In the beginning, there were the woods. In the beginning, there were isolated lakes, swift-flowing streams, hidden cataracts, rocky promontories and mysterious glens. They were all set deep in the virgin forest, so overgrown that the day was as dim as dusk because the crowns of the trees spread so close together. In the beginning, there were native peoples, swiftly identified by Europeans as savages, who traveled in eerie noiselessness among the trees, silently paddled the waters, and had attached names and legends to every odd-shaped rock or outcropping.
Washington Irving’s home – Sunnyside – is still standing, just south of the Tappan Zee Bridge. Before Irving purchased it, the house belonged to 18th century colonialist Wolfert Acker, about whom Irving wrote his sketch “Wolfert’s Roost.” — Tarrytown, New York
In its spring and summer abundance, the New World was like an answer to a prayer. The streams seethed with fish. Rivers were named for the tribes that lived by them: the Mohawk, the Susquehanna, the Iroquois, the Missouri, the Potomac. They flowed in their channels through the thick forest unimpeded except by the occasional logjam of giant fallen trees. Here there was enough timber to build a thousand stockades and a million chapels. The soil enriched by the river deposits was fertile. Game was plentiful.
Many of the early settlers to these shores thanked God for this. They had come to the New World to exercise their religious freedoms. As Robert Spiller suggests in The Cycle of American Literature, the bounty they found affirmed their mission. The wealth they derived from it confirmed their rightness. “Perhaps in the beginning of American civilization can be found a clue to the incongruous mixture of naïve idealism and crude materialism that produced in later years a literature of beauty, irony, affirmation, and despair,” Spiller writes. It is tantalizing but not a little disturbing to think that the attitudes and beliefs of over three centuries ago have been passed on, like DNA, in the hearts and minds of those who followed.
How the Town of New Amsterdam Rose Out of the Mud
“The Indian traditions,” Diedrich Knickerbocker writes in A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, “affirm that the bay was once a translucid lake, filled with silver and golden fish, in the midst of which lay this beautiful island, covered with every variety of fruits and flowers; but that the sudden irruption of the Hudson laid waste these blissful scenes, and Manetho [the Indian god Manitou] took his flight beyond the great waters of Ontario.” In 1609, many hundreds of years after Manetho migrated north, Henry Hudson happened upon the selfsame island and its remarkable properties seemed to have been restored. Hudson’s first mate, Robert Juet, recorded that the island was “as pleasant with Grasse and Flowers, and goodly Trees, as ever they had seene, and very sweet smells came from them.”
The island, of course, was Manhattan. And in the late 1700’s, when Washington Irving was born, it was rapidly overtaking Philadelphia as the most populous place in America. Irving was named after the great hero of the recent Revolutionary War. His father was Scottish and pious. His mother was Dutch and fruitful. Washington was one of the eight of the eleven Irving children who survived and he was incorrigible.“Ah,Washington, if you were only good!” was his mother’s lament.
In 1809 Irving stepped onto the literary stage in the guise of Diedrich Knickerbocker. According to the fictitious notices at the beginning of the book, the History was part of the secretive project left behind by the crotchety, inquisitive old Diedrich Knickerbocker. Knickerbocker had vanished, last seen wearing a fatigued expression on the stagecoach route towards Albany, his last known address the Independent Columbian Hotel on Mulberry Street in Manhattan, where his landlord came upon the manuscript. The good innkeeper had been forced to publish the book in order to cover the old man’s debt. This was the first appearance in American literature of a mad genius character toiling away in obscurity on his undiscovered masterwork. It was the first disappearance of one as well. But though the imaginary Diedrich Knickerbocker had vanished, his creator, Washington Irving, was definitely here to stay.
The rest of American literary history, one might say, follows the History. It became the first American literary sensation, giving citizens a reason for pride in their native literature and making Washington Irving an early literary icon. The sacred playground of Manetho proved to be good for growing things other than flowers and trees. It has become one of the great cities of the world and the capitol of the publishing industry. Manhattan is the pushing-off point on the journey through literary America.
One Vast Expanse of Woods
Broad belts of virgin wilderness not only reached the shores of the first river, but they even crossed it, stretching away into New England, and affording forest covers to the noiseless moccasin of the native warrior as he trod the secret and bloody war-path. A bird’s eye view of the whole region east of the Mississippi must then have offered one vast expanse of woods, relieved by a comparatively narrow fringe of cultivation along the sea, dotted by the glittering surfaces of lakes, and intersected by the waving lines of river.
The first waving line of river in the American literary imagination was the Hudson. It has its source in Lake Tear of The Clouds, in the recesses of the Adirondacks, from which it tumbles, broadens, deepens, accepts its due from freshwater tributaries and mingles with the salt waters of the Atlantic. The Hudson River’s journey, in reverse, was the route that Henry Hudson followed in 1609, and the path that many other white men after him utilized as a way to penetrate into the interior of the country for trapping and fishing, and trading with the Native Americans.