While Famous for “Sleepy Hollow,” Irving Considered His Biography of George Washington the “Crowning Effort” of his Great American Literary Career
Washington Irving’s fate–to be George Washington’s biographer–was sealed from the very beginning, when his mother named him after the Revolutionary War hero who would become the nation’s first president. However, it would take decades of work, war, and travel before he could focus on what would become his career capstone: his 5-volume Life of Washington.
Although not college educated like his older brothers, Washington Irving passed the bar and became a lawyer but enjoyed far more success writing satirical essays, as in the periodical Salmagundi in 1807-1808. His first book, A History of New York … by Diedrich Knickerbocker, a comic account of the Dutch founding of New York, appeared in 1809. A chance meeting with Sir Walter Scott encouraged him to write another book. The result was The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon (1819-1820), a collection of classic tales we still admire today, including: “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle.”
It is from “Sleepy Hollow” that Irving’s long-held association with the autumnal season and, and more specifically, Halloween, derives. Set in New York’s Hudson Valley, the gothic tale reintroduced American readers to the “headless horseman,” a character from European folklore that had also fueled a local story about a Hessian soldier who lost his head during the Revolutionary War and rose from the dead each night in search of it. In Irving’s telling, a schoolteacher named Ichabod Crane is bedeviled by the legend.
Although Irving wrote the ghost story while living abroad, the setting was one he knew well: a rural stretch north of New York City. He had lived there periodically throughout his life and in 1835 purchased an estate called Sunnyside, which today is a house museum run by Historic Hudson Valley (HHV) that celebrates Irving’s place in American literary history.
Washington Irving and George Washington
Washington Irving largely codified both the short story form and the art of biography in America. When he finally settled at Sunnyside, he turned his attention to his magnum opus, The Life of Washington. Coincidentally, HHV calls Irving the “Founding Father of American Literature.”
According to Catalina Hannan, the librarian at HHV, Irving had been compiling notes for the biography for 25 years before he got started in 1851. The resulting biography is “the only work that was truly written at Sunnyside,” she confirmed.
Irving’s biography of his namesake, George Washington, was not the first biography of the first president, but it was an ideal subject, and Irving felt compelled to do it. “The really interesting thing,” said Hannan, “is he has a lot of primary documents in his own research because he’s not that far removed from Washington’s time.” Many primary sources were at Irving’s fingertips. His completed biography, therefore, was “the next best thing to talking to Washington,” she added, which is why it has stood the test of time.
Irving’s Life of George Washington was published between 1855 and 1859. “It became one of the most important biographies of the nineteenth century, and it still serves as one of most famous depictions of Washington’s life,” writes James Beveridge at Mount Vernon’s Center for Digital History.
The two Irving manuscripts Raab recently acquired, long held in a private collection, come from this period of his life. The first, dated 1857, is the complete conclusion, signed and dated, to volume four.
Over these five handwritten pages sent to his printer, Irving states his goals for the work and assesses his achievement. “In the volumes here concluded, we have endeavored to narrate faithfully the career of Washington from childhood.” He hints that he may write one more volume, depending on “health and good spirits.”
This we know he did. Volume five appeared in 1859; he finished it shortly before he died later that year. In April, he wrote this final piece, in letter form, to be published as the volume’s preface.
Essentially, in this manuscript, Irving offers an authorial statement on the completed biography, this “labor of love,” as he put it, the highlight of his career.
“The present volume completes a work to which the author had long looked forward as the crowning effort of his literary career.”
Irving also used this preface to convey his gratitude to his reading public. This would be, he knew, his last published work. This remarkable manuscript, signed and complete as a section, serves as the summation of an incredibly prolific and important American author’s literary career.