What you should know about Washington Irving
This week we will be taking a break from your typical travel destination Soñando Sunday to introduce a cultural / historical figure related to Spain that you’ll want to know—Washington Irving!
Who is he?
Washington Irving is an American writer, best known for his short stories which often weave together fact and fiction in what was a new Americanized style. He has been called “the first true American writer” and “the first American man of letters” but his career and travels over the years led him to achieve worldwide fame and a special place in the hearts of Spaniards for the historical works he produced about Spain.
Born on April 3, 1783 in New York City, he was the eleventh child of William Sr. and Sarah Irving. His family decided to name him after George Washington who, at the time, was a hero of the American Revolution and just a few years later was inaugurated as the first president of the United States of America.
Washington Irving demonstrated natural creative talent early in his life—even writing under a pen name for the “Morning Chronicle” during his early years—and eventually pursued other writing endeavors under his own name. Despite his obvious passion for the written word, he also put in a lackluster attempt at law and was in and out of law firms and family businesses as a young adult. In 1815 he moved to Europe (originally to help a brother with his business) and so began his journey to stardom.
What should you know about him?
While living in England, he published The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent which was a collection of stories that included two of his most famous works, “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” After a few more years and literary works, Irving was invited by Alexander H. Everett, the U.S. Minister to Spain, to move to Madrid and conduct research for what would become the novels A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828), Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada (1829) and Tales of the Alhambra (1832).
In 1832, the writer returned to his home, “Sunnyside,” in Tarrytown, NY and continued to write and travel the U.S. As someone who was always interested in the history of different countries and who was well-connected in the political realm, it comes as no surprise that Irving himself took over the post of U.S. Minister to Spain from 1842-1846 before settling down indefinitely at “Sunnyside” where he lived until his death in 1859.
What are his ties to Spain and where can you find him?
While Irving is not from Spain, his personal and professional life were meaningfully connected with España and specifically with Granada. In 1829 Irving spent a significant amount of time touring Spain, specifically getting to know the Alhambra and some of its surroundings in the communidad de Andalucía. While this author is remembered most in the English-speaking world for his works of fiction, in Spain he is celebrated for his historical research that served to reconnect Spain with the rest of the world at a time in which Javier Villoria, a dean at the University of Granada, describes that the country “had lost touch with the American continent and even the rest of Europe.” (read more here)
La Ruta de Washington Irving: As you can imagine, sightseeing was a bit different back in the day and, as Irving did not speak Spanish when he first arrived in Spain, he needed a guide to accompany him during his journey (on horseback!) to the Alhambra. While conducting his research for these books, Irving was led along this route from Sevilla to Granada by his companion Mateo Ximenes. Los Cuentos de la Alhambra, or The Tales of the Alhambra, goes into detail of this route over only the first twenty pages of the book so the exact trajectory is somewhat up for debate. However, it is believed to roughly follow what is today the A-92 highway, making stops in places like Carmona, Marchena, Écija, Antequera, Montefrío, Íllora, and Alhama de Granada before ending at the Alhambra.
La Alhambra: This world-famous landmark is not only emblematic for being the end of Washington Irving’s route but also for being his home during the three months he gathered legends and stories about this Moorish palace for his books. During this period, the Alhambra was abandoned and unprotected, leaving it open to squatters and just about anyone who was interested in living there.
As you can imagine, this offered Irving unequivocal exposure to the enchantment of the place he would later bring to life for readers around the world. Today, when you enter the Alhambra from the Cuesta de Gomérez you will find a statue of Washington Irving and inside the palace there is also a plaque indicating the room in which the author stayed during this time.
Many other cities and specific landmarks along the ruta: Washington Irving is especially loved in the south of Spain and so you can find plaques, statues, and other mentions of the author in a variety of towns and cities. As it would be too much to go into every single one, we recommend checking out this site which gives details about some of the monuments and sites you can visit in and between Sevilla and Granada to truly capture the spirit of Irving’s love for Spain.