In 1802, he started submitting letters to the New York Morning Chronicle under the pen name, Jonathan Oldstyle. This was the modest beginning of his legendary literary career.
From 1804 to 1806, he undertook a trip to Europe learning the social and conversational skills that helped him at the later stages of life. In between, he was also persuaded to take up painting as a profession which did not materialize.
Upon returning from Europe, he took up law classes under Judge Josiah Ogden Hoffman, his legal mentor. In 1806, he just about passed the bar examination.
In 1807, with the help of his brother and friend, he started a literary magazine, Salmagundi. The content of the magazine included critical comments on New York’s culture and politics.
The success of Salmagundi built his reputation outside New York. It was in 1809 that he completed his first major book titled, ‘A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty’. The book met with immediate critical and popular success.
Post the impressive success in his debut venture, he acquired the position of an editor at the Analectic Magazine. In the new capacity, he did some outstanding work, the most remarkable amongst which was reprinting Francis Scott Key's poem that would go on to become the national anthem of the United States.
He was opposed to the War of 1812 but when the British attacked Washington D. C in 1814, he changed his mind enlisted. In 1814, he was drafted as the staff of Daniel Tompkins, governor of New York and commander of the New York State Militia. The devastating and ruinous nature of the war led him to leave for England in 1815.
Despite his attempts to reinstate the family’s financial position, the family was declared bankrupt. It was during this time that he first created the legendary character of ‘Rip Van Winkle’.
In 1819, he sent his brother in New York a set of short piece of prose titled, ‘The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent’ to get it published. The first instalment was received with much praise and success leading to the publication of the equally successful seven follow-ups.
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The soaring literary career gave him a star status in Europe. To prevent piracy and illegal reprinting of his works, he appointed John Murray as his preferred publisher.
Together with Murray, he was eager to replicate the success of his ‘Sketch Book’. As such, he spent much of 1821 exploring Europe for a new material. Moving past various hurdles, he finally submitted his work in 1822.
In June 1822, ‘The Bracebridge Hall’ was published. The book was similar to his previous venture, narrating about fifty short stories that are loosely connected to each other. It met with much success further cementing his reputation as an author.
In 1823, he collaborated with playwright John Howard Payne working on translating French plays in English. However, the same did not meet with much success. The following year, he published a collection of essays titled, ‘Tales of a Traveller’, which though commercially moderately successful was critically panned.
The bad reception of the book caused him to retreat to Paris where he thought of new ideas for projects that somehow never came to frame. It was in 1826 that he received a letter from Alexander Hill Everett in which he sent him an invitation to move to Madrid.
At Madrid, he was exposed to a number of manuscripts that dealt with the Spanish conquest of America. He gained full access to the American library of Spanish history and began working on the new-found material.
His first piece of work from his new material was ‘A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus’, which was published in January 1828. The book reigned at the book shelves and was extremely popular in the US and Europe. It had 175 editions and was the first book which he published in his own name.
The great success of this book led him to publish ‘Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada’ the following year. Furthermore, he published his third venture in Spanish books, ‘Voyages and Discoveries of the Companions of Columbus’. Interestingly, all his three books ad a mix of both history and fiction.
In 1829, he left for England after being appointed as the Secretary to the American Legation in London. He took the role of aide-de-camp. In the new capacity, he tried to strike trade negotiation between the United States and the British West Indies.
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He did not continue in the new position for long and resigned from his duties to concentrate on his writing. He started completing his unfinished work of 1829 titled, ‘Tales of the Alhambra’ which was published in the US and England in 1832.
In 1832, he returned to New York after seventeen year of hiatus. He toured some of the cities of US and came out with his next work, titled, ‘A Tour on the Praries’. The book met with grand success.
In 1836, he came up with a biographical account of Jacob Astor’s fur trading company, ‘Astoria’. The following year, he released the book, ‘The Adventures of Captain Bonneville’.
He was offered to write essays and short stories for The Knickerbocker magazine. Furthermore, he became an advisor to the budding authors who approached him for advice and endorsements.
In 1842, he was appointed as the Minister to Spain by President John Tyler. In the new capacity, he found himself in the middle of political mayhem which Spain was experiencing. No sooner, he was exhausted by the turn of events and the political chaos.
His duties in Spain stretched until 1846 after which he returned to America and began working on his next literary piece ‘Author's Revised Edition’, revising older works for George Palmer Putnam.
His later works included writing on the works of Islamic prophet Muhammad, biography of Oliver Goldsmith and George Washington. For the latter, he indulged in much research work and published five volumes of the biography.
Personal Life & Legacy
He did not go into the wedlock in his life, but was romantically attracted to Emily, daughter of the royal family of Dresden, Fosters, while he was in Germany. Following her refusal to his offer of marriage, he relocated from Germany.
He breathed his last on November 28, 1859 due to heart attack. He was buried at Sleepy Hollow cemetery two days later.
To honor his literary contribution, several schools, parks, memorials, the city of Irving in Texas, a community area at Irving Park and Irving Trust Corporation has been named after him. He also has to his credit Washington Irving literary society, Indianapolis, Indiana neighborhood of Irvington and the town of Knickerbocker, Texas.
His home Sunnyside has become a historic site and is open to public for tours.
He was pictured on the 1 cent US postage stamp in the Famous American/Authors series, issued on January 29, 1940.