A History of New York

by Washington Irving

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1189

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 chapter.”

The first books contain more chatter than matter, the humor waggish. Noah is mentioned in connection with travel by sea, so as to get the reader to America. In one place, the author defends the killing of the American Indians because, not having used European procedure to improve ground, they demonstrably had not used the talents bestowed on them, had proved careless stewards, and therefore had no right to the soil. Biblical authority was claimed for their extermination.

In book 2, the author proceeds to the settlement of the province of Nieuw Nederlandts. He confesses that this was the procedure of Hans von Dunderbottom, who took a running start of three miles to jump over a hill and arrived at it out of breath. Then he “sat down to blow and then walked over it at his leisure.”

One source of the book’s humor lies in the derivation of names. The four explorers who pass through Hell Gate and reach the Island of Manna-hata (“The Island of Manna”) are named Van Kortlandt (Lack-land), Van Zandt (Earth-born), Harden Broeck (Tough Breeches), and Ten Broeck (Ten Breeches or Thin Breeches). Irving usually refers to the governors by his translation of their names. Wouter van Twiller, for example, becomes “Walter the Doubter,” who lived up to his name by smoking his pipe and maintaining silence in every crisis. According to Irving, this man of wisdom, five feet, six inches in height and six feet, five inches in circumference, settled a disagreement between a debtor and creditor by weighing the papers containing their claims, finding them equally weighty, and decreeing that the accounts were balanced. After he made the constable pay the fees, he had no further law trials.

His successor, Wilhelmus Kieft or “William the Testy,” defied the Yanokies (“Silent Men”) from Mais-Tchusaeg and Connecticut by bombarding them with proclamations and by building a fortress with a lusty bugler, a flag pole, Quaker guns, and a windmill. One of the most amusing scenes in the book is the description of the Yankees marching to war at Oyster Bay, where they were defeated by the doughty burghers, who thereupon celebrated on oysters and wine. Later, this governor disappeared; he was either lost in the smoke of his pipe or carried away like King Arthur. Peter Stuyvesant “the Headstrong” then became the governor.

Stuyvesant is the favorite of Diedrich Knickerbocker, who devotes three volumes to him. It was he who built the battery to hold off the Yankee invasion, though actually their own witch hunting diverted them from their proposed expedition. Then he declared war on Governor Risingh of the colony of New Sweden, across the Delaware, who had captured Fort Casimir by treachery. (The writer who supplied Irving’s model for the flowery description of that campaign is unknown.) When the Dutch fighters paused at noon to eat, the author advises his readers to do the same. Then the battle was resumed, the only casualty being a flock of geese killed by a wild Swedish volley.

Stuyvesant had other troubles, first the Yankees from Connecticut and later the “roaring boys of Merryland”—King Charles I of England who gave New World territory to his brother, the duke of York, and lent him a fleet to conquer it. Against the arrival of the British ships, the Dutch “fortified themselves—with resolution” and burned everything in the colony of British origin. Their defense was futile, however. With melancholy, the white-haired Knickerbocker narrates the end of his “beloved Island of Manna-hata” on August 27, 1664. In the 1812 edition of the history, Irving presents an additional account of his imaginary author and tells of his return to New York, now a British colony, and of his death. He was buried, “say the old records,” in St. Mark’s Cemetery beside his hero, Peter Stuyvesant.

In the revised 1848 edition, Irving adds an “apology” and an explanation. In setting down the amusing legends of New York, he declares, he has not intended offense to living descendants of any of the old families. His purpose has been to present the history of that remote and almost forgotten age in the spirit of imaginative fancy and legend. It is this happy blend that constitutes the most important contribution of A History of New York.

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