Worth Reading: Knickerbocker’s History of New York

By: William Jackson
December 26, 2017

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Ernest Hemingway is credited with saying that all American literature begins with Huckleberry Finn. This statement usually is quoted to introduce to some earlier work to disprove it. My choice for disproving it is Knickerbocker’s History of New York by Washington Irving.

Assuming that Hemingway really made the statement (and I have not been able to verify this), I understand what he meant. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has a uniquely American voice, setting and characters. You might argue that James Fennimore Cooper was uniquely American, but it is hard to regard his work as literature. But Knickerbocker’s History, published in 1809, set the tone for irreverent American humor for the next two centuries.

It is true that Irving’s earliest success was in England, that he lived much of his life outside the United States, and that Knickerbocker’s History is about Dutch colonists in the New World. But this mock epic satirizes a strain of American self-importance that survives today as American Exceptionalism.

As American as apple brandy

Irving is best known today for two short stories, “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” both of which appeared in his Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gentleman in 1820. These stories deserve their reputations. But neither is as laugh-out-loud funny as Knickerbocker’s History. Although it makes fun of early nineteenth century attitudes, the humor is as fresh today as when it was written. Self-important leaders are ridiculed, their citizens are gently chastised and pointless squabbles are inflated to the status of Homeric battles.

Knickerbocker’s History began as a joint project of Washington and his brother Peter Irving. Washington, who already was making a name for himself as a humorous writer, took over the project when his brother left the country on business. The reader is told what to expect in the full title of the book:

A History of New York

 From the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty
 Containing, among many surprising and curious matters, the unutterable pondering of Walter the Doubter, the disastrous projects of William the Testy, and the chivalric achievements of Peter the Headstrong—the three Dutch Governors of New Amsterdam; being the only authentic history of the times that ever hath been or ever will be published.

It begins with the creation of the world, continues through Hendrick Hudson’s voyage of discovery up the river that bears his name and the settlement of the beautiful island of Manahattoes by the Dutch heroes. The style is as obliviously self-important as anything produced by today’s politicians. Take, for example, this passage from his chapter on Cosmology: “And now I give my readers fair warning that I am about to plunge, for a chapter or two, into as complete a labyrinth as ever historian was perplexed withal; therefore, I advise them to take fast hold of my skirts, and keep close at my heels, venturing neither to the right hand nor to the left, lest they get bemired in a slough of unintelligible learning, or have their brains knocked out by some of those hard Greek names which will be flying about in all directions.”

As contemporary as politics

Knickerbocker’s History continues to work as humor and as social and political satire because so little has changed in the last 200 years. According to Diedrich Knickerbocker, the purported author of the history, New Amsterdam was the center of the universe from the time of its founding by the Dutch, and New Yorkers continue to hold that belief to this day. Running through the book is the rivalry between New Amsterdam and its neighbors to the north in New England, particularly at that other center of the universe, Boston—a rivalry that persists to this day between the Yankees and the Red Sox.

The book also works because of Irving’s skill as an observer and writer and his obvious love for the people and places he is writing about. Irving had a long and successful career (although an unhappy personal life) as a writer, historian and diplomat. But for my money, his first major work is among his best and stands the test of time.

There are plenty of editions of this book available. Check out a local bookstore or library for a copy.