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Knickerbocker Published

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knickerbocker_1849.jpgTwo hundred years ago today, a volume went on sale with the following title:

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 volume, ostensibly by one Diedrich Knickerbocker, whose supposed disappearance had been publicized in the pages of the Evening Post, was in fact the work of a young lawyer-turned-writer named Washington Irving. The book was well reviewed on both sides of the Atlantic and made Irving a literary star.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

[The image above did not accompany the original edition, but was commissioned for the new edition of 1849.]


We're pleased to join with a group of other NYC blogs in a collaboratively produced 2009 holiday guide. See the bottom of this entry for links to participating sites.

nissenbaum.jpgHow about putting a little history in your holiday basket? Stephen Nissenbaum's The Battle for Christmas is a perennial favorite around these parts.

Nissenbaum, in a highly entertaining narrative, shows not only that the American version of the holiday has been commercial from the start (the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade was a late arrival on that front), but also that it's what you'd call an "invented tradition." All the bits about Dutch origins were part of an effort among nineteenth-century New York gentry -- the self-anointed Knickerbocker set -- to create a colonial cultural heritage for themselves by establishing the social preeminence of their Dutch lineage, real or imagined. A byproduct: Santa Claus was able to sidestep an earlier Puritan bias against celebrating Christmas in the American colonies. Cyrus has summarized Nissenbaum's argument here before, but Santa Claus was smuggled into New York by the group of patricians also responsible for the New-York Historical Society (especially John PIntard) and writer-friends such as Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore.

Irving doesn't need so much introduction, but many readers may not have heard of Moore, or if they have they know him only for his poem "A Visit from St. Nicolas," more familiarly known by its first line: "Twas the night before Christmas." But Moore left his imprint all over the city, especially in Chelsea, the neighborhood named after his family estate. (His father was both the president of Columbia College and New York's Protestant Episcopal Bishop; his grandfather, a British officer, had purchased farmland in Chelsea in the 1750s, but the Moores had owned land in Queens since the 1650s.) After graduating Columbia as valedictorian in 1798, Moore dabbled in belles lettres and anti-Jeffersonian pamphleteering, compiled a two-volume English-Hebrew lexicon, and donated the land for the General Theological Seminary, where he was a professor of classical languages for three decades. (The seminary still stands, filling the entire block from Ninth to Tenth Avenues between West 20th and 21st Streets.)

Nissenbaum's The Battle for Christmas is especially good on making Moore's famous "A Visit from St. Nicolas," written in 1822, come alive in new ways. Ever wonder why the poem's narrator was so quick to spring from his bed to see what was the matter (rhymes with "clatter")? He probably thought a house-break was in progress. Christmas in early nineteenth-century New York, Nissenbaum suggests, had started to take on some of the elements of English seasonal misrule. But what had traditionally served as an escape valve -- allowing laborers to let off some steam but ultimately keeping social order in check -- was turning increasingly violent as a new industrial order demanded more of workers without giving much back. The mobs of working-class carolers who had traditionally demanded that rich folk bring them some figgy pudding -- insisting that they wouldn't leave until they get some -- were evolving into "Callithumpian bands" parading in the street making noise and committing acts of petty larceny. (One contemporary described these roving bands as made up of "Negroes, servants, boys, and other disorderly persons.")

I won't give much more away, but Nissenbaum argues that the significance of Moore's poem was to silence a little of that seasonal clatter, tame it to protect polite audiences. Santa Claus is a housebreaker, sure, but he's bringing gifts for the kiddies. The "patron-client exchange" that had defined seasonal misrule ("We won't go until we get some!") shifted to a parent-child exchange that made Christmas a domestic holiday rivaled only by the invented tradition of American Thanksgiving, taking shape around the same time. Moore's poem helped make Christmas "a practical simple ritual that almost any household could perform." The upshot: we have nineteenth-century New Yorkers, not seventeenth-century New Amsterdammers or their Old World parents, to thank for the cult of St. Nick and for Christmas trees. (Speaking of Christmas trees ...)

