.. he ten years between 1809 and 1819. Supported by his family and lionized by society for his early successes, Irving lived up to his reputation as a genial man of leisure. The second phase of Washington Irving’s search for identity commenced when he set sail in May of 1815 for Europe. He was not to return for 17 years.
His brother Peter falling ill, Irving stepped in to help run the import business. When the War of 1812 ended in 1815, low demand in the U.S. for trade goods from England caused the business to fail. Finally, in 1818, the brothers declared bankruptcy. Irving was devastated, becoming severely anxious about earning a livelihood.
For the first time, he set out to write a commercially successful work that would also firmly establish his literary reputation both at home and abroad. He succeeded beyond his wildest imagination with The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-1820), writing this time in the persona of a charmingly self-effacing wanderer fascinated by the quaintness and antiquity of English landscapes and customs. Although the book’s subtext reveals his anxiety about being dispossessed of home and security, the surface is famously genial and sentimental (Rubin-Dorsky 32-64). Although only four of the 34 literary sketches in the book are about America, two enduring American classics (actually based on European folk legends) are among them: Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
The disorientation resulting from Rip Van Winkle’s famous 20-year sleep is evocative of Irving’s generation’s loss of its bearings. One day the sign at the tavern in the Catskill village in which the story is set shows the image of George III; the next day (so it seems to Rip) the sign depicts General Washington. In the mysterious interval, Rip is also freed of the despotism of his shrewish wife, who has died: Happily that was at an end–he had got his neck out of the yoke of matrimony, and could go in and out whenever he pleased without dreading the tyranny of Dame Van Winkle (History, Tales, and Sketches 783). Rip Van Winkle escaped the responsibilities of the prime of his life, just as Washington Irving and his generation on some level must have yearned to escape the pressures they faced. In fact, Irving was a lifelong bachelor (although he may have proposed to and been rejected by 18-year-old Emily Foster when he was 40).
The sentimental explanation promulgated by his nephew Pierre was that Irving pined for Matilda Hoffman all his life, but some of the negative views of wives in his work suggest that Irving’s search for freedom included freedom from the ties that bind (Banks). The success of The Sketch Book made Irving the first American man of letters to have an international reputation. Irving, in typical self-deprecating fashion, wrote that the world was surprised to find a native American with a feather in his hand instead of on his head. Having become friends with Sir Walter Scott on their first meeting in 1817, Irving was now launched as an international celebrity. He followed The Sketch Book with two more miscellaneous collections of sketches by Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.: Bracebridge Hall (1822) and Tales of a Traveller (1824), the latter so poorly received that Irving afterward essentially abandoned fiction and subjective essays to write history and biography. In the 1820s, Irving traveled throughout Europe, making occasional extended stays.
In Dresden, he became close with the Foster family and a favorite of the King of Saxony. In Paris, he collaborated unsuccessfully with playwright John Howard Payne, whose claim to fame is writing the song Home, Sweet Home. In London, he resisted the flirtatious advances of Mary Shelley, widow of Percy Shelley and author of Frankenstein. Finally, in Madrid and Seville from 1826-29, he researched and wrote Life and Voyages of Columbus and A Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada. Enchanted by the Moorish palace in Granada, he was inspired to write The Alhambra (1832), a sort of Spanish Sketch Book.
In 1829, Irving took on another identity, that of diplomat. In September of that year he accepted an appointment as secretary at the American legation in London, eventually serving as acting charg d’affaires until the new minister, Martin Van Buren, arrived in 1831. Irving’s wide circle of friends in England proved useful in negotiating trade agreements with England. By 1832, Irving had been abroad for 17 years. It was time to return and begin the third and final phase of his life, a phase marked by a renewed connection to America. Received with great ceremony in New York, Irving declared, quoting Scott, This was my own–my native land! He proceeded to travel throughout the fast-growing country, stopping in Washington to dine with President Andrew Jackson and his vice-presidential nominee, Irving’s friend Martin Van Buren.
(In the decade of the 1830s, Irving apparently supported the Democratic party, although he aligned himself with the opposing Whigs in later years.) He even ventured to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) in the company of Commissioner of Indian Affairs Henry Ellsworth in October of 1832. He published his account of this trip, A Tour on the Prairies, in 1835, following that work of adventurous enterprise with two more: Astoria (1836), an account of John Jacob Astor’s fur trade in the northwest, and Adventures of Captain Bonneville, U.S.A. (1837), the story of a western explorer. Irving’s books about the west balance elements of his early rougher personae with the refined romanticism of Geoffrey Crayon. Similarly, in these books, Irving balanced the demands of commerce and art, of appeals to greed and to cultural values. According to Peter Antelyes, Irving produced a commercially viable revised adventure tale form that endorsed expansionism while noting the dangers posed to American society by that expansion (xv).
After over a century of dismissal and neglect, Irving’s western writings finally received attention from scholars more open to the complex balancing act Irving achieved in these works. In 1835, Irving not only demonstrated his commitment to his American identity by publishing his first book about the West, but he also bought property on the Hudson River north of New York City. Over the years he expanded his home there, called Sunnyside, and received a steady stream of visitors. Sunnyside remains a popular tourist site for fans of Irving to this day. The only time Irving ventured back to Europe in this last phase of his life was when President John Tyler appointed him minister to Spain in 1842.
After serving with distinction for four years, he returned to Sunnyside in 1846 to resume work on a long-planned life of George Washington. (The Founding Father had actually bestowed a blessing on the future Father of American Literature in 1789, when the six-year-old Irving’s nurse had presented the child to Washington in a shop in New York.) The monumental Life of George Washington was eventually published in five volumes over a five year period, the last volume finally seeing print in the last months of Irving’s life. After a long period of declining health, Irving died of a heart attack at Sunnyside on November 28, 1859, almost the eve of the Civil War. His lifespan linked the two wars that forged our nation. Despite his fears of failure, Washington Irving’s life-long search produced an enduring identity as America’s first professional man of letters. Celebrated for his graceful prose style, he pioneered the short story as a genre and folklore as a source of literary narrative. He was, as William Makepeace Thackeray described, the first ambassador sent by the new world of letters to the old.
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