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3. Utopian Promise   

3. Gothic Undercurrents

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- Ambrose
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Brockden Brown
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Perkins Gilman
- Nathaniel
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Gilmore Simms
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Authors: Washington Irving (c. 1783-1859)

Washington's Head-Quarters 1780
[7243] Currier & Ives, Washington's Head-Quarters 1780: At Newburgh, on the Hudson (1856),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC2-3161].

Washington Irving Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
America's first international literary celebrity, as well as its first fully professional writer, was born in New York City, the eleventh child in a close-knit family. After writing satirical sketches and essays for his brother's newspapers for some years, Washington Irving captured the nation's attention with the fictitious A History of New York, supposedly written by a curious old gentleman named Diedrich Knickerbocker. In this work, which was accompanied by a publicity campaign involving newspaper reports on the putative whereabouts of the fictitious Knickerbocker, Irving made fun of the pretensions of bourgeois culture and democracy (including Thomas Jefferson), as well as American parochialism and history writing. In May 1815, Irving left the country for what would be a seventeen-year sojourn in Europe, where he worked first as an importer in Liverpool, then as an attaché to the American legation in Spain, and finally as secretary to the American legation in London. His diverse works range from The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828) and The Alhambra (1832), both written during his stay in Spain, to A Tour on the Prairies (1835) and The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, U.S.A. (1837), studies of the American West written on his return from Europe, to a five-volume life of George Washington.

Irving's Sketch Book (1819-20), which included "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," remains his most recognized and influential contribution to American literature (he is often credited with inaugurating the modern genre of the short story). He is sometimes read as a political reactionary, nostalgic for European aristocratic culture and disgusted with the American rabble. His work and life, however, complicate this view; for example, it is true that he seems to have preferred that art remain aloof from commercialism and beyond the world of utility, but he also was America's first commercially successful writer, who not only was very popular but depended for his living upon the mass consumption of his writing. Stories like those from The Sketch Book often display this tension, pitting an aesthetically oriented pre-Revolution America against a crass and utilitarian post-Revolution one--yet it is not always clear that the former is meant to be morally superior to the latter.

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