The Knickerbocker Group
The Knickerbocker Group
At the turn of the nineteenth century, New York had exceeded Boston as a center of population and social activity. At the hub of the city's and the nation's literary life were the Knickerbockers, a loose association of professional and amateur literati. It was perhaps their greatest luminary, Washington Irving, who had made famous the name "Knickerbocker" in the persona of Diedrich Knickerbocker, narrator of A History of New York (1809). These writers' activity spans the period from around 1807, the year their original literary journal, Salmagundi, was first published, to 1865, when the last issue of The Knickerbocker Magazine, their final representative publication, appeared. But the first third of the century was the period in which the Knickerbockers achieved their greatest popular notoriety and critical acclaim. It was then that the three original and most illustrious Knickerbockers—Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and William Cullen Bryant—flourished, leaving their permanent mark on American letters. The genius and success of Irving and Cooper especially stimulated the talent and ambition of a number of lesser lights who would help carry on the Knickerbocker name through the middle of the century. Of these writers, spanning the entire Knickerbocker period, the more prominent were James Kirke Paulding, Joseph Rodman Drake, Fitz-Greene Halleck, Gulian Verplanck, John Howard Payne, Samuel Woodworm, and George P. Morris.
The members of the group were associated chiefly by social class, literary sensibility, the social and intellectual confines of New York City, and a respect for each other's work. With no intention of organizing themselves into a formal school, they published the representative journals mentioned above in which their own and others' writings regularly appeared. As a group, the Knickerbockers were remarkably prolific, publishing in a broad range of literary genres: journalism, editorship, literary criticism, travel sketches that included the American and Canadian frontiers as well as the conventional Old World cities, novels, short stories, dramas, operas, and translations from the classics. After their heyday, the Knickerbockers' popularity steadily declined until, a generation after Irving, Cooper, and Bryant, their work was largely forgotten or ignored.
Twentieth-century critical appreciation has focused mainly on the Knickerbockers' literary criticism and their own literary art. It is generally agreed that the best of Knickerbocker criticism helped raise the standards of literary criticism in the early nineteenth century, which was narrowly moralistic and often ruled by the reviewer's personal or political regard for the author. A wide array of critical opinion existed among the Knickerbockers, ranging within two broad literary attitudes. The most common in the early period of Knickerbocker literature was the eighteenth-century neo-classical attitude in the tradition of Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, and Joseph Addison, which extolled disciplined and judicial analysis of the merits of a work according to exacting rules that were supposed to determine good literature. Others of the Knickerbockers adopted the new Romantic standard of criticism, following the English Romantics such as William Wordsworth, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, and Thomas De Quincey. They distrusted the rational and analytical and inclined much more to the critic's subjective appreciation of a work, relying in their judgments on the impression a work made. In the 1830s and 1840s, Romantic, impressionistic criticism was becoming increasingly common, but it was tempered by the growing influence in America of German criticism as reflected in the writings of Thomas Carlyle and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in England; it strove to include both the analytical and the impressionistic and was supposed to achieve a balance between the two extremes.
Knickerbocker literature varies widely in form, subject, and style. One finds classical gravity as well as the absurdities and fatuities of modern burlesque, or the realistic and urbane attitudes of the neo-classical outlook along with the maudlin sentiments and naturalism of the romantic outlook. But certain unmistakable influences from England gave the Knickerbocker literature, at different periods, a common identity. In the early stages of its development, Knickerbocker literature was indebted, not surprisingly, to eighteenth-century writers like Pope, Addison, Oliver Goldsmith, and Johnson; in its middle years it imbibed heavily the influence of Walter Scott, Lord Byron, and Lamb among others; and in its decline, Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, and lesser writers prevailed. An identity emerged as well from the considerable influence the individual Knickerbockers, especially Irving and Cooper, exerted on one another. They shared common interests, read many of the same books—including each others'—and wrote for the same journals, all of which helped produce, in broad outline at least, a common character. Their love of humor, especially satire, foreign places, and landscapes and their basic conservatism, especially in Cooper and Paulding, pervade their writings so much so as to be almost traditional in Knickerbocker literature.
In spite of the Knickerbockers' use of the English models they knew so well and their mutual influence, they demonstrated a considerable degree of independence and originality and were powerful forces in the creation of a native literary tradition. Irving's contribution is the most remarkable. His sketchbooks—including The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent (1819-20) and Bracebridge Hall (1822)—were largely responsible for establishing a new and peculiarly American literary genre, the short story, because they exceeded in quality and popularity everything of its kind. The Knickerbockers often wrote contemptuously of the predominance of British influence in American letters, despite and because of their own indebtedness, and many tried to foster a genuinely national literature by choosing specifically American themes, subjects, and language, particularly from the frontier. For such authors as James Kirke Paulding, it was a supreme embarrassment that American writers looked to England at all for their inspiration.
Though their contribution to American literature was considerable, it was a contribution appreciated by almost exclusively twentieth-century critics, in whose estimation they nevertheless remain only minor figures in American literary history, with the exception of Irving and Cooper.
