Every hour of the day produces some change in the hues and shapes of these mountains… When the weather is fair and settled, they are clothed in blue and purple, and print their bold outlines on the clear evening sky; but sometimes when the rest of the landscape is cloudless, they will gather a hood of gray vapors about their summits, which, in the last rays of the setting sun, will glow and light up like a crown of glory. – Washington Irvin, Rip Van Winkle.
Finished reading, “Washington Irving, An American Original,” a 2008 book by Brian Jay Jones.
And what an interesting path to finding it.
Last week Roberta and I began planning a trip to Brooklyn to see family on her side. We’ll be making a side trip to Kykuit, the estate of the late John D. Rockefeller, some 20 miles north of New York. Reading a bit about the Rockefellers led to learning the estate is located in Tarrytown, a village on the eastern bank of the Hudson River and about a mile south of Kykuit.
I’d always assumed Tarrytown was a fictional place. An episode of The Andy Griffith Show (“A Wife for Andy”) told me so. Barney concocts a scheme to help Andy find a wife. He told all the single ladies in town to meet at Andy’s house so the Sheriff could look them over. They start showing up one at a time.
The following scene, with Andy reading to Opie, repeats several times.
“It was the very witchin' time of night that Ichabod "heavy-hearted and crestfallen, pursued his travel homewards "along the sides of the lofty hills which rise above tarrytown and which he had traversed so cheerily in.. "
“Wonder who that is.”
After all these years, I finally had the answer. Tarrytown, I learned, was an actual place.
Born in lower Manhattan five days before the end of the Revolutionary War, Washington Irving (1783-1859) was the middle-class son of merchants. When he was a young lad, his nursemaid chased George Washington around the young city, finally cornering the President-elect at a store. The founding father touched the little boy’s head, whose emigrant parents had named after the war hero.
Irving, as we would say today, did not apply himself in school. With a wandering mind, he was more interested in listening to stories and traveling. Trips to the Hudson Valley and the Catskill Mountains, a picturesque, Dutch-settled region north of New York, pleased him so. He heard stories about ghosts and a headless horseman. Nearby lay the town of Sleepy Hollow. These experiences planted the seeds for Ichabod Crane, the fictional character and protagonist in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, published in 1820.
After dabbling in small pieces for newspapers and showing a talent for satire, Irving wrote his first book at the age of 26. Written with the pseudonym, Diedrich Knickerbocker, “A History of New York” poked fun as much as it informed. In what amounted to a publicity stunt for the book’s launch, he placed an ad in the papers asking if anyone knew the whereabouts of a Dutch historian named Diedrich Knickerbocker. Washington was a publishing genius before his time.
Around the time he was writing History of New York, Irving fell in love with Matilda Hoffman. Her father was Judge Ogden Hoffman, who hired Irving when he was a law student. Affections for his dear Matilda ran high, but in the eyes of her father, Washington’s prospects for a steady income were low. Of this, Jones writes: “The Judge clearly understood Irving’s dreamy nature and inclination toward laziness.”
Tragically, Matilda fell ill and was bedridden for months. She died of consumption in 1809 at the tender age of 17. Irving’s tender heart was broken.
After a nine-year slump with no writing, Irving satisfied his wanderlust with a trip to Europe. A conversation with his brother-in-law, Henry Van Wart, that included mentions of Sleepy Hollow, sparked resurgence in his writing. With the creative juices flowing, the 44-year-old writer’s quill pen poured out a dozen essays and stories. He headed for London with a manuscript about a character named Rip Van Winkle.
Under the pen name Geoffrey Crayon, “The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon” included both the Rip Van Winkle story and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” The latter introduced the characters Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman.
As Jones notes, Legend, “blended nuggets of Dutch customs, stories and characters with dashes of German folklore.” The story “practically invented the spooky autumn atmosphere against which we now except good Halloween tales to be set.” The people in New York and London ate it up. Irvin had become the first American writer to achieve notoriety overseas. Sketch Book also helped popularize the Christmas holiday.
Washington Irving was now a household name. He returned to the United States in 1832 and purchased Sunnyside, a stone farmhouse overlooking the Hudson River two miles south of Tarrytown. Never having a place to call his own, Irving had always wanted to buy the cottage.
