Self-Quarantined Washington Irving

grayscale photo of person standing on seashore

Photo by Engin Akyurt on


March 11, 2020

Today, my university announced we would be extending Spring Break an extra week and we would then move to online classes for two weeks as we monitor the situation.

As universities deal with the coronavirus scare and academic conferences are being canceled, including the Washington Irving Seminar this April I had planned to attend, I can’t help but think about Washington Irving’s run-ins with pandemic and quarantine.

First on my mind is Elizabeth Bradley’s 2014 article published in the Smithsonian, “What ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ Tells Us about Contagion, Fear and Epidemics.” Retracing Irving biographer Brian Jay Jones’s findings, Bradley suggests young Irving spent time in Tarrytown to avoid the yellow fever raging in New York City. She says the 1798 escape may have inspired “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

Her article is a must-read. Check it out, if you haven’t already done so:

Secondly, I think about Irving’s ship being quarantined and also being taken over by pirates. Irving managed to survive the ordeals unscathed. According to Dudley Warner, the ship Irving was traveling on to Sicily was overtaken by pirates: “Off the island of Planoca it was overpowered and captured by a little picaroon, with lateen sails and a couple of guns, and a most-villainous crew, in poverty-stricken garments” (33).

In his biography of Washington Irving, Brian Jay Jones also discusses the pirate event and Irving’s quarantine aboard the Matilda.

Thirdly, Irving’s use of the word quarantine is unique. According to, Irving was the first to use the word quarantined: “While quarantine as a noun has been around since the 16th century, Irving seems to be the first to use it as a verb. The original meaning of the noun was ‘a period of 40 days in which a widow has the right to remain in her dead husband’s house,’ and comes from the Latin quadraginta, ‘forty.’ ”

Webster’s online says quarantine was first used as a verb in 1801, but it doesn’t give Irving as an example.

The OED gives Irving the following credit: “1804   W. Irving in Life & Lett. (1864) I. v. 89   Where I should be detained, quarantined, smoked, and vinegared.”

Finally, when I hear about people self-quarantining, it reminds me of how little most people spend time alone; alone as in days of never talking or seeing anyone. Single folks, like Washington Irving, usually have no problem with alone time. And writers crave this kind of time. What some would consider self-quarantine, others call writing retreats. Self-isolating isn’t traumatic or unusual for a small portion of the population, but for folks who have large families and work in group settings, isolating for a few weeks to avoid spreading germs must be an extraordinary experience.

In many ways, Washington Irving chose to self-quarantine himself on occasion: to avoid sickness, to write, to research, to think. He was certainly social and enjoyed family and friends, but he also knew the sacrifice required to be a fruitful writer. And I’m sure I’m stretching the definition of quarantine, but so did Irving.

Until next week, stay healthy! And please feel free to add to the conversation wherever you like: Twitter, Facebook, on this page. Comments are very much welcomed. Also feel free to message me at If you need a reply, please message me at 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 March 11, 2020 at 9:50 pm  Leave a Comment  

The URI to TrackBack this entry is:

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: