By Henry John Steiner
Historian of Sleepy Hollow, New York
A Genius for Writing
I tend to see Washington Irving as a master of Literature’s Classical Age as well as its Romantic Age. His style might be called a hybrid of those two epochs. It is difficult to say exactly how Irving emerged in Federal America with such a strong and polished voice on only a basic education. He seemed to have been born fully-formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus, a product of the American consciousness, but with unmistakable British overtones. These he took no pains to conceal. I think Irving can hardly be censured for turning to British models when we consider the spare American literary legacy that was his—the moralizing of Cotton Mather and Benjamin Franklin. Washington Irving’s youthful, satirical writings in Salmagundi and Knickerbocker’s History of New York displayed a brilliant and confident style indebted to Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, Jonathan Swift, Oliver Goldsmith, and perhaps Pope and Johnson. Those who do not think of Irving as also a Romantic need only turn to his writings on the Hudson River and spirit of Christmas. His achievement was greatly admired by the writers of his time, both home and abroad.
The Last Hours
At about eleven o’clock in the morning on Monday, November 28, 1859, Washington Irving went for a walk along the Sunnyside Brook outside his home. He returned to the house experiencing his now chronic difficulty with breathing and with depression. A favorite neighbor, Mrs. H___, dropped by for a short chat. Irving had his midday dinner with the rest of his household, and he napped a while before teatime. In the late afternoon he was still depressed, but he conversed with his brother, his nieces, and his nephews as they all admired the sunset from the first-floor windows at Sunnyside. Irving retired to his bedroom about 10:30 P.M. and was preparing for bed when he gasped, clutched his left side, and fell backward, unconscious. The family called a local doctor and tried to revive Irving, but to no avail. America’s most famous author was dead.
Washington Irving had returned to the United States in September of 1846, after serving four years as U. S. Minister to Spain. He was sixty-three years old at that time, and he retired permanently to his home at Sunnyside. His older brother, Ebenezer, and some of Ebenezer’s family had resided there since joining Irving in 1838.
Illness and the Final Book
The writer had one more ambitious literary project in mind, a biography of George Washington. This was to be Irving’s main literary occupation during his final twelve years. By the time the task was done, Irving was extremely nervous and exhausted—incapable of any further creative effort during the last six months of his life. He was habitually an attentive, lively, and entertaining correspondent, but in his last months he was seldom calm enough to write to even his best friends. This was not the Washington Irving that the public loved and regarded so highly; neither was it the relaxed, easy-going man so well known to his family and intimate friends.
Although Irving managed to complete his Life of Washington, the question could be asked, “Was it necessary?” He had previously shown himself to be an accomplished biographer, producing excellent biographies of Oliver Goldsmith and Christopher Columbus, yet, the new work was certainly not one that demanded Irving’s unique abilities. There were other writers who were capable of slogging through the mountain of data required to produce a biography of Washington, and regrettably the enterprise failed to reconnect Irving with his long since faded interest in the creative, the fictional, and the personal in his work. The biography of Washington, though displaying many emblems of Irving’s famous style, was soon to be superseded by more modern and “scientific” biographies.
In conversations with his nephew, Pierre, Washington Irving seemed convinced that the protracted effort of writing the five-volume biography of George Washington had shattered his nerves. In December of 1858, about one year before Irving’s death, he invited his nephew, Pierre M. Irving, and Pierre’s wife, Helen Dodge Irving, to join the extended family assembled at Sunnyside. Irving was nervous, sleepless, and short of breath. Pierre Irving had assisted the writer with various literary projects and the younger man was extremely helpful to his uncle during the writing and publishing of the George Washington biography. During his lifetime Irving selected Pierre to be his own official biographer, and Pierre recorded much of what we know of Irving’s last months and days.
Hounded and Unsettled
For so much of his life, Irving was nearly unflappable, good-natured, and easy-going, but in his last year, we find him being “careful of myself.” He was fearful and unsettled at night, often requesting his nephew or one of his nieces to sit with him or read to him late at night. For months he refrained from visiting New York City. Although he willingly received visits from family and close friends, he was uncharacteristically reluctant to see strangers, not trusting his own agitated state. Still, he received them. The unannounced autograph hunters were a petty but frequent annoyance. Irving usually accommodated them, unless he felt too nerve-wracked to hold a pen.
In the spring of his last year, Irving told his nephew that it is “so singular and unaccountable that [I] should be distressed in this way.” He observed that he had no worries, nothing on his mind, no financial concerns, and no concerns about his literary achievements. Those who are familiar with Irving’s life and works may also find this condition unaccountable. We may understand that, at this point, the man was nearing the end of his life, but he did not appear to suffer from great physical impairment. Yet, it does appear that there may have been a connection between his frayed nerves and his disabling attacks of asthma. Pierre occasionally overheard his uncle mutter a wish that it all would end.
By September of 1859, Irving felt well enough to visit a friend in Orange County. He also took the train to the New York City one day. In this month the author would receive as many as twenty visitors on a given day. Pierre and the other family members were willing to shield Irving from the onslaught of well-wishers and autograph seekers, but it seemed unclear to them how much emotional stress the famous author could endure. Typically evenings at Sunnyside saw the author playing whist, backgammon, and chess with family members. During the day Irving was fond of visiting the gardener’s house and talking with the gardener’s children.
Christ Episcopal Church (in Tarrytown) was another regular part of Irving’s routine. He served as a warden and vestryman, attending Sunday services and weekday vestry meetings. Gone were the days when he would walk the two miles to the brick church, he now regularly took a carriage when leaving the grounds of Sunnyside.
The Final Days
Three weeks before his death, Irving visited New York City for the last time. During the month of November, he was still receiving brief visits from literary admirers, and he was still troubled by insistent autograph seekers. He also continued to experience chronic asthma.
When Washington Irving died at the age of seventy-six, New York mourned. Flags throughout the city were hung at half-mast, banks closed for the day, and a large number of people traveled to Tarrytown on December 1st to attend the funeral—a warm, Indian summer day. Nearly a thousand people who could not fit inside Christ Church crowded outside. A procession of 150 carriages escorted the body to the Irving plot in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.
Irving had stipulated that the bulk of his estate would go to his aged brother, Ebenezer, and those of Ebenezer’s daughters who were as yet unmarried. When Pierre M. Irving completed his uncle’s biography, in 1863, the earnings from Washington Irving’s literary works during and after his life, were tallied at $240,000—a sum unprecedented for an American writer at that time.
©2005-2016 Henry John Steiner