Down to Business with Washington Irving

An accounting major recently told me he loved Washington Irving.

Perhaps English Departments should consider fiercer marketing toward reaching business majors to take literature classes.

Ironically, I’ve given up teaching Ben Franklin in entry-level American Lit because other departments readily teach him. Students are already versed in Franklin’s autobiography. They usually tell me they’ve read him in business classes. Therefore, I find myself wanting to introduce them to someone else.

Might the School of Business borrow Irving, too? Founding Father? Father of American Literature? Ben Franklin made a decent living at the newspaper business, and Irving did the same with his books.

I explained to this future accountant the bankruptcy of Irving’s family hardware business, an event sparking his seventeen-year stay in Europe. Though Irving was teased as being a gentlemanly man about town, he struggled to prove himself financially as a writer.

Some of Irving’s bookkeeping records can be found in his published letters/journals. I’ve studied them somewhat, but an accountant would definitely have more insight.

Sam Houston had issues with New York investors. When connecting him to Irving, I often consider whether he and Irving chatted about such investments.

I encouraged the student to check out the pirate stories in Tales of a Traveller. I’m not sure if he’s ready for the longer histories. I don’t want to scare away a new fan.

As my classes finish up Washington Irving, the accounting majors will be looking for financial dealings. I’ll also watch out for more texts which could appeal to the business element in my classes.

Published in: on September 12, 2018 at 4:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

Teaching Irving on Nine Eleven


September 11, 2018

Today, September 11, happens to be the one day per semester when I unload the full Washington Irving.

This afternoon, I’ll be teaching sophomore-level, American Literature. My youngest students were born in 1999. They don’t remember 9/11. For those of us who were adults in 2001, that’s tough to fathom.

Before I share my Irving stories, I first tell my students they will be given a very detailed review sheet for the test. I want them to listen and play along with my “day of fun.” The discussion could go anywhere, so I want them to relax and not worry about note taking.

Secondly, I encourage the audience to stop me at any point. This is the one day I let loose, but I’m happy to chat about anything they find entertaining. So long as we talk about Irving and they’re happy, I’m good.

In years past on the big Irving day, students have stopped to ask more about the Mary Shelley connection.

I’ve had students in class from Irving, Texas, who want to talk about their city.

Students who have recently studied abroad in Spain often want to spend more time on the Alhambra.

They love comparing the Kaplan daguerreotypes with the Brady one. We’ve spent quality time comparing wrinkles, ears, and eyebrows.

After talking about Matilda, we’ve laughed about giving a locket of hair to your beloved–since they couldn’t send selfies back in 1808.

If I’ve assigned the Christmas sketches, they sometimes ask me about Charles Dickens. We often wander into chats about Yosemite’s Bracebridge dinner.

I have a handout called “Irving and the Arabesque.” I’ve used it before when Irving Day lands on the week of 9/11, and students ask me more about Irving’s ties to Islam. The handout provides a chronology of Irving’s writing alongside the life of Muhammad and American altercations with Muslim countries. I wonder if students in Fall 2018 want an Arabesque discussion. We shall see.

September 11 calls us to remembrance. In essence, Washington Irving’s work calls for the same. He wants us to remember the past, to recall “the good old days.”

As a Romantic and Gothic, Irving reminds me to see both the heroic beauty of America’s past as well as the downright ugliness. However, as an unassuming diplomat and peacemaker, Irving also nudges me to use the knowledge of America’s past to encourage healing and reconciliation.

We must remember the good and bad. Let’s pray the wise ones among us, Americanists in particular, will organize the past in such a way to bring positive change, not divisiveness. If all goes well, I’ll deliver the package of Washington Irving today, in a well-organized, meaningful way.

Published in: on September 11, 2018 at 4:48 pm  Comments (1)  

Matilda Hoffman and Tracy Hoffman


Monday, September 10, 2018

When I mention Washington Irving’s fiancé, who passed while they were engaged, people always ask if I’m related to Matilda Hoffman.

My response is typically something like: “No, but I keep telling my dad to get busy finding some genealogical records. It would improve my stories.”

One of my colleagues says I should roll with the connection. “Yes, we are related. We go way back.”

I’m sure we really are related way back, somehow. However, Matilda’s father, Judge Hoffman, and other New York Hoffmans have no connection with my people, best we can tell.