James Gordon Brooks
The Rivals of Este, and Other Poems (poetry) 1829
William Cullen Bryant
"The Skeleton's Cave" (short story) 1832; published in Tales of the Glauber-Spa
Letters of a Traveller; or, Notes of Things Seen in Europe and America (travel sketches) 1850
Discourse on the Life and Genius of Cooper (criticism) 1852
A Discourse on the Life, Character, and Genius of Washington Irving (criticism) 1860
Letters from the East (travel sketches) 1869
A Popular History of the United States from the First Discovery of the Western Hemisphere . . . to the End of the First Century of the Union of the States. 4 vols. (history) 1876-81
The Poetical Works of William Cullen Bryant (poetry) 1878
Lewis Gaylord Clark
The Knickerbocker Sketch-Book (short stories) 1845
The Poetical Writings of Lewis Gaylord Clark (poetry) 1846
Knick-Knacks from an Editor's Table (essays) 1852
The Gossip; or, A Laugh with the Ladies, a Grin at the...
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The Nation, New York
SOURCE: "Knickerbocker Literature," in The Nation, New York, Vol. V, No. 127, December 5, 1867, pp. 459-61.
[This unsigned essay from 1867 provides a brief, first-hand look at the critical regard for the Knickerbockers and their writings, revealing how, only a generation after their own time, the writings of the Knickerbockers were largely forgotten or dismissed by the critics.]
Fitz Greene Halleck, who left us the other day, was a writer whose works are a favorable specimen of what, speaking roughly, may be called the Knickerbocker literature. Of the school of writers which produced this literature it is true to say that it was composed of authors whom we all remember as forgotten. Their names are well enough remembered, but the present generation knows little of them except their names, that they very properly acknowledged Washington Irving as their leader and master, and that they lived in or about New York. Charles Fenno Hoffman was one of them, James Kirke Paulding was another, Halleck and Joseph Rodman Drake were two more, and besides these there were Robert C. Sands, John Sanderson, the two Clarks—Willis Gaylord and Lewis Gaylord—Nathaniel Parker Willis, perhaps, and, in a sense, Cooper the novelist. Two men, for a time classed among these by the popular voice, are Mr. Bancroft and Mr. Bryant; but these have both escaped. Mr. Bryant deserved...
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William Irving, James Kirke Paulding, and Washington Irving
SOURCE: "Publisher's Notice. Shakespeare Gallery, New York. Saturday, January 24, 1807," in Salmagundi; or, The Whimwhams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq., and Others, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1860.
[In this 1807 preface to the Knickerbockers' magazine Salmagundi (reprinted in book form in 1860) the editors display the wit and playfulness characteristic of the writing in that magazine and indicative of the spirit of cultured amusement in which the editors wished it to be regarded by their reading public]
As everybody knows, or ought to know, what a Salmagund is, we shall spare ourselves the trouble of an explanation; besides, we despise trouble as we do everything low and mean, and hold the man who would incur it unnecessarily as an object worthy our highest pity and contempt. Neither will we puzzle our heads to give an account of ourselves, for two reasons; first, because it is nobody's business; secondly, because if it were, we do not hold ourselves bound to attend to anybody's business but our own; and even that we take the liberty of neglecting when it suits our inclination. To these we might add a third, that very few men can give a tolerable account of themselves, let them try ever so hard; but this reason we candidly avow, would not hold good with ourselves.
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Writers And Artists
James T. Callow
SOURCE: "Landscape: Similar Techniques and Mutual Publications," in Kindred Spirits: Knickerbocker Writers and American Artists, 1807-1855, The University of North Carolina Press, 1967, pp. 144-72.
[In this excerpt, Callow demonstrates how the Knickerbocker writers and the American painters of the Hudson River School, as a result of their philosophical and aesthetic affinities, used similar methods in their work to portray (especially American) landscapes—even to the point of collaboration on certain picture books.]
The Knickerbocker writers and the American painters used analogous methods to develop their landscapes. To some extent this overlapping of techniques arose from the social contact afforded by The Bread and Cheese Club and its successor, The Sketch Club. Members were usually artists who at some time in their lives painted landscapes, or authors who, like Bryant and Cooper, wrote about landscapes. What at first was merely fraternization soon became a broad spiritual affinity between large numbers of painters and writers, all striving for the same goals and employing similar procedures to reach them. It was only natural that they sometimes joined forces to produce landscape gift books.
Although individual authors undoubtedly had their own favorite painters' tricks,1 the...
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Aderman, Ralph M. Critical Essays on Washington Irving. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1990, 276 p.
Covering a period of 180 years, contains a broad selection of critical essays on the work of Washington Irving.
Adkins, Nelson Frederick. Fitz-Greene Halleck: An Early Knickerbocker Wit and Poet. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1930, 461 p.
A critical biography of one of the most popular and respected members of the Knickerbockers; it is also an excellent study of the whole of Knickerbocker literature and of the literary tradition in which Halleck wrote.
Arms, George. "Bryant." In The Fields Were Green: A View of Bryant, Whittier, Holmes, Lowell, and Longfellow, with a Selection of Their Poems, pp. 9-32. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1953.
A critical study of Bryant that re-evaluates his true literary merit as one of America's minor poets who has been unjustly neglected by twentieth-century criticism.
Current-Garcia, Eugene. "Soundings and Alarums: The Beginnings of Short Fiction in America." Midwest Quarterly XVII, No. 4 (Summer 1976): 311-28.
A survey of the short story in the United States that affirms The Sketch Book as the first accomplished example of the...
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