The cultural landscape of the Hudson River Valley is crowded with ghosts--the ghosts of Native Americans and Dutch colonists, of Revolutionary War soldiers and spies, of presidents, slaves, priests, and laborers. Possessions asks why this region just outside New York City became the locus for so many ghostly tales, and shows how these hauntings came to operate as a peculiar type of social memory whereby things lost, forgotten, or marginalized returned to claim possession of imaginations and territories. Reading Washington Irving's stories along with a diverse array of narratives from local folklore and regional writings, Judith Richardson explores the causes and consequences of Hudson Valley hauntings to reveal how ghosts both evolve from specific historical contexts and are conjured to serve the present needs of those they haunt. These tales of haunting, Richardson argues, are no mere echoes of the past but function in an ongoing, contentious politics of place. Through its tight geographical focus, Possessions illuminates problems of belonging and possessing that haunt the nation as a whole.
This book offers a cohesive interdisciplinary project that enhances our appreciation of regionalism, folklore, local history, and the transforming uses of cultural memory in response to demographic as well as industrial change… The texture of this book varies nicely because between the author’s in-depth studies of Irving and Anderson there is a considerable amount of social history and analysis of less familiar writers and publications… Her research in primary and secondary sources could not be more thorough, and the writing is always clear, even memorable on occasion.
Straddling history, literature, and folklore, [Richardson] excavates the layers, contradictions, and misty gaps in an archive of spectral traces where more is (hauntingly) lost than revealed. Possessions is an unsentimental and moving book about loss. It is also implicitly a reflection upon the loss of ‘the local’ itself under the pressures of economic development, even while it works against that story line, to reveal how past and present continue to meet (somewhere between memory and knowledge) in ‘place.’ With a kind of hard-edged pathos then, Possessions opens a door not only onto a regional New York archive but also onto what it might mean to be somewhere, to situate and to find oneself in one’s own haunted place.
[An] informative, cleanly written, and admirably documented book.
This creatively argued and intelligent book examines the phenomenon of hauntings in a particular place over more than a century. The author’s premise is that hauntings are a response to social and cultural developments, especially rapid change that destabilizes communities and creates social and economic divisions… Well-researched and gracefully written, Possessions is a sophisticated investigation of the history and uses of hauntings in the modern world.
The author traces changing versions of several ghostly tales that mutated over time to reflect local conditions and controversies as well as national political issues like abolitionism. Richardson shows that, thanks to the Hudson Valley’s long history of settlement, the ‘legendizing impetus’ created by Washington Irving, and the area’s established position as a tourist destination, it inspired at least three sometimes overlapping traditions of hauntings: the ‘aboriginal’ Dutch and Indian hauntings, the Revolutionary War hauntings, and industrial hauntings, which are traced in Maxwell Anderson’s High Tor (1937) and T. Coraghessan Boyle’s World’s End (1987).
This is a lively, well-written, and engaging interdisciplinary study. Richardson pursues two main goals: probing in considerable detail a body of early national folklore and its modern revivals and testing some more general notions about the uses to which such lore is put in the periods when it is recovered, reshaped, and reinvigorated. It is smart without being condescending, locally inflected without exhibiting the least bit of piety—and, I think, quite suggestive for scholars looking at other domains far beyond the Hudson Valley. She gives us a way of understanding how the ‘local’ has figured in the cultural construction of Americanness.
Possessions is a rare and brilliant book that seamlessly combines history and literature—revealing how richly they can support one another. It is a great pleasure to read: both fluent and profound.
- 320 pages
- 0-13/16 x 5-3/16 x 7-15/16 inches
- Harvard University Press
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