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Irving began writing the tales that would appear in The Sketch Book shortly after moving to England for the family business in 1815. When the family business spiraled into bankruptcy throughout 1816 and 1817 — a humiliation that Irving never forgot — Irving was left with no job and few prospects. He tried at first to serve as an intermediary between American and English publishers, scouting for English books to reprint in America and vice versa, with only marginal success. In the autumn of 1818, his oldest brother William, sitting as a Congressman from New York, secured for him a political appointment as chief clerk to the Secretary of the U.S. Navy, and urged Irving to return home. Irving demurred, however, choosing to remain in England and take his chances as a writer. As he told friends and family back in the United States:
I now wish to be left for a little while entirely to the bent of my own inclination, and not agitated by new plans for subsistence, or by entreaties to come home . . . I am determined not to return home until I have sent some writings before me that shall, if they have merit, make me return to smiles, rather than skulk back to the pity of my friends.
Irving spent late 1818 and the early part of 1819 putting the final touches on the short stories and essays that he would eventually publish as The Sketch Book through 1819 and 1820.