Washington Irving: An American Original

In This Review

Washington Irving: An American Original

By Brian Jay Jones
Arcade, 2008
456 pp. $30.00
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Washington Irving was the United States' first "man of letters," the first American to achieve international fame and financial security from his pen. He was also an accomplished, politically engaged diplomat; Secretary of State Daniel Webster once said that he dropped all other business when one of Irving's dispatches from Spain arrived. In this, too, Irving was a pioneer: a stint in the diplomatic or consular service later became a fairly common stage in the life of a successful American writer. Beginning as a Federalist, Irving switched first to the National Republicans and then to Andrew Jackson's Democrats, pioneering another American literary tradition: an alliance between elite cosmopolitan intellectuals and the Democratic Party. (Nathaniel Hawthorne would follow this path.) Irving was also one of the first Americans to follow in the footsteps of such men as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson: while remaining deeply engaged in American life and culture, he was also intimately connected with the cultural and intellectual life of Europe, knowing everyone and going everywhere. Jones' briskly written and comprehensive biography of this unjustly neglected figure is a pleasure to read and belongs in the library of any serious student of the United States' engagement with the world.