Knickerbocker’s Construction of a New York Identity

Washington Irving’s well-known Knickerbocker seems to provide a history of New York that can be considered quite different from its reality.  Realizing the lack of historical record of New York, Irving fills the void with a much more pleasant historical account than what was actually occurring.  In the book, Irving paints the perfect picture of New York stating, “The busy hum of commerce was unknown in the peaceful settlement of New Amsterdam…The whole island, at least such parts of it as were inhabited, bloomed like a second Eden” (Bradley, p.30).  However, from previous readings such as Gotham, we know that this was not the case.  Things were in fact quite chaotic including a strained relationship with the natives, lack of proper housing, numerous problems with alcohol consumption, and overall just a lack of control. Knickerbocker’s garden comparison doesn’t quite seem appropriate.  The imaginary Knickerbocker even makes a point of talking highly about the street food that was available stating, “Street food could be found in the form of oysters (raw or roasted) and hot corn among other pedestrian-friendly treats” (Bradley, p.32).  Additionally he also makes sure to point out that the Dutch of the city were responsible for the intelligent engineering and layout of the streets.  Bradley suggests that “Whatever is pleasant, quaint, or charming about New York he credits to the planning of his hospitable and peculiar ancestors” and even calls New York “the fairest spot in the known world” (Bradley, p.39). 

An additional way in which Knickerbocker tries to create an impressive history for New York is by proudly naming it the innovator of the doughnut.  He claims the doughnut to be even older than New York, as it was part of the New Amsterdam settlement (Bradley, p.31).  Interestingly, in the observation of Irving and his Knickerbocker text, it has been suggested that the people of New York needed something to identify with and Knickerbocker’s story gave them that. 

“The City on Stage” essay that we read also seems to suggest the need of someone to create some sort of identity that New Yorkers could take on, almost in a way that suggests they felt a lack of any specific identity and thus needed an identity to imitate.  In his essay, Waterman discusses what the people of New York enjoyed seeing in plays, such as The Contrast, and he suggests “a desire above all to see something which concerns themselves” (Waterman, p.43).  He goes on to make it clear that the line between the stage, and real life, was in fact quite blurry (Waterman, p.45).  This essay and The Contrast both help to demonstrate that not all was running smoothly in the city as Knickerbocker had suggested.  Both allude to the struggles and conflict between the classes at that time.  While The Contrast mocks the wealthy, specific classes of people only attend specific theaters (appropriate to their class).  The example of Astor Place Riots demonstrates the ongoing class politics during that time (Waterman, p.51).   Despite the differences in Knickerbocker’s historical account and a more realistic account of New York, it seems as though it may have been Knickerbocker who sort of planted the seed for the New Yorker identity through his semi-fictional written history of New York. 

 

Bibliography

 Bradley, Elizabeth L. Knickerbocker: The Myth Behind New York. Rivergate Books, 2009. Print.

Waterman, Bryan. “The City on Stage.”42-55. Print.

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