroom, he cultivated his reading skills, paging through newspapers to read about battles, which he and brother John Treat, five years his senior, reenacted in their yard, pelting each other with gravel and fallen fruit. In these clashes, it was John Treat, not Washington, who served as the historian and storyteller. John narrated the details with such gusto — and with such an over-bearing bias toward his own side — that Washington eventually quit playing. It was a lesson in storytelling that Irving wouldn't forget: never let your biases offend your audience.

Newspapers aside, Irving's tastes tilted toward adventure stories — the nineteenth-century equivalent of comic books and pulp novels. At age ten, he became engrossed in a 1783 translation of Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, a lengthy epic poem featuring swordfights, quests for maidens, ghosts, and lamenting knights. By eleven, he discovered Robinson Crusoe and Sinbad the Sailor, sparking a lasting fascination with sailors and the navy, as well as marking the beginning of a lifelong love affair with travel.

Just as appealing to his sense of growing wanderlust was a twenty-volume collection of illustrated travel essays entitled The World Displayed, which Irving found among the otherwise solemn tomes in the Deacon's library. Each pocket-sized volume contained pieces by various writers from around the world, with the editorial assistance of a slumming Samuel Johnson. It was within these pages that Irving first encountered stories of ancient Spain and Mexico, two cultures that enthralled him. Sneaking a small volume out of his father's library at night, he read in bed by candlelight until the flame of his smuggled candle finally sputtered out. "I used to take the little volumes to school with me," Irving recalled sixty years later, "and read them slyly to the great neglect of my lessons." Romaine recalled stealing up behind his student and snatching the book from him, but the old soldier gave Irving credit for his choice of literature, asking merely that he refrain from reading the books in his classroom. There were other literary gems in the Deacon's study — it was here that the teenage Irving discovered Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Spenser — but The World Displayed made a far larger impact on Irving than would any of those masters.

There was another important, albeit fleeting, influence in his life at this time: John Anderson, a thoughtful, artistic young man who was in active pursuit of Irving's sister Catharine throughout 1794 and 1795. Eleven-year-old Washington worshipped the elegant Anderson, who could sketch, paint, play the violin, and talk about literature, philosophy, and the theater. Anderson frequently escorted Catharine — "Kitty," he called her — on trips to visit her newly married brother William. Washington seemed to always show up just in time to take tea with them, and listened to their conversation late into the evening.

The young suitor seemed to have a genuine affection for Irving. "Washington Irving spent the afternoon with me," Anderson wrote in his journal in January 1794. "Gave him some of my drawing books to look over, and presented him with a small one; play on the violin for him. He stayed to tea. Shew'd him the copy of my old journals and let him read a part." It is easy to see why Irving responded so strongly to Anderson — here was someone who encouraged his interests in art, music, and writing.

Anderson was an unsuccessful suitor — Catharine later spurned his advances and turned her attention to future husband Daniel Paris. But Anderson's influence on Irving was both permanent and prominent. The young man nurtured Irving's love and appreciation for drawing and painting, and encouraged a more active interest in music, though Irving's instrument of choice was the flute, not the violin. Listening to Anderson discuss literature, theater, or current events, Irving absorbed the basics of good conversation. And there were Anderson's journals, in which he laid out his thoughts, dreams, and plans — a habit Irving adopted and maintained for the rest of his life.

With school growing increasingly tedious, Irving began to wander around and beyond Manhattan. Broadway dead-ended on open fields beyond Reade Street, but new buildings were rapidly being erected around the city, ripe for exploration. When small outbreaks of yellow fever made some areas of the city inaccessible, Irving headed north, picking his way up the Hudson shoreline to hunt, swim, read, and investigate the villages and scenery beyond the city limits.

Irving was strongly affected by these sojourns into the countryside, remembering them warmly twenty years later:

As I grew into boyhood, I extended the range of my observations. My holiday afternoons were spent in rambles about the surrounding country. I made myself familiar with all its places famous in history or fable. I knew every spot where a murder or robbery had been committed or a ghost seen. I visited the neighboring villages and added greatly to my stock of knowledge by noting their habits and customs, and conversing with their sages and great men. I even journeyed one long summer's day to the summit of the most distant hill, when I stretched my eye over many a mile of terra incognita, and was astonished to find how vast a globe I inhabited.

Watching his youngest son returning alone from his excursions upriver, reading books out on the piers, or listening intently to adult conversation, the Deacon could only shake his head in bafflement. "My father dubbed me the Philosopher," Irving later recalled, "from my lonely & abstractd habits." If this nickname was given with affection, Irving scowled that it was completely inappropriate — "I was the least of a philosopher as a boy." Philosopher or not, the solitary existence that so puzzled the Deacon came to an end one afternoon in 1797 in the parlor of William and Julia Irving, where fourteen-year-old Washington was reacquainted with William's brother-in-law, nineteen- year-old Tarrytown native James Kirke Paulding.


Excerpted from "Washington Irving"
by .
Copyright © 2011 Brian Jay Jones.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1 Gotham (1783–1804),
2 Traveler (1804–1806),
3 Salmagundi (1806–1808),
4 Hoax (1808–1810),
5 Adrift (1810–1815),
6 Desperation (1815–1817),
7 Determination (1817–1818),
8 Sensation (1819–1821),
9 Rut (1822–1825),
10 Workaholic (1826–1829),
11 Politician (1829–1832),
12 Frontiersman (1832–1834),
13 Sunnyside (1834–1842),
14 Minister (1842–1846),
15 Icon (1846–1859),
Selected Bibliography,

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