Monday, March 28, 2016
March 28, 2016: 19th Century Humor: Irving’s Knickerbocker
[For this year’s installment of my annual April Fool’s Day series, I wanted to AmericanStudy some 19th century humorists. I’d love to hear your humorous responses and nominations in comments. I’m serious!]
On the humorous creation that was way, way ahead of its time.
An extensive and entirely straight-faced viral media campaign, an elaborate hoax which creates a fictional character (a curmudgeonly historian), passes him off as a real person, and notifies the public that he has gone missing and is being sought. A ramping-up of that campaign as the release of said historian’s most extended (but of course entirely fictionalized) work (a history of his native state of New York) approaches, including equally fictional newspaper “responses” by other (fabricated) locals who have known the historian and have information about his whereabouts. And the deeply meta-textual and multi-level satire that is the book itself, beginning with a straight-faced account by the (actual) author of finding said book “in the chamber” of the historian, and publishing it “in order to discharge certain debts he has left behind”; and continuing into no less than three different prefaces To The Public, including one by another fictional character (one of those who had published a newspaper notice) about his experiences with the fictional historian.
Sounds pretty post-modern, doesn’t it? Like a 21st-century literary equivalent to The Blair Witch Project (1999); like, in fact, one of the new century’s most inventive and post-modern novels, Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000). But the book I’m talking about was published over two centuries ago, in 1809, and was authored (along with the whole media hoax) by Washington Irving, a figure often associated instead with some of the Early Republic’s most genteel and Anglophile images and texts. Irving certainly deserves those associations in many ways, but a return to this striking first major book of his, A History of New York, by Diedrich Knickerbocker, can help us to see just how satirical and subversive our nation’s first professional author (a somewhat debated but not inaccurate title) could be and often was. And while the satire and subversion are most overt in the hoax and the book’s equally fictional prefatory materials, I would argue that the whole of the book comprises a more extended and in-depth, and certainly more thematically and methodologically significant, effort to satirize and subvert many of his period’s conventions of history-writing and understandings of the world. This effort begins with Book I’s Chapter I, “Containing Divers Ingenious Theories and Philosophic Speculations, Concerning the Creation and Population of the World, as Connected with the History of New York,” and doesn’t let up throughout the text’s seven Books and many centuries of world and local history.
Those satires and subversions can feel somewhat directly pointed at other historians and writers, and reading the whole of the History is thus, while fun (in an 1809 kind of way), not necessarily crucial for large numbers of 21st-century Americans. But Irving was not done with Knickerbocker in 1809, and one of the subsequent stories that he attributes to the character, “Rip Van Winkle” (first published in an 1819 collection entitled The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon [another fictional character]), illustrates just how fully he could turn that satirical and subversive eye to more broadly and meaningfully American subjects. Much of “Rip” is just funny and silly, from its opening portrait of Rip’s extreme laziness and extremely hen-pecking wife to its folkloric, myth-making (literally, as it leads in the story to local myths about thunderstorms) central encounter with a dour Hendrick Hudson, his supernatural bowling buddies, and the sleep-inducing potent potable that Rip imbibes in their company. But Rip’s twenty-year nap coincides directly with the American Revolution, so that the story’s images of one village and its society become very overtly (if with no one clear point or argument) symbolic of American life before and after the Revolution’s shifts and transformations. I’ll leave it up to you—as I do with my students when I teach this story in my first-half survey—to decide what you make of the story’s closing pages and images of post-Revolution America; in any case, Irving’s story represents one of the earliest literary attempts to grapple seriously with both the Revolution’s effects and meanings and, most relevantly for our own (and every) era, the nation that we were and are becoming through and after them.
Irving was one of post-Revolutionary America’s first, and remains one of our most unique, literary voices, and was as the viral media hoax illustrates ahead of his time as a self-promoter and multi-layered meta-textual writer, and there’s a good deal to be said for reading him for those reasons alone. But underneath the fictional narrators and fictional commentators and humorous jabs at most everything and everybody lies, especially in these early works, a commitment to challenging and satirizing and reimagining some of our deepest beliefs and ideas—a profoundly American project for sure. Next humorist tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other humorists you’d highlight?