A Hideous Skeleton, with Cries and Dismal Howlings

Nina Auerbach

  • Possessions: The History and Uses of Haunting in the Hudson Valley by Judith Richardson
    Harvard, 296 pp, £19.95, October 2003, ISBN 0 674 01161 9

Judith Richardson begins Possessions by quoting a 1933 guidebook to the Hudson Valley: ‘How comes the Hudson to this unique heritage of myth, ghosts, goblins and other lore?’ By the end of her exhaustive chronicle of local history and legend the answer is self-evident: ‘Why is the Hudson Valley haunted? Perhaps a better question after all is: how on earth could it not be?’ Until I read this book, the Hudson Valley seemed remote from anguished, obviously possessed sites like ravaged towns in Mississippi and throughout the Deep South, the battlefield at Gettysburg, Hollywood or even the foggy menace of Seattle. The Hudson Valley’s hills are rolling, its farmland is welcoming, its mountains aren’t steep enough to be awe inspiring. Even Washington Irving’s famous Headless Horseman is swaddled by the name of his home in Sleepy Hollow.

Roughly an hour or two from New York City, depending on how deeply scenic you want your trip to be, the Hudson Valley feels like a reassuring antidote to the city’s friction. It may have ghosts, but it no longer advertises them. My tattered guidebook, for instance, unlike Richardson’s, describes Olana, the opulent and overbearing mansion once owned by the Hudson River artist Frederic Church, as ‘enchanting’, adding benignly: ‘The grounds beg you to stop and walk, or linger for a picnic.’ These grounds do not beg you to leave your picnic in order to follow the ghosts of Native Americans, headless Hessians, Dutch sailors, Revolutionary War victims, or African-American slaves, to enter the vortex of past (or even present) battles over the land. Richardson has added ghosts to a landscape I had thought was too cosy for them. She explains why they are there, but she can’t save them from being, as ghosts go, rather dull.

Richardson teaches in the English Department at Stanford University but her emphasis is folkloristic rather than literary. Her ghosts linger in archives, travelogues, guidebooks, letters, newspaper articles, and collections of local legends aimed at tourists. When she does turn to literature – Washington Irving’s tales and Maxwell Anderson’s 1937 play High Tor – she is concerned with its subsequent resonance in regional folklore and history. Irving, she shows, poses as a chronicler of the spooky beings who haunt the Hudson Valley rather than their creator, thus giving his ghosts an aura of timelessness. Tourist offices still direct visitors to the site of Rip Van Winkle’s cottage, and recently there was a move to rename North Tarrytown ‘Sleepy Hollow’ – an idea that seemed authentic to everyone except the people who lived there.

In the same myth-making spirit, Maxwell Anderson’s play places a chorus of ghosts on High Tor. His ancient Indian (the last of his tribe), equally ancient Dutchman (the last of his line), and the crew of a vessel from Henry Hudson’s fleet that disappeared in 1609, were so compelling to intellectuals that they inspired an international movement to stop the mountain (and presumably its ancient ghosts) from being quarried. None of this has much to do with Anderson’s play, which doesn’t believe in inviolate nature and broods on a sense of inexorable change. What Richardson shows is the way the Hudson Valley inspires fiction that caters to its political and economic needs.

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