Washington Irving (1783–1859)
From Washington Irving: Bracebridge Hall, Tales of a Traveller, The Alhambra
Arguably America’s first great writer, Washington Irving has nowhere been more famous than he was, and still is, in Spain.
Two centuries ago, Irving was invited by the American ministry in Spain to Madrid. Already internationally famous for such stories as “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” as well as for a series of sketches on Christmas traditions in England, he went to Madrid in February 1826 and ended up staying in Spain for more than three years.
“Irving’s Spanish journey was a sort of second birth for him,” wrote literary critic Van Wyck Brooks a century ago, “depressed and more or less idle as he was in Paris, turning into a hack-writer, with no compelling themes in mind, and tired of wandering aimlessly from country to country.”
Irving ended up writing six books inspired by Spanish history and by his travels in the countryside. By far the most famous—and the one that has remained in print both here and in Spain for 190 years—is The Alhambra, a collection of sketches chronicling Irving’s travels and reimagining some of the local stories and legends he heard from people he met along the way. Several historians, including most recently Javier Villoria of Spain and Richard L. Kagan of the U.S., have maintained that the book singlehandedly changed the view of Spain in the rest of Europe, from the so-called “Black Legend” of a gothic landscape with rapacious officials and cruel banditos to a more romantic vision of an untouched countryside with a friendly and proud population. After the book’s publication, the fortress of Alhambra, the city of Granada, and Spain as a whole became major tourist destinations. Irving returned in 1842, when he was appointed by President John Tyler as Minister to Spain, a post he filled ably for four years.
For our Story of the Week selection, we present the final story in Irving’s book, a whimsical piece about a curiously outfitted soldier who shows up one day in the city of Granada.