A Few Great, Not-So-Great Men: Washington Irving’s Biography Choices

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President of the Washington Irving Society

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

This past week, I graded an extraordinary paper about the short story form Irving selected for his “Philip of Pokanoket,” which appears in The Sketch Book (1819-1820). Since then, I’ve been thinking about the men Irving chose to sketch loosely and those he opted to flesh out fully in thick volumes.

Irving wrote about Native-Americans in the sketch of Metacomet (King Philip), and he also wrote lengthier books that included Native-Americans, such as A Tour on the Prairies (1835), but he never devoted a single book-length project to one noteable Native-American.

Biographies written by Irving include:

  1. A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828)
  2. Adventures of Captain Bonneville (1837)
  3. The Life of Oliver Goldsmith (1840)
  4. Mahomet and His Successors (1849)
  5. The Life of George Washington (1855-1859)

What do these choices say about Irving?

In many instances, I’ve given Washington Irving credit for considering the plight of natives. In fact, I’ve even argued that his strong stance on the freedom of natives could easily be transferred to slaves, since he doesn’t openly concern himself with the plight of African-Americans in his lengthy nineteenth-century writing career. His clear choice, however, to never publish a book on a single native is troubling.

Rather than simply stewing over Irving’s choices, I want to think through what may have affected his writing decisions. Scholars don’t always agree with the writers they study, and I can’t be expected to always side with Irving’s stance. Most nineteenth-century writers make our skin crawl at times.

Making writing choices can be tough. For those of us who currently write, present, publish, podcast, give talks, and such, coming to a subject can take seemingly unplanned turns and twists. For instance, this blog originally started out as a commentary on Major Andre’s tree, and it drifted into biographies. Should I blame God? My Muse? Irving’s ghost? I can’t fully explain how I choose what to write, but what’s deep in my heart eventually comes out in my writing.

The same had to be true for Irving. It wasn’t in his heart to write a book about Metacomet or any other native. Oh, if he had only taken up Pocahontas!

Early in his career, Irving wrote a “sketch” book, where he readily confesses to doing people and places injustice due to his lack of detail. He sketches scenes like an artist would doodle on a sketch pad, so his intent of skimming the surface remains clear.

After Irving’s three collections of sketch books, after moving over to Spain, he devotes himself to an intense study of Christopher Columbus and publishes a hefty study of his life. Spain was in his heart, and that came out in books about the Alhambra, the Conquest of Granada, Christopher Columbus, and much later, Mahomet.

I’ve already written about and given talks about the irony of George Washington and the prophet Muhammad coming together at the end of Irving’s writing career. In some ways, the selections make sense. Irving saw a connection between the decline of Islam in Europe and the rise of America. Because Ferdinand and Isabella pushed the Moors out of Spain, they could then send Columbus off to explore.

However, Irving was on a trajectory to write more stories about the West, after his trilogy of A Tour on the Prairies, Astoria (1836), and Captain Bonneville (1837). The West was in his mind’s eye, and Bonneville and Astor stole his allegiance. Of course, we know the love of John Jacob Astor’s money may have been in his heart at that point.

Other events may have cut off his western writing. Irving wanted to write about Mexico, but William Prescott beat him to it, with the History of the Conquest of Mexico in 1843. Maybe Irving’s heart moved eastward, back home to Sunnyside and even back over to Europe, after missing such an opportunity.

Living in Spain inspired The Alhambra, The Conquest of Granada, and Columbus, and it looks like his ambassadorship to Spain from 1842-1846 affected his writing choices once again. After serving as ambassador, he never writes another book-length project set in the West.

That’s about all the time I have for this subject today, but I’ll no doubt revisit Irving’s biography choices when flipping through his journals in the future. This week, my Early American Lit students are recording podcasts for a presentation grade, so I may decide to record my next blog for an audio post, too. Here’s hoping a great topic, which lends itself to audio, will hit my heart in the next week.

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I love receiving feedback from readers! Please feel free to drop comments wherever you like: Twitter, Facebook, on this page. If you need a reply, please message me at Tracy_Hoffman@baylor.edu. I try to respond to all Washington Irving Society-related email on Wednesdays, and I also update the WIS page on Washington Irving Wednesdays.




Published in: on November 13, 2019 at 1:27 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Thank you for your insight. I think you are on to something. The west ward travels are also at a later age. Could that also be another layer to ponder?


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