A Brief Extemporaneous Exposition on The Life Of Washington Irving

(Portrait of Washington Irving, public domain)

Out of a pinch. There’s Washington Irving (named for POTUS Numero Uno: Georgie Boy The Wash, as he was born the same week that the British gave up fighting those upstart revolutionary colonies and America became its own boss) trying to make the scene with the former Mrs. P.B. Shelley. A way in or out. Who knows? He’s got his hands in a lot of cookie jars. He was the first American Man of Letters, and predicted Van Burn’s presidency, for Christ’s sake, you know? That’s a lot of a load on a guy, especially a hoaxer like old Wash. He made up a guy who wrote a yet-to-be-published book to make his own book more successful when it was published. Oh, and did I mention he also created our modern idea of Christmas? Well, he did, and way before any of that Charles Dickens crap. The Irvster was of the sort who’d say stuff like, “When I cannot get a dinner to suit my taste, I endeavor to get a taste to suit my dinner.”


As a six-year-old Manhattanite, his nanny took The Irvster to met his namesake, the grand white-haired G.W., who’d just been inaugurated the nation’s first President, and who was staying in New York in 1789. That Father Of The Country promptly blessed the kid and sent him on his way. It was a good show all around.

School didn’t interest Irving much. He craved adventure and drama. He ditched class a lot to see plays, and he’d dart off to a place called Tarrytown and nearby Sleepy Hollow, where he’d get himself all entangled in the local ghost-story lore. By the time we as 19, he was penning commentaries on New York’s theater scene using the name Jonathan OldStyle. These got him some notoriety, as even the infamous Aaron Burr thought the youngster was a real champ of letters.

So, well, he started this underground magazine when he was in his early twenties. It was called Salmagundi, and it was the Mad Magazine of its day, lampooning New York culture; and The Irv used noms de plume like “William Wizard” and “Launcelot Langstaff” to write stuff like one story where he invented the word “Gotham” (Anglo-Saxon for Goat Town) as a name for New York City. He had a 17-year-old fiancée at one point, but she died.

Afterwards he wrote a book about the history of New York under the name Diedrich Knickerbocker. Then he placed an ad in the Missing Persons section of the newspaper for this Mr. Knickerbocker who had allegedly gone missing from his hotel room. Then he concocted a letter from the proprietor of the hotel that claimed, “If this crusty Dutch historian named Diedrich Knickerbocker does not return to these premises to pay his hotel bill, my hand will be forced to publish this manuscript he has left behind.” It created quite a stir, and the book was published later to brisk sales, which brought The Wash big success and fame. “It gave me celebrity,” he said afterwards. “As an original work was something remarkable and uncommon in America.” It had a dream sequence featuring St. Nicholas skimming the treetops in a flying wagon, which some slick advertisers later stole and used as inspiration for what became our modern idea of the American Santa Claus.

Also, he sort of made Francis Key Scott famous by publishing his poem Defense Of Fort McHenry, which was later made into a little ditty you might’ve heard of: The Star Spangled Banner.

He lived for a long time in Europe. Traveled all over and wrote about it. Made bad investments and lost pretty much all of his money, and so had to keep writing more books to make more money, which he soon squandered again.

While staying with his sister and her husband one night at their place in Birmingham, England, he wrote Rip Van Winkle instead of sleeping. Yes. That’s correct. He scribbled off Rip Van Winkle in a single night. He then sent it along with a bunch of other short prose stuff (including one titled The Legend of Sleepy Hollow) to his brother Ebenezer, who had them all published together as The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. It was a literary sensation. At social gatherings Washy could finally start telling people who asked him what he did, “Me? I’m the inimitable Geoffrey Crayon, a very famous and wildly successful writer. And, pray tell, what the fuck do you do?”

The one thing he hated was literary bootleggers. He was pretty much the Lars Ulrich of his era. He worked out a deal with two publishers to have his stuff come out simultaneously in each country because there was no international copyright laws at the time. It worked. And, again, he was a big deal in the world of letters. As one Parisian guy put it, “He’s an anomaly: an upstart American who dares to write English well.” Still, he suffered from writer’s block a lot, and gallivanted around Europe, settling in Dresden where he tried to marry an 18-year-old girl; but, alack, she refused his hand.

After that he fled to Paris, which is where the previously mentioned Mary Shelley showed him some attention. But she was still wallowing in and over the death of P.B., and The Irv really didn’t have much game at this point, so, things just never blossomed. So. Washy Boy wrote something called The Devil & Tom Walker under his favorite pseudonym Geoffrey Crayon. He thought it was the greatest thing he’d ever written. The critics hated it. It didn’t sell much. The US Literary Gazette pronounced him, “Overrated.”

Eventually, suffering from severe depression, he settled in Spain. While there he wrote a romantic fictionalized book about Christopher Columbus. It was the first book to list Washington Irving as the author instead of some made-up name. He liked to pretend that the earth was flat. He got a lot of medals from royalty and things like that. He predicted Martin Van Buren would one day be president.

After returning to The States in the 1830s, he founded the Saint Nicholas Society with, among others, John Jacob Astor, aka the first multi-millionaire in US history. Eventually he settled down in Tarrytown, New York. He reluctantly wrote articles for The Knickerbocker magazine under his pseudonyms to pay the bills on his rundown little cottage that was always in need of repairs.

An aspiring author named Edgar Allen Poe stopped by one day to see what Washy Boy thought of a story he’d just written called The Fall Of The House Of Usher. The Irvster told Poe to, “Get the fuck off my property, you poesy taster! I’m calling the fucking cops if I ever see your sorry ass around these parts again! Got that, Sissy Pants?” Poe would later write, “This Washington Irving fellow is much over-rated.”

Old Washy Boy kept trying to get copyright legislation to pass through congress, but kept failing.

One night in 1842, he dined with Charles Dickens and his wife at his cottage. There is no record of the meeting being pleasant, but there is no reason to suspect it wasn’t.

Then, out of fucking nowhere, President John Tyler appoints Wash as the U.S. Minister to Spain. He took a ship across the pond, but soon got homesick and became afflicted with a crippling skin condition: some sort of horrid rash that made it difficult for him to boogie. Soon he became a hopeless misanthrope, and returned to his tattered cottage in Tarrytown. He became buds with Millard Fillmore. Finally, he began a giant work: a biography of his namesake George Washington. Eight months after completing the tome, good old Wash The Irv died of a heart attack. His last words were, “Well, I must arrange my pillows for another night. When will this end?” He was buried at Sleepy Hollow cemetery on December 1, 1859.

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