How to thank Mr. Moore? You might, like Cyrus's family, make his poem part of your own holiday ritual. (He recommends the pop-up edition by Robert Sabuda.) Or try one of these annual Moore Advent events:

Chelsea Community Church (346 W. 20th St.) holds an annual candlelight service and reading of Moore's poem. This year's event happens on December 13 at 6 pm. According to the NYC Parks & Rec website, at the nearby Clement Clarke Moore Park (W 22nd St. at 10th Ave.), neighborhood folk gather on the Sunday before Christmas for a reading of his poem. A similar event takes place uptown, in Washington Heights, at the Church of the Intercession (155th St. and Broadway), where people gather for carols, a reading of Moore's poem, and a candlelight march to Moore's grave site, in the Trinity Cemetery on 155th Street. This celebration has apparently been going on since 1911; this year it takes place December 20 at 4 pm.

A few other historically oriented seasonal suggestions:

If you'd like to seek out a patrician New York Christmas that predates Moore's poem (and hence is decidedly not Santa-centered), check the seasonal calendar for the eighteenth-century Van Cortlandt House Museum in the Bronx.

Jewish historians of Christmas, Episcopalian compilers of Hebrew lexicons, and Tin Pan Alley's Jewish Christmas Broadway musicals notwithstanding, maybe Christmas just isn't your thing? Then you probably already know the traditional alternative for December 25 is dim sum. We're not exactly sure when this practice started, but the big decision, these days, is whether to go with Jing Fong or Golden Unicorn. When you're finished eating, work off some calories on Big Onion's 19th Annual Dec. 25 walking tour of the old Jewish Lower East Side.

George Balanchine's Nutcracker has been a tradition in New York City since 1954. The very thought may make you yawn. If so, did you know that Uptown Dance Academy has been performing Black Nutcracker since 1995? Catch it at the Apollo Theater on December 22nd; proceeds go toward a new studio for the kids.

If you'd like to revive a non-commercial historic NYC holiday tradition, try "calling on" (visiting) as many friends as possible on New Year's Day. You'll need to bring the equivalent of a photographic calling card to leave behind. I suppose you could do something like this on Facebook, but we're fans of the slow media version that requires actual travel from house to house. We wrote about it last holiday season, as did our friend Esther at Ephemeral New York.
A final suggestion for those who'd prefer to bring a little misrule back to your yule: you might consider joining in the annual Parade of Santas in Santacon NYC 2009, on December 12. Be warned: though some participants will be decked out in period costumes, you may also encounter pub crawlers with puke in their beards. (Putting the ho back in ho! ho! ho! since 1994. A little Santacon history here.) We suggest it in the spirit of the nineteenth-century Callithumpian bands, mentioned above. 

Discover lots more in the 2009 "NYC Bloggers Do the Holidays" Guide:

Brooklyn Based: Home for the Holidays
Give and Get: Tis The Season to Volunteer
the improvised life: unwrapping the holidays
Manhattan User's Guide: The Gift Guide
Mommy Poppins: Offbeat and Multicultural Family Holiday Events
NY Barfly: It's the Holidays, Time to Drink
NewYorkology: Big-ticket holiday shows: Nutcracker, Rockettes, Wintuk
Ten Holiday Getaways Near NYC
the skint: 30 days of skintmas - a cheap (or free!) holidays-in-nyc-treat for every day of the season
The Strong Buzz:
Holiday Eats Old and New
WFMU's Beware of the Blog: Happy Freakin' Holidays Playlist
Walking Off the Big Apple
: The Thin Man Walk: A New York Holiday Adventure with Nick and Nora Charles

If you write a NYC-oriented blog and would like to contribute to a future group post, please let us know!
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Knickerbocker To Be Published

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Two hundred years ago today, the following notice appeared in the Evening Post:


INSKEEP and BRADFORD have in the press, and will shortly publish,

A History of New York,

In two volumes, duodecimo. Price three dollars.

Containing an account of its discovery and settlement, with its internal policies, manners, customs, wars, &c. &c., under the Dutch government, furnishing many curious and interesting particulars never before published, and which are gathered from various manuscript and other authenticated sources, the whole being interspersed with philosophical speculations and moral precepts.

