The Unknown Washington Irving

Washington Irving was born on this date, April 3, 1783, during the week when New Yorkers learned that the British had finally ceased fighting. His first name was an overt act of hero worship on the part of his family. He would eventually write a multi–volume biography of that other Washington late in his life.

Most Americans know him as the author of two stories, one about a headless horseman and the other about a guy who falls asleep, but he was so much more than that. He edited a satiric magazine, Salmagundi, that made fun of the elite of NYC. He wrote histories, biographies, examinations of Islam, and many more comic stories besides the two you may have read. He was John Tyler’s Minister to Spain for four years, recommended for the post by Secretary of State Daniel Webster. Prior to that he had traveled to Spain in the 1820s, and during that trip he went to Granada and saw the magnificent Alhambra Palace, built by the Moors. From his fascination with that, he wrote a mix of stories, history, and myth called Tales of the Alhambra. He wrote works on British playwright and novelist Oliver Goldsmith and the Prophet Muhammad in back-to-back years. In other words, he was interested in almost everything he encountered. His work was popular in America and Europe, and Oliver Wendell Holmes said that his home, Sunnyside, was second only to Mt. Vernon as the “most cherished dwelling in our land.” Among his other accomplishments, he popularized the term “Gotham” for NYC and coined the phrase “the almighty dollar.” We ignore him at our peril.

By the way, that other story, the one about falling asleep? Far from being a cute children’s story, it is a sly commentary on the way things changed–and sometimes didn’t–during Rip Van Winkle’s long sleep, which corresponded with the American Revolution. Rip has escaped his own personal tyrant, Dame Van Winkle, so that’s good. The portrait of George III on a sign early in the story is replaced after the big sleep with one of George Washington–with the face left in place. Only the headgear and clothing have changed. Go figure.

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