Tom Lewis, The Hudson: A History

The Hudson: A History The Hudson: A History by Tom Lewis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I picked this book up a week ago, just after seeing a northerly section of the Hudson – near Saratoga Springs and the Saratoga battlefield in upstate New York – and hoping that the book would offer a decent history of the river. Lewis certainly fulfills that hope, writing a wonderful overview of the discovery and settlement of the river, which was unusually important in early American history (from about 1600 to 1850), and not only because it was the waterway which New York City could use as its highway into the continent. Among other topics, Lewis discusses Henry Hudson, the river’s European discoverer; early Dutch settlers up and down the river; the coming of British dominance and then Britain’s loss of the river to the new United States; and the centrality of the river in 19th c. American visual and literary art. A concluding few sections treat, somewhat less satisfyingly, 20th century topics such as environmentalists’ battle against Con Ed’s plan to destroy Storm King Mountain for a hydroelectric project. (I expected more on the environmental history of the river, but there is relatively little such content.)

All in all, this is a wonderful, fluently written, and satisfying look at the history of the river. My only regret is that I didn’t read this before my trip, or I’d have known to have seen the river further south, along the great fjord that begins south of Albany. A cruise up the Hudson from New York to Albany sounds like a future dream vacation.

The book is full of excellent, illustrative anecdotes, but this is my favorite one:

On a cool and brilliant June day in 1939, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England arrived at Hyde Park for a weekend visit. Roosevelt and the king drank cocktails in the library, spent an afternoon chatting on the lawn overlooking the Hudson, and the following morning attended services in St. James’ Episcopal Church. Afterward Roosevelt escorted the royal couple up to Top Cottage, a new fieldstone structure he had designed. There everyone feasted on American luncheon favorites, Virginia ham, turkey, and hot dogs. It was said that George –for by this time the presidnt had abolished formalities between them completely–ate two. Later, Anglophile criitcs said that hot dogs were not the dish to serve a king and queen, and certainly no one should address the royal couple the way the president had. But Roosevelt brushed the criticism aside. After all, he said, his family had lived in New York for centuries longer than the royal family had lived in England. In the Hudson Valley, where his great-grandfather had settled until [sic:] 1813, he counted himself (through his wife) a descendant of Robert Livingson. Compared with the Roosevelts, the Windsors were mere arrivistes.


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