This work was found in the chamber of Mr. Diedrich Knickerbocker, the old gentleman whose sudden and mysterious disappearance has been noticed. It is published in order to discharge certain debts he has left behind.


Knickerbocker Missing (III)

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Two hundred years ago today, the following letter appeared in the Evening Post:

To the Editor of the "Evening Post."

SIR,--You have been good enough to publish in your paper a paragraph about Mr. Diedrich Knickerbocker, who was missing so strangely some time since. Nothing satisfactory has been heard of the old gentleman since; but a very curious kind of a written book has been found in his room, in his own handwriting. Now, I wish you to notice him, if he is still alive, that if he does not return and pay off his bill for boarding and lodging, I shall have to dispose of his book to satisfy me for the same.

I am, Sir, your humble servant,


Landlord of the Independent Columbian Hotel,

Mulberry Street.


New Literary History

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MARNEW.jpgI'm in Washington DC this weekend for the annual meeting of the American Studies Association. The theme of the meeting is "Practices Of Citizenship, Sustainability And Belonging." This afternoon I'll be participating in a roundtable discussion called "Belonging and Culture: Making a New Literary History of America." The discussion is prompted by Harvard University Press's recent publication of A New Literary History of America, edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors. My co-panelists are Sollors (who is Professor of English and of African and African American Studies at Harvard), Kirsten Silva Gruesz from UC Santa Cruz (who was both a contributor and editorial board member), and the novelist Bharati Mukherjee, who contributed a piece on Hawthorne. My role on the roundtable is to offer a perspective from the outside as someone who has been involved in other literary history projects.

The book has already received an unusual amount of notice for an academic book of this kind, in part because it's an outstanding example of writing on scholarly subjects for a general reader and in part because HUP's marketing department has done a superb job of making it seem hip. Check out some of the reviews:, the New York Review of Books, the New York Times,, and the Wall Street Journal. Perhaps most impressive for a university press book, the volume even made Entertainment Weekly's Must List!

The best example of the volume's hipness is its website, newliteraryhistory,com, which is inviting, fun, and informative. Both its design and its content make you want to buy the book. The site takes its cue from Greil Marcus's suggestion about one way to read through the book: "Pick a card, any card!" You can, in other words, have a rich experience simply by starting wherever you like and continuing with whatever entries seem most inviting. The website allows you to sample a dozen different entries by, well, picking a card, any card. (Click on the link and you'll see what I mean).

What makes the book inviting? One thing is the brevity of the entries: the standard length for an essay was 2,500 words, meaning that starting to read one doesn't seem like a major commitment. Each essay has a date and an intriguing tag line, such as the ones that precede a discussion of The Azusa Street Revival: "1906, April 9 -- William J. Seymour, an African American preacher, and seven others fall to the floor in a humble mission in Los Angeles and begin speaking in tongues." Moreover, the essays are almost all written in accordance with the volume's aim, which Sollors has described this way: "the aim was to make non-specialists curious to read, or look at, or listen to, works as if for the first time, intrigued by one of the essays."

The example that I just cited -- The Azusa Street Revival -- gives you a sense of one other innovative aspect of the project. Something like an episode of speaking in tongues, which moved from a local to a national (and even global) phenomenon gets an essay along with, say, Moby-Dick or "multiculturalism" or Psycho or Linda Lovelace. The organizing rubric is "made in America," and while the volume is grounded in the literary, it's ultimately about literature's engagement with a wide range of cultural forms and intellectual and artistic disciplines. It's ultimately about the fluidity of cultural forms. And it ain't stodgy.

As many of you know, Bryan and I have been collaborating for some time now on a cultural history of New York City. That project is still in its infant stages, and I think there are some things that we can learn from Marcus's and Sollors's History. We share the History's orientation, its grounding in the literary but its commitment to understanding the idea of the "literary" in the broadest possible terms. We've talked about the need to think about exemplary moments in creating a readable history of the city's cultural forms, one that isn't ponderous and doesn't pretend to be exhaustive. We've talked writing a history in fourteen "scenes" (fourteen simply because that's the number of weeks in an NYU semester). We've talked about grounding each of these scenes in a specific time and place, providing perhaps a date and a street corner where we could. But we've both found it challenging, as we've drafted chapters, to weave together the different stories that we want to tell about, say, the period "1820 to 1850."

