The Mountain
a Novel by Raymond J. Steiner

Steiner writes about the Origins of The Mountain

The decision to write the novel titled The Mountain had an extended gestation period before its realization, growing out of a rather long relationship with the town of Woodstock, an ‘art colony’ in upstate New York. Having moved upstate from Brooklyn, NY to the town of West Hurley in 1945, my early teens were largely spent in doing “handy work”, beginning with lawn-mowing, field-clearing, general gardening, and finally beginning to tackle the trade of carpenter. Never a ‘professional’, I hired out freelance, going from job-to-job until I ventured beyond West Hurley to the nearby town of Woodstock. Many in the town of Woodstock were “summer people”, largely coming up to the “country” from Manhattan for the season, renting or owning homes in Woodstock and its environs. Already celebrated as an art colony, many of these “summer people” were artists, usually landscape artists from “the City” attracted to the picaresque village, its scenery, its “artsy” reputation and plein-aire plenty in the form of hills, streams, woodlands, fields and the mountains of the Catskills — all of which originally attracted the early ‘founders’ of the art colony. A good many of my ‘clients’ were those visiting artists who hired me to clear their surrounding fields, since they had come to paint, not to tend their property. During that time I had met and made friends with many of these artists.

In later years, my interests turned to writing, especially writing about art, and beginning in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, during and after a 14-year stint of teaching English and Literature in the Kingston School System and the nearby Ulster Community College, began doing “artist profiles” of these ‘Woodstockers’ for several of the local newspapers, never being all that pleased with their copy-editors’ propensity to ‘re-write’ my stuff, often including grammatical errors and blatant gaffs like misspelling an artist’s name — a major irritant to an ex-English teacher. My displeasure was often shared with my wife, Cornelia Seckel, who declared one day, “If you are so unhappy with what they do, why don’t we start our own newspaper? You be the editor and, if there are any mistakes, they’ll be yours!” And thus began our founding of the arts journal ART TIMES in 1984 for which I began adding reviews and critiques of art shows in the Northeast to a growing list of profiled artists; the success of ART TIMES extended my range to include the artists and their works from New York City and neighboring states — all of which deepened my knowledge of art and its history. I vividly recall coming upon Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists while dipping into art history in college, and, connecting his work to my own fledgling profiles, began delving into more modern monographic biographies (Emile Zola’s The Masterpiece, ostensibly a biography of his friend Cezanne, comes to mind). Why does an artist create? Where does the urge and inspiration come from? During the hours of conversations I had in the studios of Woodstock artists in writing their profiles, the ‘why’ and ‘where’ were often explored.

Over lunch one day in Greenwich Village with the artist Jack Levine (whom I had also profiled), Zola and Cezanne came up in our conversation and I asked Jack if any such book about an American artist had ever been written. He mentioned a few books about artists but could think of none that traced the life and development of one American artist. Shortly after that conversation, “Jacob (Jake) Forscher” was born and became my main character in The Mountain, written in 2005-6 and published in 2008. A bildungsroman in literary terms, it is a story that unwinds the formation and development of an antagonist’s life and career — in this case, that of my main character “Jake” and his journey into the world of art and dénouement of his final becoming an artist himself, a painter of landscapes.

On the ‘nuts and bolts’ level, I named my character ‘Jacob” because he has to ‘wrestle with the angel’ and ‘Forscher’ because (from the German) he is a seeker, a delver. His setting is the Catskill/Hudson Valley area of upper New York State and, specifically, Woodstock and its environs. His major conflict becomes the capturing in paint of the nearby mountain named “Overlook” — what I call (borrowing from Melville) his unconquerable “white whale”. The unfolding of the plot is largely drawn from my own experiences and work in the area, including a stint as a barge captain on the Hudson, which informs the setting — on a broad scale a loose ‘history’ of the Woodstock art colony — and ‘sets the stage’ for the evolving events, which are an amalgamation of the years of conversations and experiences I’ve had with the Woodstock ‘story’ and its characters. Jake, in essence, embodies those people and ‘relives’ their stories that I attempt to resurrect in The Mountain, peopling his fictional life with historical personages and events to give the story some believability.

I have been asked if “Jake” was me and his life a pseudo-autobiography of myself. Although we share many of the same experiences and characteristics, I am not “Jake”; I do dabble in painting but I am a writer and the character in The Mountain that best represents me is “David Lehrer” (again from the German and meaning ‘teacher’) who enters the story much later in the book as, first, an acquaintance and, later, as friend to the mature “Jake Forscher”.

Raymond J. Steiner
High Woods, NY, 2017