Hot off the presses: one of the contributors to our forthcoming Cambridge Companion to the Literatures of New York City, Elizabeth L. Bradley of the New York Public Library, has just edited a new edition of Washington Irving’s A History of New York. Penguin published the book last December 30, in time for this year’s 200th anniversary of the publication of Irving’s mock history, which appeared on St. Nicholas’ Day in 1809.
To generate interest in the History‘s publication, Irving created a sort of publicity campaign, running a notice in the New York Evening Post in late October seeking information about “a small elderly gentleman dressed in an old black coat and cocked hat, by the name of KNICKERBOCKER,” who seemed to have disappeared from his lodgings at the Columbian Hotel, without paying his back rent. The notice was supposedly placed by Seth Handaside, the proprietor of the hotel.
A subsequent letter to the editor of the Post purported to have caught sight of the missing Knickerbocker
SIR, Having read in your paper of the 26th of Oct. 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 Kingsbridge–He had in his hand a small bundle tied in a red bandana handkerchief; he appeared to be travelling northward, and was very much fatigued and exhausted.
Finally, an ad dated November 16 divulged the existence of “a very curious kind of a written
book,” which Handaside warned would be published to “pay off
[Knickerbocker’s] bill for board and lodging.” That curious volume, of
course, was Irving’s A History of New York.
This edition presents Irving’s original 1809 text. As Bradley notes in her introduction, Irving amended the History several times, most drastically for Putnam’s uniform edition of his works in 1848: “In Putnam’s 1848 edition, the racy humor and earthy language of Knickerbocker’s original has been rendered parlor ready: but if it was less daring, the book was also decidedly less delightful.”
In addition to her introduction, Bradley has written a useful set of notes to the volume and includes, along with the 1809 edition’s “Account of the Author” (supposedly written by Seth Handaside) and “To the Public” (supposedly written by Knickerbocker himself), Irving’s foreword to the 1848 edition.
“Irving’s History,” Bradley writes, “connected readers to New Amsterdam by taking the colony out of the realm of mystery and conjecture.” More importantly, Irving’s text was the first great piece of New York literature. Evoking Whitman’s poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Bradley suggests that Whitman’s “hymn to the city, and those ‘a hundred years hence,’ are made possible not by the ferry, but by the example of Washington Irving, who built New York’s first literary bridge.”
The book’s delightful cover juxtaposes two images: a painting called View of New Amsterdam (c. 1650-53) appears in the foreground, while a mid-twentieth-century photography by George Marks entitled Skyline appears int he background.
We look forward to the publication this summer of Bradley’s extended investigation of the Knickerbocker mythology, Knickerbocker: The Myth behind New York (Rutgers University Press).