Regular readers know I’ve been on a Washington Irving kick. My wife kindly agreed to read his History of New York to me as I was doing the dishes (we’ve read over 150 books this way, over the years). This was the book that brought the then 26-year-old Irving to fame. A satire of the early European history of Manhattan, it contains many of the Irving quirks that would reappear in some of his later humorous writing. Today Irving isn’t noted as a great stylist, and his work isn’t considered particularly original. And the reviews on Goodreads reveal that some people read this book thinking it’s an actual history. Well, I guess it is, but it’s an unreliable one. Satire rolls that way.
The book was attributed to Diedrich Knickerbocker, as part of a hoax. Irving ran ads in the papers for a landlord seeking Knickerbocker for skipping out on paying his rent. The book begins with the landlord explaining that Knickerbocker had left in arrears, and so he is publishing this manuscript he found in his rooms in order to help pay the bill. In what would become the fashion of the time, the book was lengthy, a set of seven “books,” beginning with the creation of the world and lasting through the governorship of Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch administrator of the New Netherlands. Interestingly, nobody before Irving really took any interest or wrote about the Dutch period of the city. Since then, of course, serious histories have been undertaken.
Irving was an early example of a writer who blurred fiction and history. You can learn a lot by reading A History of New York, but you have to do a lot of fact-checking. My wife had previously read a serious history of the Dutch in New York (Island at the Center of the World) to me, making me curious about Irving’s book. It is humorous, but no doubt, the butt of some jokes gets lost with the passage of two centuries. And satire, depending on how it’s done, may not age well. Irving would go on to write what is still his best received book, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., about ten years later. And he would continue writing after that as well, but never quite recapturing the glow of the work of his youth. For those of us who’ve worked in, and for those who’ve lived in, New York City, there’s quite a lot to like here. Even if you can’t get all the jokes.