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Washington Irving: The Wildest CV in American History

Written by Bella Coyne

On the third of April, seven years after America declared her independence from the crown, a man named Washington Irving was born on the island of Manhattan. Folks, Washington Irving’s life was wild. Author of American classics such as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, heralded biographer of Christopher Columbus, ambassador to Spain, inspiration for the New York Knicks and Batman, gentleman explorer, manager of the Globe Theater…possibly the most impressive curriculum vitae ever. Who’s ready to dive in? 

One could argue Irving’s big break came in 1809, when he published A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker. Knickerbocker wasn’t a pseudonym, necessarily. Rather, he was awarding himself some grace as a critic, by creating a character behind which he could hide. “Knickerbocker” was also a reference to Manhattan’s Dutch lineage, being a popular style of pants which rolled below the knee. A History contains quips such as–

 “ their first settlement [Dutch settlers] proclaimed that the colony should be governed by the laws of God – until they had time to make better.”  

Cheekily pointing out the dark parts and proudly highlighting the glorious ones, Irving as Knickerbocker paints a vivid history of New York. This iconic work of American satire begins with (literally) the biblical origins of the earth and ends with a disclaimer:

“If, however…I have failed to gratify the dainty palate of the age, I can only lament my misfortune – for it is too late in the season for me to even hope to repair it.” 

(Essentially, “If I have offended anyone, I’m too old to care. #sorrynotsorry.”)

The book grew so popular that New Yorkers colloquially became “Knickerbockers”. That cultural impact alone is astounding – in an age long before social media, word traveled by letter or by mouth, both of which take time. And to understand and appreciate the reference, people would have had to read the book, or at least take the time to learn the basics. The people of New York were developing an identity right alongside the brand-new country.

But the impact kept spreading. The NBA team for the state of New York is the Knicks, derived from “knickers”, or the government name, “knickerbockers”. This pays homage not just to a Colonial clothing trend, but to the very man who popularized New York in classic literature: Diedrich Knickerbocker himself. 

Having successfully gained the public’s attention (and planted roots in the future of sports), Irving began traveling to the most exquisite and sophisticated cities in Europe. From London to Madrid, over the course of seventeen years abroad, he formed long-lasting relationships with politicians and artists alike. In Spain, he fell in love with the culture, and began fanatically researching and writing a biography of Christopher Columbus. In London, he managed the famous Globe Theater, and in the English countryside penned Rip Van Winkle overnight. It was during this European adventure that he published The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, by far his most famous work. The Sketch Book was a collection of short stories which included Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. 

Lighthearted, witty, and enchanting, Irving’s roots as a writer of political satire anchored his voice firmly in the creative fiction genre. From the whimsical to the horrifying, Irving’s magnum opus has never gone out of print a single time in the almost two hundred years since its first release. Of the many stories in the Sketch Book, perhaps the most famous – and the story with the longest-lasting impact – is The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. From the Disney cartoon adaptation (which, shockingly, is accurate almost word-for-word), to Tim Burton’s darkened rendition, the tale of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman has remained one of the spookiest American classics, re-adapted again and again. The Bill of Rights Institute describes the folktale as “a tale of terror without any actual evil”. This sheds light on why the story is so beloved. 

The American horror genre has evolved over the past nearly two hundred and fifty years, leaving behind its roots in gothic folktales and expanding into a universe which very often centers on gore, spiritual warfare, and shock value. Horror, like all other genres, is meant to reflect truth  – that evil does exist, that people are cruel, that Michael Myers will continue to live on for a whopping thirteen movies. The onslaught of real horror, documented in technicolor on the internet, has forced our stories to go even darker than Irving could have imagined. But perhaps that is why The Legend of Sleepy Hollow remains as iconic and everlasting as it has. The choose-your-own-adventure sort of ending allows the reader to decide on their own if Ichabod Crane made it over the bridge, or if he fell prey to the Headless Horseman. It’s spooky, certainly, but it’s anchored in Dutch folklore. Irving is not trying to assert that the Headless Horseman could get you, too. It is one of the few scary stories today that is simply, well, a story. 

After publishing those literary bangers, Irving returned to his home country in 1832 to find that, like in a Nicholas Sparks novel, America has waited for him, and her love has never faltered. Although he continued to publish a stream of biographies – most famously, of George Washington, which The Hachette Book Group called “an intimate portrait…supreme art…first and foremost a work of literature...” -- his efforts shifted to politics.

Being that Irving was both a Spanish consulate of sorts and a literary celebrity, he was given a diplomatic appointment as an ambassador to Spain under the Jackson administration. As Jackson fought off threats of secession and acquired new territory hand over fist, he took a liking to Irving. This resulted in Irving tagging along on an expedition to the brand-new Oklahoma territory, with men in search of new land on which to “resettle” Native Americans. Though he had spent nearly two decades on a different continent, it was the Osage and Sauk, the enslaved African-Americans, that jarred him the most.

He wrote letters to his friends and family, privately expressing his heartsickness. But as Danny Heitman at the National Endowment for the Humanities writes, “While Irving’s sensitivity to racial injustice might have been ahead of his time, his writings were carefully crafted for commercial appeal.” His writings about his experiences tended to paint the men and women he encountered as classic “noble savage” stereotypes, and ultimately, his work A Tour on the Prairie was a tale of a gentleman’s wild adventures, not political activism. As the United States careened towards secession, citizens demanded transparency. His political commentary was satirical and character-driven -- an old man's voice, not fit for discussing the threat of war. Irving's days of SNL-esque, tongue-in-cheek criticism seemed to be over. 

In 1859, Washington Irving died, leaving behind possibly the strangest and farthest-reaching legacy of any Early Republic author. We still care about Irving – not just because Bing Crosby voiced Ichabod Crane in 1949 – because his voice and opinions pervaded so much of early American life, that we couldn’t help but cement him in the very foundation of our culture. Did I mention he linked the British slang “Gotham” with New York City? (Yeah, he even influenced Batman. Batman. We told you he was impressive.) 

His words live on each October when we read Sleepy Hollow to get in the spooky spirit. They echo when Batman swears to defend Gotham City. They persist each time crowds cheer for the Knicks. Irving is unique in that his legacy doesn’t exist solely in the realm of classic literature. How many American authors have influenced American life like he has? 

“Great minds have purpose, others have wishes. Little minds are tamed and subdued by misfortunes; but great minds rise above them.” 

--Washington Irving

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