When I was a child, I found great solace in the literature of the past. Books like RIP VAN WINKLE and THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW held great fascination for my imaginative young mind. The beauty of reading a well written story is that the reader can draw his own conclusions. He can create the necessary imagery connected with the events and become part of the actual tale.
Washington Irving was born on this day in 1783. His parent were Scottish English immigrants, living now in Manhattan, New York. Irving was the last of 11 children and was named for then president George Washington. He actually met President when he was only nine years old – a memory that stayed with him for his entire life.
He was not an ardent student, but preferred to skip school and partake in various adventures and drama. When he was 14 his family sent him to live with his friend James Kirke Paulding in Tarrytown, New York. It was there that Irving became familiar with the nearby town of Sleepy Hollow, with its quaint Dutch customs and local ghost stories. Is it any wonder that a teenaged mind could expound on those local tales to spin his own remarkable work? The travels during his teen aged years, consisted of visits through the Catskill Mountains, which was the setting for RIP VAN WINKLE.
From 1804-1806 he toured Europe. Irving was not a good student and barely passed the bar in 1806. He began actively socializing with a group of literate young men he dubbed “The Lads of Kilkenny.” Preferring to follow his creative impulses rather than a career in law, Irving teamed with friend James Kirke Paulding and oldest brother William to publish Salamagundi, a periodical of humorous essays. In a similar vein, he penned the History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker (1809), a satirical work that earned the writer widespread notoriety.
In 1815 he returned to Europe to help his brother with a family business. He became Minister to Spain, appointed by President Tyler. Thinking the position would allow him free time to write, was not the case. Spain was in a state of political turmoil. His thoughts on this period of time –
” I am wearied and at times heartsick of the wretched politics of this country. . . . The last ten or twelve years of my life, passed among sordid speculators in the United States, and political adventurers in Spain, has shewn me so much of the dark side of human nature, that I begin to have painful doubts of my fellow man; and look back with regret to the confiding period of my literary career, when, poor as a rat, but rich in dreams, I beheld the world through the medium of my imagination and was apt to believe men as good as I wished them to be.”
Considered perhaps the first true American writer, Irving sought to nurture his successors and pushed for stronger laws to protect writers from copyright infringement. The terminology of his works seeped into American popular culture, with monikers such as “knickerbocker” and “Gotham” becoming affiliated with New York City. Thankfully, his creative inspiration led to many great reads and his contributions to the literary world are priceless.
Think I’ll spend this snowy spring day, curled up with a good book.
Little minds are tamed and subdued by misfortune; but great minds rise above them. Washington Irving