Washington Irving Plays A Trick On New York

Washington Irving Plays A Trick On New York

Washington Irving was one of the first American authors to earn a living on his writing alone.

Irving had a gigantic impact on creating American Folk Lore and gave us stories like Rip Van Winkle and Sleepy Hollow.

Additionally, Irving spent time serving the United States as a Minister in Europe.

Washington Irving

The American Revolution had been won.

As news arrived in New York City that hostilities officially ended with Great Britain, a baby was born.  This baby was named after the great hero of the American Revolution.

The baby was christened Washington Irving.

Irving grew up a sickly child, and his wealthy older brothers sent him Upstate to recuperate.  It was during this trip that he visited places which would later be the basis for some of his most popular stories.


By the first year of James Madison’s Presidency, a 26-year-old Washington Irving had already traveled to Europe, returned to New York, and received a law degree.  However, the young man committed himself to a career as a writer.

This was unheard of at the time, as the only people who received much income as authors were the publishers of newspapers and books.  This Washington followed suit and began completing articles for several local papers, eventually receiving the position of editor.

Irving, fortunately, was part of a small group of writers who would make up the first wave of truly American authors.  

Irving started a satirical newspaper, Salmagundi, which gained him some popularity.  In an article for Salmagundi, Washington was the first person to refer to New York City as ‘Gotham.’

The Hoax of Diedrich Knickerbocker

After completing his first book, Washington Irving chose to promote it with an extraordinary publicity stunt.

Irving decided New York City was ready for a hoax.

First, he placed missing person advertisements in several local papers looking for one Diedrich Knickerbocker.  The ads claimed Knickerbocker had disappeared from his hotel room.

The city began to buzz regarding who this mysterious man was.  Irving then placed another announcement in the papers; that the hotel owner from which Knickerbocker disappeared from had not been paid and was very upset.  

The hotel owner claimed that Knickerbocker left the manuscript for a book in his room. If Knickerbocker did not return and pay his bill, the manuscript would be published to replace the hotel’s lost income.

Days later, A History of New-York From the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker hit the shelves.  It was an instant best seller.

Has the name Knickerbocker sounded familiar to you throughout this story?  Well, because of Irving’s hoax, the word Knickerbocker became a fun synonym for New Yorker.  Two centuries later, a professional basketball team, the New York Knicks, still carry on this namesake.

Later Literary Contributions

This was just the beginning of Washington Irving’s long literary life.

He would go on to create beloved American characters such as Rip Van Winkle and the Headless Horseman.  

Additionally, Irving would write romantic histories which were part fact and part fiction. Because of this, many of his books created myths in the American conscious. The most notable example of this came from Irving’s biography of Christopher Columbus.  This book is where the claim that Columbus thought the earth was flat comes from, although we now realized Columbus knew the world was round.

Furthermore, due to issues he had with his intellectual property being stolen, Irving became a major spokesperson for stronger copywrite laws, both domestic and abroad.

The Benjamin Franklin of Authors

Lastly, over the course of many trips to Europe, Washington Irving contributed politically to the United States by serving as a Minister to both Spain and the United Kingdom.

During his life, Washington Irving mimicked a previous American Ambassador: Benjamin Franklin.  

Franklin demonstrated to the world that the Americans were not back-country bumpkins, but intellectuals.  Franklin, of course, became famous worldwide for his advancements in science.

Washington Irving proved to an international audience that the former colonies could produce expert artists.  His efforts paved the way for hundreds of future writers, painters and musicians to gain international fame.

If you enjoyed this article, you might like my pieces on Philip Freneau and Mercy Otis Warren.

While you can read Washington Irving’s stories anywhere (go ahead and Google it), the best biography which I have read is ‘The Definitive Biography.’ I highly recommend it as it both puts a perspective on Irving’s life and helps craft the atmosphere of New York City in the young nation. Pick it up through the affiliate link below.

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