Category Archives: Washington Irving

And Laying His Finger Aside of His Nose…

“And the sage Oloffe dreamed a dream–and lo, the good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings yearly presents to children, and he descended hard by where the heroes of Communipaw had made their late repast. And he lit his pipe by the fire, and sat himself down and smoked . . . And when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe, he twisted it in his hat-band, and laying his finger beside his nose, gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very signifcant look, then mounting his wagon, he returned over the tree-tops and disappeared.”

– Washington Irving
A History of New York (1812 edition)
Book II, Chapter V

 

Home Improvements

Here’s an interesting piece of news: Abbotsford — the home of the Scottish novelist, poet and Washington Irving mentor Sir Walter Scott — is receiving a nearly ten million pound makeover, courtesy of Scotland’s Heritage Lottery Fund, to turn it into a major cultural center.

I’m all for it, though I have an admittedly biased angle:  Abbotsford was an important place to Washington Irving.  In the summer of 1817, Irving — one of  American literature’s great gatecrashers and an enormous fan of Scott — presented himself, and a charmingly mooched letter of introduction, unannounced at Scott’s front gate. As he was waiting to see whether he would be received, here came Scott — and Irving never forgot his first glimpse of the Scotsman, shuffling up the hill from Abbotsford:

He was tall, and of a large and powerful frame. His dress was simple, almost rustic. An old shooting coat, with a dog whistle at the buttonhole, brown linen pantaloons, stout shoes that tied at the ankles, and a white hat that had evidently seen service. He came limping up the gravel walk, aiding himself by a stout walking-staff, but moving rapidly and with vigor.

Sir Walter Scott

Scott was an admirer of Irving’s first book, A History of New York, and eagerly welcomed the 34-year-old American.  Scott was in the midst of yet another round of improvements and renovations to the castle, which he had initially erected as just a small villa in 1812, and Irving — always an early riser — would awaken each morning to find Scott already up and about and shouting orders at his carpenters in his distinctive Scotch burr. 

Overt the next few days, Scott hosted Irving at his family table, showed Irving his novel Rob Roy — still only in printers proofs that Scott was reading and correcting — and steered him around the property and surrounding countryside. “Every night I returned with my mind filled with delightful recollections of the day,” Irving wrote, “and every morning I rose with the certainty of new enjoyment.”

And then there’s one of my favorite Irving-Scott moments: caught in a rainstorm one afternoon, Scott wrapped his tartan around himself, then pulled Irving into a thicket to get out of the rain.  Motioning for Irving to sit beside him, Scott draped the tartan over Irving’s shoulders, literally taking his young admirer under his wing — a gesture Irving never forgot.

When Irving left Abbotsford three days later, Scott shook his hand warmly. “I will not say farewell, for it is always a painful word,” Scott said. “But I will say, come again . . . come when you please, you will always find Abbotsford open to you, and a hearty welcome.”

“The days thus spent I shall ever look back to as among the very happiest of my life,” Irving wrote later.  And when it came time to build his own home, Irving remembered Abbotsford, incorporating small architectural nods to Scott’s home into Sunnyside — but more importantly, Irving remembered his reception at Abbotsford, and would ensure that Sunnyside would always be as warm and welcoming.

I’m glad  to hear that Scotland’s Heritage Lottery Fund is bringing this treasure back to its former glory — and I look forward to visiting it. For more information on Abbotsford, click here.

Go Read It!

Every Monday morning, the Library of America delivers to inboxes everywhere the “Story of the Week” — a short story by one of the countless American authors published under its classy imprint.  This week, it’s Washington Irving’s tale “The Devil and Tom Walker” from his 1824 work Tales of a Traveller.  Click here to read it in its entirety.  And if you’re not presently subscribing to the Library of America’s “Story of the Week,” you can sign up for free right here.  Go get it.

Irving in the Christian Science Monitor

I was delighted to see my book Washington Irving: An American Original win one of the Christian Science Monitor‘s “Reader’s Picks”, a feature where Monitor readers can share their favorite books.   My thanks to Joyce Miller Bean, of Evanston, Illinois, for her really kind words.  I appreciate it.

You can see Irving over on the Monitor’s website right here.

A (Not So) Grim, Grinning Ghost?

Here’s a fun story, courtesy of Tarrytown-Sleepy Hollow Patch, about a ghost sighting at Sunnyside, Washington Irving’s Tarrytown home.

