A History

By Tom Lewis

Yale Univ. 340 pp. $30

Even in a land as blessed as ours with mighty and beautiful rivers -- the Colorado, the Mississippi, the Ohio, the Missouri, the St. Lawrence -- the Hudson stands apart from and above the rest.

Not merely are the river and its valley incomparably scenic and blessed with extraordinary natural resources, they also have played central roles in American history, literature and art. The places and people who come to mind when the Hudson is mentioned -- Peter Stuyvesant, Saratoga, Benedict Arnold, Thomas Cole, Washington Irving, Robert Fulton, West Point, Cornelius Vanderbilt, the Catskills, Vassar College, Storm King Mountain, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and of course New York City -- are embedded in the American grain.

An enormous number of books have been written about the Hudson over the years, from handsomely illustrated volumes devoted to the painters of the Hudson River School to Edith Wharton's novel "Hudson River Bracketed." The most recent history of the river of which I am aware, Carl Carmer's "The Hudson" (1939) in the "Rivers of America" series, is more a collection of anecdotes and tales than a real history; the military academy at West Point is mentioned only in passing, for example, and there is no mention at all of Bannerman's Island or the private military arsenal that Francis Bannerman accumulated there. So it is especially good to have Tom Lewis's new history, which tells the river's story in full without scanting the folk tales and legends that so fascinated Carmer.

The history of a river isn't the same as the history of a war or a literary movement; it rarely offers a clear narrative line and may not suggest themes beyond the river itself and the uses to which humans have put it. But Lewis, a professor of English at Skidmore, does find "four themes that thread their way through this history of the river and the valley: utility, individuality, community, and symbol." People have used the Hudson to various purposes, some good and some bad; it has been home to people whose individual initiatives and ambitions produced both wealth and shame; it "is a thread that runs through the fabric of four centuries of American history, through the development of American civilization -- its culture, its community, and its consciousness"; and it is, in the minds of those who know and love it, a symbol of America itself, especially as expressed in the glorious paintings of the Hudson River School.

The Hudson runs some 300 miles, from tiny Mount Marcy in the Adirondacks to the harbor of New York City, where it empties into Long Island Sound. For much of its length, it courses through mountainous terrain, some of it among the most glorious in America. Its majesty is matched by its riches. A 17th-century Dutchman, Adriaen van der Donck, reported on it in "A Description of the New Netherlands," as the territory was then known. He found "sturgeon, dunns, bass, sheep-heads," places with "high hills and protruding mountains" as well as "fine level land, intersected with brooks, affording pasturage of great length and breadth." He was awed: "I admit that I am incompetent to describe the beauties, the grand and sublime works, wherewith Providence has diversified this land."

The Hudson began as a Dutch preserve and remained that until the English took control in 1674. Many of the great families of the area trace their roots to the Dutch (most famously, the Roosevelts), and there are still traces of the immense estates that the richest landowners, the patroons, accumulated. Undoubtedly the commercial and mercantile character of New York City can be traced to the Dutch. "Money more than pride" had driven them to seek a northern passage to the Far East, in search of which the British seaman Henry Hudson was hired by the Dutch East India Company in 1609. Hudson and the tiny crew aboard the Half Moon found, of course, not the Orient but the river and valley that now bear his name.

Originally the Dutch were interested only in the valley's abundance of beaver, which was used in Europe for coats; "beaver fur, especially the densely matted, soft underbelly, had also proved to make excellent felt." Manhattan Island was seen as a trading center from which beaver pelts could be shipped to Holland in return for gold and goods. Only gradually did the Dutch begin to appreciate the Hudson's far greater resources, but by then the British had taken over the river valley in a bloodless coup and given its most notable places -- Albany and New York -- the names by which they are now known to the world. In the Hudson, as elsewhere along the Atlantic coast from New England to the Mid-Atlantic, the British turned to agriculture and imported slaves to help (entirely involuntarily) spread it. The Hudson, mostly the lower Hudson, remained slave territory until late in the 18th century.

In the American Revolution, the Hudson was a central, perhaps the central, battleground. Failure to control the river by the Continental Army would have separated strongly rebellious New England from the more divided Mid-Atlantic and South and probably would have led to a British victory. Instead, when American forces defeated the British at Saratoga, the war turned the colonists' way; Saratoga, Lewis writes, "would save the nation."

After the Revolution, the Hudson's story becomes one of development and, too frequently, exploitation. The sloops and other sailing vessels that plied the river gave way to the steamboat. After the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, the Hudson was connected to the West, conquering "the distance of the vast land and [bringing] a flood of settlers into the West." In time the steamboats and canal barges gave way to the railroads and then to the automobile; the opening of the Bear Mountain suspension bridge in 1924 "accelerated the rate of change in the daily life and culture of formerly disparate communities like Newburgh and Beacon, Rhinebeck and Kingston, Westchester and Nyack."

While all of this was going on, matters of a considerably less materialistic character were proceeding apace. Washington Irving, the first genuinely important American author, wrote on many subjects and about many places, but the Hudson was always his muse, never more so than in his classic stories "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Thomas Cole, an Englishman in his twenties, came to the Hudson and fell in love; his first paintings, perhaps most notably "Kaaterskill Upper Fall Catskill Mountain," caused a sensation and marked the beginning of the new country's first important artistic career; Cole was followed in short order by Asher B. Durand, George Inness, Frederic Edwin Church, Alfred Bierstadt, Samuel Colman and others who gave the country, in the Hudson River School, its first important artistic movement.

The beauty that inspired artists and writers has been endangered, predictably, by development and exploitation, but in his closing pages Lewis finds reason for optimism. Raw sewage and PCBs no longer are dumped into the river, and its waters are far cleaner than only a few decades ago. Consolidated Edison's scheme to carve a huge power plant into Storm King Mountain was stopped by private action and the courts. The Hudson "became central to a new chapter in America's history, one that emphasized the importance of the environment." A hopeful note on which to close this first-rate book.