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The Mysterious Mythmaker of New York

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New York Historical Society
Father Knickerbocker on the cover of a 1924 labor rights pamphlet by employees of the New York Public Library. According to Elizabeth Bradley in Knickerbocker: The Myth Behind New York, Knickerbocker’s image was used ‘to make a vivid point about the city’s increasingly negligent treatment 
of cherished resources such as the public library system’ and to urge New Yorkers ‘to remind the city of its founding principles and to wake Father Knickerbocker from his negligent nap.’

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.1 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” manuscript found in his rooms.

The book itself duly appeared on December 6, the Dutch holiday of Saint Nicholas, under the capacious title 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. The author of both the hoax and the book was the twenty-six-year-old Washington Irving, a lawyer and part-time journalist.

Irving may have been “America’s first literary celebrity,” as Bradley notes, but he remains an elusive and only partially understood figure. Born in New York in 1783, the year the Revolution ended, and named for its hero, Irving was the youngest of eight surviving children of a tough-minded Scottish merchant and his English wife. His brothers, supporters of the New York lawyer Aaron Burr, attended Columbia College and entered the thriving businesses of the expanding city, of which Burr was a leading advocate. Irving halfheartedly read law and drifted from office to office, finding imaginative release in the theater and in satirical essays he began writing on the side.

A tour of Europe from 1804 to 1806 allowed him to indulge his increasingly antiquarian tastes. He explored the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum; his guide to Rome was the American painter Washington Allston. Raised on a plantation in South Carolina, Allston regaled his guests—Coleridge joined him in Rome the following year—with ghost stories he claimed to have heard from his father’s slaves. Returning to New York in 1806 and primed by his sentimental education abroad, Irving fell in love with the fifteen-year-old Matilda Hoffman, daughter of a well-to-do judge. The first of several young girls that Irving publicly courted, Matilda died of tuberculosis three years later. In 1807, Irving attended Burr’s trial for treason in Richmond, noting at one point that the grand jury had been dismissed for a week in order that “they might go home, see their wives, get their clothes washed, and flog their negroes.”

In 1809, when New Yorkers were eager to celebrate the bicentennial of Henry Hudson’s discovery of Manhattan, Irving was amused by the futile attempts of the newly founded New-York Historical Society to document the past of the city. During the war, English troops had occupied New York for seven years, with a casual disregard for property or administrative records. The Great Fire of 1776 (the first of several fires to devastate lower Manhattan) had destroyed libraries, churches, and other repositories of documents. “The Historical Society,” as Bradley notes, “was in desperate need of history,” a void Irving decided to fill.

Irving’s History began as a burlesque of an inept history of the city by a physician at Columbia College named Samuel Mitchill. Although Dutch traders had operated a trading post on the southern tip of Manhattan from 1626 to 1664, before yielding to the superior force of the English, Mitchill included “not a single aspect of the Dutch settlement.” The joke soon outgrew its occasion, as Irving invented Dutch heroes, Dutch delicacies (“an enormous dish of balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog’s fat, and called dough nuts”), and Dutch mating habits, which he insisted were more sedate than the vigorous ” bundling ” of the Yankees (where young men and women were allegedly encouraged to wrestle, unsupervised, with one another), “their courtships commencing, where ours usually finish.”

Irving portrayed the expanding city as an uproarious battle of conflicting forces. There is nothing heroic in his account of Columbus (about whom he later wrote a multivolume narrative) and the encounter with the indigenous Indians:

Think you the first discoverers of this fair quarter of the globe, had nothing to do but go on shore and find a country ready laid out and cultivated like a garden, wherein they might revel at their ease? No such thing—they had forests to cut down, underwood to grub up, marshes to drain, and savages to exterminate.

He devoted many pages to the epic battle of the pleasure-loving Dutch and their enemies, that “horde of strange barbarians, bordering upon the eastern frontier,” in the joyless colony of Connecticut. For Irving, the drowsy Dutch, lost in the swirling smoke of their long pipes, were the guardians of the imagination, always endangered by the frenetic pace of the Yankees. He lingered on the Dutch holidays, and seems to have been the first American to mention such rituals as hanging stockings by the chimney for Santa Claus (a corruption of the Dutch Saint Nicholas) to fill with gifts.

