Currently, I am reading A History of New York
by Washington Irving. I have the Library of America
edition; the volume also contains Letters of Johnathan Oldstyle, Gentleman; Salmagundi;
and The Sketchbook.
Very funny, wistful, romantic, touching, wonderful, arch, waggish. Compare a majestic painting of the Hudson Valley School populated by Hogarthian odd fellows, blades, clowns, and sadly (but softly) tragic examples of our race. People lost in a landscape.
The History of New York is written in the voice of Diedrich Knickerbocker (who is a narrative voice Irving uses on other occasions; for example, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”). Irving comes across as writing for laughs, and he is wonderfully genial. At the same time, he is quick to skewer a fraud.
In Salmagundi, Washington Irving was the first to call New York "The City of Gotham”—an allusion to an English village where people were supposed to be especially stupid.
Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, even Nabokov are reflections of Irving's invention of a characteristically American style of humor: urbane, poised, wistfully philanthropic, facetious, contemptuous of fraud, and as “cynical” (if that’s the right word) as a tomb (and that is the right word).
Knickerbocker” by Felix
O. C. Darley, from the frontispiece of A History of New-York|