Washington Irving (1783-1859)

Washington Irving (1783-1859)

1783: “Born the same year that the signing of Treaty of Paris ended the Revolution”; named after George Washington.

1801: Attended law school

1802: Brother established Morning Chronicle newspaper that Irving contributed to.  Wrote satirical pieces called “Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent.”

1804: Traveled to England for further studies.

1806: Returned to United States, completed law school, admitted to the bar, established new magazine called Salmagundi, and continued to write satirical pieces

1808: Collapse of Salmagundi

1809: Wrote A History of New York, in which he adopted the popular character called Diedrich Knickerbocker.

1814: Served as colonel in New York State militia

1815:  Traveled to England and lived there for 17 years. Wrote The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819), which included his two most popular short stories, “Rip Van Winkle” and “Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

1832: Returned to America and wrote about “American scenes and subjects” in works such as A Tour on the Prairies (1835) and The Rocky Mountains; or, Scenes, Incidents, and Adventures in the Far West (1837)

1850s: Wrote five-volume biography of George Washington

1859: Death


Major Romantic characteristics of Irving’s writing (“Rip Van Winkle”):

  1. Emphasis on American regional setting and character types (literary nationalism)
  2. Use of the picturesque and picaresque
  3. Escape from commonplace realities to the shadowy grandeur of the past
  4. Use of supernatural, Gothic suspense, and horror
  5. Exploitation of folklore and legends


“Rip Van Winkle’s” persistent appeal rests upon deep-seated folk themes appropriated from the German romantic source, Otmar’s tale of “Peter Klaus” in the Voltssagen (1800).  Irving however reconstructs this folk tale and Americanizes it by adopting ethnic American regional setting and satirical political themes.  He satirizes political follies; the story can therefore be described as an allegory – that is, as a self-sufficient narrative that nevertheless signifies more than what is said.  One may choose to discuss the entire narrative, or brief sections or characters or episodes as allegorical, such as the following:


  1. The sporting Rip
  2. Dame van Winkle
  3. The little men
  4. Intoxicating draught
  5. The long slumber
  6. Rip the returnee
  7. The changed society Rip returns to
  8. The lonely and confused Rip


Concluding Thoughts and Questions


Irving once said: “I consider a story merely as a frame on which to stretch my materials.” He adds that he sought to be “continually piquant,” and that he aimed at the presentation of a “sound moral.” What morals and piquancy are evident in Irving’s stories?  In what ways do the stories provide frames upon which he stretched materials?


What does Irving satirize in the new America to which Rip returns?


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