The Washerwoman’s Genes

October 16, 2006

Review: Picturesque Ulster

Filed under: Reviews — by WWG @ 10:49 am

Review: Picturesque Ulster Richard Lionel De Lisser, 1896-1905. © 1968 C.E. Dornbusch. Republished, Saugerties: Hope Farm Press, 1998.

This is both a wonderful and supremely odd book by our current standards. Its history explains its character: the facsimile available today brings together eight smaller books written for the tourists who began flocking to Ulster County in the latter nineteenth century. Part guidebook, part photo-documentary, the compendium covers its subject in great detail, more detail than today’s tourists would appreciate unless the subject was Renaissance Italy or some such. But for a reader willing to work for the privilege of being transported back 110 years, the book is a treasure trove.

Yet, it presents obstacles. The author, or “artist,” is Richard Lionel De Lisser, whose crisp photographs of Ulster County scenes form the heart of the book and the premise for his essayistic “rambles” through the area.

His pictures document Kingston and other towns in great detail. Yet, they are always from a certain distance and most are clinical: passersby are absent, for the most part, and stillness reigns. Yet the coverage of buildings and neighborhoods is priceless; there are places where De Lisser literally goes up one side of a street and down the next, discussing what is known of each property. Every single photo is captioned. Another photographer supplied some photos of buildings no longer extant at De Lisser’s time.

It is the layout that frustrates the most. The pictures are arranged stylishly on the pages but they are not numbered, referenced or coordinated with the text. The picture of a building under discussion might be found numerous but untold pages prior.

Even more head-slapping for a twenty-first century reader is the interweaving of the main text by De Lisser with topical essays he commissioned by contemporary experts. You are reading along about the First Dutch Church of Kingston and turn the page to find a separate in-depth essay on the subject but no indication of where you might pick up the next word of the sentence you have been reading. The Table of Contents does indicate the leaps and bounds of De Lisser’s text through the book, but it is never comfortable navigating your way. And, the text blocks are crowded: sans paragraphs, the text indicates topic changes by strings of dingbats.

At the turn of the century, Ulster County’s tourist region was to the north: Woodstock, Saugerties . . . the mountains and untouched backwoods. This volume covers only northern Ulster County, the parts most appealing to the audience of tourists that De Lisser hoped would buy the eight booklets. As the editor of the first reissued facsimile (1968), Alf Evers, points out, the author ignored “those sides of life in Ulster which might offend the audience he had in mind—that was why he touched lightly on the lives of Ulster’s urban poor who lacked the picturesqueness readers of the 1890s found in backwoods poverty . . . “ Hence, the book skims over the harder part of life and the more common people and occupations are little rendered.

Evers also indicates that a second companion volume was intended for the southern part of the county but it was never done.

This is most unfortunate, of course, for my needs. De Lisser covers Kingston and Rondout in great detail, but he put off the work-a-day towns and hamlets across the river for another, never-to-be-realized, time. Port Ewen, Fly Mountain, Sleightsburg, Rifton, St. Remy . . . so close yet quite forgotten in “Picturesque Ulster.”

When De Lisser recounts the history of churches in Kingston and Rondout, he supplies details I have been craving. As a genealogical researcher, I want a sense of when the various denominations started holding services in Kingston and Esopus. Only with that knowledge can one determine whether any church records are missing or incomplete. Since I have reviewed quite a few microfilms of Esopus area church records, I even recognized some of the information recounted in the narrative part of the text.

Having a go at antique volumes like this is part of being a responsible researcher . . . although not the easiest reading, it helps fill in the background of a crucial family homeland. It also conveys the sense of self and locality held by the people of Kingston in the 1890s. So I’ll be plowing on through the rest of the essays pertinent to Kingston and Rondout.

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