At the center of this chaotic action was Diedrich Knickerbocker himself. In his Homeric enumeration of the “powerful army” assembled by Peter the Headstrong (i.e., Stuyvesant), Irving included some fanciful etymologies of his imaginary historian’s name:

Lastly came the KNICKERBOCKERS of the great town of Scaghtikoke, where the folk lay stones upon the houses in windy weather lest they should be blown away. These derive their name, as some say, from Knicker to shake, and Beker a goblet, indicating thereby that they were sturdy toss pots of yore; but in truth it was derived from Knicker to nod, and Boeken books; plainly meaning that they were great nodders or dozers over books—from them did descend the writer of this History.

Knickerbocker’s History, as it came to be known in its successive revisions, was an immediate success, both in the United States and abroad, where Coleridge, Byron, and Walter Scott read it with intense admiration. Despite its openly playful intent, Irving’s book fit the preoccupations of the Romantic generation, fueled by the ideas of Herder and Hamann, with the “folk” origins of nations. Romantic poets were not above massaging the facts in support of national pride, embracing as authentic McPherson’s forged Ossian poems, for example, and the “household stories” of the Brothers Grimm, who carefully adapted Latin and other written sources to make their tales seem both Germanic and orally transmitted.2 For his later and even more popular Sketch Book (1819), Irving borrowed the plots for both “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” from German “folktales” that Scott urged him to read.

If, like Frankenstein’s monster, Diedrich Knickerbocker “outgrew his creator,” as Elizabeth Bradley puts it, there is some question about just how much of him survived. “It was Knickerbocker, not Irving, who was repurposed throughout the nineteenth century for a host of political, commercial, and social agendas,” she claims, as “the ornery, insular Dutch bard became an instant icon for New Yorkers.” Bradley believes that Knickerbocker’s influence was even more pervasive. “In his emotional, lofty, and revisionist telling of New Amsterdam’s story,” she writes, “Knickerbocker originated that paradoxical combination of self-invention and nostalgia that has since become the New York note.” Here, one suspects that Bradley is overreaching. Can one really ascribe to Knickerbocker, as she suggests, the “shabby and superior, ironic and intellectual” persona of Jon Stewart or the “language of class and rank” of Woody Allen?

Still, Bradley’s story involves a delicious paradox, as aspects of Knickerbocker’s preposterous fancies were adopted as fact. New Yorkers with the Dutch names lampooned in Irving’s History eagerly claimed their status as the “First Families” of “Old New York.” Bradley shows how Irving’s catalog of imaginary Dutch aristocrats, with their multiple petticoats and overlaid tables, gave rise to influential published lists of the leading citizens of the city, from Moses Beach’s antebellum pamphlet Wealth and Wealthy Citizens to such Gilded Age taxonomies as Mrs. Astor’s “Four Hundred,” purportedly “the number of guests who would fit in her Manhattan ballroom, and hence the inexorable measure of true New York ‘society.’”

This process was well underway even before Irving’s death in 1859, by which time a new generation of American writers found him old-fashioned and overly indebted to Europe in his prose and tastes. Preparing a new edition of his History in 1848, Irving was struck by the peculiar longevity of his fictive persona. “I find myself almost crowded off the legendary ground which I was the first to explore,” he wrote.

When I find, after a lapse of nearly forty years, this haphazard production of my youth still cherished among [New Yorkers]; when I find its very name become a “household word,” and used to give the home stamp to every thing recommended for popular acceptation, such as Knickerbocker societies, Knickerbocker insurance companies; Knickerbocker steamboats; Knickerbocker omnibuses; Knickerbocker bread, and Knickerbocker ice, and when I find New Yorkers of Dutch descent, priding themselves upon being “Genuine Knickerbockers,” I please myself with the persuasion that I have…opened a vein of pleasant association and quaint characteristics peculiar to my native place.3

But what did Knickerbocker mean to Irving? “Knickerbocker” was merely one of the many masks behind which Irving, a mercurial and very private man, concealed himself during his long career. A lifelong bachelor, he chose as the epigraph for The Sketch Book, published under the pen name Geoffrey Crayon, a passage from Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy:

I have no wife nor children, good or bad, to provide for. A mere spectator of other men’s fortunes and adventures, and how they play their parts: which methinks are diversely presented unto me, as from a common theatre or scene.

