Founding Fathers: George Washington and Washington Irving

BY TRACY HOFFMAN

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

As most people can guess, Washington Irving was named after George Washington. And biographies of Washington Irving always include one of the earliest major events in the writer’s life: the young boy being presented to George Washington when the president was settling into the capital of New York City.

The two-volume biography by Stanley T. Williams, first published in 1935 and still a classic in Irving studies, explains how well-known the story was to the American people: “The incident of Washington Irving’s meeting with the President has been repeated in story and sketch until it has the aroma of fable. The day and month are unknown, but the fact is demonstrable” (I: 10).

Pierre Irving, his uncle’s chief biographer and writing assistant, gives the following account:

“A young Scotch maid-servant of the family, struck with the enthusiasm which everywhere greeted [the president’s] arrival, determined to present the child to his distinguished namesake. Accordingly, she followed him one morning into a shop, and pointing to the lad who had scarcely outgrown his virgin trousers: ‘Please your honor,’ said she, ‘here’s a bairn was named after you.’ In the estimation of Lizzie, for so she was called, few claims of kindred could be stronger than this. Washington did not disdain the delicate affinity, and placing his hand on the head of her little charge, gave him his blessing.” (I: 30).

Stanley Williams further comments upon this scene: “Perhaps the sentiment of this conjunction, occurring in an age uncritical of Washington, found reëxpression in the idealized portrait of the general in the biography…At least it is certain that to write of George Washington became from earliest youth a dream of Irving’s” (I: 10).

The encounter clearly inspired his last work, the five-volume Life of George Washington (1855-1859), an appropriate bookend to the writer’s lengthy career which began with the idea that he was connected in a small way to the first president’s legacy.

The Father of America met the Father of American Literature. Of course, neither Washington nor Irving had children. George only had children when Martha brought them into the marriage. Irving never married, never had children, though he did help with many nieces and nephews.

* * *

Many years ago, perhaps a decade, I spent the entire summer reading through the five-volume set of the George Washington biography by Irving. I wrote a book chapter about Irving’s impressions of the president, but then I pulled the chapter from a collection that was taking way too long for my taste.

I’ve given many papers loosely based on the book chapter, but still ponder from time to time how to best shape what I gleaned from the reading into something useful and substantial about Irving’s final work.

My major takeaway from the reading: Irving romanticizes and rationalizes the president’s stance on many issues, most notably slavery, by delving into internal struggles the president may have entertained.

I would be curious to know which Irving scholars have read the five volumes. Perhaps we could put our heads together and find a worthwhile study of the important connection.

Published in: on September 19, 2018 at 5:50 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. I remember some years ago hearing about a recently written biography of George Washington. I came across a copy in a local bookshop and instantly checked the notes in the back to see how often Irving was cited. To my surprise, it was only once: in the introduction. I went to the page noted and saw the author had, in a reference to previous biographies on the subject, referred to one by “colorist” Washington Irving.Not biographer, or author or Father of American Literature. Irving who had nearly killed him self writing his biography, was dismissed as a mere colorist.
    I don’t rember this writer’s name or recall the title of the book, which I didn’t buy!


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