Saturday, June 12, 2010

Hudson in Literature

The discovery a few days ago of a "football-sized" hole in the deck of the Ferry Street bridge, just in time for Flag Day (it's since been repaired), reminded me of how Samuel Shem (pen name for Hudson native son Dr. Stephen Bergman) characterizes Columbia, NY--the setting for his novel The Spirit of the Place and an only slightly fictionalized Hudson--as a "town of breakage":

"At public events things would unerringly break. School microphones would consistently give out just after someone said, “Testing, testing.” On Memorial Days in Columbian cemeteries, just as the Gettysburg began, viewing stands would collapse. In deep summer at public tennis courts, water fountains were always going dry so that if, after a hot game of tennis on the asphalt courts, when your feet felt like grill-side-down burgers and your tongue like a bun, you went to the water fountain and turned the handle, the one thing you could be sure would not come out was water. Columbians learned to talk affectionately about past breakages, such as “the Great Breakage of ’37,” when, in the Thanksgiving Day parade, a massive five-axle Universal Atlas cement truck disguised as a turkey exploded in front of the Niagara Mohawk power station, knocking out lights and heat for weeks. Or “the Dinosaur Breakage of ’52,” when the Paul Jonas life-sized sculpture of the brontosaurus bound for the New York World’s Fair broke the back of its barge and sank, its neck poking out of the Hudson River in the most lifelike way."

The Spirit of the Place was published in 2008, and during that year Bergman made a couple of visits to Hudson to talk about the book. These events took place at the Hudson Opera House and tended to attract transplants to Hudson--myself included--who enjoyed this native son's ability--from the perspective of an adult life lived somewhere else--to see the humor of the city where he'd grown up and which we now embraced as our own.

Last year, the Hudson Area Library invited Stephen Bergman to be the guest speaker at a fundraising dinner to celebrate the library's 50th anniversary. He seemed the perfect choice. He was a native son. He was a bestselling author. He had been for three decades a member of the Harvard Medical School faculty. And his mother, Rose Fuchs Bergman, whose spirit is a major character in The Spirit of the Place, had been a major force in founding the library back in 1959.

Bergman started out by reading the passage about breakage quoted above and followed it by telling how, when he first arrived at Harvard as a freshman in 1962, he noticed a broken fountain on campus. Coming from Hudson where it was his experience that broken things rarely got fixed, he was shocked to observe that the fountain was repaired within a week.

From breakage, Bergman segued into another theme from the recollections of his youth: bullying. He recalled how he was regularly beaten up until he made the varsity basketball team in high school and gained, by that association, the assumed protection of the African-Americans who made up most of the basketball team back then. At that point, taking their cue from one of their number who reportedly muttered, "If I'd been there, I'd have beaten you up," an entire table of library supporters--the siblings and their spouses of a now prominent old Hudson family--rose as one and left.

Old Hudson's outrage with its celebrated native son didn't stop there. The next Sunday, after services at a Hudson church, someone was overheard to say, “Our hardworking parents didn’t send us to Dr. Bergman [Stephen Bergman's father was a dentist in Hudson] so that his son could go to Harvard and come back and make fun of us.”

There are many famous quotations extolling the virtues of being able to laugh at oneself. Noted psychiatrist and author Thomas Szasz, for example, said, "When a person can no longer laugh at himself, it is time for others to laugh at him." Might not the same be true of communities?


  1. you're on point as usual Carole.

  2. I didn't think The Spirit of the Place was making fun of Hudson.

    I thought it was illustrating and explaining the frequently perverse and self-destructive actions of the city (and residents). What I found most interesting was to learn for how long Hudson has hurt itself, e.g., a century ago it was the only city in the State of New York to turn down the Andrew Carnegie gift of a library. To this day it is the only city that doesn't have a city (as opposed to private) library.

    As of a couple of years ago, Hudson was #1 on the Social Stress Scale of the NY State Comptroller (a horrible index of poverty, school drop-out rates, single-motherhood and building vacancy). Newburgh was #2.

    I found the book to be cautionary and educational and sort of sad, not mean or mocking.

  3. Jock--Just for clarification, I wasn't talking about book and its themes so much as I was talking about Bergman's presentations in Hudson, which were certainly not mocking or mean-spirited but had, in my opinion, a certain amount of intended humor--as does, I believe, the paragraph about breakage.