Washington Irving Biography

Engraved portrait of Washington Irving in his study.
PhotoQuest/Getty Images

Washington Irving was a short story writer, famous for works like "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." These works were both a part of "The Sketch Book," a collection of short stories. Washington Irving has been called the father of the American short story because of his unique contributions to the form.

Dates: 1783-1859 

Pseudonyms included: Dietrich Knickerbocker, Jonathan Oldstyle, and Geoffrey Crayon​

Growing Up

Washington Irving was born on April 3, 1783, in New York City, New York. His father, William, was a merchant, and his mother, Sarah Sanders, was the daughter of an English clergyman. The American Revolution was just ending. His parents were patriotic, and his mother said upon this birth of her 11th child, "Washington's work is ended and the child shall be named after him."

According to Mary Weatherspoon Bowden, "Irving maintained close ties with his family his entire life."

Education and Marriage

Washington Irving read a great deal as a boy, including Robinson Crusoe, "Sinbad the Sailor," and "The World Displayed." As far as formal education went, Irving attended elementary school until he was 16, without distinction. He studied law and he passed the bar in 1807.

Washington Irving was engaged to marry Matilda Hoffmann, who died on April 26, 1809, at the age of 17. Irving never became engaged, or married anyone, after that tragic love.

In response to an inquiry about why he had never married, Irving wrote to Mrs. Forster, saying: "For years I could not talk on the subject of this hopeless regret; I could not even mention her name, but her image was continually before me, and I dreamt of her incessantly."

Washington Irving Death

Washington Irving died in Tarrytown, New York on November 28, 1859. He seemed to foretell his death, as he said before going to bed: "Well, I must arrange my pillows for another weary night! If this could only end!"

Irving was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

Lines From "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"

"In the bosom of one of those spacious coves which indent the eastern shore of the Hudson, at that broad expansion of the river denominated by the ancient Dutch navigators the Tappan Zee, and where they always prudently shortened sail and implored the protection of St. Nicholas when they crossed, there lies a small market town or rural port, which by some is called Greensburgh, but which is more generally and properly known by the name of Tarry Town."

Washington Irving Lines From "Rip Van Winkle"

"Here's to your good health, and your family's good health, and may you all live long and prosper."

"There was one species of despotism under which he had long groaned, and that was petticoat government."

Washington Irving Lines From "Westminster Abbey"

"History fades into fable; fact becomes clouded with doubt and controversy; the inscription moulders from the tablet: the statue falls from the pedestal. Columns, arches, pyramids, what are they but heaps of sand; and their epitaphs, but characters written in the dust?"

"Man passes away; his names perishes from record and recollection; his history is as a tale that is told, and his very monument becomes a ruin."

Washington Irving Lines From "The Sketch Book"

"There is a certain relief in change, even though it be from bad to worse; as I have found in travelling in a stage-coach, that it is often a comfort to shift one's position and be bruised in a new place."
- "Preface"

"No sooner does he hear any of this brothers mention reform or retrenchment, than up he jumps."
- "John Bull"

Other Contributions

Fred Lewis Pattee once wrote about Irving's contributions:

He made short fiction popular; stripped the prose tale of its didactic elements and made it a literary form solely for entertainment; added richness of atmosphere and unity of tone; added definite locality and actual American scenery and people; brought a peculiar nicety of execution and patient workmanship; added humor and lightness of touch; was original; created characters who are always definite individuals; and endowed the short story with a style that is finished and beautiful.

Besides Irving's famous collection of stories in "The Sketch Book" (1819), Washington Irving's other works include: "Salmagundi" (1808), "History of New York" (1809), "Bracebridge Hall" (1822), "Tales of a Traveller" (1824), "The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus" (1828), "The Conquest of Granada" (1829), "Voyages and Discoveries of the Companions of Columbus" (1831), "The Alhambra" (1832), "The Crayon Miscellany" (1835), "Astoria" (1836), "The Rocky Mountains" (1837), "Biography of Margaret Miller Davidson" (1841), "Goldsmith, Mahomet" (1850), "Mahomet's Successors" (1850), "Wolfert's Roost" (1855), and "Life of Washington" (1855).

Irving wrote more than just short stories. His works included essays, poetry, travel writing, and biography; and for his works, he achieved international recognition and acclaim.