Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Irving, Washington

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(1783-1859) The father of the US short story and one of the first US professional writers. WI is an important link in the transfer of the stories of German Romanticism to US soil. Although he studied as a lawyer and briefly pursued that career, his heart was always in writing, and he began selling essays in 1802. Hiding behind a variety of pseudonyms, he produced a number of humorous satirical essays, the most famous being A History of New York (1809) as by Diedrich Knickerbocker; this mock history is one of the earliest Fantasies of History. After the death of his fiancée, and himself in poor health, WI settled for a while in England, where he became entranced not only with the English countryside but with the German folktales then becoming popular in the UK. Encouraged by Sir Walter Scott, WI put together a series of sketches about England and the USA, and these became The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon (coll 1819-1820 7 vols; omni 1820 UK); they include three stories heavily influenced by German folklore. Most famous is "Rip Van Winkle", which begins in pre-Revolution North America. Rip helps a Dwarf and is rewarded with a draught of the dwarf's liquor. He falls into an enchanted sleep. When he wakes, 20 years have passed and the world has changed. While the tale was a simple vehicle for WI to satirize events in his Knickerbocker mode, it was also one of the earliest stories to recognize the impact of progress (> Belatedness). Also in the collection is "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow", probably based on a story by Johann Karl Musäus; this popularized the image of the headless horseman and formed the basis for an operetta (> Opera) by Douglas Moore, The Headless Horseman (1936), with libretto by Stephen Vincent Benét, who was heavily influenced by WI's writings. The tale was filmed as the second half of Disney's Animated Movie The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad (1949; > The Wind in the Willows).

WI continued to adapt German Legends and Folktales, imbuing them with the same healthy scepticism with which he had treated US history. The best appeared in Tales of a Traveller (coll 1824 UK) as by Geoffrey Crayon; the book consists of a series of frame stories (> Club Story), including the popular Ghost Story "The Adventure of the German Student" (vt "The Lady in the Velvet Collar") and the early Pact-with-the-Devil story "The Devil and Tom Walker".

WI spent most of his time in Europe, where he briefly had a romantic liaison with Mary Shelley before settling in Spain in 1826 as diplomatic attaché, soon producing a volume of stories and sketches based on Spanish legends, The Alhambra (1832 UK; rev 1852). These are less satirical than his early adaptations, but their muted melancholy makes them more strongly romantic. His later writings were biographies and histories and, though popular, never repeated his early successes. WI's work laid the foundation for the writings of William Austin, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe and others. [MA]

other works: Bracebridge Hall, or The Humorists (coll 1822) as by Geoffrey Crayon (>>> Christmas) and Chronicles of Wolfert's Roost and Other Papers (coll 1855 UK), both including legends and folktales. Of more recent compendia, those containing the highest quota of fantasy are The Bold Dragoon and Other Ghostly Tales (coll 1930) ed Anne Carroll Moore, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories (coll 1962), The Ghostly Tales of Washington Irving (coll 1979) ed Michael Hayes, and Washington's Irving's Tales of the Supernatural (coll 1982) ed Edward Wagenknecht.

Washington Irving


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.