What is it about a place that makes it special, that makes us want to live there, visit there, or, most pertinent here, want to read about it? The story of any place—be it a city like New Orleans, or a territory like the Everglades—must be told through the sum of its many varied parts. In Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker’s powerful cartographic study Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas (a follow up to Solnit’s equally remarkable Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas), the authors state “how rich and various, how inexhaustible is this place, and any place, if you look at it, directly and through books, conversations, maps, photographs, dreams, and desires.” Stephen Silverman and Raphael Silver try to bring these many different voices to bear in their chronicle of the settlement and evolution of the Catskills in The Catskills: Its History and How it Changed America.
Our journey begins with the earliest excursions into the Catskill Mountains by Westerners (including Henry Hudson, whose name would grace the region’s key waterway), and ends with a brief look at 21st century issues in the region drawing in arts, culture, and politics. Along the way we meet some of the key figures and movements that emerged from the Catskills; the authors take their time making sure the reader gets a thorough retelling of the story of each. The tales include the lives of activist Sojourner Truth, naturalist John Burroughs, artist Thomas Cole, and financier Jay Gould; Washington Irving’s affection for the area, seen in his stories “The Legend of Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” the Anti-Rent wars of the mid-1800s, and the Woodstock Music & Art Fair also receive significant attention. We get thorough histories of the rise of various civic concerns, including environmental issues driven by the Catskills being the primary source of drinking water for New York City, and more recently, the increased use of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.” The book spends time looking at local industries, such as the leather tanning business (which would lead to massive deforestation due to the use of the bark of hemlock trees in the tanning process), and especially the hotel and tourism trade, beginning in earnest with the opening of the Catskill Mountain House in 1823, and leading all the way to the heyday of the Catskills resorts, which boomed in the mid-1900s and slowly skidded to a halt by the 1980s.
Numerous books about the Catskills exist, ranging from memoirs of life in the resorts, analyses of the rent wars, recollections of time spent at various colonies of free thinking or religious rebirth, and assemblages of historical photographs of the towns and the surrounding landscapes. The authors freely acknowledge their indebtedness to preexisting scholarship, drawing most liberally from the definitive history of the region, Alf Evers’ The Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock. Evers’ book originally appeared only three years after the Woodstock Festival of 1969, and so (in the original edition, at least) the book cannot really address the enduring fascination and influence of the ne plus ultra of (counter) cultural gatherings. Silverman and Silver spend a fair bit of time on Woodstock, at which point the book’s energy and focus seems to wane, and perhaps that is not a surprise, given how much the Catskills’ fortunes resemble that of the traditional plot path in Hollywood movies (if we think of the resorts and Woodstock as the climax). The final two chapters are thus the denouement to the Catskills’ narrative arc; the authors document the resorts’ gradual deterioration into disuse, followed by repeated, failed attempts to revitalize the area by an ongoing procession of developers, many looking to legalized gambling as the area’s redemption.
The book’s purpose, stated in the introduction, is to “capture a sense of the color, charm, and even lunacy that for the past four hundred years have characterized the Catskill Mountains and the people attracted to them.” The pages that follow are replete with enjoyable stories, anecdotes, rumors and mythology. And yet, by the end of the book, I did not have a good sense of how the events and people described were so unique or, to use the authors’ words, how these events and people could not have existed “anywhere else but the in the Catskills.” There seemed to be an implicit assumption that readers already know the basics about the Catskills, such as where they are located, who its most famous figures and what its most noted events are, and that its innate significance is understood and accepted.
As one not familiar with the region, some geographical grounding on the surroundings would have framed the idea of the Catskills as a “place” much more concretely. The book includes four maps—including an 18th-century map showing the original boundaries of the region, and two related to the area’s resorts—but not one is a modern presentation of the Catskills. Even something as simple as a basic guide to the area in question would have better situated the authors’ arguments, many of which dwell on geography. For those unfamiliar with the area, the lack of such guidance prevents readers from understanding key issues raised in the book. The often fraught relationship between New York City and the Catskills—a place to find water, timber, and escape—is a tacit theme throughout the book, and while the anecdotes of long journeys give us some insight into what people went through to leave town, we never get a precise sense of how far they had to travel.
Despite the authors stating in the book’s introductory pages that the “Jewish resort area known as the Borscht Belt” is “the subject for which the Catskills remain best known,” more time could have been spent on how an entire movement of comedy and performance came to thrive in these establishments. Moving quickly from “humor born in the shtetls of Eastern Europe” to Catskills humor makes it seem like Jewish self-deprecatory wit made a seamless transition from hovel to hotel.
The book’s focus on those things readers are to know best about the Catskills is no more clear than in the chapter focusing on the resort hotels popular in the mid-20th century. Titled “All That Glitters,” the chapter runs a hefty 44 pages, double the average length of the other chapters in the book. Given that so many people apparently associate the region with the entertainment and resort hotels, the chapter’s length should be no surprise; much of the chapter features anecdotes about the entertainment, banquet tables overflowing with food, and day-to-day activities in these retreats. Despite the authors stating in the book’s introductory pages that the “Jewish resort area known as the Borscht Belt” is “the subject for which the Catskills remain best known,” more time could have been spent on how an entire movement of comedy and performance came to thrive in these establishments. Moving quickly from “humor born in the shtetls of Eastern Europe” to Catskills humor makes it seem like Jewish self-deprecatory wit made a seamless transition from hovel to hotel. The reality is far less straightforward, however; the book focuses largely on the most newsworthy or sensational of the stories, and provides less substantive inquiry into the larger themes, specifically why these developments occurred in the Catskills. If the authors want to probe the various cultural flashpoints for the region, why is Dirty Dancing (1987)—the single most successful and popular film to be set in the Catskills, and which had many aspects of the culture of the region as integral parts of the plot—confined to two and a half sentences in a sidebar? We might have learned a great deal about how perceptions of the Catskills have changed since the heyday of the resort era; this seems like a lost opportunity. I was happy to see, on the other hand, that the chapter on the various social movements that began in or gravitated toward the region in the 20th century brought forward a wide variety of perspectives. Given its significance as a counter-cultural touchstone, it would have been easy to focus solely on Woodstock; instead, the Festival capped off a chapter that explored the raft of artistic, utopian, and occasionally quixotic crusades that called the Catskills home.
