Rise of the Knickerbocker School Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Taking their nickname from the costume of the original Dutch settlers of Manhattan, the Knickerbockers were a group of young New York City writers, led by Washington Irving, who created the first truly national literature in the United States and helped to free American culture from Europe.

Summary of Event

Before the turn of the nineteenth century, Americans were too much concerned with settling their new land and establishing their independence from Great Brtain to spare much interest in a national literature. Moreover, New World writers had scant American history to draw upon, no kings or lords to people their works, no wealthy patrons to support them, and no apparent way to compete with popular British imports. Why, many of them wondered, would anyone want to read an American book, and what would such a boook be about? During the first decades of the nineteenth century, the so-called Knickerbockers answered such questions. Several Knickerbockers were native New Yorkers, but others were latecomers to New York City. They differed greatly among themselves in their religious faiths, politics, and backgrounds, but they shared a belief in the possibility of an authentic native literature. Knickerbocker School Literature;Knickerbocker School New York City;literature of Poetry;and Knickerbocker School[Knickerbocker School] Literature;American [kw]Rise of the Knickerbocker School (1807-1850) [kw]Knickerbocker School, Rise of the (1807-1850) [kw]School, Rise of the Knickerbocker (1807-1850) Knickerbocker School Literature;Knickerbocker School New York City;literature of Poetry;and Knickerbocker School[Knickerbocker School] Literature;American [g]United States;1807-1850: Rise of the Knickerbocker School[0350] [c]Literature;1807-1850: Rise of the Knickerbocker School[0350] Irving, Washington Cooper, James Fenimore Paulding, James Kirke Bryant, William Cullen Halleck, Fitz-Greene

In 1807, Salmagundi: Or, The Whim-Whams of Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq. and Others Salmagundi: Or, The Whim-Whams of Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq. and Others announced the arrival of this new group. A series of twenty pamphlets written by Washington Irving Irving, Washington , his brother William, and William’s brother-in-law James Kirke Paulding, Salmagundi contained satirical sketches, poems, theatrical criticism, and witty essays that described life in New York City and opposed Jeffersonian democracy.

In December, 1809, Washington Irving published A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty History of New York, A (Irving) , as written by Diedrich Knickerbocker, and supposedly found among his papers by his landlord. Drawing upon history, fable, and his own imagination, Irving used his imaginary Knickerbocker—as unreliable a narrator as any of his eighteenth century forebears—to satirize the stolid Dutch settlers of New York. He also drew parallels betwen the history of New Netherlands New Netherlands and the United States and ridiculed not only history itself and the epic narrative style commonly used to write it, but also American political parties and even Thomas Jefferson, as the inventor of useless contrivances. However, beneath the satire, Irving, who preferred the picturesque past to the then current world of trade and speculation, revealed an early awareness of contradictions in American society between idealism and materialism.

In 1819, a series of playful, satirical poems was published anonymously in the New York Evening Post. New York Evening Post Their authors were Fitz-Greene Halleck Halleck, Fitz-Greene of Connecticut and Joseph Rodman Drake Drake, Joseph Rodman , a true New Yorker. Drake met an early death in 1825, but Halleck went on to become New York’s favorite poet, a friend of William Cullen Bryant, and the author of light lyrical poems satirizing authors, politicians, men of science, and the affectations of the nouveau riche. These early efforts found great favor with New York readers.

Washington Irving and his literary friends.

(P. F. Collier and Son)

Meanwhile, Irving was cementing an international reputation as well as his claim upon posterity with publication of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., The (Irving) (1819-1820), which was highly praised in both America and England. It contained the now-famous tales “Rip Van Winkle” "Rip Van Winkle" (Irving)[Rip Van Winkle (Irving)] and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow ”Legend of Sleepy Hollow, The" (Irving)[Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Irving)] ”—both narrated by Diedrich Knickerbocker, the old Dutch gentleman from the Catskills. Thereafter, “Knickerbocker” became synonymous not only with the group of writers but also with New York City and New Yorkers. Irving’s Father Knickerbocker became New York’s most popular symbol during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Irving’s considerable literary output included sketches of England, histories, and biographies of figures such as George Washington and Christopher Columbus. After spending seventeen years in Europe, as a diplomatic attaché, secretary to the American legation, and later as minister to Spain, Irving retired to his home in Tarrytown, overlooking the Hudson River, where he enjoyed the affection and celebrity that his literary career afforded him.

James Fenimore Cooper Cooper, James Fenimore , another Knickerbocker transplant to New York City, became one of the most influential American novelists of the nineteenth century. Cooper’s family had been wealthy landowners in Otsego, New York, and Cooper envisioned an America governed by a landed aristocracy. When his family’s fortunes collapsed, he was forced to entertain other possibilities, although his belief in the superiority of a white landed class never faltered. His first novel, Precaution, set in England and published anonymously in 1820, sold poorly, but his second novel, The Spy Spy, The (Cooper) (1821), was deliberately patriotic and spectacularly successful, as was The Pilot (1823), the first American sea story.

