Study Guide

A History of New York

by Washington Irving

A History of New York Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The fun of reading a parody is heightened by acquaintance with the material being burlesqued. Although Washington Irving confessed, in the “Author’s Apology” added to the edition of 1848, that his idea had been to parody Samuel L. Mitchell’s A Picture of New York (1807), a knowledge of Mitchell’s book is not necessary to the enjoyment of Irving’s work. The parody is only part of the humor of A History of New York, By Diedrich Knickerbocker, which was originally begun as a collaboration between Irving and his older brother, Peter, and had the original title A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty.

The work reveals the interest of its twenty-five-year-old author in history, customs, and etymology; the burlesquing of several literary styles—his notebook supplies the names of some of the authors parodied, names now largely forgotten—reveals Irving as a literary critic. Irving was in the process of finishing the book when his fiancé, Matilda Hoffman, died suddenly. At first he was too stunned to continue working, then he returned to the manuscript as an anodyne for his grief and finished it quickly. About the same time, he conceived the idea of ascribing the authorship to an imaginary and eccentric Dutchman. The hoax was elaborately contrived and began when the public press printed a story about the disappearance of a man named Diedrich Knickerbocker. A short time later, an advertisement appeared, supposedly signed by the owner of the boardinghouse where Knickerbocker had lived, offering for sale “a very curious kind of written book,” which the landlord ostensibly had printed to reimburse himself for the old gentleman’s unpaid rent.

On December 6, 1809, A History of New York, in seven parts and 130,000 words, was first offered for sale. Legends about its reception spread rapidly. A Dutch woman in Albany threatened to horsewhip the author for his slanderous account of an ancestor. A number of famous New York families reportedly prepared to sue the publisher. On the other hand, Sir Walter Scott was reported to have complained of sore ribs from laughing so hard over the book.

Irving’s style ranges from playful to erudite. Evidence of his wide reading appears on almost every page, and voluminous footnotes clothe it with pseudo-scholarship. At first, readers thought these references were part of the humor; later scholars began tracing them to actual, though minor, Roman and Greek writers. The author’s pleasantries are apparent from the beginning. Book 1, according to him, is “learned, sagacious, and nothing at all to the purpose,” and he suggests that the idle reader skip it. When Irving embarks on a study of cosmogony, or creation of the world, he advises the reader to “take fast hold of his skirt or take a short cut and wait for him at the beginning of some smoother...

(The entire section is 1189 words.)

A History of New York Bibliography (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Black, Michael L. “Political Satire in Knickerbocker’s History.” In The Knickerbocker Tradition: Washington Irving’s New York, edited by Andrew B. Myers. Tarrytown, N.Y.: Sleepy Hollow Restorations, 1974. Black identifies the historical figures who are the primary targets of Irving’s satire but also argues for the universal quality of Irving’s caricatures. Black also explains the pre- and postpublication hoaxes surrounding the work.

Bowden, Mary Weatherspoon. Washington Irving. Boston: Twayne, 1981. An excellent basic introduction to A History of New York. Emphasizes Irving’s combination of accurate New York history and satire on contemporary political issues.

Burstein, Andrew. The Original Knickerbocker: The Life of Washington Irving. New York: Basic Books, 2007. Critical biography, in which Burstein situates Irving’s work within its social and political context, describing how Irving created an American literature. Burstein maintains that A History of New York established the city as a place with a “literary future.” Includes photographs.

Ferguson, Robert A. “’Hunting Down a Nation’: Irving’s A History of New York.” In Washington Irving: The Critical Reaction, edited by James W. Tuttleton. New York: AMS Press, 1993. An introduction to Irving’s life, work, and criticism. Ferguson...

(The entire section is 446 words.)