Search SFE    Search EoF

  Omit cross-reference entries  

Irving, Washington

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

Icon made by Freepik from


(1783-1859) The father of the US short story and one of the first US professional authors, Irving is an important link in the transfer of the stories of German Romanticism to American soil. Although he studied as a lawyer and briefly pursued that career, his heart was always in writing, and he began publishing essays as early as 1802 in the New York Morning Chronicle, the first of his numerous pseudonyms being Jonathan Oldstyle. He soon produced a number of humorous satirical essays, and with his brother William Irving and James Kirke Paulding, founded a journal, Salmagundi, contributing to it various spoofs and Satires, in one of which, "Chapter CIX of the Chronicles of the Renowned and Ancient City of Gotham" (11 November 1807 Salmagundi), he gave New York the nickname of Gotham. Irving's most famous early work, more elegantly crafted but in the same vein as Salmagundi, was the History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty ... by Diedrich Knickerbocker (1809 2vols); this mock history is one of the earliest Fantasies of History, and includes a formative description of Santa Claus as the patron saint of New York [for Fantasy of History and Santa Claus see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. Knickerbocker Holiday: A Musical Comedy in Two Acts (performed September 1938; 1938) by Maxwell Anderson (1888-1959) with music by Kurt Weill (1900-1950) evokes the fantasticated tonality of the History by depicting some relatively lighthearted Pirandellian interactions between Irving and the seventeenth century characters (some fictional) he is bringing to life.

After the death of his fiancée, and himself in poor health, Irving settled for a while in England, where he became entranced not only with the English countryside but with the German Märchen then becoming popular there. Encouraged by Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) [for Märchen and Scott see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], Irving put together a series of sketches about England and America, assembling them as The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent (coll 1819-1820 7vols; omni 1820 2vols); they include three stories heavily influenced by German folklore. The most famous is "Rip Van Winkle" (in Volume One), which begins in pre-Revolution North America. Rip helps a dwarf and is rewarded with a draught of the dwarf's liquor; he falls into an enchanted sleep; when the Sleeper Awakes, twenty years have passed and the world has changed; he has become a Mysterious Stranger. While the tale was a simple vehicle for Irving to satirize events in his Knickerbocker mode, it was also one of the earliest stories to recognize the impact of progress. Also in the collection is "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (in Volume Six), probably based on a story by Johann Karl Musäus (1735-1787); this popularized the image of the headless horseman and formed the basis for an operetta by Douglas Moore, The Headless Horseman (1936), with libretto by Stephen Vincent Benét, who was heavily influenced by Irving's writings. The tale was filmed as the second half of Disney's animated film The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad (1949).

Irving continued to adapt German legends and folktales, imbuing them with the same scepticism with which he had treated American history. The best appeared in Tales of a Traveller (coll 1824 2vols) as by Geoffrey Crayon; the book consists of a series of stories told within frames (see Club Story), including the popular ghost story "The Adventure of the German Student" (vt "The Lady in the Velvet Collar") and the early pact-with-the-devil story "The Devil and Tom Walker" [for Pacts with the Devil see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below].

Irving spent most of his time in Europe, where he briefly had a romantic liaison with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley before settling in Spain in 1826 as diplomatic attaché, soon producing a volume of stories and sketches based on Spanish legends, The Alhambra (coll 1832 2vols). These are less satirical than his early adaptations, but their muted melancholy makes them more strongly romantic. His later writings were biographies and histories which, though popular, never repeated his early successes. Irving's work laid the foundation for the writings of William Austin (1788-1841) [for Austinand Musäus (above) see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe and others. [MA/JC/DRL]

see also: Adam Seaborn; Ron Tiner.

Washington Irving

born Manhattan [now New York]: 3 April 1783

died Tarrytown, New York: 28 November 1859


Irving's fiction, none of it book-length, was assembled under frame rubrics and under varying names; even the History of New York is episodic. After his death, numerous collections were published, but without adhering to his frames. Selected publications within Irving's lifetime are listed here.


Sketch Book

individual titles

collections (posthumous, highly selected)


previous versions of this entry

This website uses cookies.  More information here. Accept Cookies