Friday, May 30, 2008

Washington Irving: An American Original - Brian Jay Jones

By combining a lively and engaging voice with scholarly acumen and artful attention to details, Mr. Jones has written a biography that is, by far the best I’ve ever read.

What a delightful surprise to come upon this book right after the conclusion of the HBO mini-series on John Adams. Washington Irving: An American Original picks up where that mini-series leaves off; it fills a void made by wondering what happens next in the lives of those larger-than-life political and historic figures.

That Washington Irving was the author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, that he built a picturesque house on the Hudson River, I knew because I’d visited the house and read the story as a child, but that Washington Irving was an attorney, an adventurer, a devoted theatre goer and scathing drama critic, a political insider, an ambassador to foreign countries, a friend and confidant of presidents and royalty, a prolific biographer and the first commercially popular author produced by this brazen nation, this was revelation.

In the hands of a writer of lesser skill, the subject of a life as large and all-encompassing as this might have proved daunting, but with a master biographer’s touch does Mr. Jones seamlessly chronicle the personal and family history with the travels and political duties of Washington Irving along with his writing life and career as America’s first best-selling author.

By describing the behind-the-scenes maneuverings and upheavals of national and international politics, by rendering an economy, and in particular a publishing industry in serious financial trouble, Mr. Jones wisely lets his reader draw their own parallels with the current political and economic conditions. By painting such an intimate portrait of the vicissitudes and triumphs, the chronic doubts and sudden successes of Washington Irving’s process and progress as a writer, Mr. Jones allows the modern day writer to draw their own personal analogy to his or her self, and they are all the more engaged as readers because they see their own course, experience and struggles reflected in Irving’s.

Irving coined words such as “Gotham” and “Knickerbocker,” and yet grammar and spelling were not his strong suit. More than anything, he is a writer who not only got that publishing is a business, but that the best way to succeed in it is blatant self-promotion and hype. At nineteen, to distract from the doldrums of law school, he created the persona of Jonathan Oldstyle. Under this guise, he wrote Gawker-styled gossip pieces and took pot shots at theatre performances. At age twenty-three, he passed the bar. As a way of avoiding having to actually work in the legal profession, Irving, along with his rabble rousing friends, the “Lads of Kilkenny,” started Salmagundi – a magazine designed to “‘….ridicule the follies and foibles of the fashionable world,’ and generally poke fun at just about anything.” With an exuberant hubris, they inform readers that “like all true and able editors, we consider ourselves infallible… that every opinion which we may advance in either of those characters will be correct, we are determined, though it may be questioned, contradicted, or even controverted, yet it shall never be revoked.”

Men after my own heart, indeed.

Irving’s next – his first full length project – was a parody of another author’s earlier work considered by many as pompous and mundane. However, as most writers Irving let distractions lure him away from his unfinished task. It took the death of his seventeen-year-old fiancĂ©, Matilda Hoffman, for Irving to seek the solace of endeavor. He did a massive re-write of what he’d already completed, taking the work in a different direction than originally intended. Under the new pen name of Diedrich Knickerbocker he published A History of New York. Along with that he concocted an over-the-top marketing plan – a genius hoax perpetrated against his readers. By placing notices in newspapers, he both worried and piqued the public’s curiosity with the “account” of a small and feeble minded man named “Knickerbocker” - an elderly gent who’s gone missing. Subsequent pot-stirring notices told of brief “sightings” of the eccentric geezer, and Irving even offered a “reward” for knowledge of his whereabouts. But Irving proves his marketing brilliance with the follow-up, buzz-inciting ad from Knickerbocker’s “landlord”:

To the Editors of the Evening Post

Sir, - You have been good enough to publish in your paper a paragraph about Mr. Diedrich Knickerbocker, who was missing so strangely some time since. Nothing satisfactory has been heard of the old gentleman since; but a very curious kind of book has been found in his room, in his own handwriting. Now I wish you to notice him, if he is still alive, that if he does not return soon and pay off his bill for boarding and lodging, I shall have to dispose of his book to satisfy me for the same.

New York was on the edge of its collective seat fretting the fate of this book. They didn’t wait long. A couple of weeks later the “landlord” announced the publication of Knickerbocker’s book – a ambitious satire that opens with a brief history of the world, that once dispatched, gets down to its most significant event: Henry Hudson’s discovery of the island of Manhattan. And thus was the author’s career launched.

But not for long. Doubts went hand in with fame and positive reviews: “Reading… some of these criticisms… I feel almost appalled by such success, and fearful that it cannot be real – or that it is not fully merited, or that I shall not act up to the expectations that may be formed…. now that it is so extravagantly bepraised I begin to feel afraid that I shall not do as well again.”

Irving’s life as a writer was marked by innumerable distractions, health problems, crushing financial losses that stemmed from both his and his family’s poor business decisions, and stunning reversals of fortune followed by sudden windfalls, and golden opportunities.

Often, his writer’s ego was bruised by a fickle reading public. There was even an anonymous stalker/troll who taunted him with bad reviews. There was a period where he came dangerously close to slipping out of print. He had a prickly relationship with his famed publisher as well as fellow celebrity author, James Fenimore Cooper. Loopholes in what little copyright laws they had then both enhanced and drained his bank account. Irving was even accused of doing sock-puppet laudatory reviews of his own work, and there were claims of plagiarism. Frequently, he’d lament his role as a tabloid celebrity.

Sir Walter Scott was an early fan and mentor. In later years, as Irving’s reputation grew in stature, young up-and-coming authors such as Charles Dickens and a wily Edgar Allen Poe sought his counsel and approval. When Irving began his ministry as America’s diplomat to Spain, he met a young politician’s aide eager to show the literary legend a manuscript written by his brother. So impressed was Irving that he touted the book to his own publisher. Thus Herman Melville’s first novel, Typee, came into being.

From a youthful Irving attending the trial of former Vice President Aaron Burr when Burr was charged with treason and high misdemeanor, to his on-again/off-again friendship with Martin Van Buren to his diplomatic service in England and Spain, to his role as biographer of subjects as diverse as George Washington, John Astor and Muhammad, to the chronicle of his travels through Italy, Spain, Mexico and the Oregon Territory, Irving was not only politically active, he had a front row seat to much of history.

In spite of the many hats he wore, Washington Irving was above all else a New Yorker. On the day of his funeral the courts in New York City shut down so that government officials could pay their respects. All across New York flags were lowered to half-staff to honor their native son. In Tarrytown, more than a thousand mourners filed past his casket. In a later memorial service, Longfellow stated: “We feel a just pride in his renown as an author, not forgetting that, to his other claims upon our gratitude, he adds also that of having been the first to win for our country an honourable name and position in the History of Letters.”

Of the accomplishment that Mr. Jones has achieved with this book I think it best to repeat the quote made by another much feared reviewer - Edinburgh’s Francis Jeffrey - whose sentiments towards Irving’s work mirror my own on this most excellent and readable of biographies: “We have received so much pleasure from this book that we think ourselves bound in gratitude to make a public acknowledgement of it.”

Well done, Mr. Jones! Well done!

To learn more about Brian Jay Jones please do visit his website:

And don’t forget to stop by his blog:

And to learn about my own connection to Washington Irving and Sunnyside, read this: