Am reading Theron Ware and making a good start–it’s a very manageable novel, not too long and not too short. And it was apparently quite a big hit in its day, in the 90’s, making Harold Frederic a star in the literary circles of London and New York. I was at the library this week, and looked at the Frederic and Walter Edmonds sections, and I brought home five books, which I dipped into the other night (instead of pushing through Theron Ware… oh well.)
Syracuse University Press does a good job of publishing material that covers the literature of Central New York, which isn’t surprising. I’m curious why Cornell UP isn’t more present yet, but I’m only scratching the surface. Syracuse UP has a series called “New York Classics” (not to be confused with NYRB Classics), which contains the current in-print edition of Drums Along the Mohawk and a number of other Edmonds titles–but no Harold Frederic books. The titles that interest me most, of course, are the ones I’ve never heard of.
There were only three Edmonds books at the library, a well-read original edition of Drums, a later title, and a 1983 book, called Walter Edmonds, Storyteller, by Lionel D. Wyld. This was a nice find, as it contains information on Edmonds’ goals and the background to writing Drums, along with some analysis of the novel, and then some material on its reception and the John Ford-Henry Fonda film (which I still haven’t seen). But the big news, glancing into it, is that Edmonds provided the source material for three (consecutive) Henry Fonda movies, with Drums in the middle of the sequence. The first is based on Edmonds’ earlier historical novel of Central New York, Rome Haul, which was turned into a film called The Farmer Takes a Wife. Edmonds carved out the turf of the “Canal Novel” before tackling the 18th century settlement days and the Revolutionary War.
It’s hard to get a sense of the importance and direct impact of the Erie Canal (and the Black River Canal too, for that matter, which stretched to Edmonds’ family home in Boonville) until you’re spending time in Central New York, and it helps to have an eye out for history at the same time. It’s easy to see that the region was booming for an extended period, for about a century. I guess I’d say that for me the Erie Canal is now a lot like the Lewis and Clark expedition, an element of American History that I knew about from middle school or even elementary school, but it wasn’t until much later, in late middle age, that I got it, that I grasped and felt and began to understand the transformative role these things played in history. The strange part of the Erie Canal and Central New York is the way that the century of expansion, from 1850 to 1950, has been over for so long now, and the landscape is littered with empty factories. I won’t go deeper into the economic malaise of the region at the moment, but it does make me wonder about the region’s local literature of the last 50-60 years–maybe there’s something in the SUP NY Classics. Frederic was writing about Central New York as it was growing. When Edmonds was writing short stories and historical novels about the region it was robust and energetic. I guess I’m curious about what came afterward, since 1970. I feel like there’s something that I’m missing.
This reminds me of my previous regional studies here, how I was curious about Literary Boston, and that led to learning about the literature of Maine. I could add the fact that reading Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome and Summer earlier this year, extended my literary New England studies out to Western Massachusetts. I suppose it would be easy enough to get a sense of New Hampshire and Vermont, to close the loop. Central New York seems incidental and a surprise, even a shock, as an area of literary and historical study for me. But that’s just the way it goes I guess. Part of it, I suppose, is that I’m such a West Coast guy, and the East has always been distant and rather mysterious, another country.