I’m proud to say that The Orphanmaster has been selected as a 2013 Washington Irving Award Winner by the Westchester Library Association.
Since 1987 the Association has gone about choosing “books of quality” written by Westchester residents, encouraging librarians in the county to encourage patrons to check them out and read them.
The Orphanmaster shares the spotlight with some great books, both fiction and non. This year the group of authors includes Don deLillo, Karen Engelmann, Esmerelda Santiago, Robert K. Massie and Dan Zevin.
Why Washington Irving, you ask. It makes perfect sense. He’s Westchester County’s foremost literary light, historically. Though he’s pretty much known today mainly for “Rip Van Winkle,” in his day, the early 1800s, he achieved rock star status, producing at least a dozen and a half popular histories, biographies and collections of essays as well as novels and stories.
Irving’s first major book, A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker (1809), published when he was 28, was a satire on local history and contemporary politics that ignited the public imagination. A later work, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., out in 1819, which contained Van Winkle (written in one night, it is said) and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, shot to international bestsellerdom. He’d been writing voraciously since he was a teenager submitting clever letters to the editor of Manhattan’s Morning Chronicle.
Irving invented the tag “Gotham” for New York City. Here is Wall Street in 1850, Irving’s home town.
Some of his books lampooned early Manhattan’s manners and mores. They set up a lasting stereotype of the stalwart Dutch burgher and his stolid hausfrau partner, influencing me when I researched The Orphanmaster. Rip Van Winkle figured in this ilk, telling the tale of a man who nodded off in the Catskill Mountains for 20 years, sleeping through the American Revolution, with the world having changed irrevocably during his slumber. Another more modern rock star, Johnny Depp, appropriately brought Washington Irving out of the nineteenth century with his portrayal of Ichabod Crane in 1999 in the film Sleepy Hollow.
Irving traveled extensively on The Continent – he served as an ambassador to Spain — as a true man of the world, feted everywhere, dazzling literati and royals alike with his intellect. When he spent time in the U.S., he lived with his nieces in a picturesque cottage called Sunnyside on the river bank in Sleepy Hollow, New York, a “snuggery” of yellowish stucco with climbing wisteria on rootstocks imported from England, a fainting couch in the parlor, and a west-facing veranda from which he could watch the sun set over the Palisades.
Irving hosted Dickens there, yet another rock star – fans grabbed tufts of Dickens’ fur coat as souvenirs — when the novelist did his American tour in 1842. When the train came through in 1851, cutting between Irving’s cottage and the Hudson River, he fumed. It ruined his bucolic view, and he never forgave it.
You can visit Sunnyside today and check out the tiny study where he sometimes nodded off, though not to wake a century later.
Today the library is carefully curated by a staffer from Historic Hudson Valley, the nonprofit preservation outfit which owns the restoration. I know the librarian in charge. She is cognizant of the honor of handling the great man’s volumes.
As I am of receiving an award in his name.