New York Essayists Publish Anthology

The Colgate Humanities Colloquium delivered its second presentation of the academic year Tuesday, September 21 with a discussion by several local essayists on their recently published anthology: Why We’re Here: New York Essayists on Living Upstate. The event was well attended by students, faculty and local residents, who came to learn more about the latest release by the Colgate University Press.

Bob Cowser, an English professor at St. Lawrence University, conceived of the idea for the anthology while visiting a colleague at Le Moyne University.

“As I was driving home … [my friend and I] both remarked on how many great essayists live in upstate New York,” Cowser said. “And that led to the idea of an anthology, but it needed to have a theme. I thought back to when I first moved here … I had a hard time grafting on to the place, so I thought the best way to deal with it was to think long and hard about it. So I told [the essayists] to just write about why you live in New York. And what you see is their responses.”

Four other contributors to the book were present at the lecture and read selections from their respective essays: William Bradley, professor at Chowan University; Anne Panning, professor of creative writing at SUNY-Rockport; Dan Ryan, professor of creative non-fiction at Le Moyne University and Ned Stuckey-French, assistant professor at Florida State University. The authors each had very different interpretations of what living “upstate” means to them.

For Bradley, growing up in nearby Gloversville, New York left him with a consciousness of poverty and the effects of the boom-and-bust economic cycle.

“The leather industry had collapsed in Gloversville and all the jobs were gone … but the huge mansions remained. I mean, you can see the opulence and it sort of rubs your face in it,” Bradley said.

Bradley’s summer job when he was 18 also reinforced his awareness of the situation many of the town’s residents were in.

“I wound up working at a Shop-N-Save in town after high school … and seeing these people who worked two or three jobs … made me realized I had lived a sheltered life. I don’t think I could have learned empathy without this job,” Bradley said.

Panning had a very different approach to life in upstate New York. Graduate school at the University of Hawaii at Honolulu had left her longing for someplace “normal.”

“I hated every minute of it,”  Panning said about living in Hawaii. “I never truly understood the idea of island fever until I lived in Honolulu for three years.”

A job at SUNY-Rockport led Panning to move upstate, a disconcerting experience at first.

“Everything seemed cramped, close to the road and spooky. I didn’t know how to feel. I was nervous to live in a Sinclair Lewis-y Main Street,” Panning said.

However, Panning ultimately came to love rural New York.

“I now live and teach up by Lake Ontario. The harshness of the landscape creates this alienating force and I like it because it is difficult,” Panning said.

A common theme among the contributors was a perception of the unique personality and character of the Upstate New York resident, and the parallels between New York’s harsh environment and resilient people.

“[To me] Upstate New York is always about the relationships between the people and the place,” Stuckey-French said.

Student attendees reacted positively to the discussion. First-year Cynthia Kumar pointed in particular to the connection the presentation made between Colgate and the rest of Upstate New York.

“I definitely would say [Colgate] is a bubble, because the college and surrounding town have such a very small population. You can only interact with a certain kind of people,” Kumar said.