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A History of America’s Most Influential Mountains
by Mikhail Horowitz
From the Spring 2016 issue of Jewish Currents
Discussed in this essay: The Catskills: Its History and How It Changed America, by Stephen M. Silverman and Raphael D. Silver. Alfred A. Knopf, 2015, 448 pages.
BACK IN THE HALCYON DAYS of my arrested adolescence, I was booked to perform at a Catskills resort, the Homowack, in Spring Glen. Actually, it was not the Homowack that booked me and my partner, but the representative for an international group of Jewish scientists that was planning to convene at the hotel. The scientists wanted an “intellectual comedy team,” and we came prepared to wow them with sketches about a black hole walking into a bar, chickens crossing a moebius strip to get to the same side, and how many Polish topologists it would take to extract a cube root into infinity. But unbeknownst to us, the management of the resort, instead of putting us in a small room to play for the fifty or so scientists, decided to plop us onstage in the enormous King David Room (seating capacity: roughly equal to that of Yankee Stadium) and open up the show to the Homowack’s general population — which, also unbeknownst to us, was ultra-ultra-Orthodox. P.S.: We laid an egg as big as Bialystok.
So that’s my personal Borscht Belt story. If you’re reading this and came of age any time during the early Pleistocene, you no doubt have your own. And if you pick up a copy of The Catskills: Its History and How It Changed America, you’ll get the whole shmeer: the story of the so-called Jewish Alps, from their humble beginnings as a series of “strictly kosher” boardinghouses catering to those who were personas non grata at the region’s (mostly) Protestant hotels, to the golden age of Grossinger’s, the Concord, Kutsher’s, Brown’s, and the other lavish resorts that were, in terms of the activities, entertainment, and chances for romantic encounters they offered, as overstuffed as one of Katz’s pastrami sandwiches.
You’ll meet Danny Kaye, Henny Youngman, and Mel Brooks before they were Danny Kaye, Henny Youngman, and Mel Brooks, working as a busboy, a bandleader, and a poolboy, respectively. You’ll experience the feeding frenzy at mealtime, and the fear and trembling of the poor waiters — many of them students trying to work their way through college — who tried to cope, heroically and always in vain, with diners who had doctorates in the culture of complaint (“Irwin, where are the pickles? Irwin, I have no sour cream!”). And you’ll bear witness to the ultimate fate of these palatial leviathans, which one by one fell into desuetude and decay, and died by demolition or by fire — or, in several cases, were sold to devotees of Eastern religions, who established ashrams or monasteries on the sites of those one-time nirvanas of nosheray.
But there is so much more to this chronicle by Stephen M. Silverman and the late Raphael D. Silver than a thorough consideration of every notch in the Borscht Belt. Over the course of sixteen chapters spanning 406 pages (with an additional thirty or so pages for notes and an extensive bibliography), the authors cover the history of the Catskills from the Half Moon to the Hudson River Day Line, from the Hardenbergh Patent to Yasgur’s pasture, from Natty Bumppo’s deer-tracking to corporate fracking. If they have missed anything of moment that has occurred in historical time within these hilly remnants of Devonian and Mississipian uplift and erosion, it would take a much more fastidious reviewer than I to find it.
OF COURSE, the Catskills are not exactly untrodden territory for scholarly or amateur chroniclers, as the authors acknowledge in their introduction. In particular, they praise the magisterial opus of Alf Evers, The Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock, as the “go-to resource for regional lore.” Indeed, the Evers tome, which has the weight and heft, in hardcover, of a big chunk of bluestone — covers a lot of the same ground foraged by Silver and Silverman, but in greater depth. It also provides, in its inside covers and their facing pages, a large, legible map of the entire region; such a feature would have been welcome in The Catskills: Its History and How It Changed America, whose only maps (barely readable without an electron microscope) show the distribution of summer resorts and New York City’s water sources.
