Irving, Washington (1783-1859), American writer, the first American author to achieve international renown, who created the fictional characters Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane. The critical acceptance and enduring popularity of Irving's tales involving these characters proved the effectiveness of the short story as an American literary form.
Born in New York City, Irving studied law at private schools. After serving in several law offices and traveling in Europe for his health from 1804 to 1806, he was eventually admitted to the bar in 1806. His interest in the law was neither deep nor long-lasting, however, and Irving began to contribute satirical essays and sketches to New York newspapers as early as 1802. A group of these pieces, written from 1802 to 1803 and collected under the title Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent., won Irving his earliest literary recognition. From 1807 to 1808 he was the leading figure in a social group that included his brothers William Irving and Peter Irving and William's brother-in-law James Kirke Paulding; together they wrote Salmagundi, or, the Whim-Whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq., and Others, a series of satirical essays and poems on New York society. Irving's contributions to this miscellany established his reputation as an essayist and wit, and this reputation was enhanced by his next work, A History of New York (1809), ostensibly written by Irving's famous comic creation, the Dutch-American scholar Diedrich Knickerbocker. The work is a satirical account of New York State during the period of Dutch occupation (1609-1664); Irving's mocking tone and comical descriptions of early American life counterbalanced the nationalism prevalent in much American writing of the time. Generally considered the first important contribution to American comic literature, and a great popular success from the start, the work brought Irving considerable fame and financial reward.
In 1815 Irving went to Liverpool, England, as a silent partner in his brothers' commercial firm. When, after a series of losses, the business went into bankruptcy in 1818, Irving returned to writing for a living. In England he became the intimate friend of several leading men of letters, including Thomas Campbell, Sir Walter Scott, and Thomas Moore. Under the pen name of Geoffrey Crayon, Irving wrote the essays and short stories collected in the Sketch Book (1819-1820), his most popular work, which was widely acclaimed in both England and the United States for its geniality, grace, and humor. The collection's two most famous stories, both based on German folktales, are "Rip Van Winkle," about a man who falls asleep in the woods for twenty years, and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," about a schoolteacher's encounter with a legendary headless horseman. Set in rural New York, these tales are considered classics in American literature.
From 1826 until 1829 Irving was a member of the staff of the United States legation in Madrid. During this period and after his return to England, he wrote several historical works, the most popular of which was the History of Christopher Columbus (1828). Another well-known work of this period was The Alhambra (1832), a series of sketches and stories based on Irving's residence in 1829 in an ancient Moorish palace at Granada, Spain. In 1832, after an absence that lasted 17 years, he returned to the United States, where he was welcomed as a figure of international importance. Over the next few years Irving traveled to the American West and wrote several books using the West as their setting. These works include A Tour on the Prairies (1835), Astoria (1836), and The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, U.S.A. (1837).
In 1842 Irving was appointed U.S. minister to Madrid, where he lived until 1846, continuing his historical research and writing. He returned to the United States again in 1846 and settled at Sunnyside, his country home near Tarrytown, New York, where he lived until his death. (Sunnyside is now a historic house and museum.) Irving's popular but elegant style, based on the styles of the British writers Joseph Addison and Oliver Goldsmith, and the ease and picturesque fancy of his best work attracted an international audience. To a certain extent his romantic attachment to Europe resulted in a thinness and overrefinement of material. Much of his work deals directly with English life and customs, and he never attempted to come to terms with the democratic American life of