The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

IV. Irving

§ 1. Early Years

WASHINGTON IRVING was born in William Street, New York City, 3 April, 1783. As this was the year in which the colonies finally achieved the independence for which they had been fighting for seven years, Irving may be regarded as the first author produced in the new republic.

The writer recalls that he visited Sunnyside with his father a year or two before the death of Irving and heard him narrate, doubtless not for the first time, how, when he was a youngster a year old, his nurse had held him up in her arms while Washington was passing by on horseback, in order that the General might place his hand on the head of the child who bore his name. “My nurse told me afterwards,” said Irving, “that the General lifted me in his arms up to the pommel of his saddle and bestowed upon me a formal blessing.” The listening boy looked, with reverential awe, at the head that had been touched by the first president, but when later he told his father about Irving’s words, the father said: “You did not see the spot that Washington touched.” “And why not?” was the natural question. “You goose,” came the retort, “do you not know that Mr. Irving wears a wig?”

Washington Irving was prevented by poor health from following his two elder brothers to Columbia College. His formal training was limited to a course of a few years in the public schools of the day. He had always, however, encouraged in himself a taste for reading and an interest in human affairs so that his education went on steadily from year to year. His father, a Scotchman by birth, had built up an importing business and ranked well among the leading merchants of the city. The family comprised in all five sons and two daughters. The relations to each other of these brothers and sisters were always closely sympathetic, and throughout the record of Irving’s career the record of Irving’s career the reader is impressed with the loyal service rendered, first, by the elder brothers to the younger, and later, when the family property had disappeared and the earnings of the youngster had become the mainstay of the family, by Washington himself to his seniors, and to his nieces.