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Kingston: City on the Hudson

This book represents a twelve-year undertaking that consumed all of the author’s ninth decade and with which he was still tinkering when he passed away in December 2004 —a month shy of his 100th birthday. Certainly it is a flawed book, yet Kingston: City on the Hudson is also a remarkable tour de force and something that will stand for years as Evers’ last, typically comprehensive testament to his life’s interest in local history.

On one level, Kingston is a straightforward, narrative history of Evers’ county seat, from the first Native Americans to modern City Hall; much of this material has not been available in narrative form before. On the other hand, this book is not a history at all. It is a prime document, the last work of one of our best regional historians who never lost his touch.

One discovers the difference between this historian and others early on in his explanation for the violence that gave rise to the First Esopus War (1658-59). He reaches deeply into nineteenth-century scholarship (even including an illustration) to demonstrate the correlation of the katsbaan—the Native American ball field near the Strand—with Munsee Delaware mythos, and how the intrusion of the Dutch and English settlers into that scene prompted the first attack. Only Alf Evers could have done that.

Evers had the intention of writing a history of Kingston ever since the appearance of his first fine history, The Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock, in 1972. The Catskills was thirteen years in the making. He then wrote a history of Woodstock (1987) and produced a collection of essays, and even as he wrote the Kingston story, he planned a follow-up book about Ralph Whitehead, the founder of the Byrdcliffe arts colony in Woodstock.

In his thirties and forties, Evers co-authored children’s books with his wife before turning to regional history for the first time with The Catskills. He had a background as an insurance investigator, and a childhood on an Ulster County farm that charmed him for life. The Catskills was, in its time, a breakthrough treatment of regional history that showed it could be done in a friendly, and documented, way.

Kingston was not written without support. These are all his words, of course, scrupulously recorded, all of it entered, dictated, scrawled, rewritten, and told over the years to an amanuensis, Edward Sanders, author of a rigorous investigative work himself  

(The Family:The Story of Charles Manson’s Dune Buggy Attack Battalion, 1971) and a noted beatnik poet. A noble supporting cast helped keep Evers’ home and his health going along the way. Evers did rely on some outside sources—friends tracked down what he needed after he could not leave the house himself—but this tapestry was largely fashioned from bits and pieces right at hand. (A library that Evers collected in his small home in Shady has since gone to Byrdcliffe, where it will one day be available to scholars.) The book does suffer as history in the choice of sources, since much of the scholarship of the last thirty years was not plumbed, but the reader is compensated for any lapses in Evers’ style and, to some extent, in the old choices he makes. (And Evers was ahead of his time thirty years ago, anyway.)

The craft of the writer is clearly at work in some convoluted sentence structures in the early sections, where one sees the historian Evers consciously choosing his path through the maze of information to provide clarity for the reader. The writing becomes more self-assured as the conventional history unfolds, and one senses that, had he time, he might have edited the early sections more closely—but not the facts they related. Evers had a mature grasp of the material that allowed for variations and discordant themes in the story, and you can see that in the writing itself.

The documentation is also limited, much of it put together by Sanders in conversations with Evers as the project came to a conclusion. After all, he was eighty-nine when he started and ninety-nine and eleven months old when he finished. (The day Evers died he reminded Sanders of a change he wanted to make in the text.) The endnotes are in fact a kind of personal coda, an almost relaxed peregrination into the byways of the author’s mind; there are not enough of them.

Kingston is neither mawkish nor sentimental, but it is a tribute to the city at the center of Ever’s county. Some of the section titles—one runs fifty-five words in length—hearken to a nineteenth-century style, and at times Evers waxes overeloquent in characterizing how the people who lived it experienced their history. Yet this is all part of a piece, as much a story of Alf Evers as of the city of his special interest—a prime document, again.

Kingston Mayor James Sottile hosted Peter Mayer of Overlook Press for the debut of the work at City Hall. Some press attended; as did several of those who helped Evers along the way, yet this was not a gala sendoff for the author. He had been there, done that already: three years earlier, the Senate House hosted a retinue of local history glitterati in recognizing Evers’ contributions over the years.

Fittingly, that event ended with Evers—I think he was ninety-six at the time—trumping the entire tent-full of friends in a clever trompe-l’oeil effect. A video of his life ended with the camera on Evers himself sitting in the front row. He was the first and only person in the crowded tent to see that the video had now become live. He waved to everybody and the crowd roared.

 

—Vernon Benjamin, Bard College

 

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