Washington Irving and the American Consciousness

It is a wonder to me that most Americans have no clue who Washington Irving was. Along with a very small group of writers – among them Edgar Allen Poe and James Fenimore Cooper – he was one of the first American writers to receive international acclaim. Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron were fans. Without Washington Irving, there would have been no Herman Melville or Nathaniel Hawthorne or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Poe asked for Irving’s assistance on “The Fall of the House of Usher”.

Irving was one of the most influential American writers to put pen to paper. He literally created much of the American identity. Of course, he also fabricated some things that people still believe although there was absolutely no historical precedence.

St. Nicholas and Christmas

For example, in 1809, Irving wrote and published A History of New York under the adopted pseudonym Dietrich Knickerbocker. He had a series of advertisements in New York newspapers that appeared to be appeals for Knickerbocker to pay his hotel bills, and then with the whole town wondering where this supposedly aged Dutch historian had gone, Irving published the book to wide sales and general acclaim.

In Knickerbocker’s History, Irving gave the American people a number of myths behind the Santa Claus story. In the story, St. Nicholas is the patron saint of the first Dutch settlers. He provides guidance and assistance, helps the children of the colony and even slides down a few chimneys.

Irving wrote other books about Christmas traditions. He wrote five Christmas stories that were published as part of Sketchbook. These stories create an idealized Christmas scene, the precursor to the Victorian Christmas we know from Charles Dickens. In fact, Dickens later said that Irving was part of his inspiration for “A Christmas Carol.”

Christopher Columbus

Irving also penned a biography of Christopher Columbus. In the biography, he seems to have invented several ideas out of whole cloth. The most significant was that Irving was the first to say that Columbus sailed west to prove the world was round. This was in 1841, nearly four HUNDRED years after Columbus’ voyages. A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus was written while Irving was living in Spain and was published in 1828. It was so wildly popular that it has seen 175 editions, quite a lot of publication when you consider that America was still a small, struggling nation at the time.

Batman and Basketball

But Irving’s contributions were not limited to creating or repeating incorrect information.

It was Washington Irving who, if he did not coin the name, popularized New York’s nickname Gotham. Without Irving’s creativity and imagination, Batman would have nowhere to live. Gotham is borrowed from a little village in Notthinghamshire, England, that had a reputation for being inhabited by fools. He used the name in an issue of his satirical magazine Salmagundi – basically early 19th century New York’s Mad Magazine.

Irving has also influenced professional sports. The New York Knicks are actually named the New York Knickerbockers, a name that Irving used as a pseudonym and which later became synonymous for New Yorker.

The Star-Spangled Banner, Copyright Law, and Libraries

Irving also influenced our national identity in ways we truly do not appreciate.

Believe it or not, Irving was one of only a couple publishers who printed Francis Scott Key’s poem, “The Defense of Fort McHenry” which was later set to music and became the national anthem of the United States of America. The poem was written in 1814 during the bombardment of Fort McHenry. Irving was serving on the staff of Daniel Tompkins, the governor of New York and commander of the state militia. Shortly thereafter, Irving left for Europe and remained there for seventeen years. (It is the ultimate irony that someone who did so much to form the American consciousness was not actually present for that formation.)

Irving was also a very vocal advocate for a formal copyright law in the United States, thereby protecting not only his own works but the works of the thousands of writers who came after him. In 1840, after returning to the USA from Europe, Irving lobbied hard for a copyright law that was pending in Congress. “We have a young literature”, Irving wrote, “springing up and daily unfolding itself with wonderful energy and luxuriance, which… deserves all its fostering care.” Two years later, Irving returned to Europe after being appointed Minister to Spain.

When he returned to the US again in 1848, Irving became the executor of the estate of the extremely wealthy John Jacob Astor. He served as chairman of the Astor library and was instrumental in its growth and development. Later, the Astor library would form the core of the New York Public Library, the second largest public library in the United States behind the Library of Congress.

Just How Important?

When Irving died in 1859, many considered his importance second only to the first president George Washington. Irving had been friend to several presidents, author of many enduring works and inspiration to a whole class of authors. Of course, today many of his works feel a bit dated. Even during his lifetime some who had sought inspiration from him, like Edgar Allen Poe, began to look down on his work.

But others like Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., father of the Supreme Court Justice and a writer of some skill himself, revered him and considered his home at Sunnyside second in glory only to Mount Vernon. US Senator William C. Preston wrote to Irving in 1859, “I don’t believe that any man, in any country, has ever had a more affectionate admiration for him than that given to you in America.”

Irving helped craft America – both the reality of the nation and the somewhat fictionalized history we sometimes tell ourselves. It is a shame he is so little known today. Most of his works are in public domain now. Get on Amazon.com or bn.com and download some Irving for yourself. You won’t regret it.

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2 thoughts on “Washington Irving and the American Consciousness

    • Johnathan Oldstyle was his pseudonym when he was writing political stuff. He had several pseudonyms through his life. He wrote a lot of satire.

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