Tuesday, February 26, 2008


I’ve just gotten around to reading to reading Judith Richardson’s Posessions: The History and Uses of Haunting in the Hudson Valley (Harvard University Press, 2003) It’s a remarkable study of ghost stories in the Hudson Valley, of which the best-known are certainly the tales of Washington Irving, “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” but include many other literary and vernacular ghost stories, from colonial times to the present. Richardson’s primary explanation for the prevalence of ghost stories in the Hudson Valley is similar to the explanation of many phenomena in New York State history; complexity and multi-layeredness, ethnic heterogeneity, and centuries of fighting over contested terrain (the colonial wars and the Revolution are central to many Hudson Valley ghost stories.) Ghosts are part of a history that can only really be glimpsed in fragments. Ghost stories represent “an alternative form of history-making in which things usually forgotten, discarded, or repressed becomes foregrounded, “ a history we cannot really control, a usable past that we do not really know to use, a social history of fictions and figments.

I don’t know if there are a lot of ghost stories about New York City (Richdardson tells a few), but her history made me think of a recent guide book about New York City, Kevin Walsh’s Forgotten New York (2006). It is an audacious work, with nothing about the Empire State Building or the World Trade Center, and plenty to say about historical nooks and crannies that really shouldn't still be around but somehow survived--enameled signs on subway platforms that point to streets that no longer exist, a stairway to the Polo Grounds that remains standing, a tiny stretch of Malbone Street that avoided renaming after the Malbone Street disaster in 1918. These are all ghosts, flitting uneasily between historical eras. We generally ignore the anomalies that Walsh’s fine eye uncovers, or smooth them into broader narratives. Walsh reminds that these anomalies, places out of time, can tell us much about the nature of the city and its evolution. The baseball writer Bill James says somewhere that trivia is only a fact disconnected to its context. New York City, like all cities, has a history that exists in fragments, and what makes a city a city is that all the layers of its history co-exist at the same time, in all of its glorious incoherence and inconsistency.

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