Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Washington Irving

I was doing some resale shopping over the weekend, and I came across some very old books. I love collecting old books, especially classics. While I was perusing the books they had at the Ann Arbor Re-Use Center, I came across an interesting book titled "A Knickerbocker's History of New York."

Intrigued, I flipped through the pages. I was astounded to find, at the beginning of the book a segment called "Author's Apology."

The author wanted readers to know that his work "was to begin an historical sketch; to be followed by notices of the customs, manners and institutions of the city; written in a serio-comic vein, and treating local errors, follies and abuses with good-humored satire."

Instantly, I felt as though I had found a kindred spirit across space and time. My copy (which I promptly purchased) was well loved and I was a bit confused as to whom Mr. Diedrich Knickerbocker was, but I was sure I would find out.

Upon typing into Google, the title of the book, I kept getting hits for a book written by Washington Irving. Frustrated, because clearly Irving and Mr. Knickerbocker are two separate people, I continued my search, when to my surprise, I found that Mr. Irving enjoyed writing under pseudonyms, and that this book was in fact a piece of his own fiction. After a good laugh at my expense, I looked further into the life of Irving and into the history of this book.

A young Irving (portrait taken in 1809)

While I'm admiring the man for this work, most people are familiar with both his stories "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow". When considering Knickerbocker's History, Wikipedia tells us an interesting bit of information regarding the release of the text:

"Prior to its publication, Irving started a hoax akin to today's viral marketing campaigns; he placed a series of missing person adverts in New York newspapers seeking information on Diedrich Knickerbocker, a crusty Dutch historian who had allegedly gone missing from his hotel in New York City. As part of the ruse, Irving placed a notice—allegedly from the hotel's proprietor—informing readers that if Mr. Knickerbocker failed to return to the hotel to pay his bill, he would publish a manuscript Knickerbocker had left behind.

Unsuspecting readers followed the story of Knickerbocker and his manuscript with interest, and some New York City officials were concerned enough about the missing historian that they considered offering a reward for his safe return. Riding the wave of public interest he had created with his hoax, Irving—adopting the pseudonym of his Dutch historian—published A History of New York on December 6, 1809, to immediate critical and popular success. 'It took with the public', Irving remarked, 'and gave me celebrity, as an original work was something remarkable and uncommon in America.'"

So not only was he a humorist on paper, but also a trickster in society. While I would never have the gall to do such a thing, I do appreciate his gusto.

Irving is considered the first American Man of Letters, and most historians/literature people consider him the first American writer to earn his living solely by writing. It's also interesting to note that the name Kickerbocker went on to be a term used for Manhattan residents in general, and is also seen as the basketball team the Knicks. He also is credited for creating the character St. Nicholas, at least in how he is represented in stories and artwork today. Lastly, in his writings, Irving used the phrase 'Goat's town' or 'Gotham' for New York City; obviously this then went on to be used as the ill fated city in the Batman stories. Clearly, Irving wasn't thinking his work would have such deep meaning in our society today (200 years later) but it is one hell of a legacy.

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