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Authors: Washington Irving

A History of New York

BOOK: A History of New York
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A HISTORY OF NEW YORK
 
WASHINGTON IRVING was born in New York City in 1783, the year the Revolutionary War ended. As a young man he began to write theater criticism and satire, and his first book-length work,
A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty,
was published in 1809 to great popular and critical acclaim. While Irving is best known today for his tales of the Hudson River region, including “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” he was equally famous during his lifetime for his picturesque “sketches” of European country life and his biographies of historical figures. These included the story collections
The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.
(1819-20),
Bracebridge Hall, or The Humorists, A Medley
(1822),
Tales of a Traveller
(1824), and a series of books written during a posting to Spain as an attaché for the American legation:
Life and Voyages of Columbus
(1828),
The Conquest of Granada
(1829),
Voyages and Discoveries of the Companions of Columbus
(1831), and
The Alhambra
(1832). Upon his return to the United States in 1832, Irving purchased “Sunnyside,” the Dutch cottage in Tarrytown, New York, that would become a symbol of the author and a place of pilgrimage for his readers, and wrote a series of books on the American West:
A Tour on the Prairies
(1835),
Astoria
(1836), and
The Adventures of Captain Bonneville,
U.S.A. (1837). Although he would return to Spain from 1842 to 1845 as the appointed minister of President John Tyler, Irving spent the better portion of his remaining years at Sunnyside, where he produced revised editions of his collected works as well as biographies of Oliver Goldsmith and George Washington (which comprised five volumes), the liberator of New York in whose honor he was reportedly named. When Irving died in 1859, the Tarrytown church where his funeral was held was filled to capacity, and it was reported that more than a thousand mourners waited outside for their chance to pay their respects to the “father of the American short story,” and the first American writer to achieve an international renown.
 
ELIZABETH L. BRADLEY is Deputy Director of the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. She is the author of the forthcoming
Knickerbocker
:
The Myth Behind New York,
and her work on New York City history and culture has been published in
Bookforum
and
The New-York Journal of American History.
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First published in the United States of America by Inskeep & Bradford 1809
This edition with an introduction and notes by Elizabeth L. Bradley published in Penguin Books 2008
 
 
Introduction and notes copyright © Elizabeth L. Bradley, 2008
All rights reserved
 
eISBN : 978-1-440-69982-5
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Introduction
Missing: One Knickerbocker
“DISTRESSING,” the notice in the October 26, 1809, New York
Evening
Post began. “Left his lodgings sometime since, and has not since been heard of, a small elderly gentleman dressed in an old black coat and cocked hat, by the name of KNICKERBOCKER. As there are some reasons for believing he is not entirely in his right mind, ... great anxiety is entertained about him[.]” The notice begged readers to submit any information they might have about his whereabouts and well-being to the “Columbian Hotel, Mulberry-street.” A later advertisement reported the discovery of a
“very curious kind of a written book”
that the vanished Knickerbocker had left behind, and warned that the landlord of the Columbian Hotel “shall have to dispose of the book” to “pay off his bill for board and lodging” should the missing debtor fail to reappear. The ads were a hoax, the landlord imaginary: the book, however, was quite real. Its full title was
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 Ponderings 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.
and when it was finally published on December 6, 1809, it proved to be even more “surprising and curious” than had been promised. In fact,
A History of New York
was unlike anything that American readers had ever seen: it was simultaneously a rollicking account of the discovery, colonization, and ultimate conquest of the New Amsterdam settlement, and a scholarly, grave, and mournful memorial to the lost leaders and traditions of the same. This recipe for “very tragical mirth” is narrated by the much-advertised Diedrich Knickerbocker, a self-proclaimed descendant of the “Dutch Dynasty” of the title. To him, Knickerbocker explains in a mixture of pride and pessimism, has fallen the task of righting the wrongs done to his ancestors by those who vanquished and then forgot them: it is his solemn mission to “rescue from oblivion” the “great and wonderful transactions of our Dutch progenitors,” and to save the “early history of this venerable and ancient city” from “dropping piecemeal into the tomb.” It is a dramatic statement, one meant to convince his anticipated audience that the impulse behind his
History
is as soteriological as it is curatorial: with this work of “faithful veracity,” he assures his readers, he will “rear ... a triumphal monument, to transmit [New Amsterdam's] renown to all succeeding time.” The only check on the boundless ambition of Knickerbocker is the fact that the historian himself is far from veracious: he was a fictition, the brainchild of a young New York lawyer named Washington Irving.
Washington Irving was twenty-six years old when he wrote
A History,
intending it only as a “temporary
jeu d'esprit,”
as he would later maintain: a spoof of the archival efforts of the fledgling New-York Historical Society and a critique of contemporary Jeffersonian politics and society. Irving had not yet become America's best-loved author, the creator of Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane; he had not yet been compared to Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, and Oliver Goldsmith, or hailed as the “Father of the American Short Story.” In fact, his literary oeuvre at that time consisted primarily of a year spent as a founding editor of and contributor to
Salmagundi,
a satirical literary weekly modeled after the English
Tatler
and
Spectator
magazines, and a total of nine theater reviews, written while still a teenager under the pseudonym “Jonathan Oldstyle,” which he had contributed to his brother's newspaper, the
Morning Chronicle.
Little about Irving's family or upbringing suggests that literary celebrity was in his future: while another brother, William, collaborated with him on
Salmagundi,
by and large the Irvings were a family of genteel merchants who earned a prosperous living trading in hardware, wine, and sugar. Irving's parents, who had emigrated from Scotland, settled on William Street before the Revolutionary War, and raised their seven surviving children there. Washington, their youngest son, was born on April 3, 1783, in British-occupied New York, seven months before the official evacuation of enemy troops from the city. By the time the
History
was published, Irving's native city had been substantially rebuilt from the devastations of war and occupation, but it was by no means the dense, hectic metropolis that the words “New York City” currently evoke. In Irving's youth and young adulthood, fashionable New York was bounded by the Battery and the Common, now City Hall Park: City Hall itself, which began construction when Irving was a teenager, was considered to be at the edge of civilization, beyond which lay the Collect Pond (on which Robert Fulton had taken a prototype steamship for a test run in 1796), now drained, paved, and christened Canal Street, and, farther north, the bucolic pastures of Greenwich Village. Indeed, the Chambers Street side of the new City Hall was faced in brownstone rather than in Massachusetts marble, on the premise that few visitors would be likely to see the grand facade from that northernmost perspective. Perhaps in an effort to widen his horizons in this miniature Manhattan, the young Irving chose legal studies over following his brothers to Columbia College, and entered the law offices of Josiah O. Hoffman, the former attorney general of New York State—where, by all accounts, Irving quickly discovered his career mistake.
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