Posts Tagged ‘Washington Irving’s New York’

A 19th century writer gripes about the noisy city

September 30, 2013

Complaining about New York—it’s too crowded, trendy, has lost its edge—is a huge pastime of residents.

Portrait of Washington IrvingThere’s just something about the city that makes us think it was better, in some way, in the past.

We’ll never know if Washington Irving preferred the New York he grew up in because it really was a quiet, friendly place, or if nostalgia is clouding his memory.

Born in 1783 to a prosperous merchant, Irving became a journalist before publishing his satirical A History of New York in 1809 and short stories like The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by 1820.

His thoughts on the city in 1847—written in a letter to his sister—could have come from any contemporary resident:

Williamstreetoldhouses

“I often think what a strange world you would find yourself in, if you could revisit your native place, and mingle among your relatives.

“New York, as you knew it, was a mere corner of the present huge city; and that corner is all changed, pulled to pieces, burnt down and rebuilt—all but our little native nest in William street, which still retains some of its old features, though those are daily altering.

Washingtonirvingbust“I can hardly realize that, within my term of life, this great crowded metropolis, so full of life, bustle, noise, show, and splendor, was a quiet little city of some fifty or sixty thousand inhabitants. It is really now one of the most racketing cities in the world, and reminds me of one of the great European cities (Frankfort, for instance) in the time of an annual fair.

“Here it is a fair almost all the year round. For my part, I dread the noise and turmoil of it, and visit it but now and then, preferring the quiet of my country retreat; which shows that the bustling time of life is over with me, and that I am settling down into a sober, quiet, good-for-nothing old gentleman.”

[Above: old houses on William Street, from Valentine’s Manual, via the NYPL Digital Collection. Left: Irving’s bust outside his namesake high school on Irving Place]