Recent biographers have speculated about Irving’s ambiguous political views (less supportive than his brothers of Burr, and less hostile to Jefferson, whom he nonetheless parodied, for his silly inventions and his shaky erudition, in his History) and his elusive sexual inclinations. Despite his very public flirtations with a succession of unavailable young women, Irving seems to have been most comfortable, and confiding, with the young men who served as his traveling companions abroad. Among the women who sought a more intimate relationship than he was willing to accept was the widowed Mary Shelley. “Men fulfilled needs for him—emotional, and we should not presume physical—that were ordinarily fulfilled by a wife,” writes Andrew Burstein in The Original Knickerbocker (2007). “He may have been gay, without acting on the impulse.”

Irving’s seventeen-year absence from his native country, three years short of Rip Van Winkle’s famous nap, has often been held against him. Even an admirer like Goethe, who enjoyed Irving’s brilliant Sketch Book, thought he should have stayed home and written of frontiersmen and Indians like James Fenimore Cooper.4 As though to make up for lost time, Irving traveled west in 1832, hunted buffalo and ate skunk, glimpsed the imprisoned Chief Black Hawk, and lived “almost Indian style.” Writing to one of his sisters, Irving had this to say about the ongoing conflict with the Indians:

I find it extremely difficult, even when so near the seat of action, to get at the right story of these feuds between the white and the red men, and my sympathies go strongly with the latter.

But Irving’s distinctive contribution to American literature was not to express the sublimity of its wild frontier, as Natty Bumppo or Paul Bunyan did. What Irving detected was a quieter, more elusive pulse in the anxious nation, beneath the bluster of its politics and the violence of its expansion. He was not, as some have suggested, opposed to all social change, or committed to a vanished golden age of republican virtue. But he worried, as did Emerson and Thoreau in the next generation, that something valuable might be lost if people didn’t take the time to reflect on where exactly they were going.

In one of the best pieces in The Sketch Book, Irving reflected on “The Mutability of Literature.” Wandering into the library of Westminster Abbey, in the drowsy mood dominant in all of his best writing, he falls into dreamlike conversation with an ancient and forgotten book. The book is bewildered by the oblivion into which almost all books disappear. “Language gradually varies,” Irving explains, “and with it fade away the writings of authors who have flourished their allotted time.” The only writers who survive such inevitable “mutability” are those who, like Shakespeare, have “rooted themselves in the unchanging principles of human nature.”

But Irving’s own survival has nothing “rooted” about it. Change was his great subject, change and unavoidable loss. “I’m not myself.—I’m somebody else,” Rip remarks in his unsettling return to his hometown.

I was myself last night; but I fell asleep on the mountain—and they’ve changed my gun—and every thing’s changed—and I’m changed—and I can’t tell what’s my name, or who I am!

By giving lasting expression to the vicissitudes of both national history and individual existence, Irving’s own work has remained of interest to readers. His character of Diedrich Knickerbocker may indeed have captured something permanent in the character of New Yorkers and their city, as Elizabeth Bradley spiritedly argues. But if he did so, that enduring quality was mutability itself.

  1. 1

    See The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Prose: Volume II, 1939–1948, edited by Edward Mendelson (Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 129. Auden conceived of myths as “poetical history,” expressing “the psychological attitudes of men towards real events over which they have no control.” Edmund Wilson, citing Auden, mentions Longfellow’s Hiawatha as another American myth, as well as Poe’s “dark tarn of Auber and the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.” See Patriotic Gore, (Oxford University Press, 1962) p. 492.

  2. 2

    See Jan Ziolkowski’s Fairy Tales from Before Fairy Tales: The Medieval Latin Past of Wonderful Lies (University of Michigan Press, 2007) for an interesting analysis of the Grimms’ translation of published sources into supposedly “oral” tales.

  3. 3

    See Judith Richardson, “Cupola of the World: Diedrich Knickerbocker Constructs the Empire City,” in A New Literary History of America, edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2009), p. 145. Both Bradley and Richardson relate Knickerbocker’s vision of the city’s importance to Saul Steinberg’s New Yorker cover of 1976, “View of the World from 9th Avenue.”

  4. 4

    See Van Wyck Brooks, The World of Washington Irving (Dutton, 1944), p. 363.

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