Andrew C. Higgins
You would have to search long and hard to find a successful professional writer more completely forgotten than Alfred B. Street (1810?-1881). In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, he was a well-known New York poet and essayist, publishing alongside Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James and Susan Fenimore Cooper, John Greenleaf Whittier, and others. He was a prominent figure in the New York aestheticist movement, an early explorer of the Adirondack region, as well as an ardent angler and hunter, pursuits he wrote about frequently in the New York sporting journals. Street was also born and raised in the shadow of the Shawanagunk Ridge, which is why it is appropriate that a selection of his poems—reprinted here for the first time in over 100 years, so far as I’ve been able to tell—should appear in the Shawangunk Review.
Street was born in Poughkeepsie, the son of a prominent lawyer and member of Congress. Around the age of 15, he moved to Monticello in Sullivan County, where he spent his free time hunting, fishing, and exploring the wilds of Sullivan County (“Alfred B. Street” 325). Street began writing early. In 1825, when he was just 14, he published 2 poems in the New York Evening Post (“Our Contributors” 61). By the 1830s, he was regularly publishing in well-known periodicals, such as the United States Democratic Review and The American Whig Review. He moved to Albany in 1839 to begin practice as a lawyer, but was soon appointed librarian of the State of New York, a post he held until 1862 (Berry). In the 1840s, Street published the first of several collections of poetry. These were followed by two prose memoirs of Street’s extensive travels in the Adirondack region.
In many ways, Street is a typical example of mid-nineteenth-century American literary culture, and the selection of poems here offers a good window on that culture. American writers of this period wrote for the wildly competitive magazine and newspaper business, which had a significant impact on the form of their work. This was the cauldron that shaped the American short story, as Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allan Poe all worked to craft short stories for this readership. These same forces also exerted considerable pressure on American poetry, pushing it towards widely accessible forms with a strong narrative bent. We can see examples in the poems printed here, albeit with a local twist.
The two poems on Shawangunk Ridge reprinted here show Street working in the lyric and the narrative mode. In “Sunset on Shawangunk Mountain,” we see a typical example of idealization of nature in the romantic lyric. In this sense, the poem echoes William Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798” and William Cullen Bryant’s “Green River.” In “Shawangunk Mountain” we see Street as storyteller. While contemporary anthologies emphasize the lyric, narrative poetry was widely popular in the 1800s, and no understanding of nineteenth-century literary culture is complete without an appreciation of narrative poetry’s place in it. Here Street tells the story of a woodcutter killed by a panther on Shawangunk Ridge. The appearance of a panther in the neighborhood struck terror in the hearts of rural people in the 1800s, and newspaper stories about efforts to track and kill them were common in the early 1800s, though accounts of people actually killed by panthers are much harder to find. These kinds of stories likely had resonance for nineteenth-century Americas as they offered a heroic version of settlement and development. However we read the panther in this poem, it offers a good example of the kind of middle-brow narrative poetry that was so common in nineteenth-century American periodicals.
Street was above all a local poet. “Sunset on Shawangunk Mountain” and “Shawangunk Mountain” reflect Street’s frequent practice of setting his poems in particular local landscapes in the Catskills and Hudson Valley regions. His collected poems includes many titles such as “The Willewemoc in Summer,” “The Callicoon in Autumn,” and “The Falls of the Mongaup,” all specific locales near Street’s boyhood home in Sullivan County. “A Contrast” likely tells the story of White Pond in Sullivan County, a lake that became a popular destination in the 1840s and which Street wrote several articles about. Many of these poems were written while Street was living in Albany and starting his professional career. I suspect that the close and detailed evocation of the Sullivan County landscape found in these poems helped Street escape the urban confines of Albany.
