Knickerbocker and Reactionary Exceptionalism
Like Launcelot Greaves, Washington Irving’s A History of New York (1809) is guided by the question of whether the legal system works as advertised. Among the central political concerns of US elites at the turn of the nineteenth century was whether the recent legacy of the Constitution had laid sufficient groundwork for the US to flourish in the new century. Washington Irving conceived of a quixote in Diedrich Knickerbocker who would rewrite the nationalist history of the US as an homage not to landmark eighteenth-century moments like the Declaration of Independence or the drafting of the Constitution, but to the halcyon days of liberal Dutch settlement well before the establishment of the US state. In this sense A History of New York takes a critique of US legalism as a basis for proffering a reactionary quixotism, one that reaches back before the glorified founding of the US state to a putatively simpler and nobler time.
Knickerbocker, the fictional historian of Irving’s A History of New York, made his first public appearance in the October 26, 1809, edition of the New-York Evening Post. In an elaborate hoax, Irving introduced Knickerbocker in a series of letters to the Post under the persona of a landlord who claims that a mysterious “elderly gentleman, dressed in an old black coat and cocked hat” and “not entirely in his right mind,” had disappeared from his lodgings without settling his bill. But the gentleman did leave behind a “curious” manuscript. In Irving’s following letter to the Post, again under the landlord persona, the landlord claims that if Knickerbocker does not return to pay his bill, he will endeavor to recover the balance by publishing Knickerbocker’s abandoned manuscript.1 Thus unfolded Irving’s ingenious plot, which created, in the vernacular of viral marketing, a buzz surrounding the publication of A History of New York, a mock-historical narrative Irving penned in the persona of the quixotic historian, Knickerbocker.2
Fittingly, in light of Irving’s public hoax in the Post, we get to Knickerbocker’s narration in A History of New York by way of an “account of the Author” by “the public’s humble servant,” Seth Handaside, a landlord who houses Knickerbocker before Knickerbocker mysteriously absconds without paying for his room and board, leaving behind instead a manuscript, “History of New York.” What follows is Knickerbocker’s “most excellent and faithful” history, as published by Handaside, in which Knickerbocker assumes the narrative mantle of quixotic historian.3 The history chronicles the earliest seventeenth-century Dutch settlements in the Manhattan area, what Knickerbocker terms the “Dutch Dynasty,” from the generally placid reign of its first governor, Wouter Van Twiller (Wouter the Doubter), through the embattled tenure of its second governor, Wilhelmus (William) Kieft (William the Testy), to the final era of Dutch reign, that of the heroic Peter Stuyvesant (Peter the Headstrong, Peter the Great), leading up to the British takeover that made Dutch New Amsterdam into British New York.
Though A History of New York includes plenty of Quixote allusions and a second quixotic hero, Peter Stuyvesant, with a Sancho-like sidekick in the trumpeter Antony Van Corlear, it is Knickerbocker’s quixotism that drives History’s critique of American exceptionalism and Jeffersonian legalism. Foremost, Knickerbocker proceeds with a basic form of quixotic exceptionalism in his approach to the act of writing history. Knickerbocker likens “the writer of a history” to “an adventurous knight, who having undertaken a perilous enterprise, by way of establishing his fame, feels bound in honour and chivalry, to turn back for no difficulty nor hardship, and never to shrink or quail whatever enemy he may encounter” (412). In this way Knickerbocker succinctly describes his reactionary quixotism, a propensity to find greatness in the past even as history itself casts doubt on the notion that it was better then than now. As quixotic historian, Knickerbocker holds an idealistic view of his role in “rescu[ing] from oblivion the memory of former incidents, and . . . render[ing] a just tribute of renown to the many great and wonderful transactions of our Dutch progenitors.” In so doing he romanticizes the idle, law-averse rule of Wouter Van Twiller as a golden age in which no legal intervention was necessary to keep the peace (377).
In a manner similar to that of Parson Adams and Captain Farrago, Knickerbocker positions himself above, or as exception to, other historians whose truth claims must withstand the scrutiny of historiography that Knickerbocker applies to other histories but not to his own. Apart from recurring claims that his is a true history, unerring in its devotion to fact by virtue of Knickerbocker’s skill and alacrity for the task, he also believes himself a wholly objective historian. Distinguishing himself from booksellers and literary writers, Knickerbocker writes:
To let my readers into a great literary secret, your experienced writers, who wish to instil peculiar tenets, either in religion, politics or morals, do often resort to this expedient—illustrating their favourite doctrines by pleasing fictions on established facts—and so mingling historic truth, and subtle speculation together, that the unwary million never perceive the medley; but, running with open mouth, after an interesting story, are often made to swallow the most heterodox opinions, ridiculous theories, and abominable heresies. . . . I will proceed with my history, without claiming any of the privileges above recited. (511–12)
Irving is self-aware in writing Knickerbocker, allowing Knickerbocker to put forth a number of theories that stretch the limits of logic, draw comically overdetermined connections between historical events, and arrive at spurious conclusions. Yet Knickerbocker, in his criticisms of various authors before him, remains oblivious to the fact that he partakes of precisely the underhanded narrative strategies that he rails against. This understanding—or misunderstanding—is the result of Knickerbocker’s quixotic idealism about the truth-seeking and truth-affirming potential of historians and historical writing. Knickerbocker’s frequent reliance upon classical texts, bookish demonstration of erudition and classical learning, and grandiose approach to his history (starting with chapters on “a Description of the World, from the best Authorities,” “Cosmogony,” and “peopling America” before getting to the subject of New York’s Dutch roots) give rise to a historical narrative comically unaware of its place within broader historiography, denying as such the concept of historiography itself. Knickerbocker hails from a line of ancestors named for a bookish characteristic: as he tells us, his family name is derived from “Knicker to nod, and Boeken books; plainly meaning that [his ancestors] were great nodders or dozers over books” (631). He fashions himself a historian above history, arising from a lineage of tenacious readers, writing with greater purpose and gravity than the common historian, bookseller, or fiction writer.