Some German who called himself Hoffman arrived in Texas in the late 1800s. Our best guesstimate is that my great ancestor immediately went west when he arrived in America. No layover in New York, assuming he passed through New York. I sometimes imagine Galveston welcomed him since Galveston often calls to me.

One of my German grandfathers ended up in Oklahoma for a bit, and married a Native-American woman. Dad has visited the graves in Oklahoma.

Irving traveled through Oklahoma Territory before statehood, so he would have missed my relatives in Oklahoma, too. That would have been another intriguing story to add to my repertoire. “Irving had tea in a wigwam with my ancestors.”

So close, yet so far!

Published in: on September 10, 2018 at 4:07 pm  Leave a Comment  

Rip van Wafels: Sweet Reminder of Irving’s Rip


September 6, 2018

My students sometimes comment about this sweet treat available on campus, at our various Starbucks locations. It’s always a friendly reminder of Rip Van Winkle.

Yesterday, I had a quick conversation with a colleague in passing. She had just finished teaching “Rip Van Winkle.” She was impressed with a student who had brought up the Dutch influence in Irving’s writing and had quite a bit of commentary to share with the class. She told the student that he must have done some serious research on the Dutch prior to class.

This colleague and I joked about how little most people, including us, actually know about the Dutch and the Dutch influence in New York and in America overall.

Windmill cookies, chocolate milk, and doughnuts come to my mind for some reason. When you mention Amsterdam, of course, students have a whole new set of ideas about the Dutch. And I also think about my visits to twenty-first century Amsterdam.

When I teach “Rip Van Winkle,” I remind students that the Dutch originally settled New York. I jokingly say something like, “I know we Texans don’t concern ourselves too much with New York, but we should note that the Dutch originally settled New York.”

Indeed, the Dutch don’t get much attention in American Literature, and I’m guessing we don’t tend to them much in American history or political science either.

Yet another reason to appreciate Washington Irving! He and his Diedrich Knickerbocker, the narrator of “Rip” and other Irving stories, remind us of the Dutch influence in America.

Published in: on September 6, 2018 at 6:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

Why Does Spain Love Washington Irving?


Wednesday, September 5, 2018

After traveling to Spain, particularly after visiting Granada, students often report back to me that Spanish people love Washington Irving. “But why?”–they sometimes ask.

First of all, the apparent love for Irving, in part, can be traced back to his role as ambassador to Spain from 1842-1846. In fact, Madrid was under siege when Irving was living there.

Secondly, Irving was fluent in Spanish, and even did some translation work from Spanish to English. His writing has been readily translated into Spanish. I’m often reminded of Rip Van Winkle being called “Rip Rip” in the Spanish translation.

My sister is making plans to visit the country of Chile this Christmas, so I did some preliminary research on Chile, and bingo! Irving did some translation work about the country. Another blog and/or another article to come on that topic!

Thirdly, after publishing The Sketch Book, Irving spent some quality time in Spain in the 1830s. He published various texts based on his experiences there–The Alhambra, The Conquest of Granada, and a biography of Christopher Columbus. Years later, he would also publish the biography of the prophet Muhammad, from research he had gathered in Spain during the 1830s.

It’s easy to see why President Tyler in 1842 would send Irving as ambassador. He was loved by the English and the Spanish, and was a celebrity abroad.

Published in: on September 5, 2018 at 5:21 pm  Leave a Comment  

Washington Irving’s Brush with Sam Houston


Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Though Washington Irving never made it down to Texas, his encounter–or brush if you will–with Sam Houston on October 9, 1832, gives the writer an interesting connection with the Lone Star State.

Irving met Sam Houston, then former governor of Tennessee, now living in Indian territory, the future president of the soon-to-be Republic of Texas. Irving had already published A History of New York (1809), and had spent many years on his sketchbook trilogy, The Sketch Book (1819-1820), Bracebridge Hall (1822), and Tales of a Traveller (1824). Irving’s three western narratives were still to be written. Biographies of the prophet Muhammad and George Washington were also in the future.

