Washington Irving, American Romantic


ENG 223: American Literature Before 1865

Lesson 7: Washington Irving, American Romantic
Oct. 7-9, 2002


By the end of this lesson, you should be able to do each of the following without consulting notes or other resources:

  • Describe the life and literary contributions of Washington Irving.
  • Interpret themes and other features in Irving’s fiction.
  • Define or identify relevant terms, names, and dates.


Before coming to class on Monday, you should complete the following assignments:


Read “Washington Irving” and “Rip Van Winkle”



Our class activities this week include the following:


Think Fast: In a paragraph (100 words), discuss the changes that Rip’s town has undergone in his absence.

Presentation: Washington Irving, American Romantic (Professor Canada)

Cooperative Learning

Humor: Note two or three humorous parts of “Rip Van Winkle” and try to identify the source of Irving’s humor.  Find an example of satire and characterize it as Horatian or Juvenalian satire.

Setting: Describe the setting of “Rip Van Winkle.”  How does this setting complement one or two themes of the story?

Characterization: What kind of person is Rip Van Winkle?  What values does he represent?  In what ways might Irving’s depiction of Rip and his story itself suggest something larger?

Discussion: During this time, we will discuss the insights and questions that have emerged during our reading, “Think Fast” exercise, my presentation, and cooperative learning.

Think Again: Choose a figure we have seen in an earlier literary work—Benjamin Franklin, for example, or someone from one of Anne Bradstreet’s poems—and argue that this figure would or would not get along with Rip Van Winkle.

Announcements: We will wrap up this lesson with announcements regarding upcoming lessons, as well as other relevant subjects.

Names and Terms

Make sure you know the meaning and significance of each of the following names and terms:

  • Romanticism
  • fiction
  • short story
  • persona
  • setting


You can find more information about the subject covered in this lesson by consulting the print or electronic resources listed below:

All American: Washington Irving features a chronology, study questions, and more.

Updated October 8, 2002
Mark Canada, 2002


Having completed our tour of the Enlightenment, we turn now to a new and exciting age in American literature—the age of Romanticism—and we begin with the work of one of America’s best-known writers, Washington Irving.



The period from 1784 to 1865 was a time of both expansion and division in the United States. After winning their independence from Britain in the Revolutionary War, Americans gradually expanded their nation to the West. Indeed, newspaper editor John O'Sullivan famously proclaimed in 1845 that the land to the West of the original colonies belonged to the United States "by right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federatative self-government entrusted to us." The reality was not as attractive as this idealistic sentiment. For one thing, while the Mormons who migrated to modern-day Utah in the 1840s certainly sought liberty, most of the other people who settled the West were motivated by material concerns. The pioneers who traveled on the Oregon Trail in the 1830s and 1840s, for example, sought land where they could earn a decent living, while some heading west during the 1849 California Gold Rush hoped to get rich. Furthermore, the process of settling--or, in some cases, exploiting--this land involved many unsavory consequences, including conflicts with Native Americans, destruction of buffalo, and mistreatment of Chinese immigrants. While America was expanding west, it also was dividing between north and south. In the northern United States, where the economy was largely industrial, many Americans opposed slavery and tried to restrict its spread or even outlaw it entirely. The southern states, on the other hand, had a primarily agricultural economy and depended heavily on slave labor. Despite attempts at compromise, such as the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850, 11 southern states eventually seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America. In the American Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1865, the Confederate Army of the south--seeking its independence--fought against the north's Union Army, which sought to preserve the Union. The war ended when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia.

The American culture of this period showed the same hunger, confidence, and sense of adventure that characterized the westward migration. While western pioneers were exploring and settling the land, other Americans broke ground in the scientific, social, and artistic realms. Major inventions included Eli Whitney's cotton gin in 1793, Samuel B. Morse's telegraph in 1844, and Elias Howe's "sewing jenny" in 1846. Between 1830, when the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad became the first to operate in America, and the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, American laborers laid more than 30,000 miles of track. Meanwhile, dramatic changes took place in American society, thanks to social reformers such as educators Horace Mann and Catharine Beecher, prison reformer Dorothea Dix, women's advocate Lucretia Mott, and abolitionists Frederick Douglass, John Brown, and William Lloyd Garrison. This was also the age of temperance societies and utopian communities, including New Harmony and Brook Farm. Finally, Americans were reading more than they ever had and were witnessing important developments in the field of art. Literate Americans could choose from numerous magazines and newspapers, including 47 newspapers in New York alone in 1830. New Yorkers packed a free gallery operated by the American Art-Union, an association of artists and patrons who sought to promote American art, and the world saw the emergence of several important American artists, including Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Cole, and Hiram Powers.

