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John Irving

John Irving

One of a few modern best-selling writers who also has literary stature, John Irving (born 1942) rose to prominence in 1979 with his fourth novel, The World According to Garp. His novels have combined 19th century traditions with modern-day melodrama, sex, and random violence. In 2000, his screenplay adaptation of The Cider House Rules won an Academy Award.

Beginnings in Academic Life and Wrestling

Born John Wallace Blunt, Jr., in Exeter, New Hampshire, Irving grew up in academia. His mother, Frances, and father, an Army Air Force pilot, divorced before Irving was born and at age six Irving's mother remarried. Her new husband adopted Irving, giving him the name he is known by today. Absent parents played major roles in Irving's later novels, but in real life Irving grew up satisfied to have his stepfather and never met his biological father. His stepfather, Colin, taught history at the exclusive Phillips Exeter Academy. Irving enjoyed the rights of a faculty child, gaining automatic entry into Exeter, despite his poor grades. It was years before anyone realized he suffered from undiagnosed dyslexia.

During his time at Exeter, Irving took up wrestling, and it became a lifelong pursuit that spilled over into his novels. Beyond being an integral part of his novels, Irving credited wrestling with preparing him for life. Comparing writing and wrestling, Irving explained to Joan Smith of the on-line publication Salon, "I think what success I've had is more a testimony to my stamina, to my ability to work hard and work long than it is to any talent I would consider God-given or natural." Irving said that he loved wrestling because it was the first thing he was good at. He has often spoken of his first coach, Ted Seabrooke, as a major influence on his life.

After graduating from Exeter in 1961, Irving followed his interest in wrestling to the University of Pittsburgh. The following year, Irving transferred to New Hampshire and won a grant to study in Europe in 1963-64. He chose the University of Vienna Institute of European Studies because it seemed an exotic atmosphere, a place where he found a sense of anonymity and learned to "pay attention." Austria was central to Irving's first five novels.

In August 1964, Irving married photographer Shyla Leary whom he had met in Cambridge. He re-enrolled in the University of New Hampshire (where he had briefly studied earlier) in 1965. His first son, Colin, was born the same year Irving received a B.A. degree cum laude. Irving would point to the importance of becoming a father and how it later shaped his view of the world as a dangerous place. He told People's Kim Hubbard, "I think the anxiety of being a parent—that's really been my sense of myself." While at New Hampshire, Irving had two short stories published—"A Winter Branch" in a 1965 issue of Redbook and "Weary Kingdom" in a 1968 Boston Review.

Now fully focused on writing, Irving moved his family to Iowa so he could attend the prestigious University of Iowa Writer's Workshop. Once there, he studied with Vance Bourjaily and Kurt Vonnegut. Setting Free the Bears, published in 1968, was well reviewed but sold modestly. It was the first of several books in which bears would play a key role.

After earning his M.F.A. in 1967, Irving had a university writing career that spanned ten years. It included grants from Rockefeller Foundation in 1972, the National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 1974, and the Guggenheim in 1976. Over the coming years, Irving would teach at Windham College in Putney, Vermont; Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts; the Writer's Workshop in Iowa; and Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in Middlebury, Vermont. He helped make ends meet by coaching wrestling.

Following the release of Bears, Irving lived in Putney, Vermont, and in Vienna. His second son, Brendan, was born in 1971 and Irving wrote his second novel, The Water-Method Man, in 1972. He admitted to Marcus Griel in a December 13, 1979, Rolling Stone interview that he had "wanted to write a book, if I could, with a happy ending, because I didn't feel I had a happy ending in me, and I wanted to get one. I wanted to write a book that was absolutely comic." In her book John Irving, Carol Harter declared that this second novel was an enormous improvement over his first. She praised Irving's strong characters, fine control of tone, successful manipulation of point of view, and dramatic shifts in time sequence. She was not alone in her critical praise, but Irving enjoyed little reward in the way of sales. He worked as a writer-in-residence at the University of Iowa from 1972 to 1975.

