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The Saratoga Reader: Writing About An American Village

This is an extraordinary book about an extraordinary community. Could there be another village in this country, remote from the seaboard, concerning which 225published and unpublished descriptions and narratives prior to 1900—exclusive of tour guides and promotional literature—are to be found? Such is the case here, albeit a prodigious effort at sleuthing over a twelve-year period was required of the editor, who then adroitly culled from the assembled mass the ninety-two brief selections presented to us. (This reviewer has contemplated organizing such a compendium for his own longer-settled neighborhood in  northern Dutchess County, but has been deterred by the paucity of material.)

Saratoga Springs is, of course, sui generis: an offshoot of no other place, there is nothing comparable to its remarkable story. We know it today as a prosperous small city catering to recreation, tourism, education, and cultural life, with a well-developed civic engagement in historic preservation. Throughout 200 years, however, it has been a destination for those curious about the natural phenomena of the mineral springs; for those who believed their ailments would be cured by drinking or bathing in the waters; for those who wished to see and be seen by the beau monde; for those eager to indulge in illicit gambling, attend thoroughbred horse races, or participate in political conventions and other great gatherings; and, not surprisingly, for entrepreneurs, entertainers, and con artists ready to take advantage of golden opportunity. It is a small miracle in a country where change in fashion is rapid and the next new thing—or place—is paramount, that our two great nineteenth-century resorts, Newport and Saratoga Springs (both now slightly retooled), should feel secure in their identities and be flourishing.

In selections averaging a page or two, Field Horne allows us to follow chronologically the evolution of the place, starting with the howling wilderness described wonderfully in a 1791  account by Abigail Alsop of her journey by carriage overtaken by nightfall, struggling through “one mud-hole after another...every few minutes one wheel would pass over a log or stump so high as to almost overset us.... We had heard the voices of animals in the woods which some of us feared might attack us.” It seems to be only an hour or two later that we are reading Henry James’ highly literary biopsy of “the dense, democratic, vulgar Saratoga of  the current year” (1870).

Along the way we encounter a beguiling entry in the diary of former New York City Mayor Philip Hone describing an 1839 visit at which—noting “all the world is here”—he had a polite conversation with President Van Buren (whom he opposed), witnessed the rudeness of Governor DeWitt Clinton’s widow toward the president, and Van Buren’s quiet departure just prior to the tumultuous welcome for the national leader of the Whig party, Hone’s friend Henry Clay.

We are told that planters and other prosperous Southerners seeking a more comfortable summer climate (and often accompanied by slaves) were a major presence at Saratoga until 1861.

We learn that the annual thoroughbred races, now such a celebrated feature of the Saratoga season, began in 1863, and that the principal college crews raced on Saratoga Lake as early as 1874.

Our gastronomic education is advanced by reading of restaurateur Cary Moon’s innovation: his fried potatoes “are cut marvellously thin, being fried quite dry, and they serve to give a relish to the champagne, which is largely consumed at this place”—the origin, it is said, of the potato chip.

There is an amusing account of travel in an early passenger train, and of course there are accumulating descriptions of the ever more immense and elaborate hotels, which at the height of Saratoga’s popularity in the post-Civil War decades together housed some 10, 000guests a night. The United States Hotel, as rebuilt about 1873, offered nearly

1,000 rooms, two huge elevators, a dining room that could seat 1,000 at a time, and “piazzas” (verandas) stretching for 2,700 feet around the building. To taste the flavor of some of the writing in this book you are invited to nibble on this, from an Englishman’s 1838 published account of eating at the Congress Hall Hotel, then the spa’s most fashionable:

...The rapidity with which [breakfast] is despatched, is its most remarkable feature, the longest time taken by the slowest being never more than 15 minutes, some of the quickest getting through the meal in 5 minutes, and the average number occupying about 10.  In the busy cities the reason assigned for this haste is the keen pursuit of business, and the eager desire to get to the counting-house or store; but here, with the entire day before them, and nothing whatever to do, they eat with just the same haste as at other places.The contest for the dishes is a perfect scramble; the noise and clatter of the waiters and their wares is absolutely deafening; no one gets precisely what he wants, though everyone is searching after something. The quiet elegance of an English breakfast, is as great a contrast to the noisy rudeness of an American meal, as can well be conceived, even when both are taken in public hotels like these. Elegance of manners in such a scene as this is quite out of the question. People eat as if they were afraid that their plates were about to be snatched from them before they had done; mastication may be said to be almost entirely omitted; and in nine cases out of ten, persons do not remain in their chairs to finish the meal, short as it is, but rise with the last mouthful still unswallowed, and dispose of it gradually as they walk along.

The selections fall largely into one of two categories: travel narratives written for publication, usually by British or European commentators, and excerpts from personal correspondence and diaries of Americans. The critiques of American customs and character inherent in much of the former become more intense in the era of vulgar display and behavior known as the Gilded Age following the Civil War, and it also becomes somewhat redundant on these pages. These are, nevertheless, distinctive voices, and it is clear that seeing so many pronounced American “types” on parade from all across the land never failed to interest the scribbling observers. On the other hand, the personal writings provide something of an antacid, and also form the connective tissue in the structure of the book.

Most of the selections are by obscure—indeed, in several cases unknown—individuals, exceptions being Henry James, Washington Irving, Philip Hone, Harriet Martineau, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Peter Kalm, Elkanah Watson, and Frank Sullivan. There are grandees and servants, whites and blacks, farmers and politicos, professional writers and the unschooled, men and women, foreigners and the native-born. From this chorus of mixed voices spanning a century and a half emerges a wonderfully animating sense of the enduring, ever-renewing genius loci of Saratoga Springs.

An aspect of the book that deserves special commendation is its attractive design, splendid biographical headnotes for each selection, and meticulously prepared back matter: detailed endnotes (averaging one per page of text), a useful four-page glossary, a bibliography, and a full index. Only someone who has struggled to provide supporting material like this for so heterogeneous a work could fully appreciate the achievement. The people of Saratoga Springs, and all who take an interest in nineteenth-century American cultural history, are in debt to Field Horne.

 

—John Winthrop Aldrich

 

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