What would happen, I wonder, if we impose the discipline of the 2,500-word essay? What if we were to conceive the book as a collection of 40 of these essays, each grounded in a specific time and place? Sollors has suggested that one of the caveats he offered authors was against "taking the hook too seriously. The author needs to understand that the hook is just a starting point." I think that in our case we might want to place more emphasis on the hook, reconceiving it perhaps as the starting point and ending point for a walking tour of some aspect of the city's cultural history."

Marcus, Sollors, and their HUP editor Lindsay Waters (who first conceived the project) worried at the outset about the problem of the "grand narrative" in literary history, an idea that has come under fire in recent years. They solve the problem by having nearly 200 contributors, each bringing a particular point of view, creating rather than a finished jigsaw puzzle something more like a collage. With only two of us, our cultural history of New York would tend no doubt to have fewer and more unified perspectives, and I think we would want to include chapters that provided overviews of sections of the book. From teaching Writing New York, we're already armed with a set of conceptual maps that will guide our choices of which walks through the city's history we want to take. But what if we don't write those overviews until the very end, once we've assembled the bulk of our 2,500-word essays and then stepped back to see what kinds of views of the city they ended up offering, what unexpected paths and byways they uncovered? What if we decided only then how to break the book up into sections, each of which might get an overview?

What do you think, Bryan?

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Knickerbocker Missing (II)

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Two hundred years ago today, the following letter appeared in the Evening Post:

To the Editor of the "Evening Post."

SIR,--Having read, in your paper of the 26th of October last, a paragraph respecting an old gentleman by the name of Knickerbocker, who was missing from his lodgings; if it would be any relief to his friends, or furnish them with any clue to discover where he is, you may inform them that a person answering the description given was seen by the passengers of the Albany stage, early in the morning, about four or five weeks since, resting himself by the side of the road, a little above King's Bridge. He had in his hand a small bundle tied in a red bandana handkerchief: he appeared to be traveling northward, and was very much fatigued and exhausted.



Covered, Front and Back

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Here is a proof of the front and back covers of our forthcoming Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York. Ignore the blurb copy, which reproduces the earliest version and has since been substantially revised.

Click on the image to see a larger version.


Downloadable Lost New York

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Thumbnail image for lost_new_york_cover.jpgThe Fales Library exhibition that accompanied our recent Lost New York conference will remain on view through November 6. If you're in the area, stop by the Bobst Library (Washington Square South at LaGuardia Place), tell the security desk that you're going to Fales, and head up to the third floor. It's a wonderful exhibit. You can read more about it in this post from earlier in the month.

While you're there you can pick up the volume essays that accompanies the exhibit -- not exactly a catalog, the volume takes both the exhibit and the conference theme as a point of departure.

If you aren't able to visit before November 6, you can download a copy of the volume here in PDF format. (The download is approimately 28.5 MB.)

And, for a limited time, readers of this blog can request a complimentary copy of the book itself, which is printed on glossy stock and makes a handsome addition to any library of books about New York. Just send an e-mail with your mailing address to

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Knickerbocker Missing

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Two hundred years ago today, the following notice appeared in the Evening Post:


Left his lodgings some time since, and has not since been heard of, a small elderly gentleman, dressed in an old black coat and cocked hat, by the name of Knickerbocker. As there are some reasons for believing he is not entirely in his right mind, and as great anxiety is entertained about him, any information concerning him, left either at the Columbian Hotel, Mulberry Street, or at the office of this paper, will be thankfully received.

