The Sketch Book, along with James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales, was the first widely read work of American literature in Britain and Europe. It also helped advance the reputation of American writers with an international audience.
Apart from "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" — the pieces which made both Irving and The Sketch Book famous — other tales include "Roscoe," "The Broken Heart," "The Art of Book-making," "A Royal Poet," "The Spectre Bridegroom," "Westminster Abbey," "Little Britain," and "John Bull."
Stories range from the maudlin (such as "The Wife" and "The Widow and Her Son") to the picaresque ("Little Britain") and the comical ("The Mutability of Literature"), but the common thread running through The Sketch Book — and a key part of its attraction to readers — is the personality of Irving's pseudonymous narrator, Geoffrey Crayon. Erudite, charming, and never one to make himself more interesting than his tales, Crayon holds The Sketch Book together through the sheer power of his personality — and Irving would, for the rest of his life, seamlessly enmesh Crayon's persona with his own public reputation.
Surprisingly, for a work so associated with American literature, little more than five of the thirty-three chapters deal with American subjects: the essays "English Writers on America," "The Traits of Indian Character," "Philip of Pokanoket: An Indian Memoir," and parts of "The Author's Account of Himself" and "The Angler"; and the short stories "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Most of the remainder of the book consists of vignettes of English life and landscape, written with the author's characteristic charm while he lived in England. Irving wrote in a preface for a later edition:
It was not my intention to publish [the chapters] in England, being conscious that much of their contents could be interesting only to American readers, and, in truth, being deterred by the severity with which American productions had been treated by the British press.
I now wish to be left for a little while entirely to the bent of my own inclination, and not agitated by new plans for subsistence, or by entreaties to come home . . . I am determined not to return home until I have sent some writings before me that shall, if they have merit, make me return to smiles, rather than skulk back to the pity of my friends.
Irving spent late 1818 and the early part of 1819 putting the final touches on the short stories and essays that he would eventually publish as The Sketch Book through 1819 and 1820.
Modern editions of The Sketch Book contain all thirty-four stories, in the order directed by Irving in his Author's Revised Edition, as follows:
Original Date of Publication
First Appeared In
|"The Author's Account of Himself"||June 23, 1819||First American Installment||Irving introduces his pseudonymous narrator, Geoffrey Crayon.|
|"The Voyage"||June 23, 1819||First American Installment||Crayon details his ocean voyage from the United States to England.|
|"Roscoe"||June 23, 1819||First American Installment||Irving’s tribute to the English writer and historian, William Roscoe, whom Irving had met in Liverpool.|
|"The Wife"||June 23, 1819||First American Installment||A sentimental piece in which the new wife of an impoverished gentleman teaches her husband that money can’t buy happiness.|
|"Rip Van Winkle"||June 23, 1819||First American Installment||The tale of a henpecked husband who sleeps away twenty years in the Catskills—a story allegedly found among the papers of Irving’s fictional historian Diedrich Knickerbocker.|
|"English Writers on America"||July 31, 1819||Second American Installment||Crayon calls for a ceasefire of "the literary animosity daily growing between England and America."|
|"Rural Life in England"||July 31, 1819||Second American Installment||Crayon fondly describes English character and countrysides.|
|"The Broken Heart"||July 31, 1819||Second American Installment||Crayon relates the story of a young Irish woman who wasted away "in a slow but hopeless decline" following the death of her true love.|
|"The Art of Bookmaking"||July 31, 1819||Second American Installment||A humorous piece in which literature is created as easily as a cook might make a stew.|
|"A Royal Poet"||September 13, 1819||Third American Installment||A romanticized description of the literary King James I.|
|"The Country Church"||September 13, 1819||Third American Installment||Crayon contrasts the quiet integrity of the nobleman with the offensive flashiness of the nouveau riche.|
|"The Widow and Her Son"||September 13, 1819||Third American Installment||An old Englishwoman tends to her dying son.|
|"A Sunday in London"||1848||Author's Revised Edition||Crayon describes a day in London before, during, and after Sunday church services.|
|"The Boar's Head Tavern, East Cheap"||September 13, 1819||Third American Installment||A detective story of sorts, in which Crayon attempts to locate the real-life tavern of Shakespeare’s Falstaff.|
|"The Mutability of Literature"||November 10, 1819||Fourth American Installment||Crayon discusses evolving literary tastes with a talking book.|
|"Rural Funerals"||November 10, 1819||Fourth American Installment||Crayon discusses English funeral tradtions.|
|"The Inn Kitchen"||November 10, 1819||Fourth American Installment||A description of the kind of hospitality visitors to the Netherlands can expect.|
|"The Spectre Bridegroom"||November 10, 1819||Fourth American Installment||A ghost story — sort of — with a happy ending.|
|"Westminster Abbey"||September 13, 1820||Seventh American Installment||A contemplative tour of the famous London building.|
|"Christmas"||January 1, 1820||Fifth American Installment||Crayon reflects on the meaning of Christmas and its celebration.|
|"The Stage-Coach"||January 1, 1820||Fifth American Installment||Crayon rides with the Bracebridge children to their country manor, Bracebridge Hall, and is invited to stay for Christmas.|
|"Christmas Eve"||January 1, 1820||Fifth American Installment||Crayon celebrates the holiday at the home of Squire Bracebridge.|
|"Christmas Day"||January 1, 1820||Fifth American Installment||Christmas festivities — allegedly in the old tradition — continue at Bracebridge Hall.|
|"Christmas Dinner"||January 1, 1820||Fifth American Installment||Crayon enjoys old English hospitality at the Bracebridge Christmas dinner table.|
|"London Antiques"||1848||Author's Revised Edition||Prowling London for antiques, Crayon instead stumbles upon the Charter House, home of "superannuated tradesmen and decayed householders."|
|"Little Britain"||September 13, 1820||Seventh American Installment||Crayon makes a picturesque stroll through the heart of old London.|
|"Stratford-on-Avon"||September 13, 1820||Seventh American Installment||A tribute to the life and work of William Shakespeare.|
|"Traits of Indian Character||July 1820||English Edition, Volume 2||A sympathetic portrait of the American Indian.|
|"Philip of Pokanoket||July 1820||English Edition, Volume 2||A heroic portrait of the Indian warrior.|
|"John Bull"||March 15, 1820||Sixth American Installment||A tip of the hat to English character and custom.|
|"The Pride of the Village"||March 15, 1820||Sixth American Installment||A sentimental piece about true love lost, then found again, too late to save the life of a heartbroken young maiden.|
|"The Angler"||September 13, 1820||Seventh American Installment||A character sketch of the English naturalist Izaak Walton.|
|"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"||March 15, 1820||Sixth American Installment||Irving’s tale of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman, again attributed to the fictional historian Diedrich Knickerbocker.|
|"L'Envoy"||July 1820||English Edition, Volume 2||Crayon thanks his readers for their indulgence.|
A single-volume hardcover version, reprinting the two English volumes, was published in the United States by Van Winkle in 1824.
