When James Fenimore Cooper and Herman Melville wrote about upstate New York’s Anti-Rent War of the 1840s, they both failed to produce a success. Bruce Kennedy is hoping he has better luck.
A documentary filmmaker from Asheville, N.C., Kennedy has been working on a movie about the Anti-Rent War for two years, and is making a series of presentations in the Capital Region about his work. Tuesday night at 6 Kennedy will be at St. Mary’s of the Nativity Church in Nassau, and on Thursday, Sept. 4, he will speak at the Troy Public Library.
The conflict, precipitated by the death of Stephen Van Rensselaer in 1839, pitted the landed gentry of the Hudson Valley against poor tenant farmers, and while the story is a fascinating one to many historians, it is often overlooked by the general public.
“Two literary giants from this area and that era wrote books about the Anti-Rent War, and everybody agrees they were the two worst books they ever wrote,” said Kennedy, referring to Cooper and Melville.
‘Righteous Rebellion: Echoes of the Anti-Rent War’
WHAT: A presentation by filmmaker Bruce Kennedy
WHERE: St. Mary’s of the Nativity Catholic Church, 26 Main St., Nassau
WHEN: 6 p.m. Tuesday
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: Contact the Nassau Free Library, 766-2715, or visit Righteous Rebellion: Echoes of the Anti-Rent War on Facebook
“It’s a wonderful contrast because Cooper took the side of the rich landlords and everybody thought it was the worst book he ever wrote. And Melville sided with the poor farmers, and people agreed it was a piece of trash. It’s difficult to explain what happened. It’s a very hard story to tell.”
Cooper, long after his popular “Leatherstocking Tales,” published the “Littlepage Trilogy,” offering unwavering support to the uprenters, or landlords, while Melville presented a more liberal view of the situation in his book “Pierre; or, The Ambiguities,” and was unapologetically sympathetic to the downrenters, or farmers. Both books failed to gain much of an audience.
Most people these days feel that the farmers, while not perfect, were in the right, according to Kennedy, and he has consequently named his film, “Righteous Rebellion: Echoes of the Anti-Rent War.”
Of course, he concedes that his critical look at the situation is slanted toward the farmers in part because his great-great-great grandfather, Dr. Boughton Smith, was one of the leaders of the rebellion.
“He was a country doctor who lived modestly and never made any money, but he knew he was doing the right thing,” Kennedy said of Boughton, who lived near what is today Averill Park. “He was a real humanist who lived a very interesting life, and lived to a ripe old age, almost 80.”
For the most definitive book on the Anti-Rent War, Kennedy suggests 1945’s “Tin Horns And Calico” by Henry Christman of Delanson.
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or [email protected]