We know Washington Irving best for his folk tales The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. Born in the year the American Revolution ended, Irving died not long before the start of the Civil War. During his lifetime, his versatility as an author who could successfully write satire, history and biography helped to establish him as the country's first professional man of letters. How this lifelong bachelor and citizen of the world put Manhattan on the literary map is the subject of Andrew Burstein's discerning biography The Original Knickerbocker.
From early on, Irving was part of a mutually supportive New York literary community that included three of his brothers, who were well-connected and politically engaged. His first book, 1809's A History of New York, allegedly written by Diedrich Knickerbocker, was a mock history, a widely read satiric masterpiece. In 1815, Irving sailed to Europe in search of new directions for his writing. When he returned home 17 years later, he was an international celebrity.
Burstein guides us carefully through Irving's works, explaining both how each was received in its time and how later readers viewed them. [Irving] gave his country the epic historical romances they craved, he writes, He celebrated an at once vigorous, amusing, and opportunistic people. Although Irving the historian appreciated primary sources and archives, Burstein says he had a jaunty, sometimes starry-eyed way of telling history. He could not help but re-create it imaginatively. Irving was congenial and witty, had a naturally tolerant personality, was good company for the likes of Sir Walter Scott and Martin Van Buren, and was generous in trying to help other authors, even James Fenimore Cooper, who did not care for him. Burstein, who is best known for his books on Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, demonstrates here that he is also skilled in bringing readers the life and times of an important literary figure.