Washington Irving was one of the most successful American authors of his time. While he is remembered fondly for his short stories such as “Rip van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” one of his lesser known achievements came at the end of his life when he wrote a five-volume biography of George Washington. This biography helped to redefine how people viewed Washington in the generation after his death.
Washington Irving was born in New York City in 1783, the eighth of eleven children of William and Sarah Irving, who had emigrated from England to New York twenty years earlier. William Irving was a merchant,1 however, as Washington Irving grew up he found that the things that gave him joy in life were reading, drawing, and writing.2 At the age of nineteen, he began to pursue his passions by writing essays for his brother’s newspaper The Morning Chronicle. By 1819, Irving made the bold decision to try to make a living through writing alone. Irving believed that he was unsuited for any other occupation, and he was determined to succeed in making a name for himself as a writer.3
Irving’s efforts quickly paid off after the release of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent, No. 1, in 1819-20. The New York Evening Post praised this series of short stories and its author's unique sense of humor and style; one of the stories, "Rip Van Winkle," became especially popular.4 Irving's Sketch Book became a hit not only in the United States, but in Great Britain as well. One Englishman described Irving’s writings as kind and affectionate and said that his “Essay on Rural Life in England” was his personal favorite.5 Washington Irving achieved his goal of making his living by writing. Indeed, he became one of the most successful writers of his generation.
Washington Irving by Matthew Brady, c. 1861. (Image via Library of Congress)
By the 1850s, Irving decided to write a biography of George Washington. Irving had been named after Washington and had even met him once when a young boy. In the early nineteenth century, biography was an increasingly popular literary genre and the much-admired Washington was an ideal subject. Previous biographies of Washington had been written by Mason Locke Weems (who invented the cherry tree myth), Chief Justice John Marshall, and others. But given Irving’s literary reputation, a biography of George Washington was very likely to be well-received.6 In 1853, Irving began his research, relying particularly on two important sources to craft his own biography. Irving consulted The Writings of George Washington: Life of Washington by Jared Sparks and also a collection of Washington’s official letters, which he acquired through the Department of State.7
Irving began to write his biography at his home, Sunnyside, in 1855. In the preface, Irving explained that he had long wanted to write a biography of Washington, though ill health as well as his many travels to Europe delayed the project.8 According to Irving, his primary goal for his biography was to present a historically accurate portrayal of Washington in an engaging narrative style.9
"Sunnyside," home of Washington Irving, c. 1903. (Image via Library of Congress)
The biography was published in five volumes between 1855 and 1859. Irving's narrative dealt with many subjects, including Washington’s military exploits, his presidency, and his personal life. Irving's literary style conveyed a lively account of Washington’s life. One chapter of the biography, for example, vividly recreated Washington’s poignant return home to Mount Vernon after the war. Irving described Washington's relief to be home and his joyful return to his life as a gentleman farmer. This chapter also showed how Washington was approached by various people (including his friend Dr. James Craik) who wanted to use his papers so that they could write a history of the Revolutionary War.10
Irving strove to present Washington in a realistic manner and he largely succeeded in doing so, according to most reviewers, who praised the biography. The prominent historian George Bancroft commended Irving as a good historian whose unique narrative qualities made the people and events he wrote about both interesting and natural.11 Another well-known historian, William H. Prescott, congratulated Irving for making George Washington into a relatable figure for ordinary people.12
The same year that the final installment of the biography was published, Washington Irving died. In his native New York, many were shocked and saddened by his passing. Flags were held at half-mast, and many people paused and reflected on his achievements as a literary figure. Washington Irving today is primarily remembered for his short stories that took a humorous look at American history and culture. His biography of George Washington, a very different sort of work, demonstrated Irving's keen ability for presenting history in a professional and engaging manner.
George Mason University
1. Life and Letters of Washington Irving, ed. Pierre Munroe Irving (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1863), 1:19.
6. Charles Neider, "Introduction," in Washington Irving, George Washington: A Biography, ed. Charles Neider (New York: Da Capo Press, 1994), xviii; Casper E. Scott, Constructing American Lives: Biography and Culture in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 2-23.
Casper, Scott E. Constructing American Lives: Biography and Culture in Nineteenth-Century America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.
Irving, Pierre Munroe. Life and Letters of Washington Irving, 4 vols. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1863.
Irving, Washington. George Washington: A Biography. Edited by Charles Neider. New York: Da Capo Press, 1994.
Irving, Washington. The Works of Washington Irving: Life of Washington: Part Four. New York and London: The Cooperative Publication Society, 1904.