American literature also developed in dramatic ways during this period. Like the colonial writers who had preceded them, the first writers in antebellum America largely followed British models. Joel Barlow, for example, wrote epic and mock epic poetry in the tradition of English writers such as John Milton and Alexander Pope, and Royall Tyler's play The Contrast closely resembles British Restoration comedies by Richard Brinsley Sheridan and William Congreve. An early milestone in the history of a truly American literature came in 1819, when Washington Irving published the first installments of The Sketch Book, a collection of essays and stories, including "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." A year later, fellow New Yorker James Fenimore Cooper published his first novel. While the works of these two writers also looked British in many ways, their work demonstrated two important developments in American literature. First, each writer, particularly Cooper in his Leather-Stocking Tales, capitalized on American settings and American themes. Second, both Irving and Cooper were more than inferior proteges; rather, they were as talented as many of the English masters and even earned the respect of English readers. The next milestone came in 1837 when Ralph Waldo Emerson of Massachusetts delivered a lecture called "The American Scholar," which fellow writer Oliver Wendell Holmes called America's "intellectual Declaration of Independence." For the next two decades, American writers such as Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Frederick Douglass, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Walt Whitman, T.B. Thorpe, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Herman Melville produced scores of essays, nonfiction narratives, poems, short stories, and novels that formed a distinctive American literature.

Much of this literature still showed signs of British or at least European influence.  Most notably, Poe wrote Gothic stories and set many of them in European locales, and Longfellow, a professor of Romance languages at Harvard, borrowed verse forms and even subject matter from Europe. Still, Poe, Longfellow, and their great contemporaries were clearly American writers in both form and content. In the areas of form and technique, for example, Poe--along with Thorpe, Hawthorne, and others--shaped a distinctively American short story, and Whitman departed from European poetic models by developing free verse. Both Hawthorne and Melville wrote symbolic, even ethereal novels that differed from the works of their English contemporaries. In content, Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller, Longfellow, Whitman, Cooper, Stowe, and Melville not only set works in American locales, but drew heavily on American themes, issues, and identities--including exploration, democracy, individualism, slavery, native Americans, frontiersmen, and Cajuns--while also lending their American perspectives to eternal subjects, such as nature, religion, and truth.

Washington Irving, 1783-1859

The first great American writer of this period was Washington Irving, whose Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, first published in 1819, was a sensation in England and helped build the United States' reputation for creative literature. Over the remainder of his career, which included Tales of the Alhambra and many other books, Irving was the most famous and most widely respected literary figure in America. Thanks in part to developments in publishing technology, Irving also was one of the few Americans to make substantial money from writing. By 1829, he had made more than $23,000 from his writing, and he eventually bought the plates from which his works were published in order to protect his own rights to proceeds from them.

A transitional figure, Irving somewhat ironically contributed to America's literary independence while producing work that was distinctively European in content and style. Like his contemporary James Fenimore Cooper, Irving proved that Americans could write European literature as well as Europeans could. His masterful use of personae, stylized prose, and use of European legend all demonstrate the strong influence of the Old World on his work. Indeed, the sketches and tales in The Sketch Book show Irving's affection for the antiquity of Europe and for the past in general. This attention to the past, as Irving scholar William P. Kelly has noted, was one reason for Irving's success with his American audience. Kelly points out that Americans, recently severed from their European heritage, were struggling with an identity crisis at the time they were reading Irving's work, which itself looks both forward and backward. (xii).

Irving is a major figure in the history of the short story in America. Indeed, Fred Lewis Pattee begins his book The Development of the American Short Story with Irving and identifies The Sketch Book, which contains "Rip Van Winkle" and the "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," as the starting point for this literary form in the United States. Pattee notes that the short story suited Irving, who tended to write in "spurts and dashes": "He did not deliberately choose the shortened form: he fell into it automatically because of his temperament, his natural indolence that forbade long-continued efforts, his powerful yet volatile emotions, and his early literary training in the school of Addison and Goldsmith and Dr. Johnson" (6). Another striking characteristic of Irving's writing is the preponderance of visual imagery. A painter himself, Irving often drew verbal pictures in his essays and stories, and the title of his most famous work makes a double reference to visual art: The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon.


In our next lesson, we will turn from Irving to another American Romantic, Edgar Allan Poe, one of the country’s best-loved writers.