Elizabeth L. Bradley, one of the contributors to Bryan’s and my forthcoming Cambridge Companion to the Literatures of New York City, is publishing a book called Knickerbocker: The Myth that Made New York. Betsy is the Associate Director of the New York Public Library‘s Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, and her book traces the evolution of the idea of the “Knickerbocker” from Washington Irving’s coining of the term in his History of New York (1809) to the present day. Betsy traces the way in which the “Knickerbocker” took on a life of its own after the publication of Irving’s history, appropriated by a host of New Yorkers as a symbol for an authentic New York identity, even though Knickerbocker himself was made of whole cloth. The picture of Knickerbocker at right is from the frontispiece by Felix O. C. Darley for the 1849 edition of Irving’s History.
In anticipation of the publication of Betsy’s book next year by Rutgers University Press, we’ll be keeping an eye out for appearances in Knickerbocker in New York culture (outside of the confines of Madison Square Garden).
This week’s sighting comes from the July 21 issue of The New Yorker, and appropriately enough, it involves the New York Public Library. Jill Lepore’s article “The Lion and the Mouse: The Battle that Reshaped Children’s Literature” tells the story of how Anne Carroll Moore, the first superintendent of the NYPL’s Department of Work with Children, tried to suppress the publication of E. B. White’s Stuart Little.
Here’s a tidbit from the article that involves Knickerbocker:
About this time, E. B. White fell asleep on a train and “dreamed of a small character who had the features of a mouse, was nicely dressed, courageous, and questing.” White had eighteen nieces and nephews, who were always begging him to tell them a story, but he shied away from making one up off the top of his head. Instead, he set to writing, and stocked a desk drawer with tales about his “mouse-child . . . the only fictional figure ever to have honored and disturbed my sleep.” He named him Stuart.
Anne Carroll Moore had an imaginary friend, too. “I have brought someone with me,” she would tell children, singsongy, as she fished out of her handbag a wooden doll she called Nicholas Knickerbocker. She even had letterhead made for him. “I’m the sorriest little Dutch boy you ever knew over your accident,” she once wrote, signing herself “Nicholas,” in a letter to Louise Seaman Bechtel. (When Moore forgot Nicholas in a taxi, her colleagues did not mourn his loss.)
In 1924, Moore published her own children’s book, “Nicholas: A Manhattan Christmas Story.” It begins with Nicholas’s Christmas Eve arrival in a New York Public Library Children’s Room filled with fairy creatures:
The Troll gave a leap from the Christmas Tree and landed right beside the Brownie in a corner of the window seat. Just then the Fifth Avenue window swung wide open and in walked a strange boy about eight inches high.
It has not aged well.
The article as a whole is fun to read, and if you like Lepore’s writing, you should take a look at her latest book, New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan, a fascinating account of slavery in eighteenth-century Manhattan and an episode in which 200 slaves were occused of conspiring to burn down the city, murder its white inhabitants, and take over the local government. You can find primary documents related to the episode that Lepore recounts (including a narrative by the presiding judge) in The New York Conspiracy Trials of 1741: Daniel Horsmanden’s Journal of the Proceedings, with Related Documents.