Although Cooper wrote more than forty books of fiction and nonfiction, he is remembered mostly for his five Leatherstocking Tales: Leatherstocking Tales (Cooper) The Pioneers (1823), The Last of the Mohicans Last of the Mohicans, The (Cooper) (1826), The Prairie (1827), The Pathfinder (1840), and The Deerslayer (1841). His great contribution to American literature was the creation of the archetypal American hero in the character of Natty Bumppo, who was also known as Leatherstocking, Hawkeye, Deerslayer, Long Rifle, and the Trapper. A silent and rootless loner, Bumppo has fled from society and sought the isolation of the natural world. Quick on the trigger when necessary, he operates in an environment beyond the law and according to his own moral values. He is accompanied by Chingachgook, the embodiment of the so-called noble savage, equally brave and moral, but doomed, as his race is doomed. These two companions—one white, the other dark, one from the natural world, the other from the so-called civilized world—encounter the violence and terror manifest as white people press ever farther into the wilderness, and the march of modern progress exacts its toll. Their literary and dramatic descendants can be seen in films and on television to this day.

In his prime, James Kirke Paulding Paulding, James Kirke ranked in popularity alongside Irving and Cooper as a storyteller who combined narrative skill with enthusiastic nationalism. At the age of eighteen, after growing up in Tarrytown, he moved to New York City, where he collaborated with Irving on Salmagundi. From his childhood, when members of his family were forced to leave their home in fear of the Tories, he detested the British. In 1812, as tensions between the United States and Great Britain increased, he published a sharp satire, The Diverting History of John Bull and Brother Jonathan. Diverting History of John Bull and Brother Jonathan, The (Paulding) He followed it with The Lay of the Scottish Fiddle (1813), a parody of Sir Walter Scott’s Scott, Sir Walter The Lay of the Last Minstrel Lay of the Last Minstrel, The (Scott) (1805). After the War of 1812 brought the threat of British invasion to American shores, Paulding enlisted in the New York state militia as a major.

Paulding strongly advocated a native literature that would use the language and materials indigenous to the New World and not be a servile imitation of British imports. Throughout his life, which included government service under Presidents James Madison, James Monroe and Martin Van Buren, Paulding continued to write. He published numerous tales, poems, and essays, and five novels: Konigsmarke (1823), The Dutchman’s Fireside (1831), Westward Ho (1832), The Old Continental (1846), and The Puritan and His Daughter (1849).

William Cullen Bryant Bryant, William Cullen joined the Knickerbocker group during the late 1820’s, when he moved from Massachusetts to New York City to edit the New York Review. New York Review Already celebrated as a poet on the basis of his poem “Thanatopsis” (1817), he was accepted immediately into the New York literary circle. He became editor and owner of the Evening Post, New York Evening Post and through fifty years as a journalist and critic he commented on all matters political, cultural, and economic. An unabashed liberal, he was critical of American capitalism. He was also a vigorous opponent of slavery, a campaigner for the creation of New York City’s Central Park, and a champion of unpopular causes. Although literature was only an occasional pursuit for Bryant, he claimed that America had landscapes and subjects as worthy of celebration as any that Europe could offer. His life was long, extending from the beginning of Romanticism to the beginning of realism.

The year 1830 brought The Knickerbocker Magazine. Knickerbocker Magazine, The Until its demise in 1865, this magazine published the works of almost every living American writer of note. However, by midcentury, as the Civil War (1861-1865) loomed, both literary tastes and concerns of the writers were changing, and the popularity of the Knickerbockers diminished.


The Knickerbockers’ great contribution was the creation of a new literature that was national in scope with an artistry that was sufficiently high to command respect not only from their fellow countrymen in the New World but also from England and the Continent. The Knickerbockers produced essays, novels, and poetry that stimulated and entertained, using American material, landscapes, and language. They defined American character and humor, and paved the way for such major nineteenth century literary figures as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, and Mark Twain Twain, Mark .

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aderman, Ralph, ed. Critical Essays on Washington Irving. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990. Anthology of contemporary reviews and essays of Irving’s work and twentieth century essays.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bryant, William Cullen. Power for Sanity: Selected Editorials of William Cullen Bryant, 1829-1981. Edited by William Cullen Bryant II. New York: Fordham University Press, 1994. Eclectic collection, helpfully annotated, demonstrating Bryant’s passion for free commerce, free speech, and free soil and his skillful prose style.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Link, Earl Carl. “American Nationalism and the Defense of Poetry.” Southern Quarterly 41, no. 2 (2003): 48-59. A brief description of Bryant’s ideas of poetry as set forth in his lectures before the New York Athenaeum.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parrington, Vernon L. The Romantic Revolution in America, 1800-1860. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1927. An old but still useful work discussing early American literature from a regional perspective, with excellent discussions of all the Knickerbockers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reid, Margaret. Cultural Secrets as Narrative Form: Story Telling in Nineteenth-Century America. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2004. Examines the roles of experience, language and secrecy in the works of James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Owen Wister.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taylor, Alan. “Fenimore Cooper’s America.” History Today 46, no. 2 (1996): 21-27. A good overview of Cooper’s personal life, his social concerns and ambitions, and the connection with his novels.

Scott Publishes Waverley

Rise of the Cockney School

Irving’s Sketch Book Transforms American Literature

American Renaissance in Literature

Brahmin School of American Literature Flourishes

Twain Publishes Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

William Cullen Bryant; James Fenimore Cooper; Nathaniel Hawthorne; Washington Irving. Knickerbocker School Literature;Knickerbocker School New York City;literature of Poetry;and Knickerbocker School[Knickerbocker School] Literature;American

Categories: History