One day in the year 1809, a missing person advertisement appeared in several New York newspapers seeking information of a historian named Diedrich Knickerbocker. A hotel placed an advertisement that if Mr. Knickerbocker did not turn up to settle his bill, the hotel owner would be compelled to publish a manuscript left behind by this person.
On December 6th, 1809, the manuscript was published subsequently as "'A history of New York' by Diedrich Knickerbocker", which became an immediate success, riding on the public interest created by the missing person advertisement. It was probably one of the earliest hoax started by an author to draw attention to his books. And it was done by the person later acclaimed as "the father of American Literature", Washington Irving.
From then on Knickerbocker became a nickname for Manhattan residents, and the term knickerbockers for the baggy knee-length pantaloons worn by Diedrich. A term used more often, also introduced by Irving was "The almighty dollar" in 'Rip Van Winkle' to illustrate commercialism and its effects. He wrote, "...In a word, the almighty dollar, that great object of universal devotion throughout our land...".
In 1838 then President of the United States, Martin Van Buren, had offered Washington Irving the position as Secretary of the Navy in his cabinet. Irving wrote back, declining the offer, where he had stated, ..."I shrink from the harsh cares and turmoil of public and political life.....feel I am too sensitive to endure the bitter personal hostility, and the slanders and misrepresentations of the press...". He had also declined to run for Congress and for Mayor of New York.
Austin McC. Fox, in the introduction to 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and other selections from Washington Irving' (1962), says, "It is as hard to assess Irving the writer as it is to assess Irving the man, for there seems to be about six faces to Irving the writer".
First is the "Informal Essayist", the observer of things and places in his travels, and his talents as an artist is reflected in his prose descriptions, and even one of his books was titled 'The Sketch Book'. Then he was a "Political and Social Satirist", as we find in 'The History of New York'.
Next he is also "The Chronicler of the West", which shows the pride he had in his country, seen in his 'A tour of the Prairies', 'Adventures of Captain Bounneville' and 'Astoria, Anecdotes of an enterprise Beyond the Rocky Mountains'. Irving was also a "Biographer and Historian", who wrote 'Life of Washington', 'Conquest of Granada' and 'Life and voyages of Columbus'.
"The Gothic Writer" in Irving is seen in his "humorous, tongue-in-cheek, eye-winking way" in 'The Spectre Bridegroom' and 'The Adventure of the German Student'.
'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow', 'Rip Van Winkle' and the 'Guest from Gibbet Island' are some of his writings where "the Folklorist" comes out. Most of them are based on legends he had heard. About Spanish legends he had written, "They have so much that is high minded, and chivalrous, and quaint, and picturesque, and at times, half comic about them"
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, and remained true to her memory, 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 died on 28 November 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!". Now he rests in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, a place he immortalized in his book along with the Dutch church in Tarrytown.
He had written, "age is a matter of feeling, not of years". It can be said about Washington Irving himself and about his writings.
In 2007, the Great Writer was rediscovered, by Andrew Burstein the historian, in his book, 'The Original Knickerbocker: The life of Washington Irving', to capture the role he played in politics and culture through a 21st century perspective. Irving was also a lawyer who travelled the world and knew eight presidents during his lifetime, between the revolutionary war and the Civil war, as mentioned by Abbey Gruen in the New York Times (April 15, 2007).
Most of his books are available for free reading online, including in Kindle and e-pub formats, and give us too an opportunity to re-discover, and for our younger generation to discover, this great writer and through him to learn about life in the New World more than a century ago, and about mankind in general who appear not to have changed much over the past one million years. As illustrated by these words from 'Astoria'. "The tables in the great banqueting room groaned under the weight of game of all kinds; of venison from the woods, and fish from the lakes, with hunters' delicacies, such as buffalos' tongues, and beaver tails, and various luxuries from Montreal..."
Astoria says it all, how the wonderful natural resources of Canada and the life and culture of the inhabitants, were destroyed in the name of civilization and progress, to satisfy the inherent greed of mankind.
And Man continues to be the destroyer of all he beholds.