On three complex and compelling sides to a New England river.
As the presentations and conversations at my upcoming NeMLA panel will illustrate, rivers have occupied a complex and central place in the American imagination for centuries. One of the most exemplary literary engagements with both the realities and the meanings of such settings focuses on two central Massachusetts rivers: Henry David Thoreau’s travel and nature book A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849). But the Housatonic, the river that winds its way through the Berkshires, has likewise been the subject of a couple connected and interesting cultural works: Robert Underwood Johnson’s poem “The Housatonic at Stockbridge,” which illustrates how late 19th century local color (or regionalist) poetry made potent symbolic use of such regional settings; and Charles Ives’ orchestral “The Housatonic at Stockbridge,” which uses Johnson’s poem as the text for the third and final movement in his influential and profoundly American symphony Three Places in New England (1914).
If Thoreau’s writings partly foreshadowed such regionalist and metaphorical portrayals of natural settings, however, they also anticipated and overtly influenced a very different kind of engagement with America’s rivers (and nature in general): the environmental movement. And viewed through the lens and concerns of that movement, the Housatonic represents something similarly distinct: the destructive influences of industry on the American landscape. Beginning in the early 1930s, significant quantities of the hazardous chemical PCB, produced by the nearby General Electric Plant, began to pollute the river, drastically impacting both its natural life and its usage and role in local communities for nearly half a century. Thanks to environmental activism, and to the Clean Water Act (1972) that is one of the movement’s most enduring legacies, the Housatonic has apparently largely recovered from the worst of that pollution. But remembering this history helps us recognize that the realities of American rivers have been as complex and as significant as any metaphorical use we might make of them.
The third Housatonic history I want to highlight here would seem far less directly related to the river, but is perhaps the most broadly meaningful in American culture: the river indirectly helped launch the career of Langston Hughes, one of our greatest poets. Hughes’ first published poem, completed when he was only 19, was “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (1921); the poem was published in The Crisis, the monthly magazine of the NAACP. W.E.B. Du Bois, the creator and editor of The Crisis, had grown up on the Housatonic in the town of Great Barringon (on which more tomorrow), and would write extensively later in life about the lifelong passion for rivers that this experience produced. And while Hughes’ poem needed no specific cause for its publication—its greatness is only amplified when we realized how young he was when he wrote it—Du Bois would later write that the poem stood out for him (among the many submissions he constantly received) in no small measure because of its deft, multi-layered, historical and cultural and realistic and metaphorical and crucial use of rivers.
Next Berkshire story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
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