In the little time they spent together, the grand figure of Sam Houston could have easily inspired Irving’s depictions of other bigger-than-life characters such as George Washington, a persona who would fill five lengthy volumes. And who knows? Maybe Washington Irving inspired Sam Houston in some way as well. As I sometimes jokingly say, Texas seemed to straighten out Sam Houston. Maybe Washington Irving played a part in that, too.

What precipitated the meeting was Irving’s decision to travel westward and then to embark on a buffalo hunt. He had recently returned from seventeen years in Europe. Because Irving was a celebrity at this point, a famous writer, Houston would have been familiar with him. Certainly, Irving was aware of Houston as well.

Historians and literary scholars believe that Washington Irving and Sam Houston spent an evening telling stories around the campfire, though it was probably at “casa de Houston,” or Wigwam Neosho as it was called, swapping stories with lots of people the night before Irving headed out on his buffalo hunt and before Houston left for Texas.

Irving evidently shared a tortoise story that Houston loved, but I have yet to find this story. Fort Gibson was called “a hell hole,” with nightly poker games and heavy drinking. Certainly, Irving and Houston could have easily been involved in such business that night, too. But I’ve never encountered any such evidence about this particular evening.

Famous for “sketching” the scenery of European landmarks and the countryside, as well as scenes from New York, Irving gives us scant words to describe Sam Houston. He records the following in his journal: “Gov. Houston, tall, large, well formed, fascinating man—low-crowned large brimmed white beaver—boots with brass eagle spurs—given to grandiloquence. A large and military mode of expressing himself. Old General Nix used to say God made him two drinks scant” (Day and Ullom 76-77).

I could make some comments here about Houston’s drinking, but I’ll segway into the state bar instead. Sam Houston passed the bar after six months of study (Day and Ullom 20). I’m guessing Irving passed the bar after a similar study period. Perhaps many other connections exists for these two.

Washington Irving died on November 28, 1859, and Sam Houston died on July 26, 1863. So far as I know, we don’t have any letters between them, and I’m not aware of any further meetings. However, Irving did spend time as ambassador to Spain when the Texas Question was at play. He would have kept an eye on what was happening in Texas and what happened to Sam Houston in subsequent years.

Published in: on September 4, 2018 at 5:54 pm  Leave a Comment  

Make Washington Irving Great Again!


August 29, 2018

I’m teaching an undergraduate, junior-level American Lit course this semester. It begins with colonials and runs through Walt Whitman. Elizabeth Renker’s The Origins of American Literature Studies, which covers the history of the American Lit curriculum, is on the reading list along with the longer Norton anthology, 9th edition.

Renker’s study has fascinated me over the past few years since Baylor, where I teach, and other universities have been revamping the curriculum. In recent decisions, our College of Arts and Sciences has settled on an American Cultures class as the one core English class for all students.

As an Americanist, it’s tough to argue with this decision. But it’s troubling for those on the British side and for those who specialize in writing. Ironically, Renker reminds us that writing and British Lit were once at the top, and American Literature was the “step child” of American education.

American patriotism after World War One and World War Two greatly impacted the teaching of American Lit, and I’m left wondering how the latest wave of “Make America Great Again” is being factored into our current curriculum changes.

In my American Literature classes, we always discuss definitions for “great” and “American,” and we also talk about “early” if it’s an Early American Lit class. These definitions are fuzzy and open to interpretation.

For example, an American was once an inhabitant of the Americas, and now it typically means a citizen of the country. Early could mean Native-American culture, explorers, or colonials. Literature has dozens of definitions.

Beyond literature, America is split on the definition of “greatness” as it relates to America’s past, which further muddies the waters. Some want to look back to “the good old days” and bring back values from a perceived exemplary past. On the other side, some view the past as horrific, not great, and want to do much better in the future.

I’m not here to take a strong stance on any of the issues presented, but I am left wondering if Mr. Washington Irving, “The Father of American Literature,” might benefit from current and future waves of American patriotism.

Instead of specializing in one particular American author, scholars follow the trend to focus on a specialized theoretical approach (Atlantic studies, disability studies, and such). But is that trend open to change, not because of pressures from the “ivory tower,” but from cultural pressures?

Might the need for Washington Irving and a Washington Irving scholar one day be more valuable than it currently is?

Let’s make Washington Irving great again, I say!

Published in: on August 29, 2018 at 6:18 pm  Comments (1)  

Why Washington Irving?

