I don’t think the Dutch, as a people, stand out too strongly in the American psyche. Speaking in terms of the ethnicities and nationalities that have historically shaped our culture, the Dutch just don’t seem like primary players. They weren’t exactly emigrating over here in the same number as some of their neighbors. They were here before the British though, in the particular here of New York City at least. And they did lay down some roots. It’s interesting to note that before Mr. Obama came along, the only U.S. president to not have a British or Irish last name was Martin Van Buren, who though American born, spoke Dutch as his first language. In a certain sense, you can picture the Hudson River Valley, Mr. Van Buren’s home, along the same lines as the American Southwest, with a non-English, invading European culture having already established itself before the English came along.
It was those Dutch of the Hudson River Valley who played a role in the first American literature to gain any acclaim overseas, “Rip van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” They were both stories by Washington Irving and they’re both probably the earliest American fiction people still read today, beating out James Fenimore Cooper’s works by a couple of years. Both pieces were included in the serialized collection, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., published between 1819-20, in which Irving created the fictional narrator of the same name. It was a role he would intertwine with his own personality throughout the rest of his life. One of Geoffrey Crayon’s key sources for information was the also fictionalized historian, Diedrich Knickerbocker, a name that would become synonymous with New Yorkers in general. It was also Irving who coined the nickname Gotham, in an earlier literary magazine he ran with his brother and brother-in-law. Diedrich Knickerbocker, and through him Geoffrey Crayon, drew upon the stories and histories of his Dutch ancestors, often with unintentional (or was it intentional?) fallacies.
Washington Irving was sufficiently famous enough by the 1830s to have a street named after him. When Samuel Ruggles, at his own expense, filled in a massive 40 foot deep gully that ran down to the East River to create Gramercy Park, he appealed to the state legislature to create a new north-south access road, thinking it would help to draw tenants. The legislature agreed; above the park it was named Lexington Avenue, after the Revolutionary War battle, below the park it was called Irving Place. On Irving Place and 17th Street, amongst some of the oldest buildings in the neighborhood, stands a home that claims to have been the one time residence of Mr. Irving. It isn’t true. The house was finished in 1843, a year after Irving had been sent to Spain as the American diplomatic minister. When he returned to the States in 1846 he settled permanently in Tarrytown, New York, the setting of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” He died in 1859 and was buried, appropriately enough, in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.
But it seems fitting that there would be some falsity surrounding his residence, on the street that bears his name. So much of his writing involved intentional half-truths and assumed personas. And for a person considered the “first American writer” he spent a large portion of his life living abroad. Even in the book that first made him famous, most of the stories are set in England. And it was in England and France that he was feted as a success. That’s how it went back then, amongst the classes that had the time to write, it was as important to remain a gentleman as it was to see your copies sell. So how did one remain a gentleman? I’m not sure. It seems like mainly you hung out a lot. That’s why we have all those books about rich people lounging around, meeting each other on the Riviera and all that. And how did you get books to sell? I guess you wrote about headless horsemen, and guys falling asleep in the Catskills for 20 years. Just make up stories or whatever, borrowing from Dutch and German fairy tales at ease. Write what you know, and what you don’t know, make up some guy who claims he does and then pretend you’re someone else who’s stealing from his papers. Yeah, yeah that sounds pretty good. Name your alter ego after a crayon. Make sure it’s Crayon, Gent. because you gotta let them know that you’re a gentleman.
(Originally posted Apr. 17th, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)