The Knickerbocker Group Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.