Redrawing the New York-Comics Relationship

Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project

Book Review: Alex Shoumatoff’s “Westchester: Portrait of a County”

Journalist and writer Alex Shoumatoff published his Westchester: Portrait of a County in 1979, in which he chronicled, as he saw them, aspects of life in a place he had a native’s perspective of: upstate New York’s Westchester County.  The resulting book is divided into two sections, “The Land” and “The People.” The first section deals with the topography and wildlife of Westchester, beginning with a treatment of its woods and then moving on to a lengthier chapter on different kinds of rocks and geological formations, like bodies of water and rivers. This might sounds dry, but Shoumatoff intersperses the treatment with anecdotes culled from his own life, from interviews, and from Westchester history, turning the description into something that is at the same time picturesque, informative, and highly enjoyable. As the chapters progress and start dealing with, for instance, farming, the treatment keeps getting ever livelier.

The second part begins with a treatment of Mount Kisco, “the hub of Northern Westchester.” Shoumatoff’s treatment, consisting of a mix of biographical anecdotes and interviews, provides a snapshot of mid-1970s life in one of the small towns that are sprinkled throughout the county. Subsequent chapters treat the history of the county’s mansions and the suburban WASP middle class, for which the area is perhaps most well known. But Shoumatoff goes beyond this common image to also discuss Westchester’s ghettoes and its substantial Italian American population. Shoumatoff was a staff writer for the New Yorker, and his skill as a writer makes the book a pleasure to read. Weaving description of the place as he experienced it together with tales from the county’s past, the end product is an engrossing page-turner. That said, this is not a book for everyone. It is a portrait, not a history, and the tone is folksy more than scholarly, the story told in snippets rather than as a linear treatment.

For comics readers, Westchester County is probably most famous as the place where the X-Men’s original and frequently returned-to and almost as frequently destroyed headquarters, Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters (or some variation thereof, depending on writer and medium), is located. The world of large mansions and big households – largely a thing of the past since just after the Second World War – is treated beautifully by Shoumatoff in a chapter that gives the reader an inkling of the world Charles Xavier is supposed to have grown up in and the world into which the young 1960s X-Men are inducted. But Shoumatoff also remarks that that world, the world where the upper social stratum was something like a homogenous WASP group (into at least the late 1960s), was no more when he was writing. This too is noteworthy, not least since the book was originally published at a time when Chris Claremont was beginning to make the privilege of the X-Men’s Westchester existence explicit in some captions. Thus, beyond being a great read for its portrait of Westchester County, it is informative for those interested in the X-Men and the values that lay implicit just below the surface of the world they called home.

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