When I mention the name Washington Irving (1783-1859), chances are audiences either (1) think I’m talking about a basketball player, (2) don’t know who he is, or (3) know generally who he is, but can’t name a thing he’s written.
Yet, two of his most famous stories, “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle” — both ripped from a longer work that most readers can’t name — are so ingrained in our American DNA that you can probably summarize the plot of each even if you’ve never read it.
In his time, though, Irving was one of the most famous men in the world. If he were alive today, he’d regularly be featured in gossip magazines—for he was famous not just for his work, but for his personality and for the company he kept. His life would have been the stuff of an E! True Hollywood Story – for Irving had a knack for going to the most fashionable parties and having the most fashionable friends. And he always seemed to be in the middle of some of the most extraordinary, world-changing events.
He was one of our first—if not the first—genuine American superstars. He had movie star good looks, and was a first rate conversationalist. His name alone was enough to sell books and generate press. Politicians fell over themselves to be associated with him. Fans mobbed him, and flooded his home with requests for his autograph or a scrap of his blotting paper. His image was in constant demand. He worked hard to protect his private life, and was fiercely protective of his public reputation. He was, in short, everything we still expect of our celebrities today – but even in today’s celeb-ucentric culture, there still really isn’t anyone quite like him.
But Washington Irving made it all look so easy. The trappings of fame have become such an accepted part of our view of movie stars—and I would argue that books were the movies of the 19th century, and its writers were the equivalent of movie stars—that we have all forgotten that Washington Irving did it all first.
Even in his own time, people seemed to forget that Irving was an innovator. Edgar Allan Poe once privately admitted that he considered Irving “much overrated.” “A nice distinction might be drawn,” Poe said, “between his just and surreptitious and adventitious reputation—between what is due to the pioneer solely, and what to the writer.”
What skeptics like Poe didn’t seem to appreciate was that going first meant going it alone. Irving had no role models for how one manages a reputation, or deals with the press. Irving had to fend for himself, and improvise.
With that in mind, then, let’s look at how Washington Irving went about improvising his most unique American life—a Who’s Who of the best 19th century art, literature, and politics had to offer—and, I think you’ll agree, what a life it is.
Other Pages of Interest: