Washington Irving: Biography, Works, and Style
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- 0:10 Biography
- 1:42 Irving's Works
- 3:11 Literary Style
- 4:49 Lesson Summary
This video introduces Washington Irving, the father of American literature. Through his works, like 'Rip Van Winkle' and 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,' Irving developed a sophisticated yet satirical style while helping establish the American identity.
Washington Irving was the first American author who found success both in Europe and in America. He's actually considered the father of American literature because it is his writing that began shaping the American identity.
Washington Irving was born April 3, 1783. He grew up in Manhattan, New York and was a pretty goofy, adventurous kid who liked to go wandering and dreamed of the day when he could start traveling. This frustrated his parents a bit because as he got older, he'd often skip class to attend plays.
When Irving was around the age of 15, yellow fever had broken out in Manhattan, so his parents sent him away with some friends in Tarrytown, New York. Tarrytown and the near-by village of Sleepy Hollow are, of course, where his later stories are set. It was during this time too that he first saw the Catskill Mountains, which set the scene for his character Rip Van Winkle's 20-year sleep.
At the age of 17, his father sent Washington to Europe to help with the family business, which he was not real keen on and finds he can't save once he's there. But even though his business endeavors there are a bit disheartening, he does get involved with the literary scene there and befriends Sir Walter Scott. Sir Walter Scott gives him some advice about writing. Scott tells him to begin reading the German Romantic authors and to consider folklore and legends for some inspiration. Washington, of course, takes this advice, and it works well for him. He begins to set himself apart from the other writers in America at that time.
One of the things you have to remember is that Washington Irving had a great sense of humor, which transcended into his writings. Rather than use a tired, old narrator to tell his stories, he creates personas and uses pseudonyms, or fake names, to publish his stories.
One of his early pseudonyms was Diedrich Knickerbocker, which he used as the author of a book he wrote called A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty. This was a political satire, a piece of writing that uses irony and sarcasm to show flaws in something. Before he published this piece, Irving actually posted in the newspaper that a man named Diedrich Knickerbocker had gone missing from a hotel. This went on for a while before Irving then posted, as the landlord of the hotel, that Knickerbocker had left some papers behind that would be published as payment for rent that Knickerbocker had not paid. By the time the piece was actually published, people were already interested and Irving became a quick success.
Another pseudonym Irving used was Geoffrey Crayon. Geoffrey Crayon is the supposed author of a collection of stories under the title The Sketch Book. These stories, which were greatly influenced by German folk tales, included 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow' and 'Rip Van Winkle,' two of the stories he is best known for. He also published an additional set of stories using the Crayon pseudonym called Tales of a Traveler, which included the short story 'The Devil and Tom Walker' - another piece heavily influenced by the German legends.
In spite of having been greatly influenced by European writing, especially the German legends, Irving's style is all his own. Irving's use of imagery - using words to create a picture in the reader's mind to create long descriptions of the American landscape - set his work apart from those of the European writers. It's through those descriptions that the Hudson Valley really comes to life.
Irving was also known to have introduced the idea of the modern short story to the United States. Remember, prior to this period, people were writing instructional, political documents and lots of religious-based poetry. Irving changes that up by writing fictional stories.
He has a unique voice. His language is pretty stuffy. His words are sophisticated, so is his sentence structure is kind of like what we saw in early American sermons and political documents. But he is also mocking that preachy sound, which adds humor to his stories. Through the use of irony, which is sort of saying the opposite of what you really mean; he is able to poke fun at his characters and their situations.
In 'Rip Van Winkle,' he describes Dame Van Winkle, saying 'a termagant wife may, therefore, in some respects, be considered a tolerable blessing; and if so, Rip Van Winkle was thrice blessed.' So using his lofty language, he's literally saying that if an abusive wife is good for a person, then Rip was a lucky man. But of course, no one wants that. What he's really saying is that poor Rip was stuck with this mean, old lady for a wife. Through the use of irony and sarcasm, he's able to say the opposite of what he's wanting the reader to know.
So to wrap it up, Washington Irving is known as the father of American literature. Even though he was influenced by European writers - and especially German folklore and legends - he created a uniquely American voice. One that was both lofty and mocking. He used imagery to help his readers experience the Hudson Valley landscape. His use of pseudonyms adds to his sort of fanciful persona, and it's under the name Diedrich Knickerbocker that he becomes established as a satirical writer in New York. But it's using the pseudonym Geoffery Crayon that he publishes The Sketch Book, which contains his most well-known stories, 'Rip Van Winkle' and 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.' These short stories begin to make this form of writing popular in America.
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