Landscape is Destiny: A Talk with Historian Vernon Benjamin | History | Hudson Valley | Hudson Valley; Chronogram

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Landscape is Destiny: A Talk with Historian Vernon Benjamin

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North River Blue Stone Works of John Maxwell and the Bigelow Blue Stone at Malden, Ulster Co. N.Y, from the County Atlas of Ulster, New York, Recent and Actual Surveys and Records under the superintendence of F.W. Beers. Published by Walker & Jewett, 36 Vesey Street, New York,1875.
  • North River Blue Stone Works of John Maxwell and the Bigelow Blue Stone at Malden, Ulster Co. N.Y, from the County Atlas of Ulster, New York, Recent and Actual Surveys and Records under the superintendence of F.W. Beers. Published by Walker & Jewett, 36 Vesey Street, New York,1875.
"Labor of love" is a term far more bandied about that it probably deserves, but in the case of Vernon Benjamin's prodigious, two-volume history of the Hudson Valley, it's entirely accurate: the author's love for this place is as abundant as the book's page count. The second volume, The History of the Hudson River Valley: From the Civil War to Modern Times (Overlook Press, 2016) is a fittingly obsessive chronicle of the further populating of this remarkable place.

Benjamin may well be the perfect person to write it: a Saugerties native son, he was a student of history and cultural studies who worked in state, local and county governments. (He also had a long association with Maurice D. Hinchey and served three terms as a county legislator.) He started out tincanning it as a freelancer and writing local journalism, and never lost his ability to pull a tale out of a fact or connect a story to a face.

I talked to him one hazy summer afternoon at Inquiring Minds in Saugerties, where he's a regular. People came up to greet him; the manager apologized to him for having sold out of his books. Benjamin knows everyone, and if he doesn't know them, you get the impression he will soon. We covered the past, the present, the strange combination of respectability and eccentricity that marks this place, and what comes next. Vernon Benjamin will be speaking at a number of events during the month of September. For a full listing, visit Chronogram.com

—Jana Martin

Together with the first volume (From Wilderness to the Civil War) there's over a thousand pages of Hudson Valley history. It's a tremendous undertaking. What prompted you to do it?

Spider Barbour, the great Saugerties naturalist and a friend, recommended me to Peter Mayer, then CEO of Viking-Penguin. Mayer called to see if I would be interested in writing a history of the Hudson Valley. At one point he said to me, "You can do this, can't you?" I blurted out, "I was born to do this!" and immediately felt embarrassed. What did I know what I was born for? No one had done anything like this before. There was a Hudson Valley history published out of Chicago in 1931, but in the old style. The editor, Nelson Greene, asked local communities to send him historical materials, and he put it together under a single editorial style. It was pretty good, but not a critical history.

It's certainly a lot to learn—and you cover everything.

Warts was my mantra, even the need to tackle topics that were foreign to me — geology, for instance. But I lucked out. I found an obscure library in the Geological Survey in Albany and spent three months there going through about 180 books, pamphlets, maps, and other learned exegeses.

It reminds me of Alf Evers' Woodstock and Catskills books: a similar dedication to bringing the history of this place to life via the people in it, no matter the time or pages it takes.

Alf and I were friends, and we have similar backgrounds. Like him, my first job was investigating people and writing biographies of them for insurance and stock market companies. And Alf knew what I was doing—we talked about it. When I think about how he wrote those books, I'm amazed that he did those without a computer. How on earth did he keep track of all that information? When I was writing this, the first chapter I sent to Peter originally had 270 footnotes in it.

What is it about this place that made you want to take, oh, about 20 years to write about it?

I think it's summed up in the phrase Congress used when they designated the Hudson Valley National Heritage Area in 1996: "The landscape that defined America." The Valley played an incredible role not just in the American Revolution, but as the proving ground for American democracy and the fountainhead of American romanticism. So much happened here. In the Gilded Age, the captains of industry—the "malefactors of great wealth" as Teddy Roosevelt called them—came home to the Hudson Valley after their labors in the city. And the rise of the NAACP happened here in Amenia, in 1916, a coming together of black national interests and goals that ultimately led to Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

Amenia as in Amenia, Dutchess County?

