Knickerbocker's New YorkKnickerbocker’s History of New York
by Washington Irving

“A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty — by Diedrich Knickerbocker”

My sister Meg led me into this one. A few months ago, we had got onto the subject of Washington Irving, mentioning things we’d read and enjoyed — mostly the short stories from the Sketch-Book and Traveler’s Tales —  “Rip Van Winkle” and “Sleepy Hollow” and the rest. What else was there? Something we hadn’t already read a dozen times?

We had both heard of Knickerbocker, but neither of us had ever actually read it. Okay, then — let’s read it! Even better idea — let’s read it aloud. Meg posted the request on LibriVox, a book coordinator rapidly picked up the project, and I signed on to read about half the chapters. With another reader claiming the bulk of the other half, it turned out to be a surprisingly quick project, already finished and catalogued.

[If you’d like to sit back and listen at ease, here’s the link to the Librivox audiobook of Knickerbocker’s History of New York by Washington Irving.]

Or you can listen from right here by clicking on these audio links —

Volume 1

Volume 2

I’m not sure what I’d expected when I began reading, but I think I’d been presuming it would be an ordinary history book, full of interesting information, maybe with some literary zing in the telling, given the book’s reputation. I wasn’t expecting to laugh out loud through much of the book. I wasn’t expecting the refreshingly quirky tone, a mixture of fond affection for bygone local folklore combined with irreverent satire of manners, attitudes, and politics.  Nostalgia and black comedy seem like strange bedfellows, but here they meshed in a surprising way.

“A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty” — The book’s subtitle sets the tone right on the opening page. The early chapters do indeed deal with the origins of the universe, but only as a prologue to the arrival of the Dutch in the New World. And when Dutch New Amsterdam becomes English New York, the book is over, because what else is worthy of more words? The tongue-in-cheek glorification of the heroic exploits of the Dutch founding fathers, from the ancestral visions of “Oloffe the Dreamer” to the sagacious decisions of Wouter Van Twiller (“Walter the Doubter”)  to the  military misadventures of “William the Testy” to the tumultuous tantrums of Peter Stuyvesant (“Hardkoppig — or hardheaded — Pete”), is an extravaganza of comic delights that would be right at home in a Monty Python movie. There are slapstick moments involving the voluminous trousers of Mynheer Ten Breeches and the notable nose of Antony Van Corlear. There’s the hilariously mismanaged expedition against the upstart patroon of Rensellaerwick. But there’s also quite a bit of more subtly pointed humor, satire disguised as instructive commentary, which comes forth so innocently in the pedantic tones of our learned narrator, old Diedrich Knickerbocker.

Very early in the book, an entire chapter is devoted to a series of arguments intended to ease the overly-tender consciences of those scrupulous readers who were not entirely convinced that the European invaders had a just right to dispossess the native Americans of their land. The arguments trotted out by ol’ Diedrich to reassure these readers grow increasingly outrageous, and the analogies more of a stretch, until by chapter’s end any reader with the least bit of conscience would only be more convinced than ever that the European claims smelled fishy.

The book’s tone isn’t always slapstick or satire, though. There’s also another  note, one of warm affectionate fondness for quirky local customs and favorite local “characters”. Alongside the exasperation of the author for his characters’ foibles, there’s also a wistful admiration for their better traits, for their domestic harmony and their habits of simplicity and contentment. We laugh at Antony Van Corlear’s excitible zeal, his pride as the governor’s trumpeter and right-hand man, his exploits with the ladies, yet we also enjoy his zest for life and his loyalty to hard-headed Pete. Antony’s end, though bizzarre enough to make us laugh, also invites us to mourn the loss of such a friend.

Diedrich Knickerbocker’s voice, as the supposed author and narrator, is the glue that holds together all these various tones and moods. Scholarly and didactic, innocent of any intention to upset conventional wisdom, yet unable to resist puncturing bubbles of pomposity, Diedrich becomes the central character of the book, though always in the background. When the book sighs with nostalgia for old-fashioned customs, it’s weary old man Diedrich’s sigh. When the book enthuses with effusive delight over the glories of Dutch victory, it’s the partisan voice of this blood descendent of the original Knickerbockers. When the book drily lampoons political imbecility and military cluelessness, it’s Professor Knickerbocker as I imagine him, looking waspishly over the tops of lowered spectacles at the idiots before him. When the book subtly undermines the comfortable assurance of his white European audience, it’s honest innocent Diedrich simply following an argument to its logical end, astonished that his remarks might be construed as subversive. One way or another, it’s our Knickerbocker narrator who makes this book.

How I’ve gone 50+ years without actually reading a book that’s been in the background of my awareness all this time, I don’t know. But I’m thankful that someone finally nudged me and said, “So read it already!”

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