Washington Irving: Contribution to American Fictional Prose

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      The youngest of 11 children born to a well-to-do New York merchant family, Washington Irving became a cultural and diplomatic ambassador to Europe, like Benjamin and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Despite his talent, he probably would not have become a full-time professional writer, given the lack of financial rewards. A series of fortuitous incidents had not thrust writing as a profession upon him. Under influence of William Godwin, he wrote Alcuin: A Dialogue (1798), a treatise on the rights of women. Under influence Godwin’s novel Caleb Williams, he wrote four best novels into years Wieland; or The Transformation (1798), Arthur Mervyn; or The Memoirs of the Year (1793) Onnund or The Secret Witness, Edgar Huntley; or The Memoirs of a Sleep Walker (1799) - Through friends, he was able to publish his Sketch Book (1819-1820) simultaneously both in England and America, obtaining copyrights and payment in both countries. He believed more in the act of writing novels that would be both intellectual as well as popular activity that stimulate the debate among the intellectuals.

      The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon (Irving’s pseudonym) contains his two best remembered stories, “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” “Sketch” and aptly describes living’s delicate, elegant, yet seemingly casual style, and “Crayon” suggests his ability as a colorist or creator of rich, nuanced tones and emotional effects. In the Sketch Book, Iiving transforms the Catskill Mountains along the Hudson River, North of New York City into a fabulous, magical region. The American readers gratefully accepted living’s imagined “history” of the Catskills despite the fact (unknown to them) that he had adapted his stories from a German source. Irving gave America something it badly needed in the brash, materialistic early years: an imaginative way of relating to the new land”. No writer was so successful as Irving at humanizing the land, endowing it with a name, a face and a set of legends. The story of “Rip Van Winkle,” who slept for 20 years, waking to find the colonies had become independent, eventually became the most popular folklore. It was adapted for the stage also. It also went into the oral tradition, and was gradually accepted as authentic American legend by the next generations.

      Irving discovered and helped to satisfy the raw new nation’s sense of history. His numerous works maybe seen as his devoted attempts to build the new nation’s soul by recreating history and giving it living, breathing, imaginative life. For subjects, he chose the most dramatic aspects of American history: the discovery of the New World, the first president and national hero, and the westward exploration. His earliest work was a sparkling, satirical History of New York (1809) under the Dutch, ostensibly written by Diedrich Knickerbocker (hence, the “Knickerbocker School” meant Irving’s friends and New York writers of the day).

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