Washington Irving On Writing

A portrait of Washington Irving. This week my students are reading "The Devil and Tom Walker" by Washington Irving, a hilariously satirical story about a Scrooge of a man who becomes a loan shark for the Devil only to lose his soul in the process.  In preparation for our study of Irving, I noted some quotes by the author that give us a little insight into Irving's thoughts about writing:

  1. Irving Wrote What He Wanted - Irving wrote “I have preferred addressing myself to the feeling and fancy of the reader more than to his judgment . . . .  My writings, therefore, may appear light and trifling to our country of philosophers and politicians” (Irving 414).  In essence, Irving did not care about critics or being judged by those who read his works.  He simply wrote what he wanted to write, not caring as to whether or not the critical acclaim flowed in.  In some ways this was his weakness, because Irving never really cared so much about the plot of his stories as he did characters or places he wrote about.  He wrote about what most interested him.
  2. Irving Was a Believer In Strong Prose - Irving wrote “The author must be continually piquant; woe to him if he makes an awkward sentence or writes a stupid page; the critics are sure to pounce upon it” (Irving, xx).  Every page, every paragraph, must be carefully written so as to pack in the best of what an author has to offer a reader.  This is great advice in today's sometimes laughable fields of poorly written paragraphs.  It never grows out of date.  Good writing, careful writing, is something that all of us must achieve.  We have to do our very best with what we are given or else hang up our pen and never write.
  3. Irving Didn't Let Adversity Stop Him - While in school, Irving was seen by his headmaster as slow-witted and "a dunce".  He was the youngest child in his family and many of his older brothers and sisters were very successful in the fields of medicine and law.  He spent much of his young life observing people in and around New York City, and these observations led him to great success with A History of New York, written under the pseudonym of Diedrich Knickerbocker.  Even though he faced much critical adversity in his life, he continued to write, further inspiring young authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, and his writing showed a young Samuel Clemens the mechanics of writing with humor.

We read Irving every year, and it is only this year that he has really come to life for me.  I suppose it is because I spent much more time delving into his past and his comments on writing.  My students may yawn at his jokes, but some of them get it; the wife of Tom Walker being "strong of arm", the men who wander by Walker's home, upon hearing the fighting between Walker and his wife, thank God they are a "bachelor".  He still gets a laugh now and again from my students, and I suppose that is what makes him great.  At least we can learn these three short lessons from him.  For that we are the better.