Irving patterned his third novel, The 158-Pound Marriage, on Ford Maddox Ford's The Good Soldier and John Hawkes's The Blood Oranges and in the process grew more comfortable with first person narration. But some critics consider it one of his weaker novels. The Los Angeles Times's Michael Harris wrote in 1994, "In retrospect [The 158-Pound Marriage] seems the thinnest and meanest of his books. Its wife-swapping American academics lack seriousness, and Irving lets his contempt for them show."

Literary Acclaim Achieved

Despite his past critical acclaim, no one could have predicted the meteoritic rise Irving would experience when his fourth novel, The World According to Garp, was released in 1978. Irving became an immediate sensation and was able to leave academia and become a full-time writer. Garp was a family saga of the admirable hero T. S. Garp, a writer and father, and the illegitimate son of a nurse turned radical feminist. The novel was a complex interweaving of several life stories, filled with the steadying influence of the New England coastline. Its plot featured such surprises as a pro-football player-turned transvestite family friend, along with several catastrophic events. The novel was wildly popular and in 1980 was awarded the American Book Award for best paperback novel of 1979.

Irving's first marriage ended in 1981, as his career continued to soar. His next book, The Hotel New Hampshire, shared the reach of Garp, following the life arcs of a family full of quirky characters, while maintaining a comic-satiric tone.

After Hotel, Irving wrote some less convoluted novels. The Cider House Rules, published in 1985, was almost entirely a birth to death narrative. But Cider House stood out from his earlier novels in another way—it was a polemic, taking on the issue of abortion, filled with detailed descriptions of abortion and the depressing reality of unwanted pregnancies. "[It] not only imitates the form of a Victorian novel, it may be the most Victorian novel of our times," said Harris of the Los Angeles Times. A Prayer for Owen Meany, published in 1989, was called Irving's "second breakthrough," by Harris. The novel followed the lifespan of Owen Meany, a Christ-like figure, against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. Some critics considered it his best novel.

In answer to questions about how autobiographical his novels were, Irving dismissed the notion, "I can invent more interesting characters than most people I know," he stated at a question-and-answer session at New York's 92nd Street Y in 2001. "In the world of writing about writers, personal experience is, in my view, always overestimated, and the imagination is almost always devalued." On other occasions, however, Irving also acknowledged the autobiographical themes present in his novels of absent parents and lost children, and that his grandmother was the model for Harriet Wheelwright in A Prayer for Owen Meany.

Books Became Films

At the same time Irving became a best-selling author, his celebrity-status increased because of films based on his novels. His unusual characters and event-filled novels attracted attention as potential screenplays. The World According to Garp was made into a film of the same name starring Robin Williams in 1982. In 1984 The Hotel New Hampshire followed. One project, Simon Birch, was a failed attempt at adapting Owen Meany, and lost Irving's endorsement. Irving finally got the chance to adapt one of his novels to screen with The Cider House Rules. In 1999, he documented his turn to scriptwriting and the 13-year struggle he undertook to bring Cider House to the screen in My Movie Business: A Memoir.

Irving remarried in 1987. His second wife, Janet Turn-bull, was a publisher at Bantam-Seal books when she met him and, after their marriage, became his literary agent and first editor. In 1991, their son Everett was born.

Critics sometimes pointed to Irving's writing as pandering to his audience. "I've read about myself that I am not to be taken seriously because I am a shameless entertainer, a crowd pleaser," he told Richard Bernstein of the New York Times. "You bet. I am. My feeling is I'm not going to get you to believe anything if I can't get you to finish the book. I have a very simple formula, which is that you've got to be more interested on page 320 than on page 32." Irving cited Dickens, George Eliot, Gunter Grass, Robertson Davies, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Salman Rushdie as his models. He believed in diligent rewriting and again pointed to the value of his wrestling discipline, saying that writing was one-eighth talent and seven-eighths discipline.

Believing strongly in his role as a storyteller, Irving described his approach to writing. "There's a procedure I go through when I write," he told People's Hubbard. "I always try to think: Okay, this is what you think is coming. But what would be worse?" And in another interview with New York Times's Bernstein he stated, "It is my deliberate decision to create someone who is capable of moving you and then hurting him. It's an honorable 199th-century technique." With his later novels, A Son of the Circus, A Widow for One Year, and The Fourth Hand Irving continued a remarkable career and his novels enjoyed wide appeal.

