Washington Irving (1783–1859)
From Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now
Washington Irving was born 240 years ago, on April 3, 1783.
Remembered today for “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Irving was also famous during the nineteenth century for making Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of Shakespeare, a destination for American travelers. His essay describing his visit there in 1815 sent tens of thousands of tourists to the town over the following decades.
One of those tourists was P. T. Barnum, who arrived in 1844. In 1847, Shakespeare’s home, dilapidated by age and worn by traffic from the crowds, went up for sale when the owner died. “While in Europe, I was constantly on the look-out for novelties,” Barnum wrote in his autobiography. When he heard about the sale, he sent agents to London to secretly investigate the possibility of purchasing it “to remove it in sections to my Museum in New-York; but the project leaked out, British pride was touched, and several English gentlemen interfered and purchased the premises for a Shakspearian Association.”
The “gentlemen” who planned to preserve the house included such dignitaries as Prince Albert and Charles Dickens. Barnum’s “secret” plan may have been little more than bluster, but several newspapers noted the increase in public interest for the campaign to save the house caused by “a rumour that the shrine in question has been purchased for removal to America.”
Shakespeare’s home stayed in Stratford, of course, and the flood of Americans continued to arrive in the town. But the travel guides of the day all included yet another stop on the tour: the hotel where Irving stayed during his first visit. We reprint Irving’s essay on Stratford as our Story of the Week selection, along with an introduction describing how the place where Irving slept became almost as much of an American obsession as the birthplace and grave of the Bard himself.