The first four American installments were collected into a single volume and self-published by Irving in London, under John Miller’s Burlington Arcade imprint, on February 16, 1820. In early April, however, Miller went bankrupt, leaving the bulk of The Sketch Book unsold in his warehouse.
Searching for another publisher, Irving appealed to his friend and mentor, Sir Walter Scott, for assistance. Scott approached his own publisher, London powerhouse John Murray, and convinced him to purchase the rest of the stock and continue publication. (In gratitude, Irving dedicated the English editions of The Sketch Book to Walter Scott.) Heartened by the enthusiastic response to The Sketch Book, Murray encouraged Irving to publish the remaining three American installments as a second volume as quickly as possible.
In July 1820, Murray published the second volume of The Sketch Book, including all the pieces from the final three American installments, plus three additional essays: the American Indian sketches "Philip of Pokanoket" and "Traits of Indian Character," which Irving had originally written for the Analectic magazine in 1814, and a short original piece, "L’Envoy," in which Irving thanked his British readers for their indulgence.
Given the speed with which Murray put the second volume to press, the essays included in the final installment of the American edition were actually published in London first, several months before they made their appearance in the United States.
Given Irving's additions, the English version of The Sketch Book contained thirty-two pieces, while its American counterpart contained only twenty-nine.
In 1848, as part of the Author's Revised Edition he was completing for publisher George Putnam, Irving added two new stories to The Sketch Book — "London Antiques" and "A Sunday in London" — as well as a new preface and the postscript to "Rip Van Winkle. Irving also slightly changed the order of the sketches, placing a number of essays from the seventh American installment earlier in the collection, and moving "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" into a place of prominence as the final story in the collection ("L'Envoy" being merely a thank you to readers).
Outside of Irving’s immediate circle of friends, however, the reviews were equally as positive. As critic Gulian Verplanck wrote:
Two of the book's early admirers were Sir Walter Scott (who called it "positively beautiful") and Lord Byron (who said of the book, "I know it by heart"). Years later, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said The Sketch Book was one of the earliest works to excite his interest in literature. As he said, "Every reader has his first book; I mean to say, one book among all others which in early youth first fascinates his imagination, and at once excites and satisfies the desires of his mind... To me, this first book was The Sketch Book of Washington Irving".
Apart from "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," both of which were immediately acknowledged as The Sketch Book’s finest pieces, American and English readers alike responded most strongly to the more sentimental tales, especially "The Broken Heart," — which Byron claimed had made him weep — and "The Widow and Her Son."
In Britain, the book did much to promote Americans as legitimate writers, and their work as legitimate literature — a concept that surprised English critics. "Everywhere I find in it the marks of a mind of the utmost elegance and refinement," wrote the English historian William Godwin, "a thing as you know that I was not exactly prepared to look for in an American. The English magazine Quarterly Review agreed. "[Irving] seems to have studied our language where alone it can be studied in all its strength and perfection, and in working these precious mines of literature he has refined for himself the ore which there so richly abounds.
Even Irving admitted that he was pleased to have stunned the skeptical English critics. When one English admirer asked Irving to confirm that he was really an American, Irving responded enthusiastically: "The doubts which her ladyship has heard on the subject seem to have arisen from the old notion that it is impossible for an American to write decent English.
The Sketch Book cemented Irving’s reputation, and propelled him to a level of celebrity previously unseen for an American writer. "I am astonished at the success of my writings in England," Irving wrote to his publisher, "and can hardly persuade myself that it is not all a dream. Had any one told me a few years since in America, that any thing I could write would interest such men as . . . Byron, I should have as readily believed a fairy tale.
One of the most significant influences of The Sketch Book came from its cycle of five Christmas stories, portraying an idealized and old-fashioned Yule celebration at an English country manor. Most of these customs had in fact been forgotten in England, and were revived there and in America only after Irving wrote about them. Charles Dickens later credited Irving as a strong influence on his own Christmas writings, including the classic A Christmas Carol.