Although widely recognized for his successful career in the United States, Irving benefited significantly from his international appeal. "More than half of my audience is in translation," Irving told Salon's Smith. "'A Son of the Circus,' my last novel, sold as many hardcover copies in France as it sold in the U.S. … So my biggest market is not English language and it hasn't been in the United States for years."

In the acknowledgements for The Fourth Hand, Irving wrote: "Every novel I've written has begun with a 'What if … "' The seed for Hand came from his wife, Janet, asking a question as they watched a news story about the first hand transplant in the United States, "What if the donor's widow demands visitation rights with the hand?" Irving worked feverishly and over the next 48 hours developed the entire storyline and title overnight. In one way, this was typical for Irving, because he always knew where his books would end before starting them, then he worked back to the beginning. "At the point where I actually write that first sentence," he told New York Times's Mel Gussow, "I'm really ready to go until I drop. I'm remembering the story." The Fourth Hand was shorter than most of Irving's novels and was the first that didn't trace its character from childhood and span generations.

Irving's work on The Fourth Hand drew him away from research he was doing for a novel called Until I Find You, set in the world of tattoo artists and church organists. In 2001, plans were announced for Irving and director Lasse Hallstrom (The Cider House Rules) to adapt The Fourth Hand for the screen. George Clooney was mentioned as a possible lead.

Irving maintains a strong relationship with all three of his sons. He divides his time between a rustic, hilltop home in southern Vermont overlooking the Green Mountains, a Toronto apartment, and an Ontario cottage on Georgian Bay. His routine includes sitting down eight hours each day to write and taking time out to practice wrestling. He writes his first drafts in longhand and then continues on one of many of his Selectric typewriters. Despite a prolific career, Irving seemed to be at another peak in 2001, busy on both a screenplay and a new novel. "It's funny to be 59 and busier than I was 20 years ago," he told New York Times's Gussow. " … I have never filled the day and the night so much with writing."

Books

Harter, Carol C. and Thompson, James R., John Irving, Twayne, 1986.

John Irving, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 2001.

Periodicals

Los Angeles Times, September 4, 1994.

Maclean's, July 23, 2001.

Mother Jones, May/June 1997.

New York Times, April 25, 1989; April 28, 1998; August 1, 2001.

People, July 30, 2001.

Publishers Weekly, October 25, 1999.

Variety, April 23, 2001.

Online

Contemporary Novelists, reproduced in Biography Resource Center,http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (November 9, 2001).

Joan Smith, "The Salon Interview: John Irving," http://www.salon.com/march97/interview970303.html (October 26, 2001).

"John Irving/Author Biography," http://www.randomhouse.com/atrandom/johnirving/author.html (November 13, 2001). □

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Irving, John (Winslow)

IRVING, John (Winslow)

Nationality: American. Born: Exeter, New Hampshire, 2 March 1942. Education: Phillips Exeter Academy, Exeter, graduated 1962; University of Pittsburgh 1961-62; University of Vienna, 1963-64; University of New Hampshire, Durham, B.A. (cum laude), 1965; University of Iowa, Iowa City, M.F.A. 1967. Family: Married 1) Shyla Leary in 1964 (divorced 1981), two sons; 2) Janet Turnbull in 1987. Career: Taught at Windham College, Putney, Vermont, 1967-69; lived in Vienna, 1969-71; writer-in-residence, University of Iowa, 1972-75; assistant professor of English, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts, 1975-78. Awards: Rockefeller grant, 1972; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1974; Guggenheim grant, 1976; American Book Award, for paperback, 1980; Academy Award, Best Adapted Screenplay (Cider House Rules ), 2000. Agent: Sterling Lord Literistic, 1 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10010. Address: c/o Random House, Inc., 201 E. 50th Street, New York, New York 10022-7703, U.S.A.

Publications

Novels

Setting Free the Bears. New York, Random House, 1969; London, Corgi, 1979.

The Water-Method Man. New York, Random House, 1972; London, Corgi, 1980.

The 158-Pound Marriage. New York, Random House, 1974; London, Corgi, 1980.

