Andrew Burstein
The Original Knickerbocker: The Life of Washington Irving.
Basic Books, 348 pages, $27.50

It is the sad irony of Washington Irving’s career that he was forgotten by the very literary tradition he engendered. Once read by heads of state and ordinary men alike, the genteel New Yorker now rarely elicits interest outside the academy. Louis Napoleon, the future emperor, paid a personal visit to his Tarrytown cottage; Charles Dickens gushed over his single-handed effort to bring American literature out of its infancy. For today’s readers, though, Irving often seems a quaint but ineffectual ancestor whose work is too light to merit much attention.

In his new book, The Original Knickerbocker: The Life of Washington Irving, Andrew Burstein skillfully argues that Irving should be credited with initiating “a national literature where there was thought to be none.” The...

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