Congrats to Brian Jay Jones, a former staffer for Sen. Pete Domenici and an Albuquerque native who just got a good review from the Associated Press for his biography of Washington Irving.
Irving, as the review below notes, is probably most famous for penning "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle." Jones went to Eldorado High School and the University of New Mexico.
Bio illuminates 19th-century writer
By ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS, Associated Press Writer
Tue Jan 15, 3:56 PM ET
"Washington Irving: An American Original" (Arcade Publishing, Inc. 468 Pages. $29.99), by Brian Jay Jones: Two centuries before blogs, standup comedy or "The Daily Show," there was "Salmagundi," a periodical of satire whose founders and contributors included the young man of letters Washington Irving.
The publication, a mix of commentary, short essays, poems and fake advertising, was like nothing New York City had seen when it appeared in January 1807. It was neither newspaper nor pamphlet, full of silly gossip and occasionally stinging profiles, as close to a contemporary Mad magazine as anything else, according to Brian Jay Jones' new biography of Irving.
Though the publication's 19th-century references can be lost on a modern reader, "Even today, the youthful cockiness and defiance — the sheer attitude — are still entertaining," Jones writes.
Irving is best known today, if he is remembered by the general public at all, as the author of tales such as "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." (Though it's questionable whether Irving would recognize the latter's reincarnation as a bloody Johnny Depp film.)
But in his day, Irving was an international literary sensation, the first American, as Jones emphasizes, to earn his living from his writings.
So Jones set out to focus more on Irving the writer and less on the writings themselves. His efforts result in a rich portrait of a man growing in literary prowess in step with his young country's own development.
"Like many of today's best-selling authors, who publish books readers love but critics loathe, Irving wrote for the masses — and for profit, not for posterity," Jones writes. "The fact that his work sold so well and so quickly surprised even him."
At age 47, Irving had written four international best sellers, including a well-received history of Christopher Columbus. His "A History of New York," published to acclaim in 1809, gave the world the name Diedrich Knickerbocker, Irving's pseudonym for the work. Knickerbocker soon became a nickname for anyone from New York and survives today as the name of the city's basketball team, the Knicks.
Jones takes us through Irving's early successes, his travels in Europe, including a developmentally crucial meeting with Sir Walter Scott in 1817, and his blatant attempts to work family connections to land a plush civil servant's job.
We also learn that Irving was a socialite who throughout his life gathered tight groups of brilliant men around him. The passion of their parties and correspondence leads Jones to suggest that Irving may have been gay.
The book is so detailed, and so obviously well-researched, that it may overwhelm the average reader interested in learning more about Irving.
It's the risk an authoritative biography runs — the "Boy, this is fascinating, maybe I'll just skip ahead a bit here" temptation. While Jones' facts occasionally slow the narrative, any concerns about a top-heavy approach is outweighed by the pleasure of this complete portrait of Irving.
When the cushy government job offer finally comes — chief clerk to the Secretary of Navy, offered in 1818 — Irving makes a supreme gamble and turns it down to concentrate on his writing.
His decision pays off as his "Sketchbooks," including the story of Rip Van Winkle, become best sellers the following year.
Had the offer arrived earlier, before Irving met Scott or spent all night writing Rip Van Winkle, "Irving's decision — and American literature — might have been very different indeed," Jones writes.