Monday, September 13, 2010

From Coxsackie, New York

Coxsackie. Dutch name, like many around here. From a long time ago; today I saw, in New Paltz, a half dozen stone-walled houses built in the early 18th century.

This is the Hudson River valley, 20 miles south of Albany, but still basically out in the country. One thing I like about upstate New York is that the cities don't sprawl as much as they do elsewhere. Especially Albany: it's part of a triangle that includes Troy and Schenectady. If you were locating a business, where would you pop it? Exactly -- bang inside the triangle. Outside, there are still a lot of farms. Houses with big, I mean big, lawns. Too bad about the winters.

I like upstate. The people are friendly and unpretentious. It's 30 years since I've been here and I'd forgotten the beauty of the landscape. Hills and cleared land mingled. Puffy Ruisdael clouds modulating all over the gray scale.

So far my better half and I have visited two historic houses, both in Tarrytown, not far north of New York City, but already half in, half out of the urban mindset. The two couldn't have been more different. Lyndhurst is a neo-Gothic mansion that went through three families and wound up as a "cottage" for Jay Gould, job description Robber Baron. The interior -- done to his taste, I suppose -- is impressive. I disliked it. Lots of 19th century luxe, so-so taste, no warmth. A nice place to show off in, entertain the other nobs in, tote up your profits in.

Washington Irving's house, Sunnyside, is charming. It bespeaks an artist's sensibility. Not grand, but comfortable and a real home. My mind wandered during the guide's spiel, as usual, but I seem to have picked up that Irving helped design it himself, and his muse was influenced by the many years he spent in Europe before he returned to settle on the slope above the Hudson. Call the style Dutch-Mediterranean-English cottage. It's a writer's house, lots of books around, in easy reach, not behind glass in fancy cabinets.

The porch is made for sitting and contemplating the river. Today the Hudson was mostly calm, a light breeze making wavelets as if an invisible hand were plucking a harp. The commuter train runs between the house and the river, but the railroad was there in his day, too, and while it might have disturbed the peace he made a good few dollars from selling the right-of-way. Irving was an immensely popular writer, both at home and abroad, the first American writer to be taken seriously in Europe. Yet although he made decent money for a writer, he didn't shy from spending it, and the iron tracks perhaps added to as much as detracted from his satisfying vista.

His one and only lady love died of consumption and he never married. But he was hardly alone at Sunnyside, which was occupied by his (again, if I remember right -- I keep being distracted from guides' practiced talk) brother and about six nieces. His own passing was as gentle as you like: in bed, in his favorite room, with relatives in constant attendance.

We visited the old Dutch church at Sleepy Hollow, just north of Tarrytown, with a huge cemetery the likes of which will never be recreated in modern times, land prices being what they are; we can't afford enough room for the living, much less the dead. Some of the weathered tombstones have flags and markers to indicate the graves of people who fought in the Revolution.

We were told that Washington Irving got the idea of the Headless Horseman in his story from a real incident in the war. A Hessian soldier rescued a baby from a burning house. The soldier was later decapitated by a cannonball, and although he was an enemy and the child's mother was a patriot, she was grateful enough to see that he was buried in the Sleepy Hollow cemetery. Washington Irving is interred on rising ground that overlooks an oddly empty spot with no mortuary monuments. They say the headless soldier lies there. They say that, still, after so many years have come and gone.


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Gary said...

Excellent writing, very interesting story. I always loved Irving's story of Ichabod Crane and the headless horsemen. It is an American tale that never gets old as it is handed down to each new generation.