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Historic Rivertowns

Washington Irving’s Sketch Book Intro, Excerpt 3: The Final Years

• Bookmarks: 278

March 6, 2023

By Krista Madsen–

 This is the third and last installment excerpt from a new introduction by Krista Madsen for Washington Irving’s 200 year-old collection. Copies of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories (RacePoint Publishing) are available online here.

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Installment 1           Installment 2

The Sketch Book reissue of 1848 sells 7,000 copies in its first three months, an even bigger hit than it was the first time with sizable royalties. Irving finds himself hounded by all sorts of autograph solicitors, often bold enough to show up at his doorstep. He holds court in his Sunnyside study with numerous visitors and corresponds with young authors seeking his favor. But rest on his laurels? Hardly.

Irving was born at Revolution’s end in 1783 to patriotic middle-class immigrants from England and Scotland. He often shared a seminal scene from his youth – unprovable though the timing’s right – of coming across the newly inaugurated President George Washington in an NYC bookstore. When Irving’s nanny introduced the first President to the small boy named after him, Washington apparently patted his head. Irving later attributes his bald spot to that pat. Overwhelmed with research from visits to Mt. Vernon and D.C., Irving produces, painfully, for years on end, the biography of George Washington he feels is his career’s culmination. “I live only in the Revolution,” Irving says of the time period his character Rip once slept through. His nephew, Pierre M. Irving, writes that his uncle, who suffers from asthma, often laments that the life of Washington will prove the death of him.

In 1854, the village of Dearman finally officially changes its name to Irvington, which residents had been calling it for a while. In 1856, Irving’s publisher gifts him with a grand new desk with a small brass plaque engraved with his namesake’s birthday. Pierre can extend one side of the partner desk to edit while his uncle writes on the other. Irving is reportedly bothered by its fussiness but moves in nonetheless. “I must get everything in a mess, and then I’ll go on comfortably,” he apparently tells Pierre. His biography project grows to an unwieldy five volumes, the last of which Irving finally completes in early 1859 to his profound relief. The letters Pierre shares in his own posthumous biography of his uncle are replaced with narration when Irving’s letters eventually cease. Irving signs off writing at last, but Pierre says his uncle sometimes awakes in the night fretting that he has a big book to write or longing for more decades to (really) redo his complete works.

The news spreads that Irving is unwell; on one day Pierre counts nearly 20 visitors at Sunnyside, while there are other days when Irving can’t walk beyond the property (he has fallen off one too many horses to try that again) or entertain anyone at all. Pierre reads his uncle fond articles from periodicals: N.P. Willis writes, “Mr. Irving, by far the most honored man in our country, is, curiously enough, even less honored than loved.”

On Nov. 28, 1859, the family enjoys an exquisite Hudson sunset outside their dinner window. Pierre writes, “The whole party were lost in admiration of one of the most gorgeous sunsets I have ever beheld… Mr. Irving exclaimed again and again at the beauty of the prospect. How little did any of us dream it was to be his last sunset on earth!” Irving later proceeds to his room with niece Sarah helping with his medicine. According to Pierre’s account from Sarah, Irving bemoans having to turn the pillows yet again, and asks something to the effect of “when will this end?” Holding his heart, he crashes to the floor beside his bed.

The message telegraphs across the country, “Washington Irving is dead.” Flags fly at half-mast. Four days later for Irving’s funeral, city courts shut down. According to Pierre’s count, 150 carriages process up Broadway from Sunnyside to Tarrytown’s Christ Church for the ceremony and then to the burial site in Sleepy Hollow, passing homes and businesses draped in black and landmarks made famous by the route Ichabod took when fleeing the Headless Horseman.

Irving had his family plot secured in the new cemetery adjacent to the Sleepy Hollow Church (now called the Old Dutch Church), which he made sure kept the name Sleepy Hollow Cemetery when there was talk of naming it Tarrytown a decade prior. His headstone bears a very simple inscription – only name, birth- and death-dates for the man of so many words.

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