On the evening of April 3, 1783 — the same week New Yorkers learned of the British ceasefire that effectively ended the American Revolution — Washington Irving was born on William Street in Manhattan. (If you’re interested in seeing where he was born . . . well, sorry. There’s a Duane Reade pharmacy on the site today. Go enjoy Sunnyside instead.) Today marks his 226th birthday.
Irving was a not a great celebrater of his birthday — or, at least, he doesn’t indicate as much in his personal letters and journals. Nonetheless, there were times in his life when important events seemed to fortuitously fall on April 3.
For example, it was on April 3, 1830 — Irving’s 47th birthday — that Irving learned that the Royal Society of Literature, citing his work on The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus and Chronicles of the Conquest of Granada, had chosen to award him one of its Gold Medals for “Literary works of eminent merit, or of important Literary Discoveries.”
Three years later, on April 3, 1833, the 50-year-old Irving learned, to his great amusement, that he had been awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree by Harvard. Irving — who could probably fairly vie for the title of New York’s worst attorney ever — was delighted at the irony. “To merit such rewards from my country is the dearest object of my ambition,” Irving wrote to Harvard president Josiah Quincy, “but, conscious as I am of my imperfections, I cannot but feel that my Countrymen are continually overpaying me.”
In 1845, while serving as U.S. Minister to Spain — an appointment cheerily and astutely conveyed upon him by President John Tyler — Irving made a special note of his 62nd birthday. “I reccollect the time when I did not wish to live to such an age,” he wrote reflectively, “thinking it must be attended with infirmity, apathy of feeling; peevishness of temper, and all the other ills which conspire to ‘render age unlovely.’ ”
Yet, as he wrote to his sister Sarah that same afternoon, with the warm April sunshine streaming into his Spanish salon, he was feeling good, even optimistic:
“Here my Sixty second birthday finds me in fine health; in the full enjoyment of all my faculties; with sensibilities still fresh, and in such buxom activity, that, on my return home yesterday from the Prado, I caught myself bounding up stairs, three steps at a time, to the astonishment of the porter; and checked myself, reccollecting that it was not the pace befitting a Minister and a man of my years.”
The last birthday Irving would celebrate — his 76th, on April 3, 1859 — was a gray, rainy Sunday. As greetings and bouquets arrived at Sunnyside—“beautiful flowers to a withered old man!” he said—Washington and his nephew Pierre Munroe Irving sorted through a number of unpublished manuscripts, mostly Spanish tales, still lying at the bottom of a desk drawer. Washington let them be; he was done writing. “Henceforth,” he vowed, “I give up all further tasking of the pen.”
He was as good as his word, content to live out his remaining days at Sunnyside in the company of friends and family — but always taking to heart his own words of wisdom: “Whenever a man’s friends begin to compliment him about looking young, he may be sure that they think he is growing old.”