Mar 25, 2009

The View from Mudsock Heights: The Story of a Very Big Ditch Passed -- the Story, Not the Ditch -- Through Here

By Dennis Powell | Posted at 10:03 PM

One of the first things that happened after I moved here into the woods four years ago was a visit by a friend from back east. Gerard Koeppel is a noted historian and writer who has specialized in the history of the infrastructure of New York. That is not a subject which immediately quickens the heart, but a book he wrote that was published in 2000, Water for Gotham, actually made the history of the city’s water-supply system exciting.

He had been working on the book for 15 years, almost as long as I had known him. He had traveled to distant states in search of clues for what was in many respects a complicated mystery. Practically anything in New York involving government and money, from the earliest days to modern ones, involves mystery and corruption. Bringing potable water to New York City was no exception.
The book was critically acclaimed and is now the standard work on the subject. And for a time it was possible to have a conversation with Gerard that did not soon turn to the latest discovery in the quest for every fact large and small of the reservoirs, aqueducts, and pipes (some just hollowed out logs, by the way), that were the subject of the book. His friends knew minutiae last commonly discussed during the Jefferson administration.

Not long after the book had been published, he was contracted to write another, this one the definitive history of the Erie Canal. All that most people know of it nowadays is that it was the apparent obsession of someone who owned a mule named Sal, and something about barges full of iron, coal, and hay, and knowing every inch of the way from Albany to Buffalo — knowledge that today seems of limited utility.

Gerard had agreed to write a book of a specified length. He had also done his usual overly thorough research — it seemed sometimes as if he had personally inspected every shovelful of dirt removed in making the ditch about which he was writing. He seemed to know everybody who had worked on the canal, and who their wives were and what their children were named and what they had for lunch. He probably knew more about the Erie Canal than anyone then or now.

Ah, but low bridge! Everybody down! Having gathered all this information, some of it with a vast amount of effort in confirming the details, Gerard felt compelled to write it all down. The result was a book twice the contracted length.

It is probably a surprise to those not in the book-writing world, but a publisher is not happy when an author brings round a book that’s twice as long as it’s supposed to be. Publishing is not like high school, where the length of a term paper bears on its grade, the longer the better.

Thus, four years ago last week, Gerard came here, with computer and manuscript, for a marathon editing session.

He did not come because I am a good editor — I am not — but because we’ve known each other for decades and don’t mince words. We’ve been groomsmen in each other’s weddings. We raced sailboats together for years. He has borrowed and broken many tools of mine.

There is little so painful to a writer as to stumble upon a gem of an anecdote, a little story so delicious as to demand retelling, only to face the fact that it really has no place in the current work. The story of the Erie Canal is not entirely straightforward. It wasn’t as if Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland said one day, “Hey, I know what let’s do! Let’s build a canal!” and after fetching shovels from the garage, and friends from the neighborhood, commenced digging. There were many schemes and plans that didn’t quite make it. Gerard had documented them all.

So we spent a week coming to unhappy grips with the fact that many of those delightful stories would have to go (but not the strange death of Gouverneur Morris). Then he went back to New York and edited down his book.

Bond of Union was published this month by Da Capo Press. It details the public works project that more than any other opened the west to commerce and migration. It has received critical acclaim, and with good reason. I’d love it even if I weren’t in the acknowledgements. If American history is of interest to you, you will find it well worth the reading.

Gerard is currently going over a manuscript of mine, also having to do with New York history, which I wrote in a month a decade ago and am still working to get published. He, meanwhile, takes a month to sell a book and a decade to write it.

There’s a lesson there for at least one of us.

Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at dep@drippingwithirony.com.

Also Filed Under: Home: Culture: The View from Mudsock Heights: The Story of a Very Big Ditch Passed -- the Story, Not the Ditch -- Through Here

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