What does The Catskills bring to the table that is novel? We might see The Catskills as a sleeker version of Evers’ magisterial tome: the newer Catskills sports glossy paper, full-color illustrations spread throughout (instead of Evers, limited to occasional black-and-white images), and sidebar discussions nudging the reader to dig deeper on a point of interest or tangent. There are some drawbacks to this style, however. The illustrations often appear chosen more to fill space than engage with the narrative; there were also several instances where other placements of the images would have let them illuminate the text rather than forcing the reader to hunt down a passage that would explain a picture’s purpose. The quality of some of the images was questionable more than once, and several times I was left wondering why certain images were included at all, such as the book jacket for the 1946 screen adaptation of Dragonwyck, based on the novel of the same name set in the Hudson Valley in the mid-19th century, and ostensibly included as an example of a bit of pop-culture interest in the rent wars of the time. I searched in vain in the book and the book’s webpage on the publisher’s website to find a list of credits for the illustrations in the hopes of chasing down some of the more interesting images (or to pursue why some were of such poor quality), but could find none. Likewise there were numerous quotations, some quite lengthy, that went uncited in the book’s otherwise extensive bibliography. I was curious as to why these editorial details were overlooked.
Contemporary references to pop culture or contemporary themes appear in the text, to varying effect. In summarizing the ongoing popularity of Washington Irving’s character Rip Van Winkle, the authors mention the currently popular and hard-to-come-by Rip Van Winkle brand of bourbons, which apparently has nothing more in common with the Catskills’ most famous worshiper of Morpheus than a name. How and why does the history of the Old Rip Van Winkle distillery relate to the Catskills? The story is probably an interesting one, but it is difficult to tie such tangential references to the larger picture being painted of the region. And while the prose was engaging enough overall, the writers more than occasionally resorted to a compositional conceit that, after its first few appearances, called attention to itself: the artificial building of tension by ending a section with an anecdote or story, and then adding a single sentence in a new paragraph as a form of dramatic punctuation, such as:
Folk medicine also took on a renewed popularity. In the Catskills, a common belief was that the only way to whip TB was to ingest a rattlesnake’s heart.
While it was still beating.
• • •
When we read a book about a place, be it a city, a state, a country, or a less geo-politically oriented “region,” we ideally want a convincing case for what exactly makes the area in question compelling, or at least a definite idea from the authors what about that place attracts them. While reading this book I found myself wondering who the intended or imagined reader might be. The book clearly functions as a straightforward history; nothing about the approach suggests that we might regard it as an interpretive study, seen through the lenses of geographical changes, socio-economic shifts, ethnic constitution, or any of a raft of other discursive options.
History abhors a vacuum—and the manner in which this book frames the Catskills as largely existing in isolation to or ignorant of so many significant events in world history further affirms the book’s myopic view, chronicling the events and peoples of the region without much consideration for the motivations of those people, or their actions, on the rest of the world.
There is also a pervasive Catskills-centric focus to the book. That is, while we get story after story about goings-on in the region, we seldom hear how major events in the rest of the state, country, or even the world affected those living in the region. The Civil War, the Great War, and World War II only come up in ancillary roles to the anecdotes offered, if at all. Likewise with the Depression, the Cold War, and so on. History abhors a vacuum—and the manner in which this book frames the Catskills as largely existing in isolation to or ignorant of so many significant events in world history further affirms the book’s myopic view, chronicling the events and peoples of the region without much consideration for the motivations of those people, or their actions, on the rest of the world.
A final case in point: the chapter titled “Above the Law” (nominally the twelfth chapter) which was framed by the effects of a national movement on the Catskills: Prohibition. With much of the region largely undeveloped and uninhabited, and being geographically removed—not too far—from New York City, the Catskills became a place that several well-known gangsters did business, including extorting local businesses, illegal gambling, grafting on the resort hotels, and of course bootlegging. And while the stories are interesting, we can not shake the feeling that all these tales concern toughs from New York who have just moved out to the country for a bit. (My favorite was that of a murderer who fled the area and was eventually found and arrested in Hollywood where, in a perfect example of life imitating art, he had been playing bit parts in movies as a heavy.) While these criminals may have lived in the Catskills for a time and made their marks on the region, their stories ultimately do not tell us much about the Catskills as a distinctive place (although we can not overlook the irony that legalized gambling is now seen as something that will bring the masses back to the area, and perhaps even help keep the compelling stories of the region flowing).
In many ways this chapter emblematizes the book as a whole: filled with details that grab you, inform you and keep you reading, but stopping short of telling you how they contribute to our understanding of the Catskills. I now know a great many new and interesting stories, although I am still not entirely sure how these tales combine to provide a clear image of what makes the Catskills unique. The accounts certainly piqued my interest in the region, however, and I hope I can travel to the Catskills and put together the pieces that this book has laid before me.