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The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped Americaby Russell Shorto
Synopses & Reviews
In a landmark work of history, Russell Shorto presents astonishing information on the founding of our nation and reveals in riveting detail the crucial role of the Dutch in making America what it is today.
In the late 1960s, an archivist in the New York State Library made an astounding discovery: 12,000 pages of centuries-old correspondence, court cases, legal contracts, and reports from a forgotten society: the Dutch colony centered on Manhattan, which predated the thirteen "original" American colonies. For the past thirty years scholar Charles Gehring has been translating this trove, which was recently declared a national treasure. Now, Russell Shorto has made use of this vital material to construct a sweeping narrative of Manhattan's founding that gives a startling, fresh perspective on how America began.
In an account that blends a novelist's grasp of storytelling with cutting-edge scholarship,
The Island at the Center of the World strips Manhattan of its asphalt, bringing us back to a wilderness island — a hunting ground for Indians, populated by wolves and bears — that became a prize in the global power struggle between the English and the Dutch. Indeed, Russell Shorto shows that America's founding was not the work of English settlers alone but a result of the clashing of these two seventeenth century powers. In fact, it was Amsterdam — Europe's most liberal city, with an unusual policy of tolerance and a polyglot society dedicated to free trade — that became the model for the city of New Amsterdam on Manhattan. While the Puritans of New England were founding a society based on intolerance, on Manhattan the Dutch created a free-trade, upwardly-mobile melting pot that would help shape not only New York, but America.
The story moves from the halls of power in London and The Hague to bloody naval encounters on the high seas. The characters in the saga — the men and women who played a part in Manhattan's founding — range from the philosopher Rene Descartes to James, the Duke of York, to prostitutes and smugglers. At the heart of the story is a bitter power struggle between two men: Peter Stuyvesant, the autocratic director of the Dutch colony, and a forgotten American hero named Adriaen van der Donck, a maverick, liberal-minded lawyer whose brilliant political gamesmanship, commitment to individual freedom, and exuberant love of his new country would have a lasting impact on the history of this nation.
"The Island at the Center of the World ranks among the best books ever written about New Amsterdam, the Dutch settlement on Manhattan that would become New York City. Shorto's prose is deliciously rich and witty, and the story he tells — drawing heavily on sources that have only recently come to light — brings one surprise after another. His rediscovery of Adriaen van der Donck, Peter Stuyvesant's nemesis, is fascinating." Edwin G. Burrows, coauthor of Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for History
"Relying on the fruits of Dr. Gehring's enterprise, Mr. Shorto has created far more than an addendum to familiar American history: a book that will permanently alter the way we regard our collective past." Janet Maslin, The New York Times
"Shorto brings to exuberant life the human drama behind the skimpy legend....Shorto's gracefully written historical account is a must-read for anyone interested in this nation's origins." Publishers Weekly
"[T]old with humor and an acute eye for primary sources....A bright social history of New Amsterdam that gives the Dutch their due as the first facilitators of its fabled diversity." Kirkus Reviews
"This is one of those rare books in the picked-over field of colonial history, a whole new picture....With his full-blooded resurrection of an unfamiliar American patriot, Russell Shorto has made a real contribution..." John Jeremiah Sullivan, The New York Observer
"[E]ntrancing....Shorto's book, a good read that links some characteristics of Dutch New York to today's bustling city of finance, is well worth the time of the general history enthusiast..." Library Journal
"Russell Shorto's dramatic adventure tale about the settling of Manhattan will transform the way we look at American history....Based on a wealth of documents that archivists began translating forty years ago, Shorto has produced both a triumph of scholarship and a rollicking narrative. The result is an exciting drama about the roots of America's freedoms." Walter Isaacson, author of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
In a landmark work of history, Shorto presents astonishing information on thefounding of our nation and reveals in riveting detail the crucial role of the Dutch in making America what it is today.
When the British wrested New Amsterdam from the Dutch in 1664, the truth about its thriving, polyglot society began to disappear into myths about an island purchased for 24 dollars and a cartoonish peg-legged governor. But the story of the Dutch colony of New Netherland was merely lost, not destroyed: 12,000 pages of its records-recently declared a national treasure-are now being translated. Drawing on this remarkable archive, Russell Shorto has created a gripping narrative-a story of global sweep centered on a wilderness called Manhattan-that transforms our understanding of early America.
The Dutch colony pre-dated the “original” thirteen colonies, yet it seems strikingly familiar. Its capital was cosmopolitan and multi-ethnic, and its citizens valued free trade, individual rights, and religious freedom. Their champion was a progressive, young lawyer named Adriaen van der Donck, who emerges in these pages as a forgotten American patriot and whose political vision brought him into conflict with Peter Stuyvesant, the autocratic director of the Dutch colony. The struggle between these two strong-willed men laid the foundation for New York City and helped shape American culture. The Island at the Center of the World uncovers a lost world and offers a surprising new perspective on our own.
About the Author
Russell Shorto is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine, and the author of two previous books: Gospel Truth, about the search for the historical Jesus, and Saints and Madmen, about psychiatry and religion. The hub of his research for The Island at the Center of the World was the New Netherland Project at the New York State Library, where the archives of the Dutch colony centered on Manhattan are being translated. He lives in New Yorks Hudson Valley with his wife and their two daughters.
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