Exactly. And the growth of art and culture here mirrored and to a large extent abetted New York's rise as the cultural capital of the world. Some very notable aspects of modern times—the Sixties, the rise of Feminism, the Great Migration, the development of nuclear power (commercially and in the military), Storm King and the rise of environmentalism—all of that happened here.

I had no idea The Feminine Mystique was written in a house on the Hudson in Rockland County, or that Betty Friedan was so involved in the local school system. Lots of surprises in this book, like Margaret Sanger talking about birth control in terms of eugenics in 1917—

Right—she's not as squeaky clean as we all think.

What about other milestones? As your book makes clear, the region is filled with them.

I think for all of American history the biggest one was the death of Lincoln. Here in the Hudson Valley, a milestone in aviation history came on May 29, 1920, when Glenn Curtiss flew an airplane from Albany to New York, demonstrating the viability of long-distance air travel. I personally think Aaron Copland's composition of the Piano Variations in a rented house in Bedford was another milestone. And December 19, 1980 is a big one: the day the Hudson River Peace Treaty was signed, ending Consolidated Edison's 17-year effort to build a bulked storage generating plant on Storm King Mountain in the Hudson Highlands. That was the beginning of the American environmental movement.

You give a harrowing description of the 1912 fire that almost obliterated the Capitol building in Albany, including the irony that it was the soaked paper mache ceiling—the "scandal ceiling" that should have been oak but was a cheat—that saved the building from being completely destroyed.

The wags on Park Row—the cynical journalists in the state capitol itself—joked that it was saved by corruption.

It's not a quiet place, our Hudson Valley. Definitely not just cows, trees and country houses. More like: boardrooms, infrastructure, road-building.

It was certainly a milestone when Governor Thomas E. Dewey broke ground on the first section of the New York State Thruway in 1946. That changed everything. But what's also interesting is how the highways follow the primal geography of this place—they're essentially the same paths taken for centuries by the Native Americans, the settlers, animals. We are a people ultimately defined by our geography.

Yes—you've talked about landscape as destiny, geography as destiny. You also write about the contradictory nature of the Hudson Valley, of its people.

Consider that Benedict Arnold, the hero of Saratoga, was also the betrayer of West Point. We honor and admire Sojourner Truth as one of our own, yet she was a slave when she lived here. It took 150 years for the medieval manorial land tenure system to die out in the Hudson Valley, but only one crazy weekend in August to bring on the apotheosis of Abby Hoffman's Woodstock Nation. Poultney Bigelow, a touchstone figure for this book, was a walking contradiction. He was the son of the co-editor of the New York Evening Post and minister to France under Lincoln and Johnson. He was a respected international journalist and a friend of Jane Whitehead of Byrdcliffe fame. But he was also a nasty racist and a louse who tossed his wife into a wheelbarrow and buried her in the front yard when she died.

So what does the future hold? More contradictions, perhaps. You noted that a thousand shopping centers were built in the Hudson Valley between 1950 and 1970. Recently the owner of one of the newer ones, the Hudson Valley Mall in Kingston, defaulted on a $49 million debt. Is that due to over-population, over-development?

I don't know; certainly it's the result of bad business planning. But isn't it something? The malls arriveth and the malls taketh away. That's history for you. I remember that some locals thought it was crazy that the Hudson Valley Mall developers exposed that ridge with the fabulous Catskills views, only to move the whole complex so far away from the edge that no one could enjoy them. Maybe it was the view that killed it.

And what about climate change? Are we in danger of being washed away?

Or frozen over, in another Ice Age. That's a point where history stops, isn't it? The DEC predicts that in the next 80 years, the Hudson River is going to rise between 9 and 12 feet. So we're going to spend the next half a century building walls that get overrun anyway. It's a waste. But we're persistent creatures. No matter what, we keep coming back to the anthill. That's another glorious contradiction, about the species, not just the Valley.

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