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KNICKERBOCKER’S HISTORY OF NEW YORK is the book, published in December,
1809, with which Washington living, at the age of twenty-six, first won
wide credit and influence.  Walter Scott wrote to an American friend, who
sent him the second edition ­

“I beg you to accept my best thanks for the uncommon degree of entertainment which I have received from the most excellently jocose History of New York.  I am sensible that, as a stranger to American parties and politics, I must lose much of the concealed satire of the piece, but I must own that, looking at the simple and obvious meaning only, I have never read anything so closely resembling the style of Dean Swift as the annals of Diedrich Knickerbocker.  I have been employed these few evenings in reading them aloud to Mrs. S. and two ladies who are our guests, and our sides have been absolutely sore with laughing.  I think, too, there are passages which indicate that the author possesses powers of a different kind, and has some touches which remind me much of Sterne.”

Washington Irving was the son of William Irving, a sturdy native of the
Orkneys, allied to the Irvines of Drum, among whose kindred was an old
historiographer who said to them, “Some of the foolish write themselves
Irving.”  William Irving of Shapinsha, in the Orkney Islands, was a petty
officer on board an armed packet ship in His Majesty’s service, when he
met with his fate at Falmouth in Sarah Sanders, whom he married at
Falmouth in May, 1761.  Their first child was buried in England before
July, 1763, when peace had been concluded, and William Irving emigrated to
New York with his wife, soon to be joined by his wife’s parents.

At New York William Irving entered into trade, and prospered fairly until
the outbreak of the American Revolution.  His sympathy, and that of his
wife, went with the colonists.  On the 19th of October, 1781, Lord
Cornwallis, with a force of seven thousand men, surrendered at Yorktown. 
In October, 1782, Holland acknowledged the independence of the United
States in a treaty concluded at The Hague.  In January, 1783, an armistice
was concluded with Great Britain.  In February, 1783, the independence of
the United States was acknowledged by Sweden and by Denmark, and in March
by Spain.  On the 3rd of April in that year an eleventh child was born to
William and Sarah Irving, who was named Washington, after the hero under
whom the war had been brought to an end.  In 1783 the peace was signed, New
York was evacuated, and the independence of the United States acknowledged
by England.

Of the eleven children eight survived.  William Irving, the father, was
rigidly pious, a just and honorable man, who made religion burdensome to
his children by associating it too much with restrictions and denials.  One
of their two weekly half-holidays was devoted to the Catechism.  The
mother’s gentler sensibility and womanly impulses gave her the greater
influence; but she reverenced and loved her good husband, and when her
youngest puzzled her with his pranks, she would say, “Ah, Washington, if
you were only good!”

For his lively spirits and quick fancy could not easily be subdued.  He
would get out of his bed-room window at night, walk along a coping, and
climb over the roof to the top of the next house, only for the high
purpose of astonishing a neighbor by dropping a stone down his chimney.  As
a young school-boy he came upon Hoole’s translation of Ariosto, and
achieved in his father’s back yard knightly adventures.  “Robinson Crusoe”
and “Sindbad the Sailor” made him yearn to go to sea.  But this was
impossible unless he could learn to lie hard and eat salt pork, which he
detested.  He would get out of bed at night and lie on the floor for an
hour or two by way of practice.  He also took every opportunity that came
in his way of eating the detested food.  But the more he tried to like it
the nastier it grew, and he gave up as impracticable his hope of going to
sea.  He fastened upon adventures of real travelers; he yearned for travel,
and was entranced in his youth by first sight of the beauties of the
Hudson River.  He scribbled jests for his school friends, and, of course,
he wrote a school-boy play.  At sixteen his schooling was at an end, and he
was placed in a lawyer’s office, from which he was transferred to another,
and then, in January, 1802, to another, where he continued his clerkship
with a Mr. Hoffman, who had a young wife, and two young daughters by a
former marriage.  With this family Washington Irving, a careless student,
lively, clever, kind, established the happiest relations, of which
afterwards there came the deep grief of his life and a sacred memory.

Washington Irving’s eldest brothers were beginning to thrive in business. 
A brother Peter shared his frolics with the pen.  His artist pleasure in
the theater was indulged without his father’s knowledge.  He would go to
the play, come home for nine o’clock prayers, go up to bed, and climb out
of his bed-room window, and run back and see the after-piece.  So come
evasions of undue restraint.  But with all this impulsive liveliness, young
Washington Irving’s life appeared, as he grew up, to be in grave danger. 
When he was nineteen, and taken by a brother-in-law to Ballston springs,
it was determined by those who heard his incessant night cough that he was
“not long for this world.”  When he had come of age, in April, 1804, his
brothers, chiefly his eldest brother, who was prospering, provided money
to send him to Europe that he might recover health by restful travel in
France, Italy and England.  When he was helped up the side of the vessel
that was to take him from New York to Bordeaux, the captain looked at him
with pity and said, “There’s a chap who will go overboard before we get
across.”  But Washington Irving returned to New York at the beginning of
the year 1806 with health restored.

What followed will be told in the Introduction to the of her volume of
this History of New York, by Diedrich Knickerbocker.

H.M.

INTRODUCTION TO VOLUME II

The playful devices by which attention was directed to the coming publication of the History of Diedrich Knickerbocker are represented in the author’s opening to the first volume.  Irving joined afterward in business as a sleeping partner, visited England in 1815, and, while cordially welcomed here by Thomas Campbell, Walter Scott, and others, the failure of his brother’s business obliged him to make writing his profession.  The publishers at first refused to take one of the most charming of his works, the “Sketch Book”; but John Murray yielded at last to the influence of Walter Scott, and paid L200 for the copyright of it, a sum afterward increased to L400.  “Bracebridge Hall” and the “Tales of a Traveler” followed.  Irving went to Spain with the American Ambassador to translate documents and acquire experience which he used afterward in successive books.  “The Life and Voyages of Columbus” appeared in 1828, and was followed by “Voyages of the Companions of Columbus.”

In 1829 Washington Irving came again to England, this time as Secretary to the American Legation.  He published the “Conquest of Granada.”  In 1831 he received the honorary degree of LL.D. from the University of Oxford.  Then he returned to America, published in 1832 “The Alhambra;” in 1835 “Legends of the Conquest of Spain.”  In 1842 he went again to Spain, this time as American Minister.  Other works were produced, and at the close of his life he achieved his early ambition, by writing a Life of Washington, after whom he had been named, and who had laid his hand upon his head and blessed him when he was a child of five.  Although the first of the five volumes of the Life of Washington did not appear until he was more than seventy years old, he lived to complete his work, and died on the 28th of November, 1859.  Washington Irving never married.  He had loved in his early years a daughter of his friend Mrs. Hoffman, had sat by her death-bed when she was a girl of seventeen, and waited until his own death restored her to him.