Book Review: Possessions, the History and Uses of Haunting in the Hudson Valley by Judith Richardson

Richardson's book, Possessions: the History and Uses of Haunting in the Hudson Valley, (2003) from Harvard University Press was suggested to me by a professor who is aware of my interest in the Upstate region and in the uses and interpretation of our history. Rarely do I read a book that is both profound and easy to read, despite weighing in at a hefty 209 pages, Richardson's continual weaving of haunted stories throughout the narrative helped to keep my focus.

The book is more than a collection of ghost tales, it is a reflection on the state of hauntedness itself. Richardson asks, why is the Hudson Valley considered to be haunted? To what purpose are the discussions of ghosts in the social lives of the people of the Hudson Valley, insiders and outsiders?

She does this through a series of chapters. One details the life and influence of Washington Irving and his headless Hessians, ghostly Dutchmen and poor Rip Van Winkle.

A further chapter relfects upon the three hundred year-old haunting of the ghost of Anna Dorothea Swarts, an 18th century servant/slave (there is vagueness here) who was murdered by her master. Utilizing an impressive command of local historical archives, Richardson puts together how Swarts' story has been reconstructed over the past three centuries and how she continues to bring forth repressed memories. Her's is the hidden history of slavery and repression in a land of mansions and patroons

Swart's ghost signifies things hidden in a collective unconscious; she is the martyr and memory of a secret history, recalling, for instance, exploitative and violent systems f servitude that existed in the North, in New York, as well as elsewhere. She represents whole categories of people who have been tucked away from view... (119-120)

While the ghost of Anna Dorothea Swarts may represent a fearsome reassertion of things repressed or unresolved, she also embodies the exact opposite of agency: a servant, female, tied and drawn entirely against her will by a motive force that is not her own. (122)

She moves on to discuss different genres of ghosts-ancestral ghosts of Indians and the Dutch, Revolutionary War Ghosts and phantasms of industrial workers-and how different populations of the Valley have engaged these ghosts, seen something of their own engagement (or lack thereof) witht he history of the land in them.

She finishes with a discussion of High Tor, a mountain that is currently at the heart of High Tor State Park. She shows how a 1930s play of the same name, (a Pulitzer prize-winning script by Maxwell Anderson), was used to spark interest in the history and conservation of the peak. Anderson utilizes numerous ghosts, especially native peoples and the Dutch, torture the agents of a mining company seeking to buy up the rock from its last owner. "These realizations of hauntings-the actual work done by haunting in the material world-constitute a politics of possession." (193)

I am always concerned with the silencing of local voices through the use of environmental and conservation rhetorics, a situation that is most exacerbated in the Hudson Valley and within the Adirondack Park. To her great credit, Richardson recognizes this problem and discusses the flooding of Catskill villages to create reservoirs and the annhilation of towns to build state parks. She cautions that

...the casting of people as 'folk,' even as it seems to place value on them as the source of tradition, also tends to mute their contemporary social and political voice by suggesting that their significance lies int he past rather than in the present. (197-198)

Through all of these examples, Richardson shows a nuanced understanding of the place of ghosts and this distinctive, haunted landscape. The book is an excellent addition to any Yorkstaters' reading list. Near the end, she sums up the continued haunting as an expression of our dislocation from history and landscape. The Hudson Valley has

...a legacy of haunting based in a series of contentions over territory and culture-a legacy that continues to reflect on an original sin of colonial dispossession but that gains material and emphasis from whole series of subsequent events. It echoes the enduring problems of rights and possession. The question 'who gives you the right?' is posed more than once to a settler on the unlucky ground, without satisfactory response. (207-208)


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