The Island at the Center of the World
March 10, 2013
Author Russell Shorto
Publication Date 2004
Price $16.95 (for paperback)
This book’s subtitle is “The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan & the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America.”
The author starts out talking about the New Netherland Project and its director, Charles Gehring, a scholar who “received into his care in 1974…twelve thousand sheets of rag paper covered with the crabbed, loopy script of seventeenth-century Dutch.” These were letters, business papers, court documents, etc., of the first Manhattanites.
Using documents whose translation began in the disco era and continues into the present, Shorto tells the story of the Dutch colony whose story has historically been undertold in accordance with, as he notes, the truism that “history is written by the winners.” I guess then he is telling the story of the losers, but the Dutch antecedent of New York sounds much like the New York that survived and thrived: the polyglot, multicultural, humming, exploding open city I love.
It is amazing how language barriers can get in the way of history. Towards the end of the book, Shorto tells the tale of the 17th-century documents and their complicated journey into the 20th century, when Gehring and his team finally gave them new life. It is not easy to find people who know the language and culture of 17th-century Dutchmen; and wars and fires, incompetence and a lack of funding, had over the centuries rather delayed their long-overdue arrival into modern English.
Shorto writes especially beautifully in the closing pages of the book. He is moved by the papers’ journey, as he is by New York’s own, and so I was moved, too.