Redrawing the New York-Comics Relationship

Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project

Recommended Reading: Washington Irving’s “A History of New York”

In late 1809, a ponderously titled book was published: A History of New-York, from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty; Containing, among Many Surprising and Curious Matters, the Unutterable Ponderings of Walter the Doubter, the Disastrous Projects of William the Testy, and the Chivalric Achievements of Peter the Headstrong–The Three Dutch Governors of New Amsterdam: Being the Only Authentic History of the Times that Ever Hath Been or Ever Will Be Published. The book’s author, according to its spine and an introduction by the inn-keeper who had had it published in order to get paid for the author’s stay, was one Diedrich Knickerbocker.

But there was no such person. Knickerbocker was the creation of Washington Irving, a young writer and satirist (who had, two years earlier, given New York the nickname “Gotham”).

The device of the “found manuscript” was not new, even if it was executed in a somewhat unusual manner: a little over a month before the book was published, a notice appeared in the New York Evening Post, requesting information about Knickerbocker, who had supposedly disappeared from his lodgings. Two weeks later, a letter writer claimed to have seen the man. A bit later still, it was announced that Knickerbocker had left behind a “very curious kind of a written book,” which would be published to “pay off his [Knickerbocker’s] bill for board and lodging”. It was a brilliant piece of prepublication marketing.

Irving’s pseudonymous history itself did not disappoint. It was indeed curious, a jumble of sarcasm, parody of self-important scholars, wordplay, hilarious made-up events, and history, all told by an arrogant, flippant and unreliable narrator. Together, these elements produce a text that is difficult to put down. One of the primary targets of the book’s jocular sideways swipes was the recently founded New York Historical Society, which had then yet to dig up or produce much of worth. In a sense doing their work for them, Irving recounts his version of the then-little known period of Dutch rule over New York, tracing many place-names, customs, and other aspects of New York life back to this time. In this way, it helped create a grand past for a city that had very little knowledge about its origins.

Along with historians, Irving took up his pen against many others, particularly Jeffersonian politics and culture, the clergy. In the words of historians Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, the book can be “read as one long screed, tempered somewhat by self-irony,” a denigration of its own time through comparison with a fictive Dutch “Golden Age” (Gotham, 418). Much of the satire holds to this day, so long after its original publication. Several of the book’s jibes are still, in my opinion, uproariously funny, and time has not taken one iota of the power to amuse from its more absurd moments.

But A History of New York is not only a funny and well-written satire; it is historically an extraordinarily influential book. The name “Knickerbocker” soon became a household name and, indeed, a nickname of New Yorkers of Dutch ancestry (some of whom, apparently, claimed the author as part of their own lineage). It inspired historians to find the real story that Irving made up to fill the gap in historiography. And, as librarian and historian of Knickerbocker’s legacy Elizabeth L. Bradley writes in her introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of the History, the book “marked the creation of a genre that persists to this day: the genre of the New York Story.” She goes on:

The combination of delight and mockery that marked the History has become the vernacular of centuries of New York storytelling: regardless of the medium, all of its chroniclers share a belief in the singularity of the New York experience, and a mission to share this experience with the larger world. Readers everywhere take it for granted that New York City warrants all the encomiums, epithets, nicknames, and slogans that have been showered on it, and demand to be told more (p. xxiv).

When this appreciation is tempered by Burrows and Wallace’s critical reflection, that “Irving’s ‘community’ was devoid of slavery, Indian wars, poverty, and other unpleasantness–and too many New Yorkers would for too long accept his affectionate mythmaking as authentic history” (p. 219), A History of New York appears as the prototype for the stories with which we will concern ourselves here: a type of story in which New York is portrayed in a selective and often affectionate manner, that gives the city a mythic quality, making the familiar seem strange and the strange seem familiar, all at the same time.

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