Like Parson Adams and Captain Farrago, Knickerbocker possesses nostalgia for the past, a generally backward-oriented outlook, which characterizes his reactionary quixotism. And like Arabella and Dorcasina, Knickerbocker’s nostalgia is for a foreign culture. The progression of his history of the Dutch settlers of the New York region takes something of an eschatological path, tracing events from the “golden reign” of the “renowned” Wouter Van Twiller and his “unparalleled virtues” as governor in book 3, to the “fearful” wrath of William the Testy that begins the decline of the Dutch dynasty in book 4, to the heroic struggles of Peter Stuyvesant that lead to the ultimate end of New Amsterdam, and the transition into British-ruled New York in books 5–7 (461–63, 525).
Throughout this progression, people of other nations enter the history and begin to compete more aggressively with the Dutch for land and resources, until the very end of the glorious reign of Wouter Van Twiller. Knickerbocker attributes the decline of Dutch New Amsterdam largely to the policies of William the Testy, which Irving aligns in his satirical way with the progressive policies of the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans. Such “progress” during William’s governorship—the formation of rancorous political parties, an emphasis placed on education, and the elevation of legislation and the law as virtues in and of themselves—stands in contrast to Wouter Van Twiller’s “golden” tenure, in which, “in his council [Van Twiller] presided with great state and solemnity,” sitting in a “huge chair of solid oak hewn in the celebrated forest of the Hague,” smoking a “magnificent pipe” (465). When Jeffrey Insko calls Irving “a casualty of chronology,” arguing that Irving “would seem to be a victim of the very historical processes his historian alter-ego Diedrich Knickerbocker attempts to forestall,” he implicitly acknowledges the backward-orientation of Knickerbocker, for whom the present seems never so good as the past.4 “Luckless Diedrich!” Knickerbocker writes, “born in a degenerate age” (454). Knickerbocker calls our attention to his power to frame narratives for posterity. So when Knickerbocker quotes “unhappy William Kieft!” from the apocryphal “Stuyvesant manuscript,” a source Knickerbocker may well have invented, readers get not just a second perspective that aligns with Knickerbocker’s, but a perspective colored and rewritten by Knickerbocker himself (550).5 Knickerbocker’s desire to recount the past, and to laud the values of the past in his recounting, is part of his nostalgic or reactionary quixotism, enabled by the fact that, as quixote, he is also author and historian.
In addition to romanticizing his task as a historian and his objects of study, Knickerbocker takes a chivalrous approach to writing history. Like Don Quixote, who seeks fame bestowed upon him by appreciative monarchs, Knickerbocker conceives of historians as “the sovereign censors who decide upon the renown or infamy of . . . fellow mortals.” “We are the public almoners of fame,” writes Knickerbocker, “dealing out her favours according to our judgment or caprice—we are the benefactors of kings—we are the guardians of truth—we are the scourgers of guilt—we are the instructors of the world—we are, in short, what we are not!” (662). Highlighting the disparity between the power he believes those of his noble profession rightfully exercise and the lack of recognition historians receive, as he sees it, compared to “the lofty patrician or lordly Burgomaster,” who “stalk contemptuously by the little, plodding, dusty historian,” Knickerbocker puts forth an image of the historian as a simultaneously humble and exalted chivalric knight, an exception to the norms of both scrutiny and praise (662).
Knickerbocker’s chivalric style is also evident in the way he addresses his readers, in his antiquated pronouncements and exceedingly formal and courteous language. Akin to how Gulliver speaks to the Lilliputian court, Knickerbocker addresses his readers directly and with plodding formality: “But let not my readers think I am indulging in vain glorious boasting, from the consciousness of my own power and importance,” he writes (662). Elsewhere, he apologizes: “I am extremely sorry, that I have not the advantages of Livy, Thucydides, Plutarch, and others of my predecessors” (620). He addresses the reader as “most venerable and courteous” and troubles himself not to “fatigue [his] reader with . . . dull matters of fact, but that [his] duty as a faithful historian, requires that [he] should be particular” (607, 451). Knickerbocker adheres to a chivalric code in his writing as Don Quixote does in his speech and actions. Daniel Williams calls Knickerbocker’s sense of authorship “heroic,” commenting that authors of Knickerbocker’s kind are “ever protective of their readers, guarding them from confused erudition and muddled description.” “Both courteous and chivalrous,” Williams writes, “Knickerbocker himself paused throughout his narration to caution his readers before plunging them into thick passages.”6 This chivalric breed of authorship reflects Knickerbocker’s quixotic outlook, framing him as a quixote whose chivalric code calls on him to lead readers through a narrative adventure, supporting readers through times of presumed distress as the fantastic and outright nonsensical turns of his history unwind.
As we can see then, Knickerbocker’s quixotic idealism develops not merely as a romantic view of history and the potency and importance of the historian but also as a literary idealism about the potency of the written word, the structured narrative, the authorial voice, and the cumulative pitfalls and ambiguities of the written text. In other words, Knickerbocker turns the quixotic fallacy on its head: while Don Quixote (like most of his literary offspring) is bewitched by reading romances—or an idealized source-text—and engrossed in the written word to the extent that he takes the exception from fiction as the everyday norm, Knickerbocker is so thoroughly aware of the potency of text that he misleads himself into thinking that writing and narration should be handled as though they were producing physical effects on reality in real time.
For Don Quixote, the text is reality, but for Knickerbocker, the text—and thus the author—makes reality. For this reason, Knickerbocker takes his quixotic understanding of the potency of writing a step further, inflating his authorial importance to the extent that, by the end of History, Knickerbocker describes himself as fighting alongside his valiant Dutch hero Peter Stuyvesant. As Stuyvesant prepares to ward off a Swedish invasion, Knickerbocker writes: “Trust the fate of our favourite Stuyvesant to me—for by the rood, come what will, I’ll stick by Hard-koppig Piet to the last; I’ll make him drive about these lossels vile as did the renowned Launcelot of the lake, a herd of recreant Cornish Knights—and if he does fall, let me never draw my pen to fight another battle, in behalf of a brave man, if I don’t make these lubberly Swedes pay for it!” (645).
Though Knickerbocker’s history is charged with Irving’s satirical swipes and ample nods to quixotism and is certainly not written as a thoroughly “serious” history (Irving did write scholarly biographies of George Washington and Christopher Columbus), it does contain a great deal of accurate historical information and scrupulous historical scholarship. In fact, including in History a great deal of legitimate historical material was a significant part of Irving’s strategy in critiquing through Knickerbocker the prevailing, heavily nationalist historiographical approaches of prominent, early US historians like Jeremy Belknap and Benjamin Trumbull. As Jeffrey Insko writes, “At the time of its publication, A History of New York was the best (in fact, the only) account of the early Dutch reign of New York that had yet been published and could thus—and was intended to—take its place” among the work of these “serious” historians.7
The historiographical concerns of A History of New York function both to “deflate the high moral import of nationalist historiography,” as Insko suggests, and to introduce a layered structure and series of clichés, imitated from historians of Irving’s time, aimed at challenging the romantic and legalistic tradition of the US “Founding Fathers.”8 From the beginning of his history, Knickerbocker continually alludes to the conventional language of historians justifying their histories. He makes frequent reference to his as “this most accurate of histories”; he makes ample references to classical texts and scholarship; and he draws attention to evidence from historical records or documents, or from “authority still more ancient, and still more deserving of credit, because it is sanctioned by the countenance of our venerated dutch ancestors . . . founded on certain letters still extant” (424, 445).
In these ways Knickerbocker mounts a critique not just of early US historians and historiography, but of what Irving saw as the patrician Democratic-Republicanism of Thomas Jefferson’s presidential tenure more specifically, and the founding project of the US more generally. Though Irving is known to have been a Federalist, and to have taken a number of seemingly pro-Federalist stances in History, the narrative’s ambiguities and contradictions render it a more general burlesque of US legalism, politics, and culture than a coherent political allegory.9 In this vein, Robert Ferguson identifies A History of New York as “the first American book to question the civic vision of the Founding Fathers,” Diedrich Knickerbocker being “the natural enemy of . . . rational, legal spokesmen in early American literature.”10
By taking the law and its practitioners as objects of satire, History operates in a way similar to Smollett’s Launcelot Greaves, reflecting the tendency of both Irving and Smollett to write their own legal concerns into quixotic narratives. Only for Irving, History is a unique instance of portraying the quixote as a writer, and the process of writing as a quixotic endeavor, the creation of a quixotic narrative whose turns and adventures are literary in more ways than one.
Having studied and practiced law for ten years before writing History, Irving had plenty of reason, in his circumstances, to bring his views on the law and the legal profession to bear on Knickerbocker’s quixotism. He initially admired the profession, “admired Cicero, dreamed of success as a heroic citizen before the bar, and made the customary resolution ‘to sacrifice all to the law.’ ” Nonetheless, as Irving’s notebooks and letters suggest, he soon became jaded in his pursuit of a legal career, applying himself to the study of law with minimal interest and motivation, eventually lamenting that “wrangling drying unmerciful profession” and its “ponderous fathers.”11
When in 1808 Irving pronounced his love to Matilda Hoffman, the youngest daughter of “Irving’s employer and one of the leading lawyers in New York,” his employer, Josiah Ogden Hoffman, offered to grant Irving his daughter’s hand in marriage, but with the caveat that Irving establish himself more securely as a legal professional. After Irving started writing A History of New York on the side—and in a divided state of mind about his professional and personal ambitions—Matilda Hoffman died abruptly of consumption in April 1809, leaving Irving in despair but simultaneously resolving his conflict of interest. Irving then “abruptly ‘abandoned all thoughts of the law’ and turned for solace to his writing.”12
As with Smollett and his series of midcentury legal troubles that manifest themselves in caricatures of lawyers and magistrates in Launcelot Greaves, Irving’s experience with and understanding of the law are evident throughout History. Ferguson understands Irving’s rejection of the law in Knickerbocker’s history as a transformation of Irving’s “private alternative to professional ambition” into “a writer’s formal act of rebellion,” claiming that “Irving’s emotional rejection of law—fictionally portrayed through the collapse of New Amsterdam—supplies a dramatic unity and thematic coherence that set A History of New York apart from his other imaginative works.”13 This claim finds support in Knickerbocker’s innumerable references to the law (or laws) as harmful and inefficient when conceived in abundance, or seemingly reproduced haphazardly and for their own sake.
In contrast to Knickerbocker’s characterization of the placid reign of Wouter Van Twiller, in which the Dutch settlers spend so much time eating, smoking, and lazing around that the law need not apply, the ruinous reign of the Thomas Jefferson stand-in, Wilhelmus (William) Kieft, or William the Testy, is one of legal and legislative hyperactivity. As Knickerbocker writes, William the Testy “conceived that the true policy of a legislator was to multiply laws, and thus secure the property, the persons and the morals of the people, by surrounding them with men traps and spring guns, and besetting even the sweet sequestered walls of private life, with quick-set hedges, so that a man could scarcely turn, without the risk of encountering some of these pestiferous protectors” (539–40). Irving goes further to compare William’s hyperlegalistic approach to governance, and his propensity to be “continually dipping into books, without ever studying to the bottom of any subject,” to Sancho Panza’s would-be rule over the fictional island of Barataria in Don Quixote, positioning William as something of a quixote wannabe who too frequently resembles a bumbling sidekick instead:
There is a certain description of active legislators, who by shrewd management, contrive always to have a hundred irons on the anvil, every one of which must be immediately attended to; who consequently are ever full of temporary shifts and expedients, patching up the public welfare and cobbling the national affairs, so as to make nine holes where they mend one—stopping chinks and flaws with whatever comes first to hand. . . . Of this class of statesmen was William the Testy—and had he only been blessed with powers equal to his zeal, or his zeal had been disciplined by a little discretion, there is very little doubt but he would have made the greatest governor of his size on record—the renowned governor of Barataria alone excepted. (535)
The positioning of William the Testy in these terms is part of Knickerbocker’s ability to question “the whole legal vision of America upon which Jeffersonianism is based. [Knickerbocker] argues that legal administration favors the rich and contentious over the ignorant poor and that it quickly becomes an instrument of oppression.”14 In the process of writing this argument into his history, Knickerbocker, like Launcelot Greaves, fixates on the law as the primary mechanism of social and political change, whether the law is portrayed as a barrier to productive change (as for Knickerbocker) or a compromised avenue for it (as for Launcelot Greaves).
In light of Knickerbocker’s quixotism and the explicitly legal inflection of Irving’s satire in History, it is necessary to trace the interplay between quixotism and the law through each of the distinct periods of governorship recounted in Knickerbocker’s history—those of Wouter Van Twiller, William the Testy, and Peter Stuyvesant—to illuminate the strands of quixotic exceptionalism operating in the text. Before examining the reign of Wouter Van Twiller in book 3, however, the first two books of Irving’s narrative merit some attention, as they trace the development of Knickerbocker’s quixotism.
Book 1, described by Knickerbocker as “being, like all introductions to American histories, very learned, sagacious, and nothing at all to the purpose,” functions primarily as a parody of nationalist histories and grandiloquent historical claims, positioning the narrative as a mock-history, or, in Knickerbocker’s understanding, a history to end all histories on the subject (383). It is, for Knickerbocker, “an improvement in history, which [he claims] the merit of having invented” (404). Book 1 also introduces some of Knickerbocker’s quixotic tendencies, positioning him as a combatant against the “fiery dragons and bloody giants” of historical writing (412).
Knickerbocker’s quixotism continues in book 2, which tells of the Dutch settlers’ contact moment with the “new” land, staging the founding moments of the Dutch dynasty in mythical terms. Following from Irving’s attack on nationalist historians in book 1, book 2 parallels the mythologizing of national histories and founding moments of the early US with ample allusions to classical myth placed alongside its glorified description of the “fine Saturday morning, when jocund Phoebus, having his face newly washed, by gentle dews and spring time showers, looked from the glorious windows of the east, with a more than usually shining countenance,” when Henry Hudson sets off from Holland “to seek a north-west passage to China” (427). In his vindication of the accuracy of Hudson’s initial discovery of the region, Knickerbocker continues to reason quixotically, affirming his romantic view of Hudson’s discovery despite material evidence to the contrary: “Though all the proofs in the world were introduced on the other side, I would set them at naught as undeserving of my attention” (430). Exceptionalism is manifested here as the recognition of counterevidence and the simultaneous and open refusal to bend to it.
Knickerbocker adds to the mythical and romanticized origins of the Dutch settlement by introducing in book 2 the quaint settlement of Communipaw and the “honest dutch burghers” who occupy it, providing his readers with a primordial picture of Dutch settlement against which we can contrast the increasing complexity of its progression from the first of its governors to the last. Knickerbocker reinforces thereby in his first two books the eschatological bent of his history, and the notion that the mythical simplicity of the “golden” earlier years becomes adulterated by “progress” and increasing legal and governmental complexity (438).
Beginning with the reign of Wouter Van Twiller in book 3, Knickerbocker’s narrative takes a polemical turn. As Charlton Laird remarks, “The treatment is more expansive, more personal, less rambling” in book 3.15 Knickerbocker appears less distant and more invested in creating a favorable portrait of Van Twiller, yet his quixotic romanticizing of the past, introduced in books 1 and 2, persists. At times Irving’s irony in writing Knickerbocker comes through in Knickerbocker’s sentimental apologia for the past, such that it overpowers Knickerbocker’s romanticism. When, for example, Knickerbocker muses about the “further particulars of the Golden Age,” noting that “these were the honest days, in which every woman staid at home, read the bible and wore pockets,” we get the distinct sense that Irving’s ironic authorial voice is making an appearance through the voice of Knickerbocker (438). Nonetheless, book 3 is full of slightly more believable moments of Knickerbocker’s quixotic (and law-averse) outlook, moments in which Knickerbocker appears zealous in his judgments. Knickerbocker praises Van Twiller for having so “tranquil and benevolent” a reign that it contained no “single instance of any offender being brought to punishment,” which Knickerbocker judges as “a most indubitable sign of a merciful governor” rather than an unambitious and ineffectual one (466). Knickerbocker lauds Van Twiller’s “legal acumen” in the very first (and last) case over which the esteemed governor presides, in which Van Twiller rules on a grievance of fraudulent refusal to settle an account by counting the leaves in each party’s account books, weighing them in his hands, and pronouncing the accounts perfectly “balanced” thereby (466–67). Thereafter, “not a single law suit took place throughout the whole of his administration,” a mark, for Knickerbocker, of Van Twiller’s great success as governor (467).