Built in the 1780s and described as a “common colonial saltbox,” (National Park Service), Irving turned it into a picturesque blend of several styles. John Deedy called the house, “a quaint architectural ménage a trois of the Dutch, Gothic, and Romanesque.”
Kerry Dean Carso points out that Irvin drew inspiration for Sunnyside from Sir Walter Scott’s Abbotsford. He also notes Sunnyvale influenced Alexander Jackson Davis, the “premiere Gothic Revival architect” who designed Lyndhurst, located a short distance from Sunnyside. (Davis spent five years in Alexandria and learned the printing trade. It’s been suggested Alexandria is where he “developed the romantic ideal that became the vision of much of his future work”).
A standout feature of Sunnyside is a three-story stone tower, which combines Gothic elements with pagodalike Chinese influences. Irving called the renovated dwelling, “The Roost.” Sunnyside stayed in the family before being purchase by the Rockefeller family who funded and took care of the property.
Ensconced and content, Irving continued to write, including pen-palling with Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Dickens. When he reprised his old voices, Knickerbocker and Crayon, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow criticized the efforts as “old remnants.”
Irving always felt the sting of any criticism when it occurred, but this arrow fell short of the target. Irving was a beloved lion in the twilight of a distinguished career.
The author also covers Irving’s time in Washington. He seemed a natural on the cocktail circuit, rubbing shoulders at parties with Senators and politicians. He enchanted, danced with, and befriended First Lady Dolly Madison.
Irving would rather mock politicians than work for one, but he turned the table in 1842 when he accepted President Tyler’s appointment as Minister to Spain. His earlier travels to Europe and popularity on the world stage served him well in this capacity.
Irving also came to Washington for his research on George Washington. In the late 1850s, towards the end of his life, he worked feverishly to complete four volumes of Washington’s biography. Enjoying his golden years at Sunnyside, the bachelor for life put on the finishing touches of a stellar career. Good reviews followed. Edward Lengel called it “the standard Washington biography.”
Shortly after completing the book, Irvin died of a heart attack at his home in 1859. He was laid to rest at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Tarrytown, a place he helped put on the map. Also buried there are Astors, Carnegies, and Rockefellers.
In 1927, a memorial for Irving was unveiled in Tarrytown. Jennie Prince Black had worked tirelessly to pay the tribute. Daniel Chester French, whose works include the Lincoln Memorial, designed and sculpted the memorial. It showcases Rip Van Winkle and Boabdil, a character in The Alhambra.
In 1945, the Rockefeller Family bought Sunnyside from the Irving family, restored it and opened it to the public as a historic house museum in 1947.
Along with Charles Brockden Brown and James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving helped give America some of its first literature. As Andrew Burstein, his other biographer, put it, he “announced America’s voice to the world.”
Joyce Carol Oates, in “The Oxford Book of American Short Stories” writes this of his characters – “so deeply imprinted have they become in the popular imagination, they strike us as mythopoetic figures – timeless, archetypal, transcending the circumstances of their own creation.”
With one foot in the Old World, and one in the New, Irving became the first American-born author who was able to make a living from his published work. He pioneered the short story form and stood up against acts of piracy in a time when copyright laws were non-existent or weak. He penned over a dozen and a half titles and made “Knickerbocker” and “Gotham” synonymous with New York. Our Christmas cheer owes something to Irvin.
Pointing out his contributions to his fellow penmen, Andrew Liptak notes Irving helped “to encourage and influence a number of authors who would likewise be known for their literary and gothic stories, especially Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville and Edgar Allan Poe.”
Providing context, Kathryn VanSpankeren (“Democratic Origins and Revolutionary Writers, 1776-1820”) observed, “Irving gave America something it badly needed in the brash, materialistic early years: an imaginative way of relating to the new land.”
And yet, as Jones observes, Irving’s characters are much more known.
I can certainly testify to that with another example from my childhood. In my textbook at Sedgefield Elementary School, we learned that North Carolina, my home state, fell into sleepy economic state after the War of 1812.
Although I was long ignorant of Irving’s story, I’ve never forgotten the nickname North Carolina earned -- the Rip Van Winkle State.
There is an interesting postscript to this story. Sleepy Hollow, where the Rockefeller estate lies, is only a recent name for the town north of Tarrytown. It was originally known as North Tarrytown. In 1996, the village officially changed the name to Sleepy Hollow.