Common-place, the online journal of early American history and culture, has a special issue up this quarter on early American politics. Among its features is a joint interview with Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg, a prolific historian couple formerly of University of Tulsa and now of Louisiana State. Burstein recently published a biography of Washington Irving, focusing on the political context for the emergence of his career; Isenberg recently published a biography of Aaron Burr. The Common-place interview focuses on ways in which the two men’s histories and careers, both based in Manhattan, were entangled. It begins:
How does one speak of Aaron Burr and Washington Irving in the same breath?
Burstein: First of all, they shared the island of Manhattan
for a good many years. Washington Irving was the youngest in a large
family of merchants with both literary and political ambitions. The
brother with whom he was closest, Peter, ran as a Burrite for the New
York Assembly and was the editor of the Burrite newspaper, the Morning Chronicle.
The oldest Irving brother, William, served two terms in the House of
Representatives as a Republican. John Irving, a lawyer and later a
judge, hung out his shingle at the Wall Street address that Burr had
recently occupied. Washington Irving, trained in the law, briefly
worked there, too. Just before his first voyage to Europe, in 1803,
twenty-year-old Washington had breakfast with Burr and absorbed his
advice on how to profit from his time abroad.
Isenberg: Burr’s appeal to the Irvings was the same as his
appeal to other young New Yorkers looking to rise in society by
attaching themselves to a politician sympathetic to their ambitions.
Burr was a patron of the arts–the patron, for instance, of the
well-known artist John Vanderlyn; Washington Irving was an incurable
theatergoer and theater critic in his New York years and would pal
around with painters and poets all his life. His brother William, the
congressman, belonged to a literary society and wrote doggerel poems
that formed companion pieces to his soon-to-be-famous brother’s
occasional pieces. In a letter to his daughter Theodosia, who was
Irving’s age, Burr, when vice president, eagerly praised the young
writer’s satirical essays about Manhattan society.
For the rest of the interview click here.