When one thinks of Washington Irving, a presumption can be made that he spent his whole life in New York, sleeping under oak trees and trading folk tales with the locals. He did spend special years in New York, but there is so much more to his story.
Born in New York City in 1782, he was named after George Washington, whom he had the pleasure of meeting as a youngster. George Washington would serve as an important figure in Washington Irving’s life and he would later write one his best-known biographies, sectioned in five volumes, chronicling the life of the first US PresidentHow Irving ended up in Tarrytown, 30 miles away from the city stemmed from a rather ordinary event. Irving and one of his brothers were sent “upstate” to spend time in the Hastings area with friends when the city was in the grips of the Yellow Fever. Relatives often sent the young folks to stay out of the city to avoid outbreaks of contagious disease. This quiet community where he lodged was full of Dutch settlers with country customs and many odd legends. Whether Irving knew it or not at the time, he was gathering material for his most famous tale.
New York had more than its share of whispered ghost stories. Due to the real life bloodshed during the American Revolution and the superstitious attitudes of the times, a spooky tale about a mysterious man on horseback looking for his long lost head widely appealed to readers. The story of Rip Van Winkle, a man who fell asleep for 20 years, featuring the wild premise of Henry Hudson bowling in heaven was also included in the collection. Particularly poignant was that Irving created his colonial “slacker” type character Rip Van Winkle and his nagging wife Dame when his family was in desperate financial circumstances facing bankruptcy Washington Irving had relocated to England to help save the family business, but it failed anyway. This desperate situation fueled Washington’s literary light to burn even brighter. Curiously titled “The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent” Irving’s collection of tall tales was published in instalments from 1819 to 1820, much in the serial style of Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens. Although the family was, as they said back then, financially “ruined”, Irving did have some valuable political connections. He was offered a job in the British ministry; however, Irving opted instead to continue to pursue his dream as a writer. It was a wise choice.
The publisher of “The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent” is credited as C.S Van Winkle. Washington Irving’s brother, Ebenezer, an editor by profession, helped support his brother’s literary passion and worked hard to get his work into print. Washington Irving, still living abroad in England at the time, would mail each section for editing to his brother. Pamphlets of each of the stories, accompanied by English essays, drawings and tidbits of curiosity circulated around the Northeast. Pretty soon British publishers were cashing in on reprints of Irving’s work, with and sometimes without permission. Being a trained lawyer who passed the bar exam by a hair’s breath, as he wasn’t keen on formal studies, Irving worked during his latter years to strengthen copyright laws. Irving later named one publisher George Putnam, to protect his intellectual property.
His time traveling around New York and as well as abroad served for the setting of many of his tales. From the Catskill Mountains where he visited as an impressionable teen, to sunny Spain, all locales served to season his writing. Fans of Irving’s work may be surprised to learn that he served as US Ambassador to Spain from 1842-1846 . Irving has a keen interest in politics, history, and the law, but his true calling was writing. He also had a wicked sense of humor, and lampooned the then modern New York City lifestyle in his first full-length work, “A History of New York from the Beginning of the World To the End of the Dutch Dynasty” as Diedrich Knickerbocker, a play on the style of pants Dutch settlers wore that were rolled up at the knees. In his spare time, he managed to fight in the War of 1812, serve as the editor for the Analectic Magazine where reprinted Francis Scott Key’s poem, “The Star-Spangled Banner” which was later adopted as the US National Anthem. He did eventually take up a post in England, and he served as Secretary to the US Legation from 1829 to 1832
Irving continued to write, some of his work enjoying commercial success but panned by critics. Now financially solvent, he had time to pick topics he enjoyed such as a biography of the prophet Mohammed, which took years to research. He inspired and fostered other authors and contributed to the New York magazine “The Knickerbocker” named for his nom de plume.
With all of his travels and adventures, North Tarrytown was where he spent his later years, in a home called “Sunnyside” that served as a rural version of the Algonquin Roundtable where artists, writers, and politicians would gather to debate and grow their talent. He lived there until he died in 1859 and became the area’s most famous literary resident His “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” became the quintessential American Short Story and the town adopted the story for it’s high school, named “Sleepy Hollow” and for its football team “The Headsmen”.
During the twentieth century, North Tarrytown was famous for its General Motors assembly plant. Once that folded in 1996, the town decided to capitalize on Irving’s fame and officially change the area’s name to the Village of Sleepy Hollow. This was a brilliant decision which brought in tourist dollars, especially with Washington Irving’s story making a big comeback via Tim Burton’s film in 1999, loosely based on the short story. “Sleepy Hollow” continues to win over a generation of young fans with the premier of a TV series of the same name in 2013. Best of all the village was visited by some of the cast and some scenes were filmed on location. Now, in addition to taking in the breathtaking fall foliage, visitors can see that the town ambulance, police cruisers and fire trucks all have the headless horseman as their logo.
*Photo: By Washington Irving and his friends at Sunnyside. according to the Princeton University: “Engraving by Thomas Oldham Barlow (1824-1889), after a drawing by Felix Octavius Carr Darley (1822-1888), made from photographs by Mathew B. Brady (1823-1896), in conjunction with an oil painting by Christian Schussele (1824-1879).” [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons