Knickerbocker: The Myth behind New York

Knickerbocker: The Myth behind New York

by Elizabeth L. Bradley

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Deep within New York's compelling, sprawling history lives an odd, ornery Manhattan native named Diedrich Knickerbocker. The name may be familiar today: his story gave rise to generations of popular tributes—from a beer brand to a basketball team and more—but Knickerbocker himself has been forgotten. In fact, he was New York's first truly homegrown


Deep within New York's compelling, sprawling history lives an odd, ornery Manhattan native named Diedrich Knickerbocker. The name may be familiar today: his story gave rise to generations of popular tributes—from a beer brand to a basketball team and more—but Knickerbocker himself has been forgotten. In fact, he was New York's first truly homegrown chronicler, and as a descendant of the Dutch settlers, he singlehandedly tried to reclaim the city for the Dutch. Almost singlehandedly, that is. Diedrich Knickerbocker was created in 1809 by a young Washington Irving, who used the character to narrate his classic satire, A History of New York. According to Irving's partisan narrator, everything good and distinctive, proud and powerful, about New York City—from the doughnuts to the twisting streets of lower Manhattan—could be traced back to New Amsterdam. Terrific general interest, cultural history of a city with a rich and lively literary past. First-ever book on the eponymous myth that has informed New York City culture since the early 1800s. Coincides with the two-hundredth anniversary of Washington Irving's publication of A History of New York. Perfect gift book or addition to library collection of New York City—themed books.

Includes a gallery of images that brings Diedrich Knickerbocker, his myth, time, and place to life Knickerbocker engagingly traces the creation, evolution, and prevalence of Irving's imaginary historian in New York literature and history, art and advertising, from the early nineteenth century to the present day. Who would imagine this satiric character, at once a snob and a champion of the people, would endure for two hundred years? In Elizabeth L. Bradley's words, "Whether you call it 'blood,' style, attitude, or moxie, the little Dutchman could deliver." And, from this engaging work, it is clear that he does.

Bradley's stunning volume offers a surprising and delightful glimpse behind the scenes of New York history, and invites readers into the world of Knickerbocker, the antihero who surprised everyone by becoming the standard-bearer for the city's exceptional sense of self, or what we now call a New York "attitude."

Editorial Reviews

New York Review of Books

"A briskly engaging book."

— Christopher Benfey

Journal of American Culture
"This is cultural history at its best."
"Elizabeth L. Bradley sorts, catalogues and deciphers the shifting Knickerbocker currents in a metropolis constantly reinventing itself. She does the sturdy Dutchman proud in a scholarly and polished rendition."
"Bradley creates an engaging account of the city through the fictional Knickerbocker, who was a steady presence 'over two centuries of wrenching urban transformation, from the post-colonial to the postmodern.' Bradley is a perceptive and lively writer and does a superb job of tracing the many strands of the Knickerbocker myth. She provided the historical context necessary to illustrate the ways the Knickerbocker brand was invoked and provides deft analysis of the cultural meanings it accrued."
Barnes & Noble Review
"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 and 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."
"Knickerbocker is a very valuable work, particularly as one of the few contemporary histories to explore how fictional texts and reading practices can have material effects on a particular place. Bradley's analysis of Knickerbocker's significance will be of great interest to literary scholars and historians of the American nineteenth century, and her counternarrative of New York's development will reward the professional and general reader alike."
New York Review of Books - Christopher Benfey
"A briskly engaging book."
author of Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan - Phillip Lopate
"Those who puzzle at the incessant branding and rebranding of New York City would do well to read this fascinating, sophisticated, and witty social history of a myth. Bradley knows her facts and shrewdly and convincingly interprets them. A delightful contribution to urban studies."
editor-in-chief, The Encyclopedia of New York - Kenneth T. Jackson
"Is New York different from other cities, or does it just have different myths? Focusing on a tale first spun by Washington Irving two centuries ago, Knickerbocker answers this question with grace and skill. It is a delight to read."
Former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley
"Knickerbocker is a storied name steeped in tradition—one that I am proud to have been a part of. Bradley's Knickerbocker: The Myth Behind New York offers a unique examination of how a name familiarized by Washington Irving two hundred years ago grew to become a cultural symbol of New York."
Publishers Weekly

Diedrich Knickerbocker, a fictional man of stature, flamboyance and Dutch lineage, gets a history and identity worthy of New York's swagger in this exploration by Bradley (a contributor to The Encyclopedia of New York City) of how Knickerbocker shaped the city's identity. The narrator of Washington Irving's A History of New York, Knickerbocker has charmed readers since 1809 with his half-fantastical urban history, one that inspired local pride at a time when, according to Bradley, the city faced an identity crisis. Peppered with anecdotes, such as Knickerbocker's claiming of the doughnut for his city, Bradley's account maintains that the proud Dutchman "inspired New Yorkers to assert their own idiosyncratic relationship to the city, and to its history." Knickerbocker was appropriated: for political gain during FDR's presidency, commercial reward for countless businesses and sports promotion for teams like the New York Knicks. While Bradley's flat prose fails to match the Knickerbocker's largesse, literary historians and proud New Yorkers alike will delight in the character who brought pomp and legend to the city first nicknamed Gotham by Washington Irving 200 years ago. (July)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Library Journal

Bradley (deputy director, Cullman Ctr. for Scholars & Writers, NYPL) draws upon archival resources to present the life cycle of Dietrich Knickerbocker, the boastful New York City resident Washington Irving created 200 years ago in his farcical, semifictional Knickerbocker's History of New-York. Her deceptively slim volume brims with information about the burgeoning use of Knickerbocker as a literary device in novels, newspaper articles, and advertisements as a touchstone of popular culture, e.g., think of beer, hotels, and baseball and basketball teams, to name only a few examples. Knickerbocker evolved from a trope for provincial Dutch descendants to an upper-class symbol to a more inclusive and unifying icon of New Yorkers generally, whether or not native born. Broader in scope than the much newer symbol of the Big Apple, the depicting of urban corporate identity (now termed branding) through the Knickerbocker moniker underscored that the residents of Gotham (itself an Irving-applied nickname) were proud and distinctive yet welcoming and often so exaggerated as to be endearing. Entertaining enough for the general reader-including those planning a trip to one of the world's most visited cities-and amply annotated for the scholar, this is highly recommended.
—Frederick J. Augustyn Jr.

Product Details

Rutgers University Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.90(d)

Meet the Author

Elizabeth L. Bradley is deputy director of the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. She is the editor of Washington Irving's A History of New York, a contributor to the Encyclopedia of New York City, and has written about New York history and culture for several publications.

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