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

On our first day back to school, I had a nice conversation with a student who waited to chat with me after class. She’s an English major and struggling with whether she should go British or American.

I tried to calm her fears and let her know that as a sophomore, she didn’t need to worry about such matters.

She asked me why I was an Americanist. She asked why I study what I study. Why do you teach American literature?

What I told her about settling into an English program and American literature, in particular, would take more space than this one blog allows, but I’ll elaborate on what I told her about Washington Irving.

September 11, 2001, happened when I was teaching high school and working on a master’s degree in English. I became fascinated with learning about Islam in early America. I wasn’t getting this information in classes, so I kept digging for it on my own.

When it came time to consider a doctoral program, Baylor’s Religion and Literature program seemed the best choice. My intent was to take courses in Arabic, religion, American literature, and American history. I loved the cross-listed offerings in the graduate catalogue. So off I went to Baylor in 2002.

My grand scheme didn’t unfold as I had anticipated. I eventually dropped the Religion and Literature concentration, and switched over to Early American Literature as my focus, with Nineteenth-Century Literature as my secondary field.

Back in my master’s program, a professor had assigned me Washington Irving’s “Adventure of the German Student,” so I knew this creepy sketch from Tales of A Traveller. I also read The Sketch Book in a graduate course at Baylor. No single author class was offered on Washington Irving, so I coordinated an independent study with my dissertation director. The dissertation, then, naturally flowed from the papers I wrote for independent study.

To bring it back full circle, Washington Irving studied Islam. He wrote a biography about the prophet Mohammad. Though I didn’t learn to read or speak Arabic, going off the charted path to study Irving has allowed me to consider and reconsider early America with a Muslim consideration, as well as other perspectives I hadn’t contemplated back in 2001.

Published in: on August 23, 2018 at 6:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

Wealth of Information about Knickerbocker, Texas


Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Knickerbocker: a small west Texas town near San Angelo has some rich connections with Washington Irving.

Irving used the name Knickerbocker as the last name for his pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker, the fictitious narrator A History of New York (1809), as well as the talebearer of later sketches such as “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” People often associated Irving the person with Irving the pseudonym and thought of him, especially in the early years of his career, as the crotchety old Dutchman—Diedrich Knickerbocker.

When settlers established towns in America, they often paid tribute to various famous personalities; sometimes founders’ names were called upon, but sometimes the names of other noteworthy figures were also utilized. So it should come as no great surprise for city founders in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to use Knickerbocker if they wanted to pay homage to the Father of American Literature.

Irving had no children, but as the youngest of a large family, he was close to his numerous nieces and nephews. Morgan and Lawrence Grinnell, two of his nephews, left New York City and went out west to Texas, hoping to launch a sheep business. In the process, they became some of the early settlers in an area later named Knickerbocker.

Ironically, the Grinnell brothers eventually moved back to New York, having given up on the sheep business, but the small community of Knickerbocker, Texas, remains intact.

For more information on Knickerbocker, check out these links:

Published in: on August 21, 2018 at 4:05 pm  Leave a Comment  

A Good Washington Irving Day


Thursday, August 16, 2018

I had a good Washington Irving day.

Mid-afternoon my dad told me he was reading Diedrich Knickerbocker’s History of New York and was fascinated with the idea of the Dutch settling there. He also enjoyed learning about the African-American influence in New York as set forth by Irving.

We chatted briefly about the New York Knicks, and how Knickerbocker also narrated “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Ironically, Dad recently read “Rip and “Sleepy” while selling some books at Half-Price. I’ll make a fan of him yet.

(I saved the Irving hoax about old Diedrich for another time. Dad was excited about the little he had read, so I didn’t want to spoil it with a long, banal story.)

I also caught up on emails after a week off: a much-needed retreat after finishing up summer school. One of my graduating students from summer school, Anastasia, had emailed me a picture she took of Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eye she had spied at the library. We had read a little Morrison during the American Lit class, and Anastasia had really enjoyed her writing.

I shot off a few comments about Morrison, and Anastasia quickly came back with some Washington Irving commentary. She’s interviewing for jobs in New York City and couldn’t help but notice all of the Washington Irving references around town.

Good day!

Published in: on August 20, 2018 at 4:18 pm  Leave a Comment  
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