P.S.--Printers of newspapers will be aiding the cause of humanity in giving an insertion to the above.

knickhotel.jpgUnfortunately, I didn't have an opportunity to transcribe more of the conversation between Berman and Freeland today, so instead I thought I'd offer you a moment from the book that I'm currently reading -- or, rather, re-reading -- The Dark River by John Twelve Hawks, a moment that seems appropriate given what both Berman and Freeland were starting to talk about when we left them.

The story with Twelve Hawks is that he lives completely off the grid: not even his agent knows who he is? (Which leads to rumors: could it be Thomas Pynchon slumming? Nah, we know what that looks like: it looks like Inherent Vice, which looks nothing like Twelve Hawks's books.) The Dark River is the second book in the Fourth Realm trilogy and like its predecessor, The Traveler, its a wonderful pop-culture confection, a mash-up of (in no particular order) Star Wars, paranoid thrillers like the Bourne series, Kill Bill, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, and any number of technophobic thrillers. I'm pretty sure that the writers behind the television series Heroes have read The Traveler, because the relationship between Nathan and Peter Petrelli is uncannily like that between the Corrigan brothers in the novel.

The idea is that our universe is only one realm -- the fourth -- of six. Most human beings are confined to the fourth realm, but certain visionaries, called Travelers, have the ability to cross over among the realms, leaving their bodies behind and sending their "Light" across the dimensional barriers. And when they come back, they come back with revolutionary ideas. Think Buddha, Jesus, Joan of Arc, and many many revolutionaries, famous and nameless, most of them persecuted over time. You see, there is a group called the Tabula that prizes order and control above all else and sees the Travelers as the greatest threat to order and control. Protecting the Travelers are Harlequins, warriors who fight with all kinds of weapons (but prefer swords above all). The first book is set mostly in Los Angeles and Arizona, but the second opens in New York. And as the ninth chapter opens, Gabriel, a Traveller, and Maya, a Harlequin, are on the run ...

Naz had guided Maya and the rest of the group through a warren of stairs and passageways to the Times Square shuttle. The platform was a brightly lit area where a shuttle train departed from one of three parallel tracks. The gray. concrete floor was dotted with blackened pieces of chewing gum that formed a random mosaic. A few hundred feet away, a group of West Indian men with steel drums pounded out a calypso tune.

So far, they had avoided the mercenaries, but Maya was sure they were being watched by the underground surveillance system. Now that their presence in New York had been discovered, she knew that the full resources of the Tabula would be used to find them. According to Naz, all they had to do was walk down the subway tunnel and take a staircase to the lower level of Grand Central Terminal. Unfortunately, a transit policeman was patrolling the area and, even if he disappeared, someone might tell the authorities that a group of people had jumped onto the tracks.

The only safe route into the tunnel was through a locked door labeled with the tarnished gold lettering KNICKERBOCKER. In a more convivial era, a passageway once led directly from the subway platform to the bar of the old Knickerbocker Hotel. Although the hotel was now an apartment building, the door remained unnoticed by the tens of thousands of commuters who walked past it every day.

knick_door.jpgMaya stood on the platform feeling very conspicuous as commuters hurried to board the shuttle. When the train clattered out of the station, Hollis approached her and spoke in a quiet voice.

"You still want to get on the train going to Ten Mile River?"

"We'll evaluate the situation when we reach the platform. Naz says there aren't any cameras there."

Hollis nodded. "The Tabula scanners probably detected us when we left the loft and walked through Chinatown. Then somebody figured out we were using the old subway station and hacked into the transit computer."

"There's another explanation." Maya glanced over at Naz.

"Yeah, I thought about that, too. But I watched his face in the subway car. He really looked scared."

"Stay close to him, Hollis. If he starts running, stop him."

A new shuttle train arrived, took on a new crowd of passengers, and then rattled west toward Seventh Avenue. It felt like they would be standing there forever. Finally the transit policeman got a call on his radio and hurried away. Naz ran over to the Knickerbocker door and fumbled through the keys on his ring. When the lock clicked, he smiled and pulled the door open.

Why am I rereading The Dark River? Because the third book of the trilogy, The Golden City, just came out.

And, yes, the door that Twelve Hawks describes is real. If you want to know more, take a look at this post from, which is the source of the pictures above.

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