“Won’t you fly across that ocean, take a train on down…”

“The origin of our city will be buried in eternal oblivion,” wrote Washington Irving in his satirical History of New York, the 1809 book that made the 26-year-old Manhattanite one of America’s first literary celebs. Two centuries later, Irving’s “Knickerbocker History” is by turns funny, baffling, and obscure, but what intrigued me was how full of Charlemagne it is:

The origin of our city will be buried in eternal oblivion, and even the names and achievements of Wouter Van Twiller, Wilhelmus Kleft, and Peter Stuyvesant, be enveloped in doubt and fiction, like those of Romulus and Remus, of Charlemagne, King Arthur, Rinaldo, and Godfrey of Bologne.

As it turns out, Irving was a bit of a Charlemagne buff. Elsewhere in the History, his alter ego Diedrich Knickerbocker looks to the Carolingians to explain why New York City’s “ancient magistrates” were chosen, naturally, by weight:

As a board of magistrates, formed on this model, think but very little, they are the less likely to differ and wrangle about favourite opinions—and as they generally transact business upon a hearty dinner, they are naturally disposed to be lenient and indulgent in the administration of their duties. Charlemagne was conscious of this, and therefore (a pitiful measure, for which I can never forgive him) ordered in his cartularies, that no judge should hold a court of justice, except in the morning, on an empty stomach—a rule, which, I warrant, bore hard upon all the poor culprits in his kingdom. The more enlightened and humane generation of the present day have taken an opposite course…

Jolly old Diedrich Knickerbocker also trots out several mock-heroic references to Roland, the “Orlando” of romance. Two of them occur in battles between Dutchmen and Swedes, while the third anchors a preposterous yarn about the death of trumpeter Antony Von Corlear, whose race to aid his fellow Dutchmen is stymied when a devil drags him to the bottom of the Harlem River:

Luckless Antony! scarce had he buffeted half way over, when he was observed to struggle most violently as if battling with the spirit of the waters—instinctively he put his trumpet to his mouth and giving a vehement blast—sunk forever to the bottom!

The potent clangour of his trumpet, like the ivory horn of the renowed Paladin Orlando, when expiring in the glorious field of Roncesvalles, rung far and wide in through the country, alarming the neighbors round, who hurried in amazement to the spot…

Irving later visited relatives in England (where he wrote two of his most famous stories, “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”) and spent 17 years wandering Europe. He had mined German folklore for two of his biggest hits and expected further inspiration. “I mean to get into the confidence of every old woman I meet with in Germany,” he told a friend, “and get from her, her budget of wonderful stories.”

The romantic New Yorker, pushing 40, soon met the drab reality of history. Visiting Aachen in 1822, he noted in his journal that he had seen the “fountain with bronze statue of Charlemagne” and “Charlemagne’s Chair in Town Hall,” both of which are still tourist landmarks, but he saved his grousing for a darkly amusing letter to his sister:

I am disappointed in Aix-la-Chapelle. To me it is a very dull place, and I do not find that others seem more pleased with it.

[. . .]

This is the birthplace, and was once the seat of empire of Charlemagne, that monarch so renowned in history and song. His tomb is in the cathedral, and is only marked by a broad slab of black marble, on which is the inscription, Carolo Magno. The Cathedral is an extremely ancient, venerable-looking pile. Every night I hear the hours chimed on its bells; and the midnight hours announced by the watchman from its tower. The Germans are full of old customs and usages, which are obsolete in other parts of the world . . .

The people have an antiquated look, particularly the lower orders. The women dress in peculiar costumes. As to the company at the hotels and public saloons, it is composed of all nations, but particularly northern nations: Russians, Prussians, Germans, Dutch, &c. Everywhere you see military characters, in fierce moustaches and jingling spurs, with ribbons and various orders at their button-holes. Still, though there are many personages of rank here, the place is not considered the most fashionable, and there are many rough characters in the crowds that throng the saloons. Indeed it is somewhat difficult to distinguish a gentleman from a common man among these northern people; there is great slovenliness of dress and coarseness of appearance among them; they all smoke; and I have often been surprised to hear a coarse-looking man, whom I had set down for some common tradesman, addressed as Monsieur the Count or the Baron. The weather has been very bad for several days past.

A recent biographer points out that Irving was suffering from an illness, perhaps the gout, which the famous waters of Aix-la-Chapelle failed to cure—but he wasn’t the last tourist to find Aachen underwhelming. A 2003 Rick Steves guidebook dismisses “unassuming Aachen” near the “unromantic Rhine,” and when I sat in Aachen Cathedral on a frigid February weekend in 2008, I heard tourists mumble that the place was too small to have been worth the trip.

Despite their gripes, I found that the “concentrated magnificence” of the octagonal chapel at Aachen repays real contemplation, and trying to see it backwards across a 1,200-year gulf is a worthy (if futile) ambition. Tourists to Aachen wish for eighth-century streets; if Washington Irving’s imagination failed him in Charlemagne’s town, what hope can their be for the Lonely Planet crowd?

Two years after sulking in Aachen, Irving wrote in Tales of a Traveller: “The land of literature is a fairy land to those who view it from a distance, but like all other landscapes, the charm fades on a nearer approach, and the thorns and briars become visible.” He later found his European dreamworld in Spain, especially Granada, where he briefly lived and wrote at the Alhambra. As the author of the most popular 19th-century book about Christopher Columbus, Irving convinced Americans, wrongly, that medieval people believed the world was flat. It’s tempting to wonder what myths he might have spun about Charlemagne if he’d just passed through Aachen in sunnier health. Generations of teachers perhaps can be glad he did not.

(Photo of Aachen taken in February 2008.)

2 thoughts on ““Won’t you fly across that ocean, take a train on down…”

  1. It’s a double-edged sword… If Aachen were more impressive, it would likely be a tourist trap. As it is, it’s bizarrely modest and quiet–a breath of fresh air after places like Rothenburg and Munich. (Both of which are fantastic but chock full of tourists.)

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  2. I agree, Scott. On a quiet winter Saturday, you can sit in the cathedral for hours, read the little architectural guidebook cover to cover, and practically have the place all to yourself. There’s also a useful lesson in Aachen’s modesty: today’s capital cities aren’t necessarily tomorrow’s.

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