It was back when I was researching my first religion and horror paper that I learned it. Since the paper was about Sleepy Hollow, I’d been reading about Washington Irving. I knew little about him beyond that he’d written this story and also “Rip Van Winkle.” I had no idea that he was the one responsible for the nickname Knickerbocker for all things New York. Since then I’ve been quite curious about Irving and his world. A glance at the books noted on this blog over the last few months will demonstrate this. I found out about Elizabeth L. Bradley from an interview about Sleepy Hollow during the heart of the pandemic. Irving was first sent to Sleepy Hollow because of a yellow fever outbreak in New York. It led to his introduction to the lore and folk of the region.
Bradley’s book isn’t about that, however. She’s writing about how Knickerbocker went from Irving’s nom de guerre to essentially a trademark for Manhattan, and New York City more broadly. Knickerbocker graces hotels, sports teams, and once upon a time, a brand of beer. And much more. All of this is because of a volume I’ve never read, A History of New York by Diedrich Knickerbocker. Irving was a satirical writer and this history is an extended satire. He wasn’t Dutch, but he was born in Manhattan and cut his writing teeth there. An older sibling to America’s other fledgling writers, he gained fame enough to be able to retire near Sleepy Hollow. That particular story, along with Rip, made him a household name. Of course, he wrote much else but it’s not talked about so much.
This book is a brief tour of the city and its love affair with Irving’s pseudonym. Even having commuted to New York for about seven years of my life, I feel I only know very little about Irving’s hometown of Manhattan. I do know that on my walks across midtown hurrying either to the office or to the bus, I found a quirky little view of the city emerging. Little sites of significance only to myself—plaques on a seldom-used street, a church nestled between towers for capitalism, a quiet restaurant that made you forget the millions of others just outside. It gives me hope that a writer can make such an impact on an ever-evolving entity like New York. And this quick introduction contains much to help one reflect on the enormity of it all.