Magnificent Great River of the Mountains

The best part of my journey home was losing myself in Croswell Bowen’s Great River of the Mountains: The Hudson. His photographs and text make the river and its people into living, breathing entities, filled with soul. From beauty to squalor, but mostly in beauty, Mr. Bowen has created a work of majesty, like the river he describes.

As I mentioned Mr. Bowen’s daughter, Lucey, and I met at Vassar where she rescued me from who knows what awful fate, so my favorite part of the book is the dedication in which she drew genealogy of sorts.

Besides Vassar, we have link through her father and my mother. Before he began Great River, Mr. Bowen worked for Carl Carmer. Mr. Carmer became famous in the 1930s with the publication of Stars Fell on Alabama, folktales collected as he traveled the state. The title refers to stories the residents told of a meteor shower that occurred 100 years earlier. Mr. Carmer continued writing after his success with the book, this time about his native New York. He hired Mr. Bowen to help with the research and wrote the introduction to Great River. Lucey has added a crucial update to this work, including excerpts from the letters that her father wrote to Mr. Carmer that served as background for the New York series and inspired Mr. Bowen to write Great River.

Mr. Carmer attended a book and author luncheon in the early 1950s in Hartford where he happened to be seated next to an author by the name of Ann Petry. At some point during the lunch he suggested that she write about a woman who had escaped slavery before the Civil War and then helped others escape and worked as a spy for the Union army. Her name was Harriet Tubman, and he had known her when she was an old lady, living near his hometown of Albion, New York. Mother said she had never heard of Harriet Tubman but decided to investigate. Once she started the research, she said she couldn’t stop. The result was Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad, published in 1955 and now taught in many middle and high schools, and excerpted in many anthologies.

All this long and convoluted story (I think Mr. Carmer and Mother would have approved) is to say that Lucey’s genealogy has us as cousins by Carmer and sisters by Vassar. Thrilling and so heartwarming.

To return to the main topic, Mr. Bowen calls his collection of photo essays a “word-track with pictures.” I consider it more poetry with painterly photographs. “When the sun is shining, and the river flows peacefully, the valley is a promised land overflowing with good things, warmth and sunlight and growing crops.” His evocative black-and-white shots highlight the diversity, and the beauty, and the grubbiness of the Hudson. Even in the 1930s, there was nostalgia for things past – the Shaker village standing empty and an ice house that fell to the predations of electricity — but also hope for the future – the full-throttle shipping industry and variety of bridges from the soaring technical wonder of the George Wasington to the little wooden structure at the headwaters provide for transportation of more goods and people.

I learned a great deal of history from Great River as well. For example someone named Bronck gave his name to the Bronx.

Also, all that drippy decoration on houses from the Victorian era originated in the valley. Known as Hudson River Bracketed or Hudson River Gothic, the extra woodwork was added, Mr. Bowen says, “probably [as] a reaction to the rude simplicity of pioneer life.”

Also the “Jackson Whites” (whom I already knew weren’t named Jackson and weren’t white) lived so far east. I was under the impression that this tri-racial group, properly called the Ramapo Mountain People, now Ramapo Mountain Indians, resided exclusively in northwestern New Jersey and a few small towns near the Delaware River in New York. If I’d bothered to look at a map, I would have realized that the distance from Delaware to Hudson is minimal and that of course they could settle as far north and east as the area around Glens Falls.

Mr. Bowen’s photographs of these people are among my favorites. The other is of the “ruins” on Crugers Island. I also loved the comment from one valley resident: “Once you’ve lived in the shadow of the mountain you’re mad for life.” His observation could have referred to any number of peaks in the Catskills or Adirondacks or the Highlands that blend into the Berkshires to the north, but I’d like to think it refers to all of them. It’s certainly illustrated by the Chanler family, whom Lucey calls Hudson River aristocrats. Their oddities bordered on and sometimes spilled over into the realm of true lunacy, and it appears Mr. Bowen feared he might have been infected when he visited them. He obviously kept his wits about him and maintained a keen eye for detail.

All in all, I recommend this book to anyone with a love of great photography and  gorgeous prose.

P.S. Lucey is her father’s daughter with her ability with a camera and with a pen, or these days with a laptop. She has not one but four blogs. I’m reading my way through them and can heartily recommend Rural Redux. They are: Carl Carmer; Rural Redux, her search for information about her father’s house Hidden Hollow in Sherman, Connecticut; Great River Revisited, an update of her father’s journeys up and down the Hudson; and The Dizzy Boswell, on being a writer’s daughter. Boy, can I relate!


3 Responses to “Magnificent Great River of the Mountains”

  1. Lucey Bowen Says:

    Glad you enjoyed the book, it was so much fun to see you!
    Until we meet again,

  2. Gerry Rowland Says:


    Just a note to say I enjoy your postings. I especially liked this one about the Hudson River. It turns out that much of my family’s history is along this river.

    I really enjoyed the story of Harriet Tubman and how your mother came to write about her. Life is amazing.

    Gerry Rowland,

    (Harriet was here!)

  3. Redux, Redux IV, Chapter 1 « Lizr128′s Blog Says:

    […] of the things that I learned from my friend Lucey’s forays into the Hudson River (“Magnificent Great River of the Mountains”) was that we in Connecticut suffer because we have only one shad run per season. The Hudson has […]

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