Knickerbocker: The Myth Behind New York

These days the word “knickerbocker” represents “little more than a comical handle, a Dutch-inflected sound — or a heartbreaking season at Madison Square Garden,” observes Elizabeth Bradley in Knickerbocker: The Myth Behind New York. Her slender, charming volume aims to change that. Bradley delves into the 200-year history of the term, which originated in Washington Irving’s 1809 History of New York, a satirical account of the rise and fall of the former Dutch settlement “as told from the perspective of a very sore loser,” one Diedrich Knickerbocker. The wildly successful book made Irving the first American literary sensation and made his fictional narrator an instant icon. Before there were the New York Knicks, there were Knickerbocker hats, bakeries, cocktails, steamboats, beer, and more. The Knickerbocker baseball club, founded in 1845, was the first organized baseball team in the United States. Knickerbocker has also been invoked in various political campaigns, and Bradley reproduces political cartoons depicting “Father Knickerbocker” presiding over the consolidation of Manhattan and Brooklyn in the late 19th century. What these diverse appropriations shared, the author argues, was the claim to represent an authentic New York experience. Given that New Yorkers are famously preoccupied with their own exceptionalism, they would do well to learn more about one of the city’s original boosters.