Under ordinary circumstances an American might safely ignore the tragic history of the Serbs, but as the conflict in the Balkans threatens, increasingly, to set off an international war, access to sound information becomes crucial. Alex Dragnich’s many careful studies of the region should be near the top of anyone’s list. His Serbs and Croats: The Struggle in Yugoslavia is the clearest exposition of the Yugoslav idea and its consequences, and this little volume (and its predecessor in this series, The Saga of Kosovo, 1984) provides a series of clear snapshots of who the Serbs are and why they cling so insistently to their traditions. This volume’s contributors concentrate on several key periods of Serbian history: the Middle Ages, in which the Serbs crafted a brilliant Slavic variant on Byzantine civilization; the centuries after Kosovo and the Turkish conquest; the development of Serbian political traditions of self-rule and constitutional democracy; and the terrible ordeals of two world wars in which the Serbs lost as large a part of their population as any nation has lost in modern times. Every people has a story to tell, and some small nations, like the Irish, while they have failed at nation-building, have excelled in telling their stories. Like the Irish, the Serbs are a nation of singers and storytellers, and the essays collected in this volume go a long way toward explaining both their national pride and the cultural legacy they are just beginning to recover after five decades of war and communist rule.


[Serbia’s Historical Heritage, edited by Alex N. Dragnich (New York: East European Monographs) 121 pp., $37.00]

Bill Kauffman’s latest book offers a detailed account of the history and culture of 12 rural communities in upstate New York. Blessed by prosperity and an independent- minded citizenry and relatively free from “gangsta” violence and government malfeasance, these towns are among the few remaining vestiges of the old American republic, which the author celebrates in this book. An eloquent, wise, and well-informed guide, Kauffman leads the reader through elegant mansions that once housed such celebrities as Cornelius Vanderbilt and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. He offers tours of bucolic retreats like Westfield, where wine-making is a long-established trade, and Seneca Falls, the site of the Women’s Rights Convention of 1848. Quite apart from natural beauty, these communities boast citizens who possess the courage and integrity that characterized their revolutionary forebears. For example, when state officials selected an area in Allegany County as the site for a toxic waste dump, local citizens took up arms and drove the officials away. Some upstate New Yorkers have achieved international fame. James Fenimore Cooper grew up in Cooperstown, where his father served as a judge while the younger Cooper explored the outlying wilderness. Washington Irving, while visiting Kinderhook, whose citizens provided the inspiration for some of the characters in his work, fraternized with an aspiring politician named Martin van Buren. But despite their treasures, these country towns are not plagued by tourists, who, were they to come, would not find the “advantages” of modern life—shopping malls, fast-food restaurants. Gore Vidal once wrote that settlement had reduced the American countryside to “a cement desert bright with golden arches.” Fortunately for upstate New York, Vidal’s harsh generalization is not yet true.


[Country Towns of Upstate New York, by Bill Kauffman (Castine, Maine: Country Roads Press) 118 pp., $9.95]