Tom Lewis’ “personal history,” The Hudson: A History, is an elegantly written and accessible entry point to the larger and more famous episodes of the Hudson River’s history and culture. The book is not an attempt to provide a synthetic, textbook account of the region, nor a new synthesis of recent scholarship. It is, however, a useful introduction for those who are new to the subject, and for those who live here and know a bit about the subject, it will provide new insights to a familiar story.
Much of Lewis’ attention is devoted to the early period of the Valley’s history. (Indeed, the first half of the book is focused on the pre-Revolutionary period.) There is one full chapter on the American Revolution. The twentieth century receives much less attention—only one chapter, the last—although this chapter evocatively tells the story of the “Storm King case” and the emerging environmental movement. Chapter 7, “Definers of the Landscape,” takes an interesting approach to the “landscape that defined America.” It provides a nice introduction for those interested in the artistic rendering of the region, and the emergence of the Hudson River landscape painters and the authors who have forever shaped readers’ understanding of the Valley (Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, among others). The chapter weaves this story into the larger economic and technological developments that were forever transforming this landscape that authors and painters were now attempting to immortalize.
The last chapter, “Twentieth Century Waters,” is Lewis’ best. His account of the now famous battle between Consolidated Edison and a small group of preservationists over the plan to construct a storage reservoir at Storm King Mountain on the Hudson is thoughtful and moving. “A huge swath would have to be carved out of the northern portion of Storm King to make room for an eight hundred foot long generator plant,” he writes. A small group of Valley residents played, in Lewis’ telling, the proverbial “David v Goliath” role, and in the process of stopping the construction of the storage plant, also ushered in the modern environmental movement in the United States.
Lewis writes engagingly, and easily brings his reader into the larger unfolding story. From the historian’s perspectives, there are some drawbacks. Although Lewis uses recent published work on art and architecture, he relies very little on the enormous amount of recent scholarship on the social and political history of the region. The work of Martin Bruegel, Reeve Huston, and Thomas Humphrey, among many others, is simply not included in these pages. The last ten to fifteen years have witnessed a virtual renaissance in the historical study of the region, and save for Russell Shorto’s Island at the Center of the World, the works of these authors are not to be found in Lewis’ footnotes, nor are their important new insights on the American Revolution, social life, and the nineteenth-century tenant riots woven into his analysis. These authors have had great impact on refocusing many of the debates in New York history and would certainly have added a further layer of complexity to Lewis’ story.
Nevertheless, these concerns do not detract from what is a readable, engaging, and illuminating history of the Hudson River and the surrounding Valley. Lewis’ fine prose and keen insights offer his readers the richness of the Hudson River.
—Thomas S. Wermuth, Hudson River Valley Institute, Marist College