That quibble aside, two elements distinguish the book under review from books by Evers, Kenneth Myers, T. Morris Longstreth, and the myriad other historians and popular writers who have sought to tell the story, or part of the story, of these venerable hills and valleys. First off, Silverman and Silver make good — better than good — on their effort, as stated in the introduction, “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.” Such magic and mishegos is amply conveyed by the authors’ profiles of Prohibition-era mobsters, Woodstock bohemians, 19th-century literary lions, resort dynasties, and even a one-legged dancer (the marvelous Peg Leg Bates), with hundreds of beautifully chosen quotes and anecdotes. Here’s the true story of a local woman’s after-death experience, as related by historian and erstwhile poet laureate of Ulster County, Bob Steuding:
She died, and as was often the case in rural America at the time, she was buried the same day. Apparently, she wasn’t really dead. She must have had some sort of epileptic seizure or something... She was also buried with some of her personal treasures, and the neighbors knew about this and decided to dig her up that night and get the rings and jewelry.... And they dug her up and she came alive, and, naturally, they were shocked. The story goes that she lived a long and happy life and was buried again in the area that is now the reservoir. Then, of course, when the city came, all those bodies were exhumed. She was reburied in the cemetery on Rock City Road in Woodstock. And she’s the woman who was buried three times.
But what truly separates this book from other volumes on the subject is the plenitude of beautifully reproduced illustrations (172 — I counted) that are interlaced with the text from chapter to chapter: everything from Hudson River School paintings in glorious, glossy color to an aerial view of the Woodstock Festival crowd (the spontaneously assembled city!) at Bethel in 1969, mug shots of notorious bootleggers, reproductions of hotel menus and recipes for chopped chicken livers, vintage photos of “Calico Indian” rent protesters and Mark Twain play-acting with his daughter Susy, and a very recent photo of a man demonstrating how hydraulic fracturing makes fire shoot from his garden hose.
SO HOW did the Catskills change America? The authors give many examples that demonstrate how, in terms of their influence on the culture, these ancient hills have a distinction far loftier than their actual heights above sea level. Those riverine landscape painters who constituted the country’s first indigenous art movement, along with the unprecedented regional stories of Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, established a new American voice and sensibility, one that broke with England and was uniquely suited to a New World. The works of these painters and writers were immensely popular, and that popularity in turn effected changes in both the economics of book publishing and the dissemination of images. The authors quote the art historian Nancy Siegel:
Although economic reality often superseded the feasibility of an individual’s owning a painting by Thomas Cole, possessing engravings and ceramics with imagery based upon Cole’s artistry was the next best thing. The demand for such imagery coincided with an increase in literacy, and when combined with economic and therefore social progress, finely illustrated books and periodicals became necessities for the well-adorned American parlor by mid-century.
More than creating a new market for pretty pictures, the romantic visions of Cole, Frederic Church, and the other painters of the Hudson River School established the Catskills as a state of mind, a place where the beauty and the grandeur of the natural world was to be understood as something essential to the human soul. Even when humans wrought their inevitable depredations, denuding the hemlock forests to make tannin for leather shoe soles, and blasting whole mountainsides into dust to obtain bluestone, the idea of these wild ravines and tumbling waterfalls as something sacred persisted, at least in some nook of the national psyche. The American environmental movement, which began in earnest with the launch of the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater in 1969, owes at least part of its inspiration to the vision of those 19th-century painters. (Although the authors don’t mention the Clearwater, they do mention its founding father, Pete Seeger, but mostly in connection with the “unofficial Hudson River School of Folk Music,” which in turn influenced the utopian politics of the 1960s.)
The New York State Constitution, drawn up in Kingston in 1777, was a direct influence upon the document created ten years later in Philadelphia. The epic construction of the Ashokan Reservoir, which still provides a billion-and-a-half gallons of water a day to New York City, was the prototype for many other reservoir projects, all of which took away from the locals — starting with their homes and land — as much as they delivered to city people. The bluestone industry gave sidewalks to Gotham, and the Brooklyn Bridge owes its being to the natural cement of Rosendale (not mentioned by the authors, but not even Alf Evers could include everything about the Catskills).
And to finish up where we started, the legacy of Jewish entertainers, those verbal black belts of the Borscht Belt, can be seen and heard — still! — in television and the movies, and in day-to-day American English, where Yiddishisms and Yinglishisms comfortably shmooze with borrowings from a hundred other languages.
Mikhail Horowitz is a performance artist, poet, and actor whose works include Big League Poets (City Lights, 1978), and two CDs and a DVD with Gilles Malkine: Live, Jive & Over 45 (2000), Poor, On Tour, & Over 54 (2007), and Too Small to Fail (2011).