The World According to Garp. New York, Dutton, and London, Gollancz, 1978.

The Hotel New Hampshire. New York, Dutton, and London, Cape, 1981.

The Cider House Rules. New York, Morrow, and London, Cape, 1985.

A Prayer for Owen Meany. New York, Morrow, and London, Bloomsbury, 1989.

A Son of the Circus. New York, Random House, and London, Bloomsbury, 1994.

John Irving: Three Complete Novels (contains Setting Free the Bears ;The Water-Method Man ; and The 158-Pound Marriage ). New York, Wings Books, 1995.

A Widow for One Year. New York, Random House, 1998.

Short Stories

Trying to Save Piggy Snead. London, Bloomsbury, 1993.

Uncollected Short Stories

"A Winter Branch," in Redbook (New York), November 1965.

"Weary Kingdom," in Boston Review, Spring-Summer 1968.

"Almost in Iowa," in The Secret Life of Our Times, edited by GordonLish. New York, Doubleday, 1973.

"Lost in New York," in Esquire (New York), March 1973.

"Brennbar's Rant," in Playboy (Chicago), December 1974.

"Students: These Are Your Teachers!," in Esquire (New York), September 1975.

"Vigilance," in Ploughshares (Cambridge, Massachusetts), no. 4, 1977.

"Dog in the Alley, Child in the Sky," in Esquire (New York), June1977.

"Interior Space," in Fiction (New York), no. 6, 1980.

Plays

Screenplays:

The Cider House Rules: A Screenplay. New York, Hyperion, 1999.

Other

My Movie Business: A Memoir. New York, Random House, 1999.

*

Film Adaptations:

The World According to Garp, 1982; The Hotel New Hampshire, 1984; Simon Birch, based on the work A Prayer for Owen Meany, 1998; The Cider House Rules, 1999.

Manuscript Collections:

Phillips Exeter Academy, Exeter, New Hampshire.

Critical Studies:

Introduction by Terrence DuPres to 3 by Irving (omnibus), New York, Random House, 1980; Fowles, Irving, Barthes: Canonical Variations on an Apocryphal Theme by Randolph Runyon, Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 1982; John Irving by Gabriel Miller, New York, Ungar, 1982; Understanding John Irving by Edward C. Reilly, Columbia, South Carolina, University of South Carolina Press, 1991.

Theatrical Activities:

Actor: Film The World According to Garp, 1982.

* * *

The publication of The World According to Garp was an important event in contemporary American literature. For John Irving himself, of course, the novel's reception must have been extremely gratifying: the book neatly divided his career forever into the pre-and post-Garp periods. Initially a little-known academic novelist whose first three booksSetting Free the Bears, The Water-Method Man, and The 158-Pound Marriage rapidly sought the remainder lists, he suddenly found himself inundated by critical superlatives and, no doubt, positively drenched in money. He achieved that rare combination of literary acclaim and wide readership that every writer dreams of. The success of Garp, following the previous achievement of E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, indicated that after many years of stifling academicism, fiction may have finally graduated from college and ventured out into the arena of ordinary life. Because many professors seem to believe that literature was written exclusively to be studied in their courses and because far too many writers receive their training in those courses, a great deal of American writing has been marked by a sterile obsession with technique for its own sake, a conscious avoidance of traditional subjects, a fatal attraction to critical theory, and a perverse desire to appeal only to a coterie of initiates.

Irving's works in general, and Garp most spectacularly, signal the return of fiction to its proper and honorable concernsa close engagement with the stuff of real life, a profound compassion for humanity, andinextricably and possibly even causally connected to these qualitiesgreat dedication to the narrative process, to storytelling itself. Irving cares deeply for his characters and their stories and makes his readers care for them as well; in doing so he places his work in the great lineage of the novel. Only a bold and innovative writer could venture so daringly backward into the literary past. His three most significant books at this point in his careerThe World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules, and A Prayer for Owen Meany indicate that this late twentieth-century American novelist also participates in the traditions of the nineteenth-century English novel. Long, leisurely narratives, densely populated with eccentrics, attentive to the whole lives of virtually all the characters, replete with coincidence and foreshadowing, full of allusions to specific writers and works, his novels combine a Dickensian richness of character and emotion with a Hardyesque sense of gloom and doom.

