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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 Paperback


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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 + Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City + Exploring Historic Dutch New York: New York City * Hudson Valley * New Jersey * Delaware
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (April 12, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400078679
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400078677
  • Product Dimensions: 3.1 x 2 x 0.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (232 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #6,566 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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

Shorto writes in a popular style, and does it very well.
D. Cusick
Russell Shorto's wonderful book about the early Dutch settlers in lower Manhattan at once sets the record straight and explains New York's uniqueness.
Ralph White
For anyone interested in knowing a highly important, but woefully ignored piece of American history...read this book.
John Mitchell

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

196 of 204 people found the following review helpful By Michael Wescott on April 13, 2005
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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75 of 82 people found the following review helpful By B. Capossere TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 25, 2004
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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54 of 58 people found the following review helpful By Ricky Hunter on May 14, 2004
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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38 of 42 people found the following review helpful By SUPPORT THE ASPCA. on August 10, 2007
Format: Paperback
This could have been a 5 star book about a rarely mentioned topic. The author put together a concise work into the history of the growth from New Amsterdam to New York. He chronicles the era of the first Dutch settlers & draws from a wealth of unique first hand infoormation. The main point of the book is how important New Amsterdam was in the growth of the USA. But, although I personally agree with his thesis, he did a mediocre job of proving it. The person of Adraien van der Donck, a lawyer is woven into the story as a very influential person. But, the data given is scanty & the connections are questionable.

The other theme, a refreshing one is the deep racial & ethnic tolerance the Dutch appear to have had. A third theme is the role of government which under the Dutch was not a monarchy unlike most European ones at that time.It is a vivid & entertaining story that leaves the reader a bit frustrated. You keep asking yourself, when is the author going to connect the dots? Lastly, the grammatical errors were far too numerous for a semi-scholarly book as this. I recommend it as a good read, but overall it only gets 3 stars.
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