Vernon Benjamin’s new book, the second volume of his masterwork The History of the Hudson River Valley, begins with the image of that river and flows to a graceful, concluding summary of what began more than 1,200 pages beforehand: “It’s January, 1981, and the mayor of Highland Falls has insisted that the buses carrying the Iran hostages on their way from Stewart Airport to West Point Military Academy be routed down the village’s main street rather than through a route that avoided any populated areas. The streets are lined with cheering throngs,” writes Benjamin. “Yellow ribbons ripple in the cold air, bringing the hostages to tears.”
Benjamin reports the scene like the good and experienced journalist that he is. But then, he lifts his eyes from his reporter’s notebook and takes a broader, more encompassing look at the passing parade – the sort of look that only a historian can offer: “This could have been a scene anywhere in small-town America, yet it’s unfolding here at the onset of the Highlands, where Washington once rode, where the Hudson River school artists painted, where romanticism in America flowered, where the upriver and downriver interests met despite their differences, all of it reflected the theme of the Hudson Valley as ‘the landscape that defined America.’”
The History of the Hudson River Valley: From the Civil War to Modern Times (Overlook Press, 624 pages) is now available for anyone with the slightest interest in regional history. The book’s publication marks the completion of this history whose two volumes have been 20 years in the making. Like a sky lake in the Shawangunk Ridge, this new volume is a deep pool that invites being not merely observed, but plunged into.
Note well the title: It’s not “a” history of the Hudson River Valley; it’s “the” history of our region. It has got no competitors, nor is it likely that anyone will attempt to surpass or even match its obvious preeminence. Benjamin tells story after story of the region’s political, geographical and cultural history. Its comprehensiveness is amazing, given the scope of its ambitions and Benjamin’s success in reaching and surpassing those ambitions.
Perhaps the most welcome aspect of a work that covers so much literal and metaphorical territory is its readability. Benjamin smiles at the memory of his first draft of the book’s first section, which he’d spent the better part of three years researching and writing: “It contained 270 footnotes,” he says.
The man who suggested that Benjamin write an authoritative history, Peter Mayer, publisher and president of Overlook Press, quickly disabused his eager, research-haunted author from pursuing his narrative in quite so academic a style. (Both volumes provide ample source notes in the back of the books.) With time, Benjamin says, he developed a narrative style that could carry the facts of the stories without wearing the reader down through misplaced scholarliness.
Benjamin is a well-known figure in his native Saugerties. His self-described “obsession” with local history took root at an early age, but only flowered in the one practice that offered what amounted to cigarette money back in the day: journalism. He honed his craft first at the Old Dutch Post-Star and later at the Hudson Register Star in the ’70s. “I discovered I had an interest in detail, which kind of went against the usual journalist’s practice. I was never cut out to be a great journalist. I liked longer sentences, asking questions that didn’t usually get asked.”
An early influence on his writing style was a longtime Associated Press veteran named Earl Aronson, an old-school who/what/where/when/why editor with whom Benjamin got into friendly arguments; it was Hemingway versus Fitzgerald every week for nearly three years, with no declared winner. Benjamin has a name for that kind of reporting in whose favor he argued: He calls it “the power of the small.”
“I found I was always trying to get the details as exactly right as possible,” he recalls. “I felt that if I could bring out the small in everyday life, I’d be contributing something. And it’s because of that that I was able to write this book.” That attention to detail served him well in his subsequent pursuits, most especially his decade-long job as then-state assemblyman Maurice Hinchey’s legislative aide in Albany: a saga that deserves its own book someday.
And why not, in tribute to the small and the long, the journalistic and the writerly, give F. Scott Fitzgerald the final word on this review, as Benjamin has given him on the book’s opening page? “As the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away and gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes – a fresh green breast of the new world… (F)or a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”
Vernon Benjamin will discuss and give readings from his new book at a number of venues this weekend. On Saturday, August 20 at 11 a.m., he’ll be at Oblong Books during the Rhinebeck Street Fair. At 3 p.m., he’ll be at Barnes & Noble in the Town of Ulster, and at 7 p.m. that day he’ll be at Inquiring Minds on Partition Street in Saugerties. And on Sunday, August 21, he’ll be at the Golden Notebook on Tinker Street in Woodstock.