3. Celebrity (1817-1825)

The frontispiece to the first American edition of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.

The frontispiece to the first American edition of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.

In the spring of 1819, Irving sent to his brother Ebenezer in New York a set of essays that he asked be published as The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gentleman. The first installment, containing “Rip Van Winkle,” was an enormous success, and the rest of the work, published in seven installments (the sixth of which would mark the appearance of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”) would be equally as successful in both the United States and England. The accolades rolled in—Lord Byron himself declared “Crayon is good!”—and Irving’s reputation soared. For the next two years, Irving led an active social life in Paris and England, where he was often feted as an anomaly of literature: an upstart American who dared to write English well.

Irving was anxious to follow up on the success of The Sketch Book, and published his next book, Bracebridge Hall, in 1822. While the prose never reached the heights of The Sketch Book, it was nonetheless well-received, and Irving remarked that he had been “killed with kindness” by adoring fans and critics.

Bracebridge behind him, writer’s block set in, and Irving retreated to Germany, finally settling in Dresden in the winter of 1822. Here he dazzled the royal family and attached himself to Mrs. Amelia Foster, an American living in Dresden with her five children. Irving was particularly attracted to Mrs. Foster’s 18-year-old daughter Emily, and vied in frustration for her hand. Emily finally refused his offer of marriage in the Spring of 1823.

Dejected, he returned to Paris, plagued by nightmares and still struggling to shake his writer’s block. He began collaborating with playwright John Howard Payne on translations of French plays for the English stage, with little success. Payne, detecting his friend’s frantic state of mind, told him an eligible widow wanted to meet him—Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who had a schoolgirl crush on Irving. Irving, still a wreck, iced the relationship before it could even begin.

In August 1824, Irving published Tales of a Traveller, another collection of essays written in his Geoffrey Crayon persona. While the book sold respectably, Traveller bombed with critics. Hurt and depressed by the critical roasting, Irving retreated to an apartment in Paris where he spent the next year worrying about finances and scribbling down ideas for projects that never materialized.

Knickerbocker (1806-1817) | Celebrity (1817-1825) | Professional (1826-1832)

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