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Friday, July 13, 2012

Elizabeth L. Bradley on Washington Irving’s greatest contribution to American letters: the New York story

Elizabeth L. Bradley pays tribute to Washington Irving
at the New York Writers Hall of Fame gala
Ryan Brenizer Photography
Reader’s Almanac continues its presentation of remarks offered at the New York State Writers Hall of Fame induction ceremony with Elizabeth L. Bradley’s tribute to Washington Irving. Bradley is the author of Knickerbocker: The Myth Behind New York and the editor of the Penguin Classics edition of Washington Irving’s A History of New York.
According to Wiki Answers, Washington Irving is the “Father of the American Short Story.” While Irving, a lifelong bachelor, might have been tickled by this paternity suit, I’m not sure he would have appreciated the glib assumption. To be the father suggests that other nineteenth-century American writers, his literary descendants, are the actual masters of the form. I can already guess which names are leaping to your mind: Poe, Hawthorne, Twain, Chopin, James, Crane. And that seems to be always the way with Irving—his is the name in parentheses—the prequel, the run-up. “Yes, of course, Irving, and then the fun begins!”

But, in fact, the fun began with Irving. He gave us the original American dreamers, Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane, and set their delicious fantasies against a transcendental backdrop—the “fairy mountains” of the Catskills—that prodded us, gently but firmly, to see ghosts and dream dreams of our own. His New York tales transformed a new country into an ancient wilderness, layered with meaning and larded with stories. Before Thomas Cole ever made his way up the river, Irving was the Hudson River School.

He also brought the American frontier to life for readers without steam engines, and seduced Americans into a love affair with the Alhambra, which is still evident in Spain’s contemporary veneration for the Bard of Sunnyside. He was a crusader for author’s rights and strong copyright protection centuries before the Author’s Guild. He dubbed our city “Gotham,” and he may (with apologies to Thomas Nash) have invented the American Santa Claus.

No one would fault me, I think, for stopping there. But I revere Irving for still another innovation: his “temporary jeu d’esprit,” the History of New York, which made the twenty-six-year-old satirist famous and gave us a narrator unlike any other: Diedrich Knickerbocker, a grumpy know-it-all with a fondness for street food and deep roots in the neighborhood—in other words, a real New Yorker! During Irving’s lifetime, Knickerbocker was the genealogist of the Hudson River Valley, studying “with the zeal of a bookworm” any “genuine Dutch families snugly shut up in their low-roofed farmhouses.” He was the narrator of every Dutch tale you hold dear from your childhood—they are all from his pen—but he is also the emblem of Irving’s greatest contribution to American letters: the New York story. The combination of delight and mockery that marked the History has become the vernacular of centuries of New York storytellers, who share Irving’s belief in the singularity of the New York experience, and his mission to share that experience with the larger world. From the works of Herman Melville and Walt Whitman to those of Paula Fox and Jonathan Lethem, New York stories owe much to Irving’s first satirical ode to the city. We may choose not to cheer on the Knicks, but as readers, writers, and New Yorkers, we must always salute the Knickerbockers.
Irving’s great New York stories are collected in volume #16 of the Library of America series, Washington Irving: History, Tales, & Sketches, edited by James W. Tuttleton.

At its June 5 ceremony in midtown Manhattan, The Empire State Center for the Book formally inducted 14 writers into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame, which it established in 2010 to recognize New York-based poets, novelists, journalists, and historians who have made an indelible mark on our culture. The class of 2012 included E. L. Doctorow, Pete Hamill, Toni Morrison, and Joyce Carol Oates, all of whom attended. Also honored were John Cheever, Hart Crane, Edna Ferber, Washington Irving, Henry James, Mary McCarthy, Marianne Moore, Barbara W. Tuchman, Kurt Vonnegut, and Richard Wright.

Previous posts from the Hall of Fame ceremony:
Alice Quinn on Marianne Moore
Jessica Tuchman Mathews on Barbara W. Tuchman
Langdon Hammer on Hart Crane

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