In addition to his refreshingly old-fashioned qualities, Irving also demonstrates his appropriateness to his own time and place. His novels are in many ways as contemporary as those of any of his peers. In addition to a growing sense of topicality, most fully realized in A Prayer for Owen Meany, they display all the familiar landmarks of the American literary countryside: violence, grotesquerie, a certain craziness, a racy, energetic style, and a powerful interest in the fiction-making process. They differ from one another in manner, matter, and meritThe 158-Pound Marriage seems his weakest performancebut they also share certain peculiarly Irvingesque subjects that create their special zany charm. Until The Cider House Rules, his books all dealt with such matters as academia, art, children, marital triangles and quadrangles, wrestlers, writers, sexual mutilation, Vienna, and bears. Bears creep through his first book and also show up in the long story "The Pension Grillparzer," that appears in The World According to Garp as well as The Hotel New Hampshire.

The pre-Garp Irving is lively, comic, whimsical, a writer whose works display immense confidence, a kind of assured easiness rare in a young beginner, far beyond the usual condescending cliches about promise. Setting Free the Bears is a revitalized American picaresque improbably set in Austria; the goal of its protagonist's lunatic quest is suggested in its title and works out to be as improbable as its location. The Water-Method Man deals with the sexual escapades, personal failures, and professional problems of a more or less lovable rogue wonderfully named Bogus Trumper; it explores, with rich glee, some fascinating notions about the creation of art from the chaos of Trumper's life, through the medium of avant-garde filmmaking and Trumper's absurd doctoral dissertation.

Whatever the value of his earlier work, however, in retrospect it seems a preliminary for The World According to Garp, which entirely altered Irving's career. The novel is written with enormous energy and strength, clearly the work of writer in full command of his material and his method. Although its style presents no particular problems and its plot moves in a leisurely, straightforward manner, the novel seems radically experimental for its complicated narrative progress. Its ostensibly simple story of the life of T.S. Garp from conception to death is interrupted by a number of other fictions from "The Pension Grillparzer" to a horribly violent account of rape, murder, and despair, Garp's own novel, The World According to Bensenhaver; the book also includes bits from Garp's mother's autobiography, A Sexual Suspect, other short stories, and parts of the biography of Garp that will only be written after his life and the book are over. In an action that must have called for some courage, Irving even includes an epilogue, detailing the lives of his characters after the main events of his major fiction have concluded: once again, in reverting to the methods of the past the author seems daringly innovative.

The actual subjects and events of Garp, just as unusual as its narrative archaism, come to dominate all of Irving's works. Although the novel itself was almost universally regarded as comic and, in Irving's words, "life affirming," it is an immensely sad and troubling book, haunted by violence, savagery, fear, horror, and despair. From beginning to end a bleeding wound gapes across the book: Garp's mother slashes a soldier in a theater; his father dies of a terrible war wound; his wife bites her lover's penis off in the same automobile accident that kills one of Garp's sons and half-blinds the other; and Garp's own novel, The World According to Bensenhaver, employs one of the most vivid rape scenes in all of literature. The relationship between sexuality and mutilation is emphasized through virtually every characterfrom Roberta Muldoon, the transsexual former football player to the man-hating feminists who cut out their own tongues to commemorate the maiming of a rape victim; Garp himself is assassinated by a cult member, the sister of the girl who was responsible for his sexual initiation.

Irving's fascination with sex-related violence and sexual mutilation winds disturbingly through most of his works, from the gang rapes of The Cider House Rules through the hijras transvestite eunuchsof India and the transsexual serial murderer Rahul in A Son of the Circus. Along with the bizarre and horrific narratives and the close attention to the character and life of the artist, the theme of sexual mutilation suggests something about the creative act itself. Throughout his works, art is generated out of sex, fear, pain, blood, and guilt; experiencing all these, Irving's artists create their fictions, which also make up a large part of the books about them, sometimes even as in A Son of the Circus, attempting to "write" life as if it were their own narrative. Sex, art, life, and the interpretation of both provide his rich and often puzzling structures, sometimes leading away from their initially simple, comic narrative lines into a region of horror, grotesquerie, insanity, and myth.

