Today is the birthday of Washington Irving (1783-1859).
By most reasonable measures he is America’s premier literary man and it is only natural that New York City produced him. Why natural? To make art, leisure is required. To support leisure, wealth is required, not just in individuals but in the society at large. (Artists who choose to “starve” can only do so in a society rich enough to produce table scraps). New York was (and is) the country’s mercantile center and furthermore it was unhampered in the early 19th century by a religious culture less friendly to art, as was the case in Boston and Philadelphia. Franklin, with his journalism, the Autobiography and Poor Richard’s Almanack had preceded Irving, but his works remained essentially practical in nature. They hadn’t broken the bonds of utilitarianism. It is Irving who composed our first tales, redolent of nothing but stimulation and pleasure. Early New York also gave us James Fenimore Cooper and William Cullen Bryant, followed by Melville and Whitman, et al. By midcentury Massachusetts had joined the fray and superseded New York many times over for a spell. But once and future supremacy was New York’s portion, home of both presses and patronage.
Furthermore, Irving’s career began with a characteristically American hoax. He advertised in local newspapers that an aged Dutch historian named Deitrich Knickerbocker was missing. When the faux kidnapping had stirred up maximum interest, he published his satirical A History of New-York from the Beginning of New York to the End of the Dutch Dynasty by Deitrich Knickerbocker (1809). This is of course from whence our nickname for New Yorkers as well as our hometown basketball team the Knickebockers derives. It was also in this book that he coined New York’s nickname “Gotham” (Anglo-Saxon for “Goat’s Town” — the city of dupes or fools). This book was also instrumental in helping shape the legend of Sinterklass/ Santa Claus/ St. Nick, still celebrated by the Dutch.
In 1819 he published The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Esq. which contains his two most famous tales The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. You can read more about my appreciation for these tales in my account of our trip to Sleepy Hollow here. And about Joseph Jefferson, the stage’s best loved Rip Van Winkle here.
I read this morning that Irving also wrote biographies of George Washington (5 volumes!), Muhammed, Goldsmith and Columbus. I clearly have some reading to do!