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Irving traveled through Europe and America, excavating tales and writing popular social satire, beloved children's stories, gothic drama, and picturesque history. He gave his young nation such enduring tales as "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle," His 1809 burlesque, "A History of New York," popularized the figure of jolly old St. Nicholas, and gave birth to the modern American Christmas. Irving was the original "Knickerbocker"; he also coined "Gotham" as the name for New York. By showing Irving as a leading architect of the American personality Burstein has managed to reinvigorate the legacy of one our nation's most outsized literary talents as well as to help us better understand the country we live in.
University of Tulsa's Burstein, best known for his studies of Thomas Jefferson (Jefferson's Secrets), offers a serviceable biography of another early American celebrity: Washington Irving, whom Burstein credits with creating a national literature and with helping persuade Europeans that America wasn't full of simpletons and savages. Burstein speculates about Irving's inner life: was he gay? Possibly, but Burstein thinks it more likely the writer was simply a bachelor, a respectable role in his time and place. Burstein also helpfully recreates early 19th-century New York, a port city with a population in the tens of thousands. He offers judicious literary analysis, teasing out the roles history and memory play in Irving's work. But Burstein's most significant contribution comes in situating Irving's literary work in its larger social and political context.
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