Kendra Steiner Editions

May 17, 2020

Washington Irving’s Life of George Washington, in five volumes (1855-1859)

Filed under: Uncategorized — kendrasteinereditions @ 11:52 am

As some of you know, I have been on a regular reading program of the works of Washington Irving and William Dean Howells, both prolific authors I greatly admire, with many lesser-known books I had not read in previous decades, and both recipients of many-volume scholarly “complete works” editions which, alas, have been de-accessioned from college and university libraries, allowing me to get these beautiful, deep, exhaustively researched, and historic editions for next to nothing.

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Since my teenage years, I have wanted to take the time to read Washington Irving’s massive five-volume biography of his namesake, George Washington….and thanks to the library at St. Olaf’s College in Northfield, Minnesota, for deciding that a biography of the first American president written by America’s first internationally acclaimed man of letters (which the author spent a decade researching, making reference to documentation that no longer exists in some cases) is not something worth keeping (alas, that college, which seems to be a first-rate institution, is not alone in that….pretty much ALL the dozens of scholarly editions of Irving and Howells in my collection are ex-library copies, with WITHDRAWN stamped prominently on them) because that allows me to own and treasure these editions, which cost me less than new and non-scholarly and poorly formatted public domain reprints of the works would have.

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I’m today starting on Volume One. Twayne’s 30-volume standard edition of Irving’s works devotes three large books to the five-volume Washington biography, and not counting the introductions, notes, manuscript analyses, and scholarly apparatus, the work itself is 1370 small-print pages, so this is a quite an undertaking for me. Fortunately, I am off work (mostly) for the next two months.

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Maybe 5-7 years ago, Mary Anne and I both read Ron Chernow’s excellent Washington: A Life, so I know the basic topography of Washington’s life and career. That will allow me to drink in the rich detail and expertly crafted prose of Irving, who provides A LOT of specific cultural history of the era that does not specifically involve George Washington.

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Between 1859 (publication date of the final volume, and also the year of Irving’s passing) and 1900, the Washington biography appeared in some 24 different editions (not reprints, but editions!), including edited versions for schools and children and also a braille edition, not counting translations into Dutch and German (and probably others I’m not familiar with). Anyone who frequents junk stores, antique malls, or antiquarian bookstores has seen many a yellowing and musty edition, often an abridged one for schools, of Irving’s Washington biography sitting there, probably never to be read by anyone else before it totally deteriorates or is thrown away.

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In the edition I own, the chapters tend to run between 6 and 15 pages, so I can work them into reading slots during my daily activities easily and make gradual progress throughout the summer.

I’ve also been reading many volumes of Irving criticism, as those scholarly editions can also be gotten cheaply, and we are lucky that for much of the 20th Century, until the early 1980’s or so, Irving was a deeply researched and studied author. Many arcane aspects of his career have been dealt with in stand-alone volumes, and those have been quite enlightening….although the works of Irving himself tend to speak quite clearly and do not require much backstory the way some works do.

I will eventually write about Irving’s body of work as I continue through it in the next year or two. Presently, I’ve read and pondered about 45% of the material in the 30 volumes of the Collected Works, either in the past or in the last two years, and I’m making a point of re-reading works such as A TOUR ON THE PRAIRIES which I read more than once in the past—-I’m a different person now than I was in, say, 1981. By the way, when I lived in Northern Oklahoma in that period, I was not far from the area where Irving wrote about in TOUR, and there are two exits named after Irving (one north, and one south) on the state highway between Stillwater and Tulsa.

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I do plan to come up for air regularly and keep contributing to the blog about poetry, music, film, etc., so keep checking in. Most of you won’t be going anywhere much during this Coronavirus lockdown anyway…

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