Washington Irving tends to be remembered only for his folktales of early America. But while “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” deserve their place in American literature, Irving has more to offer us. He was not only the first internationally successful American writer of the young republic but also America’s first great travel writer. Irving had an active eye, noting the national character of foreign lands and the tensions of American society at home. His writing shows the exuberance of the early American character.
In Irving, we find the direction of American literature and its ambivalence about values and meaning. He was a localist creating a national myth, interested in the people and history around him. He was also a cosmopolitan looking across states, oceans, and time. Whether at home or abroad, Irving found something of importance.
His first success was A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, in which he satirized the upper-class Dutch families of New York. It was so popular that his pseudonym, Diedrich Knickerbocker, became a shorthand for New Yorkers (and lives on in various forms today). “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” appear in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., and maintain a close connection to the Dutch roots of the Hudson Valley.
Much of the rest of the Sketch Book dealt with Irving’s travels in England and some notes on America. His most famous work, the book was alternately proud of and conflicted about American history. His best-known creations are folktales, proud reflections on the American Revolution and on the tenacity of the early colonists. Yet in other stories, regret replaces pride.