In numerous examples of this sort, Knickerbocker characterizes Van Twiller’s reign not just by Van Twiller’s passivity and refusal to engage in the legalistic policies and practices that will become hallmarks of the early US republic but also by his ability to avoid legal and legislative solutions to the grievances of individuals in the community. Among these avoided practices, even, is the selection of government officials under the guise of choosing leaders for their erudition, experience, and intellectual credentials, or even for their popularity, such that their sovereignty is derived from democratic processes. Van Twiller is clearly different from US elected officials, “those worthy gentlemen, who are whimsically denominated governors, in this enlightened republic—a set of unhappy victims of popularity.” Knickerbocker writes with fondness that “the dutch governors enjoyed that uncontrolled authority vested in all commanders of distant colonies and territories” (468). Similarly, the burgomasters “were generally chosen by weight—and not only the weight of the body, but likewise the weight of the head” (the rationale behind this is that “the body is in some measure an image of the mind,” and that a board of rotund magistrates will “think, but very little” and be “less likely to differ and wrangle about favourite opinions—and as they generally transact business upon a hearty dinner, they are naturally disposed to be lenient and indulgent in the administration of their duties”) (469–71). Additionally, from his descriptions of the admirable qualities of “good housewives” and the constant, relaxed ways of the patriarchal family of “those happy days” under Van Twiller, Knickerbocker conveys a sense that, beyond the political affairs of the Golden Age, traditional values are preferable to any gestures toward a disruptive progress (478–79).
Van Twiller’s Golden Age is, then, the comically romanticized historical background against which Knickerbocker sets the subsequent decline of the Dutch dynasty in History. Much like Updike Underhill’s romanticizing of and apologies for the principles and tendencies of his ancestor Captain John Underhill (whom Updike tells us is liberalized while living among the Dutch) in The Algerine Captive, Knickerbocker’s romance novels are “true histories” of the Golden Age of early, prerepublican settlement in North America.
Toward the end of book 3 and Van Twiller’s reign, we already glimpse the movement of Irving’s satirical focus toward issues within his contemporary republic during the Jefferson presidency (1801–9), despite the fact that Irving’s critical attention to Jeffersonianism is more pronounced and extensive in book 4. Chapter 6 of book 3 gives an account of “the ingenious people of Connecticut and thereabouts,” whose rights-based and legalistic discourse Knickerbocker criticizes before tackling the same tendencies in William the Testy in book 4. While Tyler’s Updike Underhill makes exceptionalist apologies in The Algerine Captive for the illiberal treatment of his ancestor, which he describes as “those few dark spots of zeal, which clouded [the] rising sun” of the early settlers’ liberal discourse, Knickerbocker tempers his apologetic tendencies for “the zeal of these good people” of Connecticut “to maintain their rights and privileges unimpaired,” claiming that this zeal “did for a while betray them into errors, which it is easier to pardon than defend” (Tyler 18–19; Irving 494–95). Updike’s ancestor is cast out of New England because of religious intolerance, the very subject of Knickerbocker’s grievances against the people of Connecticut in chapter 6. And, like Royall Tyler, Irving, through Knickerbocker, takes past illiberal behavior as a point of departure for critiquing his contemporary republic:
Where then is the difference in principle between our measures and those you are so ready to condemn among the people I am treating of? There is none; the difference is merely circumstantial.—Thus we denounce, instead of banishing—We libel instead of scourging—we turn out of office instead of hanging—and where they burnt an offender in propria personae—we either tar and feather or burn him in effigy—this political persecution being, some how or other, the grand palladium of our liberties, and an incontrovertible proof that this is a free country! (496)
The use of the legalese “in propria personae” as a pun—in the legal sense, to mean appearing on one’s own behalf without an attorney present, and in the literal sense (in the context of this passage), to be burned “in one’s own person,” or to have one’s body burned—provides commentary on both the illiberal practice of burnings at the stake in the absence of a legitimate trial (and legitimate legal representation) for the accused and the ways in which a more sophisticated, rights-based legal framework in the early republic was nonetheless ineffectual when it came to protecting one’s body from less severe but comparably archaic punishments like tarring and feathering. The legalistic critique is wholly present in book 3, leading into the decline of the Van Twiller governorship and the trials of the following reign of William the Testy.
As I have suggested, the book 4 governorship of William the Testy is the primary site of legal and republican critique in History, or is at least the section on which critics have focused most intently in discussions of Knickerbocker’s satirical turn. Laird notes that in book 4, “the satire becomes dominant and loses some of its genial impersonality,” attentive to the recognizable and much-discussed pillorying of Thomas Jefferson in the personage of William the Testy.16 Book 4 is also a curious section of the narrative in light of Knickerbocker’s description of the villain William the Testy in quixotic terms.
The central strategy of Knickerbocker’s criticism of William’s reign is to present William as, as the first chapter heading of book 4 suggests, one who “may learn so much as to render himself good for nothing” (511). While writing William as the scapegoat for the decline of the Dutch dynasty and the transition away from the antiquated values of the Golden Age of Van Twiller, Knickerbocker unconsciously mocks the standards of pompous erudition, along with the quixotic investment in book-learning, that he himself possesses. As Knickerbocker writes, William makes a “gallant inroad into the dead languages”; and what he “chiefly valued himself on, was his knowledge of metaphysics, in which, having once upon a time ventured too deeply, he came well nigh to being smothered in a slough of unintelligible learning . . . from the effects of which he never perfectly recovered” (514). In these ways William is not just a satirized stand-in for Jefferson, but a vehicle for portraying the Jeffersonian emphasis on classical learning as a quixotic characteristic.