While visiting Sunnyside in late June, 14-year-old aspiring writer Rachel Lambert took a number of photos of the exterior of the house, and took a quick shot of Irving’s upstairs bedroom window.  Looking at the photo later on her computer, she believes she caught a peek of Irving through the window, hunched over writing.  Here’s a video Rachel posted on YouTube.  See for yourself:

Irving once remarked that if he were to return as a ghost, he would likely haunt his beloved Sunnyside — and he also assured family and friends that they’d have nothing to fear, as he’d be a pleasant ghost. My pal Rob Schweitzer at Historic Hudson Valley noted that there have been no reports of paranormal activity at Sunnyside — or at least not yet. I tend to agree that the photo is a stretch, but it’s still fun to speculate. And if an Irving sighting encourages Miss Lambert to pursue a career as a writer, then I’d say that Washington Irving — that spinner of ghostly yarns, and a master of hoaxes — would approve of all the chatter and speculation.

Celebrate to Wake the Dead!

This Saturday, April 3, not only marks the 227th birthday of Washington Irving, but it’s also the date of the 160th anniversary celebration of Irving’s burial place, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, in Sleepy Hollow, New York.

Things get started at 11:00 a.m., with plenty of birthday cake and refreshments, tours of the cemetery, and — if the rumors hold true — maybe even a rare daytime appearance by a certain headless Hessian soldier on horseback.  You’ve been warned.

I’m admittedly biased, but I think it’s a beautiful place — full of hills and nooks and meandering paths, with just enough creakiness to make it feel somewhat ancient and appropriately spooky.  There are really impressive monuments to local Revolutionary and Civil War soldiers — and, yeah, there are some really impressive people buried there, too. Besides Washington Irving, look for Andrew Carnegie, Francis Church — who wrote the famous “Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus” editorial for the New York Sun — Samuel Gompers, Walter Chrysler, and cosmetics queen Elizabeth Arden. 

Irving himself had a hand in the naming of the cemetery, which town planners — in a bit of uninspired pique —  had originally called “Tarrytown Cemetery.”  In a May 1849 letter to Gaylord Clark, his editor at Knickerbocker Magazine, Irving pooh-poohed that name, calling it a “blunder.”  Here’s Irving, in a typically entertaining letter to his editor:

I send you herewith a plan of a rural cemetery projected by some of the worthies of Tarrytown, on the woody hills adjacent to the Sleepy Hollow Church.  I have no pecuniary interest in it, yet I hope it may succeed, as it will keep that beautiful and umbrageous neighborhood sacred from the anti-poetical and all-leveling axe. Besides, I trust that I shall one day lay my bones there. The projectors are plain matter-of-fact men, but are already, I believe, aware of the blunder which they have committed in naming it the “Tarrytown” instead of the “Sleepy Hollow” Cemetery. The latter name would have been enough of itself to secure the patronage of all desirous of sleeping quietly in their graves. I beg you to correct this oversight should you, as I trust you will, think proper to notice this sepulchural enterprise.

Clark did, in fact, in the June 1849 issue of Knickerbocker, throw in a casual plug for “Sleepy Hollow Cemetery,” calling it a “beautiful” and “convenient” place.  While the cemetery wouldn’t be officially renamed until after Irving’s death, for the most part, locals have nearly always referred to it as Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

And as he predicted, Irving did indeed lay his bones there, under an unassuming tombstone, in a gravesite he had carefully chosen next to his mother.  It may take a bit of tromping around to find the Irving Family Plot — there are no stone figures or busts to point the way, so look for the wrought-iron railing around the site, right on the edge of a hill sloping down toward the Old Dutch Church. 

I can’t make it this weekend, but if you go, tell Mr. Irving I said hello.   If you’re interested in going, more information can be found right here.

Irving the Ivy Leaguer. Sort Of.

My pal Rob Schweitzer over at Historic Hudson Valley snuck this up on the HVBlog a while back, and I only just caught it:  a photo of Washington Irving’s 1832 honorary law degree from Harvard University. Very nice.  And not a bad accomplishment for someone who might fairly be considered a candidate for New York’s Worst Attorney — after all, Irving allegedly abandoned the only client he ever had!

Nice find, Rob.

The Devil You Say!

Washington Irving — and “The Devil and Tom Walker” — causes heartburn in an Illinois classroom.

(For your reference, here’s Irving’s “The Devil and Tom Walker,” which first appeared in his 1824 book Tales of a Traveller. Go get it.)

Trip Report, Part 2: Hi, Society!

When I last left you — at least for the purposes of this particular narrative — I was in the lobby of the Roosevelt hotel, monitoring text messages from Barb and Madi as they made their way up from Maryland on the train.  They were running only slightly behind schedule (as I said earlier, “on time” for the Northeast Regional seems to mean about ten minutes late), so I arrived in plenty of time to meet them, even after walking the mile or so to Penn Station.  A short cab ride back to the hotel (when did New York cabs start taking debit cards? Brilliant) and we went into a bit of decompression mode until it was time to leave for the St. Nicholas Society Event at 6:30.

