Washington Irving’s Nephew – A Birmingham Link with America

This house stood on the site prior to the building of the Albert Works (Argent Centre) in 1863. It was occupied by the Van Wart family and where Washington Irving, brother of Mrs Van Wart wrote Rip Van Winkle.

Embedded in the registers of the Church of St Paul, Birmingham – writes a correspondent – are two entries of interest to Americans and to all who revere the memory of one who was a master of classic and dignified British prose.

The first, dated July 15, 1819, records the baptism, and the second, dated a few months later, records the burial, of one, Washington Irving, born May 7 1819 infant son of Henry and Sarah Van Wart.

The boy, whose brief sojourn in this vale of tears is here set forth, was the nephew of that renowned American, or, shall we say Anglo-American, man of letters Washington Irving, and it is evident that the letter officiated as a sponsor at the font of St Paul’s, then a chapel-of-ease to the parish church of St Martin.

These entries are more than interesting, since they serve to preserve an exceedingly precious link between this city and the great American Republic on the other side of the Atlantic.

Washington Irving lived for some time at the residence of Henry Van Wart, a prosperous citizen of some local repute, who was his brother-in-law.

The situation of the above is described in ‘a not precisely copper-plate clerkly hand’ as Cambden (sic) Hill and actually was near the corner of Frederick Street and Graham Street.

Here Irving found a home at a time when he was reeling under the blows of adversity. He had joined his brother in an ill-starred venture in Liverpool which had come to grief, and, feeling ‘down and out’ – as we now phrase it – had sank into a perfect stupor of despondency.

His relatives exerted themselves to rouse him from this perilous condition. They sought to re-animate his be-numbed mental faculties by recalling to his memory the sights and scenes clustering around his old home in the States and the quaint characters that lived in the vicinity.

The companionship and intellectual fellowship of the able, if eccentric, minister (afterwards first vicar) of St. Paul’s (The Rev Rann Kennedy) was a solace to him: But the cloud did not lift until the conception of his masterpiece ‘Rip Van Winkle’ took possession of his mind and gave a fresh direction to his powers.

The story of the writing of ‘Rip Van Winkle’ has been told before. Retiring to his room one summer night he took up his pen and began to write. His slumbering genius came to life; Sleepy Hollow on the banks of the Hudson stood before him and wonderful visions were transferred to the fact-filled sheets.

Morning light found him still at work, and the family party later on at breakfast listened entranced as he read aloud the already completed portion of the classic work.

From this achievement he never looked back.

Many other writings flowed from his busy pen, his delicate thought, and pellucid style making him a literary model for all time. Birmingham may thus claim a proud share in fostering the genius of one of the world’s greatest writers.

Several years ago no less eminent an American than Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) paid a visit to the Van Wart house.

Today even the ruins have vanished. The memory of Washington Irving; however, founded on something more enduring than bricks and mortar, remains.

But of the boy whose short history is recorded in the two somewhat illegible entries in the register books, what of him? It was perfectly natural and proper that he dowered with names of a kinsman; but – Washington Irving Van Wart – just think of it, what an extraordinary conjunction of tongue-twisting syllables to bestow upon a child!

What would have happened had he survived! What, for instance, would they have called him at school? It was a burden too heavy, surely, for either youth or manhood to bear, and one is constrained to think it was a merciful dispensation which enabled him to find refuge in an early grave.


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