March 15, 2010

Washington Irving and George Washington

Washington Irving always felt an obligation to pay homage to George Washington, his namesake. Shortly before the end of his life, Irving completed that obligation. On March 15, 1859, he wrote the last words of his 5-volume biography Life of George Washington.

After the birth of their eleventh child, Irving's parent's William and Sarah Irving agreed that "Washington's work is ended... and the child shall be named after him." According to Irving family legend, a few years later, Irving's Scottish nursemaid Lizzie took the young boy around New York trying to find the newly-elected first President of the United States. In a shop, she finally brought the boy and the American Revolutionary hero face-to-face. When Washington was told the 6-year old boy was named in his honor, he placed his hand on little Washington's head, blessing his namesake. Years later, Irving noted: "I have reason to believe he has attended me through life... I can feel that hand upon my head even now."

Irving had toiled for months on what became his last major work. He had already published biographies of Christopher Columbus, Oliver Goldsmith, and the prophet Muhammad. Released over several years, the five volume book was written carefully and purposefully (Irving had never been consistent in his ability to write on cue or for deadlines). "It has been the most wearing and engrossing task that I have had in the whole course of my literary career," Irving admitted.

Suddenly regretting the huge responsibility he had undertaken, the aging Irving was working more and more slowly. But, his publisher (Putnam) announced the final volume would be published in the fall of 1858, without checking first. Irving was having trouble writing anything at all at this point. "I do not fear death," he noted, "but I would like to go down with all sail set." So, he went back to work.

According to his nephew (and first biographer) Pierre Irving, the namesake of George Washington completed the last line of the last volume of his last major work on March 15: "he put the last finishing touch to it." The book went to print without the author bothering to look at the proofs. The book was a huge critical and financial success. Washington Irving was dead less than nine months later.

1 comment:

  1. FIVE volumes? I think I would have regretted taking that on, too! What a prolific writer.