Washington Irving: All in the Details

Washington Irving is one of those American authors who I believe is taken for granted. People know of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle." The latter is required reading in many schools; the former, excerpted for breaks in a class. Yet he is more than those two iconic stories. His first work was a series of letters to the New York Morning Chronicle. He provided facetious commentary on social events and culture in the Hudson Valley region of New York under a pseudonym. This led to gaining some notoriety in certain literary circles at the age of nineteen. He revisited the concept a few years later with the humor magazine Salmagundi. Here, he assumed a wide array of pseudonyms to comment on the same region he previously lampooned by post. His scheme was so convincing that one European historian declared it Salmagundi one of the greatest insights into life in the newly minted country of America.

Part of what allowed for this ruse to be so successful was Irving's eye for detail. He was a very descriptive writer. It's not the Charles Dickens/Realism sense where the author never meets a back-story they aren't willing to talk about, either; these details make the story. There isn't a misplaced word in his major prose efforts.

Even when he wasn't writing fiction, he had a great way with words. Take, for instance, this excerpt from a letter to future publisher Sir Walter Scott. Irving was trying to publish his collection The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. "Sketch Book," in this sense, meant a collection of short writings that might be revisited and turned into longer works at a later time. Which, in essence, is the concept of this site.*

Sir Walter Scott offers Washington Irving an editorial position at a new political magazine. Irving declines with an oddly detailed letter.

The Sketch Book is Irving's most well-known work by virtue of being the collection that features "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." I would encourage you to read the whole thing if you have any interest in his writings. It's half tribute/half send-up of British and American culture through various festivities. The most common topic is Christmas parties, though picking out a connective thread other than subtle mockery is difficult.

I'll leave you with an hour and a half of entertainment for the morning. It's an audiobook version of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Just let the language wash over you.

*And now you know the rest of the story. Have I mentioned recently that I'm a period whore? I love me some 19th Century British literary action.

Any favorite works in the Irving canon? Amusing anecdotes? Sound off below. I'd love to hear them.

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