Birthdays in the Circle of Washington Irving
April 3, 2023, marks the 240th birthday of Washington Irving. Delving into Historic Hudson Valley’s Library’s manuscript collections of the Irving family, as well as published letters and journals, snippets of information about Irving birthdays pop up.
Unlike celebrations today which can include various kinds of gatherings with designated birthday food, entertainment, favor gifts for the guests and numerous presents for the birthday person, birthdays were sometimes marked with little or minimal notice in the past.
In her diary, Washington Irving’s great-niece, Susan Van Wart Storrow, wrote of her 1862 birthday “Sunday July 26th My nineteenth birthday I wonder where I shall be my next” She did receive some attention the following day: “Monday 27th The little Parish’s came to-day bringing me Julia a pair of collar and sleeves Gracie an umbrella and Henry some flowers for my birthday”
One present came early in 1863 but the actual day, again, seemed quiet. She reports “Friday 22 Fine day. received 1-$ from Cousin Ogden for my birthday on Saturday morning…Tuesday 26th My 20th birthday Charlie left. Walked up to the Williams’ and Morgan’s.”
Throughout her diary, others’ birthdays are mentioned even more sparingly: “Tuesday 3rd Mother’s birthday,” ” Thursday 19th Tommy’s birthday,” “Tuesday 19th Julie’s seventeenth birthday” and “It was to-day Kate’s 21st birthday.”
There finally seems to be some celebration within the family in 1864. “Saturday 30th went to the house all dined at Elise’s her birthday in the evening the Grinnells family Cottage Cousin Eliza’s and Morgans were there,” this at the home of the Parish family, friends and neighbors of the Storrows and the extended Irving circle. In the previous year, Susan had been witness to a party 21st century celebrants would recognize: Wednesday 18th today is Gracies 5thbirthday she is to have some children here this afternoon a cake with her name on it and five little candles lighted round to represent her years.
Another child, eight-year old Katrina Irving, had a very determined idea how she would spend her birthday in 1854. A great-niece of Washington Irving, and granddaughter of his brother, Ebenezer, fellow-Sunnyside resident, she paid them an extended visit during which she requested the following information in a letter to her father:
“Wont you please tell me when my birthday is, because I have a little tea-sett Cousin Helen gave me on Christmas. And I am going to have a little tea party.”
What of Washington Irving (1783-1859) himself?
On his last birthday, his seventy-sixth, the mood was gloomy, the author at his Hudson River home, Sunnyside, suffering from asthma, heart disease and depression. “A dull, cheerless day, overcast at dawn, raining before 7” wrote a nephew in attendance, Pierre Munro Irving. The day began with a bunch of flowers from Robert, the gardener – a present for his birthday “followed by “a beautiful bouquet of flowers from Mrs. General Web.” ” A “salad from Mrs. Hoge, Charlotte Russe from Miss Mulhollin with a bouquet also from her” continued the flow of neighborly floral and culinary gifts, “the dinner table decked” with most of them. Irving’s poor health, however, was all too evident. As his nephew further recorded, “We all tried to be merry, but at the close, after a spasm of coughing had driven him from the table…we felt the uncertainty of another birthday with him…all rose from the table in tears.”
Yet this was not the sum of his life’s experiences. As a well-traveled man in Europe and his own fledgling country, Irving was often in interesting places on April 3rd of any given year. In letters and journals, he sometimes simply noted the day as on Monday, April 3, 1826 “My Birth day” and the following year, even more stringently – “birth day.” On both of those days, however, Irving was in Madrid, dutifully working on his biography of Christopher Columbus and passing the evening with friends – perhaps there was some celebration? Earlier on, 1805 had found him in Rome, touring historic and artistic locations, reveling in and philosophizing at length in his journal upon both in detail, but making no mention of the special date. In 1845, he was back in Madrid, holding a diplomatic post for the United States, and in the middle of a letter to one of his nieces, Sarah Storrow, he charmingly takes stock of his life:
“…this is my Sixty second birthday. I recollect the time when I did not wish to live to such an age, thinking it must be attended with infirmity, apathy of feeling; peevishness of temper, and all the other ills which conspire to “render age unlovely;” yet here my Sixty second birthday finds me in fine health; in the full enjoyment of all of my faculties; with my sensibilities still fresh, and in such buxom activity, that , on my return home yesterday from the Prado, I caught myself bounding up stairs, three steps at a time, to the astonishment of the porter; and checked myself, recollecting that it was not the pace befitting a Minister and a man of my years. If I could only retain such health and good spirits I should be content to live on to the age of Methuselah my only danger at present is that I am growing “too hearty…today I am to dine at the house of a rich Neighbor, Mr Arcos who has a fine, joyous musical family of young men, so that I anticipate a jovial birthday dinner and am determined to be as young as any of the party.”
Washington Irving left his family and friends in 1859 but perhaps it is this appreciation of Irving’s own life that is more relevant than his last birthday – his life was about all the birthdays before that, whether noted or not. At Historic Hudson Valley, we remember his birthday each year and value all of the rich literature and his beloved Sunnyside which he left for countless people to enjoy and celebrate.
*Original spelling and punctuation of documents retained throughout.
Diary of Susan Van Wart Storrow (July 26, 1844 – November 22, 1865), W 2158; Irving family Manuscripts, Library of Historic Hudson Valley.
Katrina Van Tassel Irving to William Irving,( April 12, 1854), W 192; Irving family Manuscripts, Library of Historic Hudson Valley.
Pierre M. Irving and Washington Irving: A Collaboration in Life and Letters. Wayne A. Kime. Waterloo, Ontario, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1977.
Washington Irving. Journals and Notebooks, Volume I, 1803-1806. Edited by Nathalia Wright..Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1969.
Washington Irving. Journals and Notebooks, Volume IV, 1826-1829. Edited by Wayne R. Kime and Andrew B. Myers.Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984 Washington Irving. Letters, Volume III, 1839-1845.. Edited by Ralph M. Aderman, Herbert L. Kleinfield and Jenifer S. Banks. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982
Washington Irving. Letters, Volume IV, 1846-1859. Edited by Ralph M. Aderman, Herbert L. Kleinfield and Jenifer S. Banks. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982