In all of these poems we see Street’s engagement with the natural world on display. He was an avid angler and hunter, and frequently wrote about these pursuits in periodicals such as The American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine (see, for example “A Day’s Fishing in the Callikoon”). His most popular books were his two prose narratives about his travels in the Adirondacks, Woods and Waters: or, The Saranacs and Racket (1860) and The Indian Pass (1869). This concern with the natural world resulted in poems that contain rich, precise description of nature, far beyond the generalizations of Bryant and Emerson. We catch a glimpse of this here in Street’s description of the snowy mountainside in “Shawakgunk Mountain”:
The pure snow, all around,
In delicate rose-tints glowed. The hemlocks smiled,
Speckled with gold. The oak’s sear foliage, still
Tight clinging to the boughs, was kindled up
To warm rich brown. The myriad trunks and sprays
Traced their black lines upon the soft snow-blush
Beneath, until it seemed a tangled maze. (36-42)
At times Street’s poetry seems closer to the work of the Hudson River School painters such as Thomas Cole or, especially, Ashur B. Durand, who shared his preference for precise descriptions of natural scenes.
As much as Street may have valued the natural world, though, it seems that he also believed the dreams of American progress that dominated white American culture in the 1800s. This vision is evident in the poem “A Contrast,” in which “the talisman of toil” transforms a wild landscape into a settled pastoral scene and frees a lake from the “dungeon-shades” of the wilderness. In this poem and in “Shawangunk Mountain,” we see Street’s engagement with what David E. Nye calls “second creation stories,” which refer to European American’s sense that in settling the New World, they were carving a new creation on top of God’s original work. These stories were centered on the tools that made these settlements possible, and one of the most prominent tools that Nye discusses is the ax. As he explains, “for those who arrived after Columbus, neither ancient sacred places nor local stories of origin were possible. Instead, the new Americans constructed stories of self-creation in which mastery of particular technologies played a central role” (3). We can see the results of the ax’s work in “A Contrast,” in which “the wild-wood depths” are replaced by copses of woods surrounded by “rich meadows.” In “Shawangunk Mountain,” though, nature bites back. As the speaker, who had heard the panther scream, searches for the missing woodchopper, his fears are confirmed when he discovers a bloody ax lying in the snow. In the end, Shawangunk Ridge is able to resist the establishment of any second creation, as the poem concludes with the retreat of the human and the return of the wild:
No more the smoke curled up. No more the axe
Rang in the mountain; and a few short years
Leveled the cabin with the forest-earth,
Midst spreading bushes, fern and waving grass. (176-179)
Though the poem clearly casts the panther as a destructive force, the tone of these last lines suggest that Street found something valuable and beautiful in nature’s resistance.
As those of us who live in the shadow of the Shawangunk Ridge know, its summits still resist the encroachment of development. The spirit of Street’s panther lives on in the preserves that dot the ridge, including Minnewaska State Park and the Sam’s Point Preserve, both built on the site of old hotels that, like the cabin in Street’s poem, were leveled by time and nature. Only the Mohonk Mountain House hangs on from the days of the old hotels.
I don’t expect to see any major resurgence of interest in the writings of Street. He wasn’t a particularly talented poet, and too often he was an unreflecting vehicle of the dominant assumptions of his culture. But he reminds us of the value of local literary culture. We can’t understand what was happening in nineteenth century literary culture by reading just Emerson and Hawthorne. America’s complicated relationship to the non-human, in particular, is best understood by looking beyond the work of our most well-known writers, and exploring the ways that locally-situated writers such as Street reflected on the way economic development and rapidly expanding population impacted the natural world in specific locals, such as the Catskills, the Hudson River Valley, and the Shawangunk Ridge.
“Alfred B. Street” American Literary Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 6, Dec 1848, pp. 323-330.
Berry, Regina. “Alfred Billings Street Papers, 1806-1906; bulk 1840-1880. SC10809.” New York State Library. www.nysl.nysed.gov/msscfa/sc10809.htm. Accessed November 20, 2017.
Nye, David E. America as Second Creation: Technology and Narratives of New Beginnings. MIT Press, 2003.
“Our Contributors.-No. XXII. Alfred B. Street. With a Portrait.” Graham’s Magazine, Vol. 29 No. 2, August 1846, pp. 61-66.
Street, Alfred B. “A Day’s Fishing in the Callikoon.” Spirit of the Times: A Chronicle of the Turf, Agricultural, Field Sports, Literature and the Stage, Vol. 15, No. 30. Sept 20, 1845, p. 352.
—. The Indian Pass. Hurd and Houghton, 1869.
—. The Poems of Alfred B. Street: In Two Volumes. Hurd and Houghton, 1867.
—. Woods and Waters: or, The Saranacs and Racket. M. Doolady, 1860.