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)....
(The entire section is 1,635 words.)