Knickerbocker’s quixotism emerges as a critique not only of Jeffersonian legalism but of American exceptionalism more broadly. Knickerbocker’s task in his writerly quest is to give an account of an underacknowledged history while critiquing an especially legalistic Democratic-Republicanism (especially in its Jeffersonian form), “demolish[ing]” along the way “the intellectual foundations for a progressive interpretation of American culture.”17 In looking “to a golden age of simplicity and virtue in much the way as Blackstone or a whig historian regards Anglo-Saxon England with its pure legacy of immemorial common law,” Knickerbocker lambastes not just a history of American exceptionalism but also the ongoing exceptionalist attitudes produced by the rhetoric of the “Founding Fathers,” “in which opponents were either fools, unpatriotic knaves, or traitors.” For this reason—the limited leniency for critique as radical as History allowed by the political climate in Irving’s early US—Irving turns to “the saving mask of comic humor” to render his satire more effective.18 This recognition that a turn to comic humor would be more politically viable makes the quixotic narrative mode a fitting vehicle for Irving’s (and Knickerbocker’s) critical interventions.
Toward these ends, Knickerbocker’s quixotism becomes more literal toward the end of the narrative, as he endows the other hero of the text, Peter Stuyvesant, with chivalric qualities that mirror those with which he endows himself as historian. Knickerbocker describes Stuyvesant, with his trumpet-bearing sidekick Antony Van Corlear in tow, as a “Cavalier” engaged in “knight-errantry,” brave, and chivalrous, proceeding into battle alongside Knickerbocker, his historian-protector, who “can just step in, and with one dash of my pen, give . . . a hearty thwack over the sconce” (644). In these passages, Knickerbocker’s riff on the pen-sword conceit draws its comic value from the fact that Knickerbocker does not understand this relationship as a metonymic one.
While Knickerbocker writes as though he possesses the power to alter history with the stroke of a pen as one could with a swipe of the sword, he also recurrently posits his history as, as I have suggested, unwaveringly true—a singular, true history—which is not susceptible to the scrutiny that historiography brings to bear on historical account. In Knickerbocker we see a combination of three beliefs in particular—the belief in the absolute truth of his historical account (the removed, ahistorical quixote), the belief in the author’s pastoral duty to the reader (the practice of authorial chivalry), and the belief in the absolute potency of the act of historical writing (the inverted quixotic fallacy)—that produce an inversion of the reading quixote, a writing quixote who, antilegalism notwithstanding, appears all too similar in temperament to Brackenridge’s Captain Farrago and the early US legislative elite. Whereas Don Quixote believes in the absolute potency of reading and in the absolute truth of the books he consumes, Knickerbocker believes he can rewrite history. Both kinds of beliefs underlie the quixotic conflation of narrative and physical reality. Only Knickerbocker writes himself so thoroughly into his historical narrative that historiography proves no viable means of extraction.
We should thus broaden the critical focus on satirizing Thomas Jefferson in book 4 to understand William the Testy as a quixotic idealist with his head buried too deeply in books for him to govern properly.19 William is, like Quixote, a combative figure, taking rhetoric and the law as instruments of battle. William wages a type of warfare against the encroaching Yankees by “the art of fighting by proclamation.” When he employs the method of “defeating the Yankees by proclamation,” constructing a proclamation “perfect in all its parts, well constructed, well written, well sealed and well published,” in the hope that “the Yankees should stand in awe of it,” they instead “treated it with the most absolute contempt” (519). William’s bookish idealism proves ridiculous in the face of the Yankees’ continued encroachment upon the Fort Goed Hoop; yet this exposure of such a tactic as absurd only emphasizes the quixotic absurdity of Knickerbocker’s eventual authorial strategy in book 6 of fighting alongside the valiant Peter Stuyvesant with the historian’s pen. Likewise, when William attempts to protect his city by erecting “a great windmill on one of the bastions,” the quixotic historian Knickerbocker explains in a critical tone the quixotic martial policies of William the Testy (527). As I mentioned previously, William battles domestic difficulties with a legalistic approach, presiding over the introduction and expansion of “petty courts,” the building of a gallows, and the proliferation of lawyers and “bum-bailiffs” (539–40). On this point, Knickerbocker resumes his disdainful attitude toward the law, separating himself once again from the quixotism of William the Testy with an ironic blow:
I would not here, for the whole world, be thought to insinuate any thing derogatory to the profession of the law, or to its dignified members. Well am I aware, that we have in this ancient city an innumerable host of worthy gentlemen, who have embraced that honourable order, not for the sordid love of filthy lucre, or the selfish cravings of renown, but through no other motives under heaven, but a fervent zeal for the correct administration of justice, and a generous and disinterested devotion to the interests of their fellow citizens! (541)
Knickerbocker goes on to lament the overabundance of lawsuits and the “herds of pettifogging lawyers that infest” the courts during the reign of William the Testy, further distancing this progression from the Golden Age of Van Twiller (542).
Book 4 is, then, an opportunity for Irving to mirror Knickerbocker’s quixotism in the quixotic William the Testy, lending a characteristic double edge, or a critique of quixotism, to Knickerbocker’s critique of his contemporary republicanism and its legal and philosophical foundations. More importantly, however, recognizing the quixotic qualities of William the Testy provides an essential perspective for understanding Knickerbocker’s quixotic exceptionalism. Knickerbocker positions himself not merely above history as a writer of history but also, in the process of writing, excuses himself from (or simply fails to acknowledge) the similarities between himself and his objects of critique. While Knickerbocker mocks William for his pedantic and shortsighted focus on classical learning and philosophy, Knickerbocker makes constant references to classical mythology in his glorification of his Dutch ancestors. While Knickerbocker criticizes William’s tactic of waging war with words, he repeats—and literalizes—the very same strategy with Peter Stuyvesant in book 6. Only when it comes to the law does Knickerbocker’s critique of William become more scathingly satirical than quixotically naïve and exceptionalist.
