The Hudson River Valley Reader

The Hudson River Valley Reader , edited by Edward C. Goodman,is a Quadricentennial tribute to the history, literature, and lore of the Hudson Valley and the Catskills drawn from several classic works of regional scholarship. Its first section surveys iconic geographical features of the region (Spuyuten Duyvil Creek, the Pallisades, Lake George, Kaaterskill Falls), followed by prominent historical themes: Robert Juet’s log of Hudson’s voyage, the patent system of land distribution, battles of the Revolution, Benedict Arnold’s betrayal, and Major John Andre’s execution. The historical summary ends with the age of tourism ushered in by the launch of Robert Fulton’s steamboat, along with a guidebook to the most popular tourist destination on the river: West Point.  

This first section is a series of excerpts from histories like Wallace Bruce’s The Hudson.  Goodman neither introduces nor documents these, and one feels a twinge of vertigo as narrative voices shift but are not identified. The purchase of Manhattan by the Dutch, the manners and mores of the early townspeople, and the governorship of Peter Stuyvesant are conveyed in chapters from Washington Irving’s wildly satirical History of New York . Since these are not identified, either, reading them for the history of New Amsterdam can be like tuning in to The Daily Show , not knowing it is a fake news program.  

This book, in other words, is not designed for the scholar. It aims to be “diverse” and “entertaining,” and it largely succeeds. The excerpts are well edited for conciseness and readability, and they comprehensively represent the main threads of Hudson Valley history.

  Legends—Native American, Dutch, Colonial, and Revolutionary War—compiled in the second section come from Charles Skinner’s Myths and Legends of our Own Land .

These would benefit from contextualization. Still, they are varied and diverting. Some of them also figure in work by the region’s writers, as tales of the Dunderberg Imp and  Murderer’s Creek do, for example, in T.C. Boyle’s World’s End.  

The poems and fiction in a final section chronicle an accomplishment for which the Hudson Valley is justly famous: the beginnings of a national literature. “A Culprit Fay,” by Knickerbocker poet Joseph Rodman Drake, is recognized in the Cambridge History of American Literature for its early (“before Bryant”) description of native plants, birds, and insects. In a second poem, “To a Friend,” Drake exhorts his contemporaries to write about American scenery and subject matter. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and a long excerpt from The Last of the Mohicans show Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper doing just that.  

With the exception of four-line chapter epigraphs by Susan Warner and Minna Irving, women writers go unmentioned. Sarah Kemble Knight’s Journal (1704), with its seminal descriptions of Dutch culture and architecture in New York, and of the city’s religious landscape, would have enriched the History section, as would Anne MacVicar Grant’s

Memoirs of an American Lady . MacVicar accompanied her father, a  British military officer, to New York during the French and Indian War and lived for a decade with the distinguished Schuyler family in Albany. Recorded years after her return to Scotland, her memories of slavery in New York, sledding and sleigh-riding in Albany, and Dutch young people’s fondness for committing extreme pranks find their way—sometimes almost verbatim—into Cooper’s Satanstoe. A notable omission from the Literature section is Edith Wharton, whose The House of Mirth (1905) unfolds at Bellomont, a country estate in Rhinebeck with a classic Hudson Valley Romantic landscape.  

Landscape design, of course, is but one of the sister arts that flourished alongside literature in the thirty or so fertile years ushered in by the 1819publication of Irving’s Sketch Book. Hudson River School images are among the many striking reproductions in Goodman’s physically attractive volume, but writingabout landscape painting, as about rural architecture, landscape design, and tourism, is mostly absent. It would afford the reader a more complete picture of the American cultural identity that was being crafted, collaboratively, in the region in the mid-nineteenth century to read Thomas Cole’s defense of the wilderness landscape of the Catskills in “American Scenery,” to read the principles of picturesque landscape design being promulgated by A.J. Downing, to read travel writing by such tourists on the Hudson and in the Catskills as James Kirke Paulding and Englishwomen Harriet Martineau and Frances Trollope.

  For the literature of these companion arts, one can turn to Bonnie Marranca’s 1992 Hudson Valley Lives, an anthology aimed, like Goodman’s, at the general reader. This book has the further advantage of thoughtful introductions by the editor that make the selections accessible. Goodman’s volume provides enough geology, history, literature, and folklore not represented in Marranca to make it a welcome supplement to her anthology, but not a replacement for it.  

-- Beth Kolp, SUNY Dutchess