Writing about the Hudson River is, paradoxically, both easy and challenging.
It is easy because the river is so accessible. You can get next to or into the Hudson at countless points from its source on the slopes of Mount Marcy to the Battery in Manhattan.
‘The Hudson: America’s River’
AUTHOR: Frances F. Dunwell
PUBLISHER: Columbia University Press, 400 pages, 80 illustrations, ISBN 978-0-231-13631-9
HOW MUCH: $29.95
If you live in Albany and do not have time to hike in the High Peaks Wilderness Area where the river starts, you can still “visit” the upper Hudson — or other parts of it. Your access is through primary historical documents, James Fenimore Cooper’s “Last of the Mohicans” or any number of histories of the river or events that occurred alongside it.
For several years in a row, I was lucky enough to get a tugboat sailor’s perspective on the Hudson from my friend Rick Lemner. While I had mononucleosis and he waited at home between trips, he spent hours describing how the river looks from the wheelhouse or deck of a tugboat in all seasons and all weather.
But the river’s accessibility is also a great challenge. So much has been written about the Hudson that it is a daunting task to decide what to include and what to omit. Should I write about the views of the Catskills from the river by quoting artists Thomas Cole or Frederic Church or asking Rick about how the view looked to him? Do Cole and Rick belong on the same page to see what has changed and stayed the same?
Frances “Fran” Dunwell, a New Paltz resident and author, has confronted both the ease and the challenge in her new book “The Hudson: America’s River.”
Dunwell, who has spent over 30 years in nonprofit and governmental positions dedicated to conserving the heritage of the Hudson, has met the challenge and prevailed in grand style. Her book is well-organized and graceful, like any number of the well-kept sloops, Day Liners, freighters or tugboats that have sailed the river. Her writing is enthusiastic and often magical.
This is either Dunwell’s second book — or her first one redone. She wrote “Hudson River Highlands” in 1991. In a recent e-mail, she said “The Hudson” and “Hudson River Highlands” have “about a 50 to 60 percent overlap.”
“The Hudson” takes the same chapter structure as “Hudson River Highlands” and expands each chapter geographically. She concluded by saying a few “new chapters are added and some are substantially refocused.”
Although the basis of the book is the Hudson Highlands south of here, the Capital Region is well-represented. The author describes the Battle of Saratoga, writes an appealing biographical sketch of topographical engineer Verplanck Colvin, summarizes the political battles that occurred in Albany over the Erie Canal and preservation and describes the Hudson River legislative committee that Erastus Corning chaired when he was a state senator.
“The Hudson” is organized topically and chronologically. Chapters advance chronologically. However, for important topics, Dunwell will take the topic, such as the struggle to protect the Adirondacks, and go back or forward further into history than she does in the preceding or subsequent chapters. Throughout there are well-placed biographical sketches of famous and obscure residents to help readers understand the topics and chronology.
The illustrations are noteworthy. When reading history, I am frustrated by a lack of maps to tie the narrative together. In “The Hudson,” Dunwell places a map in nearly every chapter, with related human and natural landmarks.
There are 14 color pictures, including Winslow Homer’s watercolor “Hudson River, Logging.” Color and black-and-white illustrations are crisp and easy to look at.
After the maps, my next favorite artwork is the extensive use of historical postcards. Getting crisp reproductions of postcards in a book is difficult but the publisher got great images, many of which are in Dunwell’s personal collection.
She begins by declaring, “The river has personality, energy and resplendent beauty, a kind of magnetism that attracts visionary people and inspires them to do extraordinary things.”
A few pages later, she summarizes the Hudson’s importance in a few well-chosen words: “The unusual confluence of nature and people on this river enabled New York’s rise to greatness: it gave us both Gotham and the Empire State.”
By explaining how she became attracted to the river, she offers a short autobiography and insights into her research methods. She and her family have been close to the river since the 1950s. One of her most vivid memories was “the day I had to get a shot before going out on a boat with a friend — in case I fell in.”
Dunwell is a strong researcher — not just an armchair historian. She brings all of her life experience to the book: working to preserve the river and helping scientists pull nets to understand the health of the fishery.
A constant theme is that one can never count out the river, its watershed or its residents. Dunwell chronicles how, again and again, the river or its neighbors are in decline, but then revived by an invention, a change in attitude or heroics.
In assessing the future, she notes cleaner water, the success of redevelopment that has converted old industrial sites into waterfront housing and tourist attractions. At the same time, she is wary that increased development may diminish the quality of the river.
Space constraints compelled Dunwell to omit or summarize some history. Nevertheless, she offers so much information, so many insights and so much wonderful writing that this book is must reading. If a high school or college teacher could choose only a few books for a New York reading list, “The Hudson” would have to be first on the list.
Fran Dunwell will appear for two events related to her book in the Capital Region. At 6 p.m. Thursday, May 15, she will appear at the Ten Broeck Mansion, 9 Ten Broeck Place, in Albany. She will sign copies of her book on Saturday, May 31, at Barnes and Noble Booksellers, Colonie Center, Wolf Road.