Five Reasons Washington Irving Is Still Important Today

Diedrich Knickerbocker - Founder of the New York KnicksWashington Irving (1783-1859) was an American writer born in New York City following the Revolutionary War.  He was the youngest of eleven children and was named after George Washington.  During his lifetime, Washington Irving was the top American writer of his time.  If Irving wrote it, people believed it and his works were internationally famous.  The problem was, Irving didn’t write history.  He was a fiction writer. You could compare him to the modern Dan Brown.  His work is just stories but people believed it.  We still do.  Here are five things that Washington Irving wrote that we still consider as fact or are part of our vocabulary today.

myfivebest -1Gotham City
(Salmagundi Magazine, Issue 17: November 11, 1807)
Who would have thought that the hometown of Batman would have its roots in the early nineteenth century?  Ironically, Irving used the name of Gotham City for New York City when he was writing with a group calling themselves “The Lads of Kilkenny”.  At this time he was writing under pseudonyms, such as William Wizard and Launcelot Langstaff.  The magazine was a lampoon of life in New York (think Mad Magazine, but on a city level).  In it, Irving was making fun of the politics and culture of the time and he called New York City, Gotham, which is an Anglo-Saxon word for – Goat’s Town.  Incidentally, from this magazine, Irving also created another term we still use today to display greed.  He is credited for coming up with “The Almighty Dollar”.

myfivebest - 2The New York Knicks
(The History of New York From The Beginning Of The World To The End Of The Dutch Dynasty by Diedrich Knickerbocker- 1809)
If you follow basketball (or don’t live under a rock), you’ve heard of the New York Knicks.  They got the name Knicks from the famous historian Diedrich Knickerbocker.  Knickerbocker never existed. He is another pseudonym of Washington Irving.  In fact, he is a part of one of the greatest hoaxes of the world.  Irving had just written another parody on New York, but really wanted to sell this book as important.  So, prior to its release, he started putting in missing person reports for the author, Diedrich Knickerbocker.  According to the advertisements, the “world famous” Dutch historian, Knickerbocker, had gone missing from his hotel room and if he didn’t return, the hotel owner would have to publish a manuscript the historian left behind to pay for the room.  The people ate it up and influential Manhattan residents even offered rewards for his safe return.  When the book was published, people bought it because they were helping out the poor hotel owner.  It is one of the earliest examples of viral marketing.

myfivebest - 3“Facts” We Know About Christopher Columbus
(The Life And Voyages Of Christopher Columbus, 1828 and Voyages And Discoveries of Christopher Columbus, 1831)
This series of books is a romantic/historical collaboration by Washington Irving.  Not a lot was really known about the person who “Discovered America”.  People in America were interested in the origins of the country, but there were a lot of missing holes in the story.  So, Irving filled in those holes.  From his books, we discover that Columbus was the first European to set foot in the New World (in actuality, the Vikings were here first and this was known at the time).  Columbus also changed the world’s mind that the earth was flat and you could not fall off the edge.  This is another story from Irving.  At the time of Columbus, no one thought the earth was flat.  The Greeks had proven the world was round centuries before.  By the way, if you look at the picture of Christopher Columbus from the book, it’s false, too.  There are no pictures of Columbus from when he was alive.

myfivebest - 4The Birth Of Christmas In The United States
(The History of New York From The Beginning Of The World To The End Of The Dutch Dynasty by Diedrich Knickerbocker- Expanded edition, 1812)
When we picture Santa Claus, we think of the drawings from Civil War era political cartoonist, Thomas Nast.  He’s the guy who put him into a red suit with white fur, but it was Washington Irving who gave Santa a weight problem.  In Europe, when people pictured Santa, they thought of a thing guy in tan leather carrying Christmas presents.  How else could he fit down the chimneys if he was overweight?  Irving didn’t care.  He thought it would be humorous to make the man chubby, so that’s how he described him in his History of New York.  Santa didn’t have the sleigh, either, in Irving’s rendition.  He was driving around New York City in a flying carriage.  This was a spin on the story, too.  Back then, it was just a typical sleigh that brought Saint Nick.  The flying thing was another twist.  Washington Irving would write five stories on Christmas.  Irving portrayed an idealized celebration of old-fashioned Christmas customs at a quaint English manor, that depicted harmonious warm-hearted English Christmas festivities he experienced while staying in England, that had largely been abandoned in the United States.  The stories, which are basically a take on English tradition, is why we celebrate many of the traditions in the U.S. Charles Dickens credited Irving’s writings as the foundation of his holiday classic, A Christmas Carol.

myfivebest - 5The Presidency
When a President takes the oath of office, he finishes it up with “So help me God.”  It’s been said that way since George Washington said it first.  Well, that’s how the story goes, but there’s no fact behind it.  People who quoted the oath afterwards didn’t have that line in the words.  In fact, it didn’t show up in print until 65 years later in a book called The Republican Court, by Rufus Griswold.  Griswold cited he heard the comment from Washington Irving.  Twenty-seven years later, it was officially added to the oath with President Chester A. Arthur in 1881.

If these aren’t enough for you, you might want to check out some of the books Washington Irving was really famous for.  You can look up his name with The Devil and Tom Walker, Rip Van Winkle, and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.