For Lack of a Hardier Knickerbocker, the Republic Goes Tilt

Washington, Ct. Classics are called such for a reason. They endure. Quite by accident frequently, for as any condemned intellectual knows, the most marketable idea prevails within the lifetime of the average intellectual, regardless of merit. Marketability does not always coincide with good sense; quite the contrary. Rub against the grain and you will harvest splinters big and small in order to distract from the prevailing poverty of your sanctimonious existence.

Once in a great while, however, a horse surprises and the race arrives at a salubrious conclusion enjoyed by all. Such is the standing of the redoubtable Washington Irving, one of the first pestiferous writers of the young republic to receive wide acclaim in the bosom of our beginnings, for very good reason.

He was that most American of literary freeholders, a foursquare wag. There was no eye-socket immune from a proper poke. Needless to say, it was not an acid poke like those of today but one clad in velvet and always delivered in good humor. We forget this vital service at peril, for there is nothing quite so pathetic as the level of insult offered today. Insults are so copious and obvious today that they fail to induce the kind of introspection and appraisal required of a professionally deft insult. Worse yet, insult today has largely abandoned its most durable component, that of comedy. An example of a comedic insult should be stuffed and installed next to the Dodo in the American Museum of Natural History, for this form of discourse has expired and is now only useful as a museum exhibit. The media commentary today is nothing so much as the charwoman tossing the piss pot out of the second floor window as the lecherous Lord admires her behind from the bed. Insult has gone plebian and more than a little sordid. John Stewart and his pal Colbert attempt to stem the trend, but even with them the criticism is more destructive than productive, no matter how much I enjoy their efforts. It would seem that their comedic efforts are a vanishing oasis in a widening desert. Of course, the conservatives seem to think they can survive without water.

One must be intelligent to be professionally humorous; similarly, one must possess a significant sense of humor to possess a worthwhile intelligence. Unfortunately, intelligence is now passé. Humor, as a result, is grasping and altogether too full of pratfalls. Many of our cultural icons are largely devoid of humor, or perhaps fearful of its bite, and so the leadership of our society is profoundly arid and lacking the human gift of humor.

We are, indeed, a feckless culture flying the Happy Face Flag while wallowing in despair and losing our sense of humor for anything but the act of someone stumbling and falling across our line of sight.

But we still posses our classics, and with these classics the voices of a sterner yet far more evocatively humorous America can be recovered.

Americans did not always need to be self-consciously evocative. A few decades ago, we simply needed to live our lives and with this rich sum, an evocative result was not hard to achieve. In fact, the harder it was, the better we did. As a result, the globe tilted our way. We became an object of veneration. Envy did not yet stalk us so. Unfortunately, we forgot our better angels.

Hubris in victory has stalled us. The perishable one-sided myth of the human consumer did us in. Imperialism has played our hand. Fear and Loathing has us by the short hairs. A better people would not be gripped so much by fear.

Enter Washington Irving, out of the mists. My own particular volume of The Knickerbocker’s History of New York is sternly edited from the original, and as recompense, copiously illustrated by James Daugherty in the year 1928, just before the prior economic catastrophe that seems to be our modern touchstone reared its ugly face.

The volume tells the story of an enormously lucky people from the Netherlands, ultimately defeated by Puritan opponents who coveted their Catbird Seat. Irving frequently referred to the old Burghers as whiffing their pipes and nearly somnolent in the government chambers while the life of the redoubtable colony soared along briskly until a more determined foe came along. If you have not yet read this classic tale, do yourself a favor and read it now. There are still strong strains of the Knickerbocker penchant for unexcitable government that we moderns would do well to revisit. The Knickerbockers cared for their own ground but were defeated by those who restlessly covet whatever other ground they do not now inhabit. Repose, it seems, is a difficult thing to protect. Covetousness, the leitmotif of the New World consumes all in its path. My copy of this 1928 edition of Irving’s tale, copiously illustrated with wonderful abundance is a touchstone of sorts, a touchstone reminding me of the more relaxed end of the foment of liberty which underpins our history upon this continent.

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