Not just father of Rip and Ichabod

May 20, 2007|By Timothy J. Gilfoyle | Timothy J. Gilfoyle,Chicago Tribune

The Original Knickerbocker

The Life of Washington Irving

By Andrew Burstein

Basic Books / 420 pages / $27.50

Few Americans read Washington Irving today. The author of short-story classics like "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," influential biographies of Christopher Columbus and George Washington and popular travelogues is largely confined to the syllabuses of upper-level college and graduate-school classrooms. Irving's sentimental and English style lost favor over the 19th and 20th centuries, especially compared with the tall tales of Davy Crockett, the social criticism of Mark Twain and the plebeian poetry of Walt Whitman. Today the general public's appreciation of Irving originates in Walt Disney's and Tim Burton's renditions of Sleepy Hollow and Johnny Depp's portrayal of Ichabod Crane.

This is unfortunate. Irving was the first American writer to attract international acclaim. He displayed a literary virtuosity rarely matched by later canonical American authors. Satire, sentimentalism, Gothic horror, history, the travelogue and biography were among the genres in Irving's oeuvre. In addition, his life and writing embodied a fundamental cultural tension of the early republic: a burgeoning urbanity rooted in mercantile New York alongside a germinating agrarian republicanism grounded in rural America.

Andrew Burstein's The Original Knickerbocker reveals Irving to be what today we call a public intellectual: a cultural commentator and fiction writer active in the political life of his time. Irving served in the American diplomatic corps and met or befriended writers like Charles Dickens, Thomas Moore and Walter Scott, as well as public figures like John Jacob Astor, Aaron Burr, explorer William Clark, Sam Houston, statesman and orator John Randolph and most of the American presidents from Thomas Jefferson to Franklin Pierce.

Irving was born and raised in Manhattan, the youngest of 11 children in an affluent merchant family. After a brief apprenticeship in the law offices of his brother William and Henry Brockholst Livingston, he started writing comic satires on the political and social life of Gotham, the nickname he gave New York and still among its most popular. Irving's earliest publications were written under pseudonyms: Jonathan Oldstyle, Geoffrey Crayon and Diedrich Knickerbocker.

Under the latter pen name, Irving wrote A History of New York, From the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty (1809). The comical, lighthearted look at early New York foreshadowed the writer's "nonconformist's vision" of America. Combining satire and sentimentalism, Irving made light of the issues of the day while yearning for a more innocent time and place. He coveted exceptional men who could rise above the fray and inspire others, prefiguring his later biographies of George Washington and Christopher Columbus.

Contemporaries such as James Fenimore Cooper resented Irving for aping the English style of writers like Scott. Irving did spend much of his youth living and traveling throughout England and Europe. German folk tales served as inspiration for "Rip Van Winkle" and "Sleepy Hollow." Irving's acquired fluency in Spanish, Dutch, Italian and German contributed to his being named a diplomatic attache in Spain from 1826 to 1829, secretary to the legation at the U.S. Embassy in London from 1829 to 1832, and U.S. ambassador to Spain from 1842 to 1846.

But The Original Knickerbocker demonstrates that Irving was more than a European wannabe. Even though he resided in Europe and elsewhere from 1815 to 1832, he emerged as a key - perhaps the key - figure in a Knickerbocker intelligentsia, which included William Cullen Bryant, Cooper, Fitz-Greene Halleck, James Kirke Paulding and Gulian Verplanck. However stylistically varied these writers were, they sharply departed from their New England Transcendental counterparts such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Burstein recognizes that Irving's A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828) was hagiographic; yet the four-volume study was the first English-language biography of the explorer based on extensive research in Spanish archives. The publication shaped American interpretations of European exploration for more than a century. By the end of the 19th century, Irving's Columbus was the most commonly owned book in U.S. libraries.

Irving's forgotten influences are multiple.

"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" was an early Gothic horror, a ghost-story precursor to the tales of Edgar Allan Poe. New York's nicknames of "Gotham" and "Knickerbocker" were popularized by Irving, as was the modern image of Santa Claus. A Tour on the Prairies (1835), Astoria (1836) and The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, U.S.A., in the Rocky Mountains and the Far West (1837) were among the earliest American "Westerns."

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