If book 4’s account of the reign of William the Testy permits Knickerbocker to portray quixotism in a negative light, the chronicles of Peter Stuyvesant, the third and final ruler of the Dutch dynasty, present in books 5–7 a quixote in Stuyvesant who looks more like quixotic hero in the mold of Launcelot Greaves. Stuyvesant’s first measure as governor is to dismiss William the Testy’s free-talking and cantankerous council members because they “have acquired the unreasonable habit of thinking and speaking for themselves during the preceding reign,” reversing the republican trend of William the Testy (569). As a governor, the headstrong Stuyvesant takes a no-nonsense approach comparable to that of Van Twiller. What mainly separates Stuyvesant from his predecessors, however, is his penchant for battle. In writing the reign of Peter Stuyvesant, Knickerbocker’s positioning of himself as a quixote becomes more forceful and direct. Rather than writing about the lesser skirmishes between Stuyvesant and his Connecticut adversaries, Knickerbocker, “like that mirror of chivalry, Don Quixote . . . [leaves] these petty contests for some future Sancho Panza of an historian,” reserving for Stuyvesant his “prowess and [his] pen for achievements of a higher dignity” (579).
Alongside Knickerbocker, Stuyvesant, who “perhaps had never heard of a Knight Errant,” is “a hero of chivalry struck off by the hand of nature at a single heat” (581). He proceeds as though he had “studied for years, in the library of Don Quixote himself” (582). As Knickerbocker and Stuyvesant prepare for “the most horrible battle ever recorded in poetry or prose; with the admirable exploits of Peter the Headstrong,” Knickerbocker collapses the narrative strains of the two quixotic figures, writing himself directly into his history (648). “My pen has long itched for a battle—siege after siege have I carried on, without blows or bloodshed,” writes Knickerbocker, before joining Stuyvesant in the battle against the Swedes, delivering writerly blows with his pen as a knight-errant does with his sword or his lance (644). With shades of Sterne’s narrative approach of commingling the writing of action and the action itself in Tristram Shandy, and Fielding’s account of Parson Adams’s mock-heroics in Joseph Andrews, Irving’s quixotic narrator, unlike Smollett’s more measured Launcelot Greaves, engages in battle with the alacrity of the original Don Quixote.
Despite his prowess in battle, however, the republican-style political culture created under William the Testy becomes the catalyst for Stuyvesant’s downfall, and the eventual surrendering of the Dutch dynasty to the British. While Stuyvesant is away in battle, William’s political factions become increasingly involved in the political affairs of the settlement, invoking again the patriotic discourse of republicanism (670–71). Under siege from all angles, with Stuyvesant overextended from constant battles, New Amsterdam turns again to the high-minded form of governance of William the Testy’s reign, fortifying itself with “resolutions,” vacuous displays of patriotism, histrionics, and mob rule (692–95). As the dynasty reaches its “destined end” by way of the British takeover of New Amsterdam and a treaty that renames it New York, it is neither Stuyvesant’s mode of quixotism nor of chivalry that marks the end of the dynasty and Knickerbocker’s history (as Knickerbocker tells it), but a lack thereof: republican-style politics reemerge to the extent that instead of fighting their enemies in the manner of Stuyvesant, the Dutch settlers resort to ineffectual resolutions (720). As Ferguson notes, “Peter Stuyvesant . . . completes the fall of the Dutch civilization by negotiating legalistic, hence ineffectual, treaties with his neighbors.”20
In its close, then, Knickerbocker’s narrative takes its final jabs at Jeffersonianism. Unlike book 4, however, History’s final chapters construe quixotism not as the bookish, legalistic mode of William the Testy, but as the heroic, chivalric, militant mode of Peter Stuyvesant. Alongside this shift, Knickerbocker alters his own quixotic language, referring to himself more explicitly as a chivalric knight, though not without maintaining his bookish, classical references and exceptionalist approach to the writing of history.
Knickerbocker’s history winds through each Dutch governor with different narrative inflections. Van Twiller’s tenure represents a reactionary Golden Age of inactivity for which Knickerbocker is nostalgic; William’s tenure introduces an obsession with legal and legislative solutions to problems that Knickerbocker does not acknowledge would have existed under William’s predecessor, drawing Knickerbocker’s narrative ire; and Stuyvesant’s tenure represents the chivalric final period of the Dutch dynasty struggling to fend off foreign assailants, a period that Knickerbocker treats with writerly zeal. Moving through each of these sections of his history, Knickerbocker’s quixotic exceptionalism allows him, as I have suggested, to claim the ultimate validity of what he writes without maintaining ideological consistency or historiographical evenhandedness in his treatment of each of the governors. Reading Knickerbocker as a quixote who employs exceptionalist thinking in his history to uphold an a priori nostalgia for the values of the past, which is also Irving’s way of self-consciously mimicking the nationalist exceptionalisms of his contemporary US historians and politicians, one must allow that Knickerbocker is not as self-aware in his historical project as Irving is in his. Or at least, that even if Knickerbocker’s history is Knickerbocker’s parody, and Knickerbocker is self-aware, he nonetheless exhibits markedly quixotic qualities along with ironic moments of self-awareness like those Don Quixote’s interlocutors occasionally witness.
