Academic journal article Early American Literature

Washington Irving, A History of New York, and American History

Academic journal article Early American Literature

Washington Irving, A History of New York, and American History

Article excerpt

   For me, I know nought; nothing I deny,
   Admit--reject--contemn: and what know you?

   --Byron, Don Juan 14.3

   And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
   Ancestral voices prophesying war.

   --S. T. Coleridge, "Kubla Khan"

If one asks "what is the history of New York," we answer: "it depends on your point of view." Since vantage points can be multiplied on both a temporal coordinate and a spatial one, a complete history of New York is indeterminate. This would be true even were New York, like ancient Troy, to disappear from the face of the earth--as it certainly will.

We may imagine all that as a fairly recent way of thinking--post-Heisenbergian, so to say, or perhaps ethno-historical. It is, however, an ancient historical view--as foundational for Herodotus as for the new, profane universal histories that emerged with the Enlightenment. (1) The critical humanism of Voltaire, the Comte de Buffon, and their inheritors permeated the thinking of the republic's founders and remains a dominating force with us today. (2) Washington Irving's work clearly moves within that intellectual tradition, but equally clearly, it moves at a strange diagonal. As skeptical of sacred and antiquarian history as any philosophe, Irving was at the same time drawn to deploy and investigate folklore and legend. His fascination with such materials, firmly skeptical, nonetheless runs end to end, starting with the comedy and satire of A History of New York (18) and ending with The Life of George Washington (1856-59)--the latter being his final act of conscious mythmaking written to hold back the night of that most dreadful of America's political decades, the 1850s. (3)

Irving's first important book, A History of New York (Black and Black), gives a good account of his skeptical Enlightenment mind. As we shall see in some detail, the book is as critical of antiquarian follies--call them Diedrich Knickerbocker--as it is of progressivist illusions--call them Thomas Jefferson. The position encourages Irving into one of his most recognized stylistic moves: to attenuate his Swiftian edges with genial, Sternian ironies. He likes to offer his skeptical judgments at attractive discounts, as if he might disarm them of their darker implications. So he regularly struggles both for and against his own critical impulses. A bit like Byron (and quite unlike, say, Poe or Bandelaire), Irving's skepticism was uncertain, unconfident, dissatisfied. This signature quality of his work unfolds in a particularly dramatic way in the changes he made to the History over a period of forty years. After 1809 the History undergoes three major transformations-in 1812, in 1819, and finally in 1848. (4) The changes were not driven so much by new positive facts that had to be accounted for, though he did introduce important neglected material. Nor did they come by multiplying the History's narrative points of view. These were already sufficiently complex. Irving changed his book by clarifying the historical ground of its procedural indeterminacies.

The art of the book rests in the unusual way Irving exploits the rhetorical possibilities of an otherwise simple frame structure. The process was set in motion--and inflected historically--even before the work was published in December 1809. In October and November, Irving wrote and planted in the newspapers a series of hoaxing press notices. These introduce the reader to the "mysterious disappearance" of "a small elderly gentleman" from the "Columbian Hotel" in New York. The gentleman is subsequently revealed as a Mr. Diedrich Knickerbocker, and we learn that he left behind in his hotel room "a very curious kind of written book ... in his own handwriting." The imaginary landlord of the imaginary hotel, Seth Handaside, informs the public that he intends to "dispose of [the] book" in order to "satisfy" Knickerbocker's unpaid bill (6-7). And so it comes to pass that A History of New York is published in early December 1809 in two volumes by Inskeep and Bradford. …

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