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Washington Irving | Biography

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On April 3, 1783, in the waning months of the Revolutionary War, Washington Irving was born into a family of limited resources living in New York City. The youngest of 11 children, Irving received much affectionate attention from his mother but little from his stern, religiously rigid Presbyterian father. At age 16 Irving was apprenticed to a lawyer. However, by 1802 his budding literary ambition led him to publish his first satirical essays in his brother Peter's newspaper, Morning Chronicle, and in other short-lived publications. Two years later Irving began an extended visit to England and much of Europe. Returning to New York in 1806, Irving reluctantly practiced law while collaborating with his brother William to publish scathing political and social parodies and caricatures in the periodical Salmagundi.

By 1809 Irving had created his fictional amateur historian and narrator Diedrich Knickerbocker, an eccentric American of Dutch descent. Irving made Knickerbocker the voice of the popular, humorous book A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty (1809). Irving's narrative mixed fact and fantasy to lampoon political figures as well as the pretensions of the early Dutch settlers. While writing this book, Irving fell in love, but he was devastated when his fiancée became ill with tuberculosis and died in 1809. He never married.

Between 1815 and 1817 Irving managed his family's import business in Liverpool, England. There he met Scottish author Sir Walter Scott, who urged him to continue to write. Back home once again, Irving began a series of short stories and essays. These works made up a collection titled The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., which Irving published in serial form (1819–20). "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" were part of the collection. The Sketch Book—as it became commonly known—earned Irving an enthusiastic audience in the United States as well as in England. The stories in this book evoke early settler life in New York's Hudson River Valley with vivid color, energy, and humor. Irving was revealed as a master of landscape description and of acute and lively character creation. He used his keen wit to critique the foibles and customs of his neighbors. However, in these stories Irving toned down his earlier razor-sharp satire to gently mock local traditions and politics.

Other less successful volumes of fiction and real history followed. Then in 1826, after a stay in Madrid, Irving wrote A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828). This book was one of the first truly authoritative historical accounts of the explorer. Because the book was based on the invaluable documents available to him in Madrid, it helped solidify Irving's reputation as a writer of history. Thereafter Irving wrote more history than fiction.

After serving as a member of the American diplomatic service in Spain and England, Irving returned home in 1832. Many things about his native country had changed during his 17-year absence. Irving was acutely attuned to changes in society and politics, as "Rip Van Winkle" shows. He was curious to see if the dramatic changes he saw in New York were mirrored by great changes on the frontier, west of the Mississippi River. In 1832 Irving joined a party of frontier travelers. He journeyed to Pawnee territory in today's Oklahoma, where he met American Indians and hunted buffalo. He turned his frontier experience into a book—A Tour on the Prairies—which was published in a series of volumes beginning in 1835.

Irving spent 1842–46 as a U.S. minister to Spain. Returning to the United States, he settled in Tarrytown, New York, on his beloved Hudson River. Here Irving wrote his long-planned, five-volume work, The Life of George Washington (1855–59). The history was intended for both a scholarly and general readership. The last volume was published shortly before Irving's death on November 28, 1859.
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