Although Knickerbocker’s quixotism is apparent independent of his intentionality or degree of awareness as a fictional narrator of history, the virtually impossible question over the extent to which Knickerbocker is in on his jokes (or Irving’s) has preoccupied and confounded readers and critics alike. William Hedges best expresses this conundrum when he questions: “Is he the earnest antiquarian he claims to be or is he idiot or madman? Is he a deliberate falsifier of the past or an ingenious ironist—or is he somehow all of these? Whatever the peculiar persona is, it seems that the reader is continually thrown off balance by wanting or trying to believe him even when what he is saying is absurd.”21
More recently, Jeffrey Scraba has contended that Knickerbocker’s production of a “cultural memory” of New York, in light of challenges to the Dutch history of New York from foreign peoples (and historians), is indeed self-aware. Scraba argues that Irving is not only writing commentary on nationalist historiography in A History of New York but that Knickerbocker’s narrative is to be read as self-conscious irony as well, or as a kind of quixotic historiography that is nonetheless self-conscious in its use of quixotic motifs.22
While the question of whether Knickerbocker’s historical account is self-aware has been ongoing in studies of History—and whether we can assume a closing of ironic distance between Irving and Knickerbocker—Knickerbocker’s quixotism would seem not to allow enough self-awareness to render Knickerbocker more Cervantic than quixotic in his authorship. As Hedges argues in this vein, citing Knickerbocker’s tone in his preface “To the Public” and its contradictory elements of seeming genuineness (acknowledgments to the New-York Historical Society) and blatant literary tomfoolery (“all you small fry of literature, be cautious how you insult my new launched vessel . . . lest in a moment of mingled sportiveness and scorn, I sweep you up in a scoop net, and roast half a hundred of you for my breakfast”) (378–81):
While he sounds quite mad, his paradoxical rant makes a weird sense. Yet at almost the same time I am conscious of a secondary reaction, namely that the passage [“To the Public”] mocks the pride of historians in claiming for themselves the right to award personages “the meed of immortality.” So there is confusion: If Knickerbocker is at this point sincere but deluded, he cannot be aware of the satire that Irving is voicing through him. Yet maybe he is aware, maybe he is not mad but very cunning; maybe the irony is not dramatic but, for the persona himself, intentional.23
As we can see, Hedges hedges against his initial impression because, given that Knickerbocker is not just a narrative persona but an authorial one, one can never be sure whether his intentionality is the same as or separated from Irving’s. In this sense the question of Knickerbocker’s self-awareness as a narrator and an author writing a narrative within a narrative is a nonquestion.
If we read Knickerbocker as a quixote himself (and not as a quixotic author, or as Cervantic), as Scraba does, then, as I have suggested, attributing to him such self-awareness of quixotic folly would not overshadow or disqualify his quixotic behavior. As we have seen in Captain Farrago and Launcelot Greaves, a quixote is certainly capable of certain degrees of self-awareness. We must recognize, however, that simply because Knickerbocker is an author in Irving’s narrative does not mean he is, by that very fact itself, an omniscient narrator more so than a quixotic character of Irving’s.
As Scraba rightly points out, however, regardless of Knickerbocker’s level of self-awareness, much of Knickerbocker’s mission is to assign a coherent cultural identity to a city that, as Knickerbocker’s own history illustrates, actually had a tumultuous past full of changing and conflicting cultural identities. By reclaiming the history of New Amsterdam from the city we now call New York, as Scraba contends, Knickerbocker “challenges the emerging argument, first developed by eighteenth-century historians, and later wholeheartedly embraced by nationalist historians, that the idea of America grew from the Puritan desire for religious freedom.”24 This is to suggest that the near-constant New England Puritan encroachments upon New Amsterdam, depicted in Knickerbocker’s history, reflect Knickerbocker’s concern that his New Amsterdam, and his early US, could potentially take on an identity not his own (not just a different ethnic or cultural identity but a legalistic, republican identity as well). From this type of anxiety over colonial Swedish and legalistic New England foes in nearby settlements and, perhaps more importantly, over history’s role in assigning identities that are eventually folded into cultural memories of place, stems Knickerbocker’s quixotic need to document as the only “true history” of New York that of himself and his Dutch ancestors.
This is precisely how mythmaking works. The legends of New Amsterdam’s three redoubtable governors, the renderings of the Dutch settlers as an often wretched (but ultimately victimized) lot, the villainy of the New Englanders and the Swedes, and, of course, the heroism of Knickerbocker himself, historian extraordinaire, discoverer of Truth, all emanate from Knickerbocker’s exceptionalist production of myth. Though the Dutch Dynasty ultimately falls to the British at the end of the history, a walk around present-day New York City, with its abundance of cafés, restaurants, and bars named “Knickerbocker,” to say nothing of the city’s professional basketball team, the Knicks, makes clear that Knickerbocker has in fact been quite a successful manufacturer of a particular New York identity.
Essential to this mythical construction of identity is Knickerbocker’s quixotism. By making Knickerbocker a quixote, Irving invokes a literary tradition marked by ironic remove or authorial distance, humor, burlesque, and, above all, exceptionalism. Instantly, then, as Knickerbocker’s quixotic mien recalls a long intertextual history of untrustworthy narrators and overdetermined readings, the reader of Knickerbocker’s history can identify his history of New York as the writings of a quixote. Knickerbocker’s numerous comic delusions compound this recognition, from his gratuitously implausible assertions that his is an objectively true history, and the first of its kind, to his shrewd interjection of himself into the historical narrative. As a quixote prone to conflations of myth and reality—exception and example—Knickerbocker is well positioned to write an unselfconscious history—a mythical history—that itself becomes his iconic text—his chivalric romance—circularly driving his quixotic delusion with each stroke of the pen. By making Knickerbocker a quixote whose quixotism is characterized by the construction of myth—the primacy of an idealized Dutch–New Amsterdam cultural identity long since suffused with the historical pluralism of New York—Irving, not Knickerbocker, emerges as Cervantic historiographer.