Russell Shorto’s The Island at the Center of the World had me at page one. It opens with the description of a lone researcher deep inside the New York State Library in Albany, patiently translating some 12,000 manuscript sheets that contain the lost history of 17th-century Dutch Manhattan. Dutch Manhattan? In the course I’ve taught for 20 years at Georgetown University about the literature of New York City, I’d always been content to dispense with the Dutch by mouthing the conventional wisdom that they left behind no significant literary record. That was before Shorto’s superb book brought me up short. The first Dutch settlers of Manhattan may not have been “literary,” but they sure could write…and write.
Shorto’s book, which is partly drawn from those Old Dutch documents, is a revelatory read not just for anyone who loves New York City and wants to take a time travel trip back to its earliest European origins, but also for anyone curious about how the wide open commercial and cultural character of “New Netherland” shaped the destiny of what would become the United States of America. A bonus of The Island at the Center of the World is Shorto’s evocative style: though steeped in scholarship, he knows how to dramatize the past through outsized personalities (Henry Hudson, Peter Minuit) and by poetically re-imagining the familiar. As Shorto says at the end of his introduction:
[T]his book invites you to do the impossible: to strip from your mental image of Manhattan Island all associations of power, concrete, and glass; to put time into full reverse, unfill the massive landfills, and undo the extensive leveling programs that flattened hills and filled gullies. To witness the return of waterfalls, to watch freshwater ponds form in place of asphalt intersections; to let buildings vanish and watch stands of pin oak, sweetgum, basswood, and hawthorne take their place.
Of all the books I’ve read this year — old and new — Shorto’s 2005 account of Dutch Manhattan is the one I keep thinking about and want to make time to reread.
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