Washington Irving in Spain

Javier Villoria, a dean at the University of Granada, described Washington Irving’s time in Spain in the first of a new annual series of lectures by visiting Spanish scholars.

"Washington Irving in the Archives of Seville," David Wilkie (1828)

“Washington Irving in the Archives of Seville,” David Wilkie (1828)

PROVO, Utah (May 26, 2016)—For American audiences, the name Washington Irving brings to mind headless horsemen and decades-long naps. Hailed as one of the greatest of the early American authors, he was one of the first to receive recognition abroad and enjoyed a respectable reputation in Europe. And nowhere is he remembered more fondly than in Spain, the country he came to love as much as his own home.

Javier Villoria, Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Granada, revealed this other side of Irving in a special lecture, “Americans Rediscover Spain: The Spains Washington Irving Lived.” Invited by former dean of the humanities at BYU John Rosenberg, Villoria delivered his lecture, which was in turn sponsored by the new Washington Irving Professorship, formed to foster relationships between BYU and Spain.

When Irving first came to Spain, it was a country that had lost touch with the American continent and even the rest of Europe. “From a cultural point of view, Spain remained a largely unknown and ignored country, compared with other southern destinations such as Provence, Italy or Greece,” Villoria said. This reinforced what scholars term the “Black Legend,” a propagandistic image of Spaniards as corrupt and cruel, almost barbaric.

However, this image gave way to another, that of the “Last Good Land.” Many Anglo-Saxon travelers saw Spain as a land untouched by the progress of time. Villoria explained, “This romantic perspective, which started in the beginning of the 19th century, generated a mystic, and idealized image of Spain, inhabited by proud men, temperamental nobles, gypsies, bandits, smugglers, beggars, bullfighters, majos and passionate women with black eyes.” This was the Spain that Irving sought out.

In 1826, Irving was invited by Alexander Everett, the American Minister to Spain, to join him in Madrid. He accepted, and in February made the move, staying in the country until August 1829, when he was appointed as Secretary to the American Legation in London.

This period of only three and a half years became the most productive literary period of Irving’s life. Villoria quoted the American literary critic Van Wyck Brooks, who said, “Irving’s Spanish journey was a sort of second birth for him, 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.”

Though remembered today chiefly for his fiction, Irving turned his attention to studying and recording Spanish history. He traveled through several cities, investigating historical sites for himself and visiting national archives to find the information he required. He ultimately produced six books on Spanish history. He was by no means a purist, though, and created fictional narratives to accompany historical facts. He best remembered in Spain for Tales of the Alhambra, a collection of legends about Muslims and Christians connected to the Alhambra, a palace fortress where Irving was lucky enough to secure lodging.

But he also took time to simply enjoy the country and its culture. He attended the the theatre, opera and bullfights and strolled the streets of Seville and Granada, making many friends he would keep for years to come. When he returned to Spain 15 years later as ambassador, his appointment was well received by the people. Pedro Alcántar Argáiz, the Spanish ambassador in Washington at the time, wrote, “Very well known in the country for his literary production; the greater part of on Spanish subjects . . . He knows our language well and he has great reputation as a man of letters.”

Today, Irving stands as an excellent example of the relationship that can exist between the U.S. and Spain, and so works as a herald for BYU’s ongoing relationship with the land of Cervantes.

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)

Samuel covers events for the Department of Spanish and Portuguese for the College of Humanities. He is a senior pursuing a degree in American studies with a minor in editing.