Washington Irving: Biography, Works, and Style

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  • 0:10 Biography
  • 1:42 Irving's Works
  • 3:11 Literary Style
  • 4:49 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Heather Carroll

Heather teaches high school English. She holds a master's degree in education and is a National Board Certified Teacher.

This video introduces Washington Irving, the father of American literature. Through his works, like 'Rip Van Winkle' and 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,' Irving developed a sophisticated yet satirical style while helping establish the American identity.


Irving is recognized as the father of American literature
Washington Irving

Washington Irving was the first American author who found success both in Europe and in America. He's actually considered the father of American literature because it is his writing that began shaping the American identity.

Washington Irving was born April 3, 1783. He grew up in Manhattan, New York and was a pretty goofy, adventurous kid who liked to go wandering and dreamed of the day when he could start traveling. This frustrated his parents a bit because as he got older, he'd often skip class to attend plays.

When Irving was around the age of 15, yellow fever had broken out in Manhattan, so his parents sent him away with some friends in Tarrytown, New York. Tarrytown and the near-by village of Sleepy Hollow are, of course, where his later stories are set. It was during this time too that he first saw the Catskill Mountains, which set the scene for his character Rip Van Winkle's 20-year sleep.

At the age of 17, his father sent Washington to Europe to help with the family business, which he was not real keen on and finds he can't save once he's there. But even though his business endeavors there are a bit disheartening, he does get involved with the literary scene there and befriends Sir Walter Scott. Sir Walter Scott gives him some advice about writing. Scott tells him to begin reading the German Romantic authors and to consider folklore and legends for some inspiration. Washington, of course, takes this advice, and it works well for him. He begins to set himself apart from the other writers in America at that time.

His Works

Scott encouraged Irving to turn to German folklore for inspiration
Sir Walter Scott Image

One of the things you have to remember is that Washington Irving had a great sense of humor, which transcended into his writings. Rather than use a tired, old narrator to tell his stories, he creates personas and uses pseudonyms, or fake names, to publish his stories.

One of his early pseudonyms was Diedrich Knickerbocker, which he used as the author of a book he wrote called A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty. This was a political satire, a piece of writing that uses irony and sarcasm to show flaws in something. Before he published this piece, Irving actually posted in the newspaper that a man named Diedrich Knickerbocker had gone missing from a hotel. This went on for a while before Irving then posted, as the landlord of the hotel, that Knickerbocker had left some papers behind that would be published as payment for rent that Knickerbocker had not paid. By the time the piece was actually published, people were already interested and Irving became a quick success.

Another pseudonym Irving used was Geoffrey Crayon. Geoffrey Crayon is the supposed author of a collection of stories under the title The Sketch Book. These stories, which were greatly influenced by German folk tales, included 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow' and 'Rip Van Winkle,' two of the stories he is best known for. He also published an additional set of stories using the Crayon pseudonym called Tales of a Traveler, which included the short story 'The Devil and Tom Walker' - another piece heavily influenced by the German legends.

His Style

Rip Van Winkle is among the most popular works by Irving
Rip Van Winkle

In spite of having been greatly influenced by European writing, especially the German legends, Irving's style is all his own. Irving's use of imagery - using words to create a picture in the reader's mind to create long descriptions of the American landscape - set his work apart from those of the European writers. It's through those descriptions that the Hudson Valley really comes to life.

Irving was also known to have introduced the idea of the modern short story to the United States. Remember, prior to this period, people were writing instructional, political documents and lots of religious-based poetry. Irving changes that up by writing fictional stories.

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