In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Washington Irving

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Reception
  • Irving and Other Writers
  • Sunnyside
  • Irving and Gender
  • Irving and Place
  • Irving and Race
  • Irving and the Theater
  • Irving and Transnationality
  • Suggestions for Further Study

American Literature Washington Irving
Jeffrey Scraba
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0214


Washington Irving (b. 1783–d. 1859) had a long and diverse career as an author and public figure. Irving first published satirical essays (as “Jonathan Oldstyle”) for his brother Peter’s newspaper in 1802–1803. He collaborated with his brother William and James Kirke Paulding on the 1807–1808 satirical periodical Salmagundi, which was wildly popular in New York. A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty (1809), narrated by the fictitious xenophobic historian Diedrich Knickerbocker, was at once an accurate history of New Amsterdam, a satire on Thomas Jefferson’s administration, and a meditation on the writing of history. Irving moved to Europe in 1815 as an agent for his brothers’ business, but after the business went bankrupt in 1818, Irving set about making a living through his writing. The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon (1819–1820) was published nearly simultaneously in installments in the United States and the United Kingdom to secure copyright in both; it was an immediate success and was lauded on both sides of the Atlantic. His attempts to follow up this initial success with similar collections of tales and sketches (Bracebridge Hall [1822] and Tales of a Traveller [1824]) met with considerably less commercial and critical success. Invited to Spain in 1824 to translate newly available documents from Columbus’ expeditions, Irving instead produced The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828), which became the standard English-language account of Columbus and went through 175 editions in the United States and Europe. Irving’s subsequent travels in southern Spain produced A Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada (1829) and the immensely popular “Spanish Sketch-Book,” The Alhambra (1832). During this period Irving also produced a biography of the Prophet Muhammad, which was eventually published in 1849 as Mahomet and His Successors. Irving finally returned to the United States in 1832, almost immediately participating in an expedition preparing for Indian removal, which was recounted in A Tour on the Prairies (1835). John Jacob Astor then commissioned him to write Astoria (1836), a history of the fur-trading colony, while he also collected materials for another Western narrative, The Adventures of Captain Bonneville (1837). Apart from a period as American Minister to Spain (1842–1846), during which he mediated on behalf of Isabella II during the Carlist Wars, Irving spent much of the rest of his life building his Hudson Valley home called Sunnyside. His final work was the monumental five-volume Life of George Washington (1855–1859). Not only was Irving the first American writer to achieve international celebrity, but he served as a US ambassador; revived tourist interest in Andalusia; shaped the profession of authorship in America and Europe; produced the first comprehensive histories of New Amsterdam/New York, Columbus, and the founder of Islam in English; and wrote the first and perhaps best-known American short stories.

General Overviews

Despite a resurgence in Irving criticism since the turn of the 21st century, Rubin-Dorsky 1988 is the most recent full-length study of his works, and it sets the tone for much subsequent criticism by emphasizing Irving’s sense of homelessness and anxiety over his American identity. Earlier studies attempt in some ways to rehabilitate Irving’s literary reputation in the wake of his dismissal as a decidedly minor and derivative author by his first major biographer (Williams 1935, under Biographies): Bowden 1981 surveys nearly all of Irving’s works to emphasize the political dimension of his work; Roth 1976 extols Irving’s early writing as representatively “American”; and Hedges 1965 emphasizes Irving’s Romantic irony (though he also is typical in considering all Irving’s works written after his return to the United States in 1832 unworthy of attention). Gilmore 1994 and Springer 1987 follow Williams 1935, under Biographies, in dismissing Irving as an imitative and commercial author. Giles 2000 represents a more productive recent direction in Irving scholarship by focusing on the concept of liminality to explore the tensions and paradoxes in Irving’s work.

  • Bowden, Mary W. Washington Irving. Boston: Twayne, 1981.

    Broad chronological overview of nearly all of Irving’s works, with the express intent of reviving interest in Irving’s lesser-known writings, emphasizing Irving as a “composer of books” rather than a short-story writer. In biographical sections prefacing each of four sections dividing Irving’s career, also explicitly attempts to amend the portrait of Irving in Irving 1869 (under Biographies), viewing Irving as a “staunch Jeffersonian” throughout his life.

  • Giles, Paul. “From Transgression to Liminality: The Thresholds of Washington Irving.” In A Place That Is Not a Place: Essays in Liminality and Text. Edited by Isabel Soto, 31–46. Madrid: Gateway, 2000.

    Attempts to reclaim Irving’s complexity from his canonical reputation as a naïve and conservative sentimentalist, arguing that Irving’s style of “literary burlesque” has been perpetually misread. Focusing on The Sketch-Book and the History of New-York, uses the concept of liminality as a threshold between ideology and psychology to argue that Irving’s work oscillates between conservative respect for convention and subversive attention to disruptive social undercurrents.

  • Gilmore, Michael. “Washington Irving.” In The Cambridge History of American Literature. Edited by Sacvan Bercovitch, 661–675. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

    Like many other historians of American literature, assesses Irving as “archaic” and “pre-Romantic,” offering little to interest contemporary readers. Sees Irving’s works as anachronistic and derivative, but gives Irving credit for creating the profession of authorship in America, liberating imaginative writing from usefulness and factual accuracy to pave the way for the more accomplished and interesting works of his successors.

  • Hedges, William L. Washington Irving: An American Study, 1802–1832. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965.

    One of the earliest attempts to reassess Irving’s reputation as an escapist and emulator of European forms, emphasizing the “cultural uneasiness” displayed in his earlier works. Influential on subsequent criticism in conjoining Irving’s quests for literary identity and personal identity, arguing that Irving’s cultural uncertainty was transformed into a perspective of Romantic irony. Also influential in entirely dismissing Irving’s work after his return to the United States in 1832.

  • Roth, Martin. Comedy in America: The Lost World of Washington Irving. Fort Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1976.

    Overview of what Roth calls Irving’s “American period,” analyzing his writings up to The History of New-York (1809). Helpfully situates these texts in traditions of English and European comedy, somewhat paradoxically claiming that Irving’s borrowings from these traditions constituted an “intuitive attempt to create an American literature” through burlesque that ultimately failed. Like many of Irving’s critics, sees him as surpassed by the “major” American writers that follow him.

  • Rubin-Dorsky, Jeffrey. Adrift in the Old World: The Psychological Pilgrimage of Washington Irving. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

    Follows Hedges 1965 in stressing Irving’s “Americanness,” associating Irving’s search for order and stability in Europe with Americans’ anxiety about losing their sense of identity amid growing prosperity following the War of 1812. Provides compelling readings of many of Irving’s most celebrated texts, but overemphasizes Irving’s sense of homelessness and anxiety. Still the best full-length study of Irving, although limited in only considering Irving’s fiction written between 1815 and 1832.

  • Springer, Haskell. “Washington Irving and the Knickerbocker Group.” In Columbia Literary History of the United States. Edited by Emory Elliot, Martha Banta, Terence Martin, David Minter, Marjorie Perloff, and Daniel B. Shea, 29–39. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.

    Typical in dismissing Irving as a “writer of minor importance,” even while acknowledging his wide range of work and significant influence. Like many other assessments, views Irving as a transitional figure, beginning to articulate an American literary consciousness that will be fully realized by later writers. Also representative in identifying the “superficial qualities” of Irving’s writing and condemning his ambition for commercial success.

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