Literature

Five of the Best Stories and Works by Washington Irving

Washington Irving (1783-1859) is often known as ‘the father of American literature’. Named in honour of the (future) first US President, Irving has had a huge influence on American writers for two centuries, and has also been responsible (indirectly) for the name of the knickerbocker glory dessert and, even, the word ‘knickers’ (both words come from Irving’s fictional creator, Diedrich Knickerbocker).

Although he’s known for two stories above all others, Washington Irving wrote a number of entertaining, not to mention influential, stories and other works. Below, we pick five of his very best.

1. ‘Rip van Winkle’.

On waking, he found himself on the green knoll whence he had first seen the old man of the glen. He rubbed his eyes—it was a bright sunny morning. The birds were hopping and twittering among the bushes, and the eagle was wheeling aloft, and breasting the pure mountain breeze. ‘Surely,’ thought Rip, ‘I have not slept here all night.’ He recalled the occurrences before he fell asleep …

This 1819 story and the next two below both appeared in Irving’s collection The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. and remain his best-known works. ‘Rip Van Winkle’ has become a byword for the idea of falling asleep and waking up to find the familiar world around us has changed. But what is less well-known, especially outside of America perhaps, is the specific detail of this most iconic of American stories.

The story is about its title character’s experience when he goes for a walk up the Catskill Mountains, meets a mysterious man with a grey beard, drinks too much, and falls asleep … for twenty years. When he wakes up, he finds that his home and his neighbours have changed, and nobody seems to remember him …

We have analysed this classic story here.

2. ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’.

From the listless repose of the place, and the peculiar character of its inhabitants, who are descendants from the original Dutch settlers, this sequestered glen has long been known by name of Sleepy Hollow … A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere …

Memorably filmed by Tim Burton in a 1999 adaptation that changed a number of details of Irving’s original story, this tale is, along with ‘Rip Van Winkle’, Irving’s best-known work, and was first published in 1820.

A Gothic story, ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ is about a secluded grove (the ‘Sleepy Hollow’ of the title) in a fictional New York town, which is reportedly full of ghosts – most famously, a spectral figure known as the Headless Horseman. However, the protagonist of this American folk tale is Ichabod Crane, a schoolmaster, who has designs on a local girl whom he wishes to marry so he can acquire her father’s wealth.

These two elements – the ‘courtship plot’ and the ghostly atmosphere of Sleepy Hollow – come together in a story shot through with peculiarly American detail, making it the New World’s answer to the European tales of the Brothers Grimm. Indeed, Irving was influenced by German folk tales for both this and ‘Rip Van Winkle’, and he actually wrote the story while living in Birmingham, England.

3. ‘The Spectre Bridegroom’.

In the warm-hearted moment of recognition the young friends related all their past adventures and fortunes, and the count gave the whole history of his intended nuptials with a young lady whom he had never seen, but of whose charms he had received the most enrapturing descriptions …

This is another Gothic tale, and another story from The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., although it isn’t as famous as either of the two tales mentioned above.

In the story, a cavalier tries to deliver the message to a baron that his daughter’s groom has been killed, but in the process of doing so, he falls in love with the bride.

4. A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus.

Popularly known as the Life of Columbus, this 1828 book is considered the first work of US historical non-fiction. However, not all of it was strictly accurate: Irving’s book is thought to have cemented the myth that medieval people thought the world was flat, whereas Columbus believed it was round.

Indeed, the main bone of contention in the 1490s – at the time of Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of the New World – was more the size, rather than the shape of the world (which everyone agreed wasn’t flat – at least everyone with a basic education).

5. ‘Christmas Eve’.

As we approached the house we heard the sound of music, and now and then a burst of laughter from one end of the building. This, Bracebridge said, must proceed from the servants’ hall, where a great deal of revelry was permitted, and even encouraged, by the squire throughout the twelve days of Christmas, provided everything was done conformably to ancient usage. Here were kept up the old games of hoodman blind, shoe the wild mare, hot cockles, steal the white loaf, bob apple, and snap dragon; the Yule-clog and Christmas candle were regularly burnt, and the mistletoe with its white berries hung up, to the imminent peril of all the pretty housemaids …

Before Charles Dickens became the literary laureate of Christmas, Washington Irving was introducing American readers to a whole host of now ubiquitous Christmas traditions, including Christmas carols on people’s doorsteps, mistletoe, and the famous Yule log – traditions which Irving had to explain in footnotes, so unfamiliar were they to his original readers in 1820.

This story, from another book Irving wrote while in England, is worth reading not least because it offers such an early example of all of these Christmas features in one story.

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