Washington Irving was the first American author to achieve international fame. He was a key figure in the evolution of the short story as a genre, and specifically as an American genre. He was born in 1783 in New York City where he attended private school intending to become a lawyer. He soon lost interest in the law and began to contribute satirical essays and sketches to New York newspapers as early in 1802. A group of these pieces, written from 1802 - 1803 and collected under the title Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent, won Irving his earliest literary recognition.
Despite his growing interest in writing, he continued to study law. He served in several law offices and was eventually admitted to the bar in 1806. He traveled in Europe from 1804 to 1806. After he returned to New York in 1807, he gradually became a 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. In 1809, he published A History of New York under the pseudonym Dietrich Knickerbocker, identified in the volume as a Dutch-American scholar. The History 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: his History made fun of the reverence with which his contemporaries tended to treat the early Dutch colonists. During Irving’s lifetime, it was a great popular success. It brought Irving considerable fame and wealth. Today, it is considered among the first important contributions to American comic literature.
In 1815, Irving went to Liverpool, England, as a silent partner in his brothers' commercial firm. He became close friends with several important authors, including Thomas Campbell, Sir Walter Scott, and Thomas Moore. After a series of losses, the Irving brothers’ business went into bankruptcy in 1818. Irving decided to resume writing for a living.
Under the pen name Geoffrey Crayon, Irving
wrote the essays and short stories collected in the Sketch Book
(1819-1820), his most popular work, which was widely successful in both England
and the United States. The collection's two most famous stories, “Rip Van
Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” are both based on German folktales.
From 1826 –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). In 1832, after 17 years abroad, Irving returned to the United States where he was welcomed as an author 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 again went to Spain after he was appointed U.S. Minister to Madrid. He lived there until 1846, continuing his historical research and writing while also fulfilling his diplomatic duties. He returned to the United States 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 well-worth visiting.
Despite his reputation as one of the foremost figures in American literature, Irving was always deeply ambivalent about the culture of the United States. This can be read in his biography: he spent much of his adult life living abroad. His work defines himself as an outsider: by satirizing important historical figures and their exalted places in the imaginations of his contemporaries, he set himself apart from the mainstream, claiming a superior understanding and a privileged position from which he could comment on the vagaries of American culture. His satirical works, like “Rip Van Winkle”, make fun of the heroic standing of early figures in the country’s history. Indeed, Irving’s work satirizes nearly every segment of American culture, from its peasants to its literary scions to its “high society.” The author-reader relationship in Irving’s work is therefore somewhat adversarial: he satirizes the beliefs many of his readers held dear.