Stephen Silverman and Raphael Silver offer a boisterous, colorful history of New York’s Catskill Mountains, but like the tummlers of yesteryear, once they depart, it’s hard to remember what the noise was about. The Catskills have always been at the edge of the American experience—a hinterland of New York City. Unlike William Cronon’s classic Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, which examined how 19th-century Chicago transformed the Midwest’s ecology and economy, The Catskills offers loosely linked stories where the Big Apple is forever popping up to take over the narrative.
As the authors note, only in the last two centuries have people even called the Catskills a single mountain range. Despite heroic efforts to unify the story, the book is really about three regions: the Hudson Valley, at the center of American history and culture from 1750-1850; the remote, central Catskills, forever wild by statute and the primary source of New York City’s water supply; and the southern Catskills, famed for their 20th-century Jewish resorts.
The problems with the Catskills-as-autonomous-region start at the beginning. The Hudson River was a water highway in both the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, but the theater’s key events took place far south, in Manhattan, and far north, in the region’s Lake George-Lake Champlain extension. The authors somehow discern George Washington’s tactical genius from his string of New York military disasters in 1776, but it hardly matters: Washington never fought in the Catskills.
They turn to Washington Irving’s short stories, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” which satirize the vanishing Dutch world of the Hudson Valley and the disconcerting changes in postrevolutionary society. Irving was actually a New York City and Europe-based writer—though like his antihero Ichabod Crane, he later resided in the Hudson Valley on the opposite bank from the Catskills. Fortunately, two of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, which similarly contrast the vanishing Native American culture with that of the European-descended frontiersmen, are actually set in the Catskills.
The Hudson River School painters also contrasted the vanishing rural world with the booming 19th-century economy. Even as the Hudson Valley bustled with tanneries, factories, and bluestone quarries providing the paving for New York City’s sidewalks, painter Thomas Cole and his fellow Romantics found the sublime in Katterskill Falls, setting nature’s untamed magnificence against civilization’s distant encroachments. Lacking an eye for art—or, perhaps, adequate search skills in Google Images—Silverman and Silver contrast the Hudson River School painters with the allegedly “cold” landscapes of England’s J. M. W. Turner, which were far more melodramatic exemplars of Romanticism.