The Maxfield Parrish bulletin board at the Coffee House Club.

The dinner was being held at the Coffee House Club over on West 44th, only a block or so from the hotel, and an easy walk in the brisk February air.  The Coffee House Club is considered a private New York club, but it’s got  an irreverent, tongue-in-cheek outlook that I love. (Its Constitution consists of a half-dozen “commandments”: “No officers, no charge accounts, no liveries, no tips, no set speeches, no rules.”)  It’s also a comfortably unassuming place, just two large rooms — one a reception area, the other a cozy dining hall.

Just inside the door, I met Jill Spiller, the Executive Director of the St. Nicholas Society, who worked hard over the past few months leading up to the evening to take good care of me. True to form, she escorted us into the reception room and put off to one side a nice gift from the St. Nicolas Society, a set of glasses etched with their logo.  Very nice.

The reception was a very classy affair, yet also laid back — St. Nicholas members are genuinely interested in telling and listening to stories, and a well-told story will usually cause an eruption of laughter.  And people had so many different interests that moving from one small circle to another was like entering a live encyclopedia.  Over here, you could talk about astronauts and one man’s collection of space memorabilia.  In this corner, it was about children’s songs.  Over here, people chatted about medicine.  I even found one gentleman who had in his private collection one of my Holy Grails of Washington Irving portraits: a photograph of a painting of Irving’s best friend, Henry Brevoort.  I had scoured the planet looking for a portrait of Brevoort back when I was working on Irving and had no luck — and now here was someone who had one.  It’s wonderful when things like that happen.

After an hour or so at the reception (the hosts had done a good job taking care of Madi, ensuring there was plenty of teen-friendly food and drink), we were gently herded into the main dining hall.  The President of the St. Nicholas Society, Dr. Billick — who is class and charm personified — had gone to great lengths to seat Madi on his left, with me on his right, and Barb right across from us at the horseshoe of tables.  I smiled as Dr. Billick made certain to engage Madi in conversation throughout the meal, offering up history questions, chatting about the European Union (!) and generally making her feel at ease as the only young person in the room.  Not that Madi can’t hold her own in almost any conversation (at one point, someone came up to me, laughing, and said, “After talking with your daughter, I asked her  what she was majoring in.  She told me ‘eighth grade’!”), but it was a lovely gesture on his part, and I so appreciated his effort.

We were still enjoying our dinners when it was time to conduct some business.  Two new members of the St. Nicholas Society were introduced and initiated to much applause.  I was then introduced by longtime member (and fellow New Mexican!) Mr. Hilliard, with Dr. Billick at his side, who stepped to the mike and presented me with their award.

I promised everyone who wrote to me with their good wishes that I would put up a picture of the medal.  Here it is — and it’s a beauty:

I spoke for about twenty minutes, telling one of my all-time favorite Irving stories: the hoax that Irving pulled off to launch his mock history of New York City, and the Dutch reaction to it (someone threatened to horsewhip him). Given the St. Nicholas Society’s mission to preserve and perpetuate New York’s history, I thought such a talk would be appropriate — and I was delighted that it went over so well.  I took questions for about twenty more minutes, then spent the rest of the evening signing books, talking with members, and generally having a terrific time. It was one of the nicest evenings I’ve ever had — and having Barb and Madi there with me to share in it made it that much more special.

It was cold as we stepped out onto 44th for the walk back to our hotel — we had already changed our travel plans to leave early the next morning, in hopes of getting back to Maryland in front of the advancing snowstorm — but we walked slowly, trying to make the evening last even longer.  Our thanks to the St. Nicholas Society for such a remarkable night.

The One in Which I Win An Award…

I am thrilled to announce that I have been elected to receive the Washington Irving Medal for Literary Excellence from the St. Nicholas Society of New York.  I’ll be receiving the medal at the organization’s Winter Stated Meeting in New York in early February.

It’s a genuine honor to receive this award — past recipients include David McCullough and Ron Chernow — and the fact that the organization, and the award itself, are affiliated with Washington Irving makes it that much more special for me.   The St. Nicholas Society of New York is an organization Irving himself helped found back in 1835 to commemorate the history and heritage of New York.  (Irving, in fact, can be considered one of New York’s first historians, celebrating his home town’s Dutch heritage in a rollicking, tongue-in-cheek manner in A History of New York in 1809.)

As their most literary of founders, then, Irving’s name appears on their Medal for Literary Excellence — but  writing about Irving is not a requirement for the award! David McCullough won it for Truman in 1993, Ron Chernow received it for Alexander Hamilton in 2005, while Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace got it in 2000 for Gotham. That’s heady company indeed, and I’m humbled beyond words to have my name appear alongside any one of theirs.

My deepest thanks to the St. Nicholas Society of New York for this wonderful award.