The Devil and Tom Walker | Study Guide

Washington Irving

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Washington Irving | Biography


Early Life

Washington Irving was born on April 3, 1783, in New York, New York. His Scottish merchant father and English mother were both immigrants who had arrived in the American colonies in 1763. Born at the end of the Revolutionary War (1776–83), Irving was named after one of the war's heroes, General George Washington. The youngest of 11 children, Irving was allowed to forego a college education, unlike the rest of his older brothers. Irving's father was a Presbyterian who treated his family strictly and dictated that most of them assist with the family's prosperous import business. Irving, by contrast, was allowed to apprentice as a lawyer in 1799 and then to travel, in part for his health, and to spend nearly two years in Europe (1804–06).

Literary Life

Irving's first published works were satirical essays written under the pen name "Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent.," which appeared in his brother's newspaper, the Morning Chronicle, in 1802–03. When he returned from Europe in 1806, Irving narrowly passed the bar examination and officially became a lawyer. However, from 1807–08, he preferred to occupy himself with writing. Along with James K. Paulding and his brother William, he published a series of parodies as a periodical entitled Salmagundi. He continued his political satire with his next project, History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, which was written under the name Diedrich Knickerbocker and published in 1809.

Irving was courting another young writer named Matilda Hoffman, but after her death in 1809, Irving became increasingly engaged with his family's import business. It brought him first to Washington, D.C., and then to Liverpool, England. In Washington, Irving turned his literary eye away from writing and toward editing. He prepared an American volume of Thomas Campbell's (1777–1844) poems and served as an editor for the Analectic Magazine. Irving moved to Liverpool in 1815 to help the family business there, but he found it near a bankruptcy that could not be avoided. After the business failed in 1817, Irving sought a professional writing career.

Irving's literary work after 1817 is characterized by humor and more direct storytelling instead of political satire. He published a series of short stories under the title The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819–20), which included "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." The series earned Irving fame on both sides of the Atlantic, and has been credited as being among the earliest examples of the short story genre. A sequel called Bracebridge Hollow followed in 1822, as well as a collection of essays, Tales of a Traveller (1824), which was published under his pseudonym Geoffrey Crayon and included "The Devil and Tom Walker." Irving's success allowed him to travel extensively throughout Europe. It also earned him a position at the American legation (similar to an embassy) in Spain.

Irving's years in Spain, from 1826 to 1832, were enormously productive. He wrote A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828), followed by A Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada (1829). He then published The Companions of Columbus (1831), a sequel for his book on Columbus, and The Alhambra (1832), which provided the Spanish perspective on The Sketch Book.

Later Life

Returning to the United States in 1832, Irving headed west of the Mississippi into Native American territory. He recorded his experience in A Tour on the Prairies, which was published in a series of volumes beginning in 1835. He also wrote of the real-life exploits of fur-traders in Astoria (1836), and Adventures of Captain Bonneville (1837). After four years as the U.S. minister to Spain (1842–46), Irving settled back in America in Tarrytown on the Hudson River in New York. There, he composed a five-volume biography of his namesake, The Life of George Washington (1855–59), whose last volume appeared shortly before his death on November 28, 1859.

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