Reviews - What do customers think about Knickerbocker's History of New York (Dodo Press)?
"How the town of New Amsterdam arose out of the mud" Apr 16, 2005
In 1809 Washington Irving published "A History of New York," the work that make him instantly famous. Conceived as a parody of Samuel L. Mitchill's guidebook "The Picture of New York" (1807), Irving's "History" purports to be written by the fictitious Diedrich Knickerbocker. It was, perhaps, the first American book to be embargoed by the publisher--that is, it was published in Philadelphia to keep its contents secret from the press in New York. Before the book was published, Irving and his friends even coordinated a hoax through the local papers, publishing a series of notices advertising Knickerbocker's inexplicable disappearance: "there are some reasons for believing he is not in his right mind," and "a very curious kind of written book has been found in his room."
The book was such a success that Irving revised it repeatedly during his lifetime, and readers should note which edition they are purchasing. Most recent editions reprint either the original text or the last revision, which are so different that they may as well be considered different works. By the time of the Author's Revised Edition of Irving's collected works, published in 1848, Irving had completely rewritten over a tenth of the book, added about 7,000 words of new material, softened the sarcasm, eliminated the mocking references to Jefferson's presidential administration, removed many risque passages and double entendres, and polished the overall style. The barbs are more personal in the earlier edition; Irving aimed his parody more broadly forty years later. In sum, while the earlier edition was considered more scandalous--even "naughty"--and cheekier in its wit and tone, the last edition is certainly more polished and "mature"--and might be considered by many as noticeably easier to read. (The remainder of this review focuses on the 1809 edition.)
The book's conceit is that the fictitious Knickerbocker, a Dutch descendant, nostalgically mourns the passing of Dutch hegemony on the island of "Manna-hata, Manhattoes, or as it is vulgarly called Manhattan," and he offers a rousing defense (read: mock hagiography) of the Dutch governors. But Irving's satire is aimed not simply at the long-dead colonists of New York; his depictions of various Dutch leaders evoke many of his contemporaries. Thus, Wilhelmus Kleft seems an awful lot like Thomas Jefferson, and Jacobus von Poffenburgh recalls General James Wilkinson (who was caught up in Aaron Burr's allegedly treasonous schemes against Jefferson's government). The "hero" of the book, however, is Peter Stuyvesant, whose glorious qualities are manifold--even if his rule was considered authoritarian and his last act as governor was to rebel against his own king, who had ceded Manhattan to his brother, the duke of York.
Irving, as Knickerbocker, also mocks the pretensions of historical scholarship. He offers philosophical justifications for the obesities of city leaders ("Who ever heard of fat men heading a riot?") and praises the well-honed Dutch civil defense against Yankee encroachments ("Never was a more comprehensive, a more expeditious, or, what is still better, a more economical measure devised, than this of defeating the Yankees by proclamation."). He interrupts his narrative several times with admonishments to the reader or faux biographical meanderings, and, near the end of the book, he acknowledges that his tone has changed from that of a "crabbed cynical, impertinent little son of a Dutchman" to a "most social, companionable regard." Of the many readers that began his book, "some dropped down dead (asleep) on the field; others threw down my book in the middle of the first chapter, took to their heels and never ceased scampering until they had fairly run it out of sight . . . Every page thinned my ranks more and more."
This last self-deprecatory joke is certainly the case for modern would-be readers: Irving's archaic prose can be a slog, and his historical and literary references will perplex even the most arduous. But not all the humor is dated, and quite often patient readers will be rewarded by a comment or pun that may even cause them to laugh out loud.
American Fiction, Humor, Starts Here Jun 4, 2002
Washington Irving's A Knickerbocker's History of New York is the single funniest book in American literature. Despite a weak and too-lengthy opening segment on the origin of life and other awkward philosophical questions (the merits of this section are addressed by Irving/Knickerbocker in volume two), once the Dutch colonize the ancient island of Manhattoes (present-day Manhattan), Irving hits a rollicking gallop, going full stride at full speed and doesn't stop until the dubious William the Testy is vanquished at the first volume's end.
"Diedrich Knickerbocker" was arguably the greatest of the several personae Irving adopted during the course of his long writing career. 'Diedrich' penned 'The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow' and 'Rip Van Winkle,' as well as short stories 'Wolfert Weber,' 'The Devil And Tom Walker,' 'Kidd The Pirate,' and 'Dolph Heyliger.' Irving achieved magic whenever he wrote, but when he steps into Knickerbocker's antique Dutch shoes, the combination of humor, history and folklore that results is unique, sweeping, and highly entertaining.
Few writers could or would dare to write the kind of poetic sentances Irving/Knickerbocker could, such as "the inhabitants were of primitive stock, and had itermarried and bred in and in, never swarming far from the parent hive."
All lovers of American literature and history, and of Americana generally, should know this delightful, warm and amusing book. Too often today, when addressing the origins of American literature and our early writers, we turn to names like Hawthorne and Poe, forgetting that Irving came first and was in fact the first American writer ever to be taken seriously by Europeans. (It was Hawthorne and Poe that paid lip service to Irving, who was born a full 21 years before Hawthorne and 26 years before Poe.) Some historians and critics go so far as to credit Irving with the creation of the short story as a literary form; he was also the U.S. ambassador to Spain, a world traveler, a biographer of George Washington, and at one time requested to run for mayor of New York City (an invitation he kindly declined). Thanks largely to Irving, the New York City and Hudson River Valley areas have a thriving plethora of myth and folklore all their own. As Americans, we owe the dynamic, magnanimous and prolific Irving a great debt, which decade after decade we neglect to pay or acknowledge.
Knickerbocker's History of New York is not difficult reading, though it is too advanced for children and most teenagers. However, any young adult or adult with a love of American history, particularly with an interest in the founding of our country or the American Revolution specifically, will find it fascinating. Humorists will find it a page-turning delight, and send their volumes of Twain back to the library post-haste....