The Catskills: Its History and How It Changed America

Stephen M. Silverman and Raphael D. Silver. Knopf, $45 (464p) ISBN 978-0-307-27215-7

Borscht-Belt frolics are but a part of the cultural innovations nurtured in upstate New York’s scenic Catskill mountain range, according to this lively illustrated history. Journalist Silverman (David Lean) and the late filmmaker Silver explore the region’s contributions to American literature (it’s the setting for Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle yarn and James Fenimore Cooper’s frontier sagas), art (it inspired the Hudson River School of effulgent landscape painting), and politics (it saw a revolt by tenant farmers against landlords in the 1840s and is now a hotbed of antifracking activism). Much of the book follows the Catskills’ role as incubator of the hospitality and entertainment industries, from the 19th-century Catskill Mountain House, whose sublime views made guests weep, to the area’s 20th-century heyday as Jewish New York’s vacation mecca, when it forged the model of immersive Las Vegas–style resorts and spawned generations of entertainers from Sid Caesar to Jerry Seinfeld. At the cultural antipode, the Catskills also hosted the 1969 Woodstock rock festival. Stuffed with interesting sidebars and biographical sketches, the authors’ loose-limbed text meanders along many an intriguing byway of quaint and forgotten lore. Readers will enjoy this absorbing browse through a multifaceted regional history that’s deeper than its surface glitz might suggest. Color photos. (Nov.)