An American Original
Brian Jay Jones
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"Jones gives us the man in all his faults, flaws, frailty and brilliance."
Washington Irving, An American Original: An American first in history and literature.
“Washington Irving was a dunce… That was the unfortunate assessment of Mrs. Ann Kilmaster, his kindergarten teacher, in 1789.”
With those opening words, Brian Jay Jones begins Washington Irving, An American Original. Jones’s biography introduces us to America’s first man of letters, a man who lived by his pen, although often plagued by writer’s block. He refused to believe a gentleman should, or even could, live by his pen, however. Writing was a pastime, a hobby, not a serious profession, and so Irving proposed to study the law. He wasn’t good at it. Irving preferred the company of the Kilkenny Lads, going to the opera, traveling, and writing send-ups of the local political and social scene—in other words anything but the law.
As Jones lays out the erratic course of Washington Irving’s life, he plumbs the depths of the mythology and lays bare the substance of the man who immortalized Tarrytown and its Dutch settlers in Rip Van Winkle, Ichabod Crane, Brom Bones and the Headless Horseman. Instead of rehashing old stories about Irving’s writing, Jones gives us the man in all his faults, flaws, frailty and brilliance.
Washington Irving did not get on well with his father, William “The Deacon” Irving. He refused to go into the merchant trade, as his did his three elder brothers, but he seems to have assimilated at least some business sense – some of it disastrously wrong when it came to land speculation, steamboat lines, copper mines and trade. But he proved to be an astute and tenacious businessman when it came to publishing and marketing his own work.
What illuminates Washington Irving’s life so superbly is Brian Jay Jones’s familiarity with the material and his easy and open style, making Irving a charming and fascinating man in any age. Jones’s seamless narrative flow incorporates Irving’s own words bringing out the best in both authors. Only once or twice does Jones stumble with unfounded speculation about Irving’s close relationships with two young men, injecting tabloid journalism into what is otherwise a marvelous and enduring portrayal of a complex and fascinating American original.
Reviewer: J. M. Cornwell