Today in Literary History – March 3, 1783 – Washington Irving is born

The American short story writer Washington Irving was born on April 3, 1783. He is responsible for the enduring stories of Rip Van Winkle, Ichabod Crane, The Headless Horseman and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

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Irving’s parents were Scottish immigrants to the American colonies and Irving was born in New York just as the American Revolution was coming to an end. His parents named him in honour of the revolutionary leader George Washington.

Irving wrote humorous newspaper pieces and theatre reviews under the pseudonym Jonathan Oldstyle, and invented the name Gotham for New York City. In 1809 he created a public hoax about a missing manuscript by a fictional historian named Diedrich Knickerbocker.

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Irving published his satirical history as the book A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty by Diedrich Knickerbocker. Knickerbocker became a common nickname for New Yorkers and furnished the name for the city’s NBA basketball team, The New York Knickerbockers, or Knicks for short.

Irving’s family business suffered financial setbacks after the War of 1812 and Irving had to declare bankruptcy. He moved to England and stayed with family members while he continued to write. He wrote the short story “Rip Van Winkle” and other stories that he gathered together as The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. It was serialized in America and published in Britain in two volumes to great success on both sides of the ocean.

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Despite his pseudonyms, Irving became immensely famous. He was also generous with promoting and encouraging fellow American writers including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Herman Melville, and Edgar Allan Poe.

In his later years Irving also wrote biographies and serious books and served the American government in various diplomatic posts. He died in 1859 at the age of 76 and is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Tarrytown, New York, the setting of many of his tales and horror stories.

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