Last Friday, Betsy Bradley and I took a train up to Plattsburgh in northern (really, really northern) New York to attend the annual conference of the New York State Historical Association. I’d agreed to be on the panel that Betsy had proposed, “Knickerbocker’s History: the First 200 Years,” without really doing the math, which turned out to be this: 15 hours of travel time back and forth, 17 hours in Plattsburgh, and about 20 people in the audience for our session, which took place at 8:30 a.m.

It turned out to be a delightful trip: Amtrak’s “Adirondack” speeds along right next to the Hudson all the way up to the Albany, and after that the scenery is a mix of rolling hills, farmland, and lakes. The historians we met were an affable group with a real passion for the history of the Empire State. I was pleased to learn about Cornell University Press’s recent rededication to New York History and to see an advance copy of Betsy’s book from Rutgers UP, Knickerbocker: The Myth that Made New York (officially due out on July 15).

Betsy spoke about the ways in which Irving’s History responded both to the New-York Historical Society’s call for documentary information about Dutch New York and to Samuel Latham Mitchill’s Picture of New York; Or, The Traveller’s Guide Through the Commercial Metropolis of the United States (1807), which gave short shrift to New Amsterdam.

Next up was the historian Elisabeth Paling Funk of the New Netherlands Project, who gave a talk entitled  “From Amsterdam to New Amsterdam: Washington Irving, the Dutch St. Nicholas, and the American Santa Claus.” A longer version of the talk can be found in the recently published anthology Explorers, Fortunes and Love Letters: A Window on New Netherland. (If you use that link to, ignore the incorrect description presented to you. For more information about the anthology, download this PDF from NNP).

I spoke about “Washington Irving’s Cosmopolitanism,” making the argument that in the History (particularly the first book) Irving rejects those who reject the idea of difference and thereby  anticipates modern theories of cosmopolitanism that present alternatives not only to nationalism but also to univeralism. I highlighted this passage, which I read as a rejoinder to the account given by William Bradford in Of Plymouth Plantation:

From the foregoing arguments therefore, and a host of others equay conclusive, which I forebear to enumerate, it was clearly evident, that this fair quarter of the globe when first visited by Europeans, was a howling wilderness, inhabited by nothing but wild beasts; and that the trans-atlantic visitors acquired an incontrovertible property therein, by the right of Discovery.

Irving doesn’t cite Bradford, but he does refer to a number of “authorities” (largely Dutch contemporaries of Bradford) whose arguments about the barbarism of the American natives are consonant with the account that Bradford gives. This juxtaposition allowed me to suggest that Irving’s History can be seen as a New York rejoinder to the line of New England historiography begun by Bradford’s Plymouth Plantation. And I suggested, finally, that Irving’s cosmopolitanism arises in part from Irving’s comic technique in the History: Knickerbocker pokes fun at the fallacies of other philosophers and historians, but allows us also to poke fun at him.

One of the questions we received was apparently a version of one posed at last year’s conference to Bryan: it had to do with the hostility that many Dutch historians and readers feel toward Irving’s History because of the way in which it seems to reinforce unflattering stereotypes about Dutch people. Bryan was reported to have said something along the lines of “get over it; it’s a joke.” I said something similar, adding that Irving’s satire of the Dutch is affectionate, in contrast to the mocking reserved for those who think like Bradford, and that there is really affection and vividness in Knickerbocker’s portrayal of the foibles of his Dutch characters.

And then it was off to the station, where the step-ladders were already in place, awaiting the day’s visit from the “Adirondack.”