While his gifts as a writer were admittedly middle brow and inclined towards a light, popular style of prose, Washington Irving seemed to know of the fundamental cultural challenge to the revolutionary mindset: that our greatest intellectual temptation would be to a self-inflicted amnesia. As a nation of immigrants, most of us are descended from people who left behind their previous nations, previous home towns (often the familial home from time immemorial), and in many cases did so without entertaining the hopes of seeing those left behind again. While this is often accompanied by a particular sort of bravery and ingenuity, it can also be haunted by the phantoms of what was left behind¯so much so that we can be in denial of who we were and to what institutions, philosophies, and values we owe our beliefs and ideals.
His first book, Dietrich Knickerbocker’s History of New York, capitalized on the amnesia of New Yorkers by a mix of biting satire and real history of the Dutch reign in Manhattan. The book is foundational to any study in American humor: wild, free, self-deprecatory, and merciless to the public figures of his day; by turns lyrically funny, absurd, and reflective. Without it, we might wonder whether American humor, from Twain to the Marx brothers to Jerry Seinfeld to Stephen Colbert, would have taken the particular shape it did.
When Americans, always prone to utopian daydreams, were in danger of taking themselves far too seriously--when the term “manifest destiny” was embryonic--Dietrich Knickerbocker rolled his bugged-out eyes, chuckled gruffly, and whispered into the ear of a young nation, “Remember thou art mortal.”