New York is an iconic city, ever hip and ever changing, with an accompanying literature that expresses its grit and glamour. Lists of iconic New York novels abound, compiled because they depict the marrow of the metropolis in a particular swath of time. Writers contributing to a New York literature are many and various: they include Melville, James, and Wharton in the nineteenth century and Fitzgerald, Baldwin, and McCarthy in the twentieth. You can compile your own list for the twenty-first. We’re only fifteen years in, but you will still have too many choices for writers that spin New York City as a central character. But where did it all begin?
Washington Irving’s A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty is not exactly a novel, but it is a fun read no matter how you characterize it. There were no American novels back then. We’re talkin’ 1809. A History of New York introduced the world to its ridiculous but perspicacious narrator, Diedrich Knickerbocker, a fusty Dutchman, who in 1904 elaborated on a delectable walk along the Battery and came to be a moniker for all things related to the burgeoning city and its inhabitants for over two hundred years, including its current basketball team. Who cares if Jon Stewart is leaving The Daily Show when you can read great political satire by the very first New York writer?