Knickerbocker: The Myth Behind New York

09/23/2009 4:00 AM |

Rutgers University Press
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It seems totally appropriate that New York City’s oldest historical icon is imaginary. Diedrich Knickerbocker began as Washington Irving’s playful attempt to satirize the first wave of New York historians, but his nostalgia for bygone New Amsterdam and his idiosyncratic combination of pretension and modesty struck a chord with the fledgling metropolis. New Yorkers rapidly elected him—reality aside—as their representative, sparking a symbiotic relationship that has survived to this day. In Knickerbocker: The Myth Behind New York, Elizabeth L. Bradley traces the origins and evolution of this bond, and explains how 19th-century New York’s eagerness to accept mythology as history set the tone for the city’s legendary attitude.

It is often overlooked that “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle”—stories that rocketed Irving to international fame and secured his place as America’s first literary celebrity—portray Dutch traditions and communities. Irving himself was not of Dutch descent, so why the prevalence of Netherlander characters in his work? Bradley answers this with a detailed account of New Yorkers’ early aspirations to write their own history, which mostly resulted in dry, pedantic tomes omitting any mention of New Amsterdam. Irving noticed this absence, and set about countering the dull fake histories of his city with (at least) an entertaining fake history, in which cows are urban architects and Spuyten Duyvil is so named because the devil actually resides there. To add insult to injury, he made his narrator arguably the most aggressively Dutch character of all time: the cocked-hat-wearing historian Diedrich Knickerbocker.

Exactly two hundred years after his debut in The History of New York, Knickerbocker’s name has graced New York residents, beer brands, streets, neighborhoods and an NBA team it really hurts to root for. His resilience to time is multi-faceted: it’s in the sense he had, even in 1809, of New York’s “peculiar combination of wonder and weariness”, in his balance of nativism and cosmopolitanism, in his nostalgia for bygone times, which Bradley shrewdly notes bespeaks New Yorkers’ habit of “lamenting the passing of the city’s ‘golden days’ regardless of when they believe them to have been.” But overall, it is his unreality that ensured his survival. Irving writes that “cities of themselves are nothing without a historian,” and what historian could be more fitting for New York—a city that sometimes seems to exist more in our imaginations than in reality—than a fictional native foreigner.