5. American (1832-1842)

On April 11, 1832, after 17 years living abroad, Washington Irving boarded the packet ship Havre bound for New York. A hero’s welcome greeted his arrival, and invitations poured in from around the country. Irving refused them all, except for an official dinner in his honor in New York in May, and dinner at the White House with President Jackson and his friend from the American legation in London, Martin Van Buren, who would stand for Vice President in the next election.

In September 1832, Irving accompanied the U.S. Commissioner on Indian Affairs, Henry Ellsworth, deep into the heart of Indian Territory, spending several months eating skunk, watching buffalo hunts, and crossing roaring rivers on horseback. Irving, now 49 years old, remained a remarkably hardy traveler.

He continued to be surprised by his own fame. “Where I go, too,” he told his brother, “I am received with a cordiality, I may say an affection, that keeps my heart full and running over.” Financially, he was secure, though losses from some bad investments made him nervous enough that he began to write A Tour on the Prairies, relating his recent travels on the frontier. He was also approached by fur magnate John Jacob Astor, who pressured Irving to write a history of the fur trade in the American Northwest.

Irving worked regularly over the next several years, with new books, sketches and magazine articles appearing continuously from 1835 until 1841. First up was A Tour on the Prairies, which was published—along with the shorter works Abbotsford and Newstead Abbey and Legends of the Conquest of Spain—in a collection of three elegant volumes under the larger title The Crayon Miscellany. The book was another popular success for Irving, but more significantly, it was the first book written and published by Irving in the United States since A History of New York in 1809.

For his homecoming effort, Irving received $4,500, about $94,000 today. He also sold the American rights to all of his previous works for an annual stipend of $1,150 (about $23,000 today) for seven years. The money would be put to good and immediate use, for he had purchased a house—a “neglected cottage,” he accurately called it. The home, soon to be named “Sunnyside,” would be the very definition of fixer upper for the next several years.

With the help of nephew Pierre M. Irving, Irving made quick progress on Astor’s project—which Irving titled Astoria—shipping the book off to print in February 1836. The profits from the book were poured back into improvements at Sunnyside, as were the returns from another successful book on an American theme, Captain Bonneville, USA.

He remained a political asset, the celebrity every politician wanted to be associated with. He turned down a nomination to run for Mayor of New York, and refused President Van Buren’s offer to serve as Secretary of Navy. On the literary front, writers sought his advice and approval. Charles Dickens wrote him an admiring fan letter, and Edgar Allan Poe sought his comments on both “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “William Wilson.”

With Sunnyside continuing to drain his finances, Irving agreed to become a regular contributor to Knickerbocker magazine, a literary coup for its editors, though Irving accepted the post mostly for the $2,000 annual salary it promised.

A petty disagreement with Van Buren led him to support the Whigs and the Harrison/Tyler ticket in the 1840 election. It turned out to be a good political move, for in 1842, at the recommendation of Secretary of State Daniel Webster, a grateful President John Tyler formally appointed Washington Irving as Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of Spain.

Professional (1826-1832) | American (1832-1842) | Minister (1842-1846)

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