W.H. Auden once observed that the United States was the only country that produced enduring myths—which he characterized as poetic responses to events beyond human control—after the Industrial Revolution. An undeveloped frontier and a “savage” climate were favorable, in his view, to the creation of memorable figures such as Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe, about whom Auden had written an opera libretto. Washington Irving, one of the first American writers to achieve international prominence, created several myths of this kind. Two are well known to people only dimly aware of what Henry James, on a visit to Sunnyside, Irving’s house on the Hudson River, condescendingly called “the quite indefinable air of the little American literary past.”
One such myth is the time traveler Rip Van Winkle, who falls asleep for twenty years and meets Henry Hudson and his Dutch crewmen bowling in the Kaatskills, but misses the American Revolution and returns, thoroughly disoriented, to his hometown. The other is Ichabod Crane, the Connecticut Yankee who, in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” is hounded from the Dutch precincts of the Hudson valley by the Headless Horseman, leaving nothing behind but a smashed pumpkin.
Diedrich Knickerbocker, another of Irving’s inventions, began as an elaborate literary hoax two hundred years ago, and evolved into a name for many things associated with New York City, from beer to basketball. Knickerbocker’s strange career is the subject of a briskly engaging book by Elizabeth Bradley, a young historian on the staff of the New York Public Library. Her subtitle refers to Knickerbocker as yet another “myth,” but it might be more accurate to conceive of him as an early example of an advertising icon, like the Geico gecko, enlisted to sell products.
Knickerbocker’s name first appeared in a notice, headed “DISTRESSING,” in the New York Evening Post on October 26, 1809:
Left his lodgings some time 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, and as great anxiety is entertained about him, any information concerning him left either at the Columbian Hotel, Mulberry street, or at the office of this paper will be thankfully received.
A follow-up notice announced that if Knickerbocker’s back rent were not paid immediately, the landlord of the hotel would be forced to sell a “curious …