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The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America Hardcover – March 16, 2004

4.6 out of 5 stars 384 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Drawing on 17th-century Dutch records of New Netherland and its capital, Manhattan, translated by scholar Charles Gehring only in recent decades, Shorto (Gospel Truth) brings to exuberant life the human drama behind the skimpy legend starting with the colony's founding in 1623. Most Americans know little about Dutch Manhattan beyond its first director, Peter Minuit, who made the infamous $24 deal with the Indians, and Peter Stuyvesant, the stern governor who lost the island to the English in 1664. These two seminal figures receive their due here, along with a huge cast of equally fascinating characters. But Shorto has a more ambitious agenda: to argue for the huge debt Americans owe to the culture of Dutch Manhattan, the first place in the New World where men and women of different races and creeds lived in relative harmony. The petitions of the colony's citizens for greater autonomy, penned by Dutch-trained lawyer Adriaen van der Donck, represented "one of the earliest expressions of modern political impulses: an insistence by the members of the community that they play a role in their own government." While not discounting the British role in the shaping of American society, the author argues persuasively for the Dutch origins of some of our most cherished beliefs and their roots in "the tolerance debates in Holland" and "the intellectual world of Descartes, Grotius, and Spinoza." Shorto's gracefully written historical account is a must-read for anyone interested in this nation's origins.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

As the song goes, "Even Old New York was once New Amsterdam." Unfortunately, for many Americans, that is the limit of their knowledge about the Dutch colony that was seized by the English in 1664. Shorto, author of two previous books and articles published in the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine, presents an outstanding and revealing chronicle of the Dutch presence on Manhattan Island. Much of his research is based on recently translated Dutch primary sources that have languished in archives in Albany. Written in elegant prose, this enthralling story provides original perspectives on several historical figures, including Henry Hudson, Peter Minuit, and Peter Stuyvesant. Shorto also highlights the contributions of Andriaen van der Donck, an energetic, charismatic man who played an integral part in creating a dynamic, diverse, and tolerant society that appears refreshing when compared to the neighboring Puritan-dominated colony in Massachusetts. This is an important work. Jay Freeman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday; 1 edition (March 16, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385503490
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385503495
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.2 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (384 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #110,712 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

RUSSELL SHORTO's latest book is "Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City." Author James Gleick describes it as "The story of a great city that has shaped the soul of the world. Masterful reporting, vivid history--the past and present are equally alive in this book." Russell Shorto is also the bestselling author of "The Island at the Center of the World" and "Descartes' Bones," and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine. His books have been published in fourteen languages. From 2008 to 2013 he was the director of the John Adams Institute in Amsterdam.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Russell Shorto's The Island at the Center of the World is a chronicle of the early years of Manhattan, when it was known as New Amsterdam and was a relatively short-lived Dutch colony. According to Shorto, this period in New York history has not only been given short shift by historians, but also is crucial to understanding the development and character of New York City and the United States. Shorto believes that most students of United States history have assumed that New York City's history only really got underway when the English took over and instilled some order.

This is due in part to the disdain that the British held for the Dutch, and to the fact that the subsequent histories of the United States were told from their biased perspective. However, Shorto demonstrates that New Amsterdam was a viable society of its own, and that its unique character among the early American colonies had a remarkable impact on the future United States. For Shorto, as the first "multi-ethnic, upwardly mobile society on America's shores ... Manhattan is where America began."

Shorto is not a professional historian, but rather a professional writer, and he is writing for a popular audience. As a result his work flows in a novelistic manner, with vivid descriptions, imaginative poetic license, interesting asides, informal language and even bawdy humor used to liven things up. His acknowledged inspiration is the late Barbara Tuchman, whose meticulously researched books set a standard for bridging the gap between dense scholarship and popular appeal. Indeed, she managed to make a bestseller out of a 800+ page book about the 14th century, among other subjects, and Shorto emulates her with a knack for a compelling narrative drawn from myriad primary sources.
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Format: Hardcover
The Island at the Center of the World is a worthy if flawed read. Two aspects in particular may annoy a reader--Shorto's use of imagined scenes and his stretching to make a point of the influence of Dutch New Amsterdam.

I have to admit, the imagined scenes grated a bit on me throughout the book. They come far too frequently and lasted too long for my own liking. Too many passages began with "we might imagine", or "perhaps he . . .", or "it isn't hard to picture . . ." A few selected scenes like these could have been effective but used as frequently as they were they seemed to mar the book rather than improve it. This is more stylistic than substantive and while some readers may find it as grating as I did, others may enjoy the vivid intimacy of them.

The other major flaw is Shorto's penchant to reach a bit to make his point that New Amsterdam had far-reaching influence on the America we have today. Any writer, of course, is going to push his/her thesis; the question is how far they strain the reader's credulity in doing so. The story of the Dutch colony at New Amsterdam is interesting enough in its own right, and its influence important enough in its own right that Shorto needn't have pushed and strained so much, as if to make sure the reader felt "justified" in reading the book. When he starts to talk about Cole Slaw (more than once) as an example of the Dutch influence, you know he's walked a bit over the edge. In that case, and a few others, he diminishes the colony's importance rather than highlights it.

Those two flaws aside, and one can easily set them aside while reading, Island is an informative, entertaining read.
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Format: Hardcover
It is hard to picture Manhattan as the Dutch first saw it. It is hard to picture the Dutch here at all, as a matter of fact. Colonial history has always had such a strong Anglo bias that the Dutch (and New York, itself) never make much impact in the histories of America in the seventeenth century, focusing as it does so often on the Puritans and Pilgrims of New England. The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto is a successful attempt to correct that for a pop history reading public. He makes a strong case for the importance of the early Dutch settlers as a harbinger of the future of New York (and hence America) as a multicultural nation that values individual liberties and respect religious freedoms, not values shared by the Puritans farther up north. His case is frequently overstated and not always backed up with the stongest evidence (cole slaw is mentioned a number of times as a prime example of Dutch influence) but the story he tells of this early colony is a fascinating one that deserves telling. By the end of the book, it is no longer quite so difficult to picture Manhattan as the Dutch first saw it and fought for it, with the natives, with the English, but, mostly, with each other. A wonderful slice of New York history.
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Format: Hardcover
Shorto deserves high marks for a very readable writing style and getting the book to market quickly (even though translation of the Dutch records, on which the book is primarily based, is ongoing). He introduces historical figures (van der Donck) and events (Fort Orange settlement in Albany) I'd never heard of in a way that kept me looking forward to reading each night. The book has also inspired me to dig deeper into Dutch and European history during the 1500-1600s.

The negatives: First, Shorto's Ambrose-mimicking style of attempting to put the reader into the sights, sounds, and smells of the day. While Stephen Ambrose does it in a subtle way to give context, Shorto resorts to this style so frequently (and often to fill in key history gaps) that I wondered how much of what I was reading was rank speculation of the author. Second, the book contains too many "teaching moments"---yes, the Dutch are legendary for their tolerance of religions, people, and ideas, but does every chapter in this history book need to give a lecture on the importance of civil liberties? These negatives, however, are a small distraction in what is otherwise a very interesting book.
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