One-hundred and fifty-two years ago, on November 28, 1859, Washington Irving, the renowned author, essayist, biographer and historian, died at 76 at his home in Irvington, New York.
Hailed as the father of the American short story, he is best known for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. Both tales appeared in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.
Born in New York City to wealthy Scottish-English immigrants in April 1783, when the ceasefire ended the American Revolution, Irving was named for George Washington, who met him and gave him his blessing in 1789.
One of his best books was the five-volume Life of George Washington, followed by works of historical fiction, such as The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, Chronicles of the Conquest of Granada, and Voyages and Discoveries of the Companions of Columbus.
Irving made his literary debut in 1802 with a series of observational letters to the Morning Chronicle, written under the pseudonym Jonathan Oldstyle, the first of many pen names that he used throughout his career.
He created the literary magazine Salmagundi in 1807, and lampooned New York culture and politics.His reputation spread and, in the 17th issue, he gave the nickname “Gotham,” an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “Goat’s Town,” to New York City.
In late 1809, Irving completed work on his first major book, A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker, a satire on local history and politics.
That year, he published A History of New York to critical and popular success. “It took with the public,” Irving noted, “and gave me celebrity, as an original work was something remarkable and uncommon in America.”
Like many New Yorkers, he opposed the War of 1812, but the British attack on Washington, D.C., in 1814 convinced him to enlist, and he served on the staff of the commander of the New YorkState militia and governor of New York.
Irving achieved international fame after moving to England in 1815. His reputation soared and for several years he led an active social life in Paris. He was admired by such European writers as Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron and Charles Dickens.
As a teenager, Irving had made several trips up the Hudson River, where he passed through the Catskill Mountains. “Of all the scenery of the Hudson,” he wrote, “the KaatskillMountains had the most witching effect on my boyish imagination.”
It was in Tarrytown, New York, that Irving became familiar with the nearby town of Sleepy Hollow, with its local ghost stories and quaint Dutch customs, which became the basis for many of his own tales.
Irving bought a “neglected cottage” and its riverfront property near Tarrytown in 1835. He named it “Sunnyside” in 1841 and lived there for almost 20 years, though he served as US minister to Spain from 1842-46. In 1854, the nearby village changed its name to Irvington in his honor.
He continued to publish regularly and almost always successfully and, along with James Fenimore Cooper, was among the first American writers to win acclaim as an internationally best-selling author.
On November 28, 1859, eight months after finishing the final volume of his biography of George Washington, Washington Irving died of a heart attack in his bedroom at Sunnyside. He was buried under a simple headstone in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery on December 1, 1859.