September 22, 2010

Guest post: Irving mourns for his brother

The youngest of eight children, Washington Irving was part of an exceptionally close and devoted New York family. Considered the least practical of his eight siblings, Irving’s brothers had, over the course of the first 35 years of his life, financed a European excursion, scolded him over money management, and sought political appointments for him.

But given the opportunity, Irving was always equally as generous — especially when it came to his older brother Peter. When Irving made it big almost literally overnight with the success of The Sketch Book in 1817, he immediately lost all his profits in one of Peter’s get-rich-quick schemes, an ill-advised investment in steamboats. But Irving was always exceptionally close to Peter, forgiving him without question even as he continued to shoulder his financial burdens.

When Peter died in June 1838, Irving was devastated. Three months later, Irving was having difficulty finding literary inspiration. On September 22, 1838, Irving penned a heart-wrenching letter to his sister Sarah, pouring out his sense of loss:

Every day, every hour I feel how completely Peter and myself were intertwined together in the whole course of our existence... I was not conscious how much this was the case while he was living, but, now that he is gone, I feel how all-important he was to me... I feel that none can be what he was to me; none can take so thorough an interest in my concerns; to none can I so confidingly lay open my every thought and feeling, and expose every fault and foible, certain of such perfect toleration and indulgence.

Irving hoped writing would distract him but it was impossible. He said that his "literary pursuits" were so often carried out with Peter's help "that I cannot open a book, or take up a paper, or recall a past vein of thought, without having him instantly before me, and finding myself completely overcome."

By the end of the year, Irving would be writing again and putting his Tarrytown cottage in order. For the next 21 years, Irving would take care of his brother Ebenezer and his five daughters, allowing them to call Sunnyside home. For Washington Irving, brotherly love was boundless.

*Brian Jay Jones is the author of Washington Irving: An American Original. He is currently working on a biography of Jim Henson. His web site is at

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