The post-Garp Irving, no longer the obscure academic writer, was rapidly transformed into the celebrity author, attentive to sales, publicity, and movie rights. He soon began to appear on the television talk shows, demonstrating his recipe for breaded veal cutlet; dressed in wrestler's togs and flexing his wrestler's muscles, he brooded handsomely in full color for readers of slick magazines. His good looks, his popularity, and his willingness to publicize his books and films earned him a more than literary fame and no doubt a more than literary fortunehis post-Garp works are copyrighted by something called Garp Enterprises Ltd. The Hotel New Hampshire and The Cider House Rules demonstrate the pernicious influence of success. The former continues some of the subjects of its predecessor, boiling over with violence and whimsya gang rape, a plane crash, suicide, terrorism, a lesbian in a bear suit, and a flatulent dog named Sorrow. Although the obsessions remain intact, they seem mechanical and perfunctory in style and substance; the laborious drollery and the easy cynicism, along with the specious profundities of the repeated catch phrases and verbal tags, read like warmed-over Vonnegut.

The Cider House Rules, on the other hand, shows that the author can move away from a possibly fatal self-imitation in new directions. Irving discovers for the first time the depths and possibilities of his natural penchant for Dickensian storytelling by inventing a truly Irvingesque place, an orphanage where abortions are performed. Though heavily dependent on the kind of research that hinders so many academic authors, The Cider House Rules recaptures some of the original Garpian compassion. The quirkiness of style and the fascination with genital wounds and sexual pain remain, but they are mixed with less labored touches of lightness and a good deal of love.

The Dickens and the Hardy influences flourish in A Prayer for Owen Meany, his finest work after Garp, which shows the author once again in full command of his considerable gifts and more fully aware of the tradition in which he works. Returning to the autobiographical mode that fuels the energy of Garp, Irving once again reports terrible events in a straightforward, even comic style, invents some remarkable peopleespecially the title characterand explores some of his favorite subjects. In addition, he more explicitly confronts his repeated theme of problematic paternity and this time attempts to provide reason and causality for what he had previously presented as the horrible mischancing of coincidence and fate; in A Prayer for Owen Meany Irving has found religion, specifically Christianity. He employs a nicely orchestrated set of typically unusual symbols and a variety of people and events to express the religious dimension, which encompasses the primitive and mythic as well as the various Protestant orthodoxies. As a result the book suggests a more energetic but less lapidary and learned John Updike.

The novel, along with the long, rather disordered exploration of India in A Son of the Circus, demonstrates that Irving has challenged himself in new ways: instead of settling for the sort of repetition that pleases far too many readers, he has chosen to break new ground. By contrast, A Widow for One Year marked a return to somewhat familiar territory, constituting a sort of female Garp saga with novelist Ruth Cole as its protagonist.

In a relatively brief time and at a relatively young age, John Irving has become a major contemporary novelist. His considerable body of work displays originality, development, and richness of subject and theme. His startling mixture of humor and sorrow, accessibility and complexity, clarity and confusion, of strong narrative with humane vision, of horrified despair with life-affirming comedy seems perfectly suited to end-of-century culture and literature. The chord he struck in a large and varied public with Garp continues to resonate; his works still appeal to a readership that encompasses many levels of literacy, an indication of their timeliness and power.

George Grella

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"Irving, John (Winslow)." Contemporary Novelists. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Sep. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Irving, John

John Irving, 1942–, American writer, b. Exeter, N.H. His mixture of wild plot strategies and eccentric characters brought him to wide attention with his fourth novel, The World According to Garp (1978). The novel concerns the career of a novelist, and its complex narrative gives Irving the opportunity to offer his opinions on a number of contemporary issues, most notably feminism. His other novels include Setting Free the Bears (1979), The Hotel New Hampshire (1981), The Cider House Rules (1985), A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989), A Widow for One Year (1998), Until I Find You (2005), Last Night in Twisted River (2009), and In One Person (2012). Several of his books have been made into films.

See his memoir, My Movie Business (1999).

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"Irving, John." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Sep. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Irving, John." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved September 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/irving-john