Monday, April 5, 2010

Albion, O Albion

          When I decided to visit Carl Carmer's home town of Albion, New York, it was with the idea of seeing if the place he remembered in Windfall Fiddle bore any resemblance to the Albion of 2010. For starters, I think this piece of Upstate humor is new.

Some things remain the same.

The Courthouse still reaches towards the sky made blue and light by the nearness of Lake Erie. 

The orchards still stand on the ridge north of town.

The Elba Muck of the drained Tonawanda Swamp and Old Orchard still makes rich farmland south of town. (Back in Ithaca I bought some onions grown there; they ought to be called Elba Sweets!)

          Missing were parts of the human landscape that I hoped to find. The Carmer family residence on Main Street is long gone: replaced by a drug store, which in turn sits abandoned for its new clone on the opposite corner. I went to the Mount Albion Cemetary with its fabled viewing tower, in search of the graves of Carl's friend Nikander Strelsky and his wife Catherine, whom Carmer buried there. (Strelsky figures in Carmer's story of the ghostly swans of Olive Bridge.) Search as I would, I found not a trace.

(All photographs by Lucey Bowen, 2010)


Tonawanda Reservation, Lucey Bowen, 2010

           Carl Carmer's chapter, "The World on the Turtle's Back," in Listen for a Lonesome Drum, is for many a beloved introduction into the world of the Iroquois in New York State. I could hardly hope to be recieved as he was by Jesse Cornplanter and the anthropologist William Fenton. Once, I studied anthropology with Anthony F.C. Wallace, who wrote extensively about the Seneca. I think about another literary observer of the Seneca, Edmund Wilson, who wrote about the Iroquois for The New Yorker in the 1950s, as they struggled with the rapacious plans of Robert Moses. 
          On a cold spring afternoon, I drive through the reservation. The hewn log houses, weathered grey and striped with white plaster, still stand, along with trailers and frame houses. What is striking now, however, is the incessant stream of trucks and cars arriving and departing from the gas stations on the fringe of the reservation. Cheap gas and cigarettes draw their white neighbors to the Indian Reservation. I remember the devastating role that rum played in the early encounters of Native Americans and whites, and think there is a certain justice in the gasoline and cigarette sales.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Geneseo-A Town on a Hill

          Carmer wrote "My earliest memory is of a cobblestone inn beside the waters of Conesus, a minor digit of the Finger Lakes about twent-five miles south of the city of Rochester. I was wakened in a second-floor bedroom and carried to a balcony outside a window. Below me, horses switched nervously under blue jacketed riders, and long eared dogs, brown spotted on white, padded about eagerly snuffling the ground. Such images lie far back in an adult's life; clouds surround them, then open only for s split second of sun."
          Carmer continues "I would be a man before I knew that these riders of the Genesee Valley Hunt has eighteenth-century prototypes, that the Wadsworth family, who organized the Hunt in post-Revolutionary times, had chose the blue-and-buff of Continental uniforms for their jackets rather than the conventional "hunting-pink," which former riflemen of of Washington's army might mistake for the garb of a British lobster-back."
          That contrast between fond childhood memory and adult understanding of social structure underlies Carmer's view of Geneseo. Carmer once remarked to a New York Times Book Review interviewer that after World War I, "I went back to teaching in Rochester, married a Rochester girl, and found myself in striped pants and a black coat, the superintendant of a Sunday school. To get anywhere academically, it seemed, I must be a community pillar, and I tried to be. There was nothing natural about it." That is why he took the job in Alabama which led to his best selling Stars Fell on Alabama. Returning to his mother's family near Geneseo, he was invited to ride in the hunt. He "considered the local fences, and rejected the invitation on the ground that I was leaving for New York." I wonder if it was the physical fences, or the social ones created by the Wadsworths and Chanlers, like something out of Gilbert and Sullivan, divorced from reality?
          My visit was anti-climactic: a mediocre beef-on-wick at the local deli, decorated with all manner of hunting boots and crops. What was the Normal School is now SUNY Geneseo, and students are more prevalent than foxes or hounds. And yet, the Genesee Valley still has its wide sweep of open fields bordered with streams and copses. But it was bitterly cold, and I didn't linger.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Ghosts of Dryden

          “Ithaca: 10 square miles, surrounded by reality.” So goes the saying among Cornell loyalists. If so, Dryden is part of reality, but it’s mythical territory to me. Carl Carmer describes his Griswold and Carmer grandparentt’s farm on the banks of Fall Creek, and the shores of Dryden Lake. 
          After a stop at the very active Dryden Historical Society, and armed with their map of the 19th Century township, I found at least one of the farms, I think. I also found the grave of Carmer’s Revolutionary War soldier ancestor.

          Thanks to the Historical Society, I gained some wonderful reading material that further explains Carmer to me. The best find was the typescript of the memories of Myron Carmer, Carl’s uncle on his father’s side. The Historical Society made me a copy of a typescript of this document which was sent to them by a Carmer descendent in Ohio. Uncle Myron wrote them down in 1934 when he was over 80 years of age.

            Myron Carmer remember the Civil War era and the involvement of the various Carmer and Griswold relatives, and many other aspects of 19th Century life in Dryden. What particularly interested me are those incidents which relate to places described by Carl Carmer in Listen for a Lonesome Drum.        

          Myron describes his Cousin Harriet who was sent away to Sanitorium in Dansville, New York. “This institution,” wrote Myron, “was owned by an eccentric man who called himself a doctor, and he called his place a water cure. He did not employ drugs but combined dieting, exercise, bathing and a daily devotional service with a lecture by himself, which every patient had to attend, as the means for getting his patients well.” Carl Carmer’s Griswold grandmother was “quickly converted to this new fad of curing the sick as soon as the young lady cousin returned in good health singing the praises of Dr. Jackson and the water cure.” This meant that Uncle Myron and Carl’s father, Willis, were raised on a vegetarian diet, hard crackers, no sweetened fruit, and two meals a day. This water cure is the Jackson Sanitarium in Dansville, which by the time Carmer described it in Drum, was the Physical Culture Hotel of Bernar McFadden. A few days later I drove past what is left of it, located above Dansville, on Health Street.

            Cousin Harriet’s “most notable whimsy” was Spiritualism, all the rage throughout the country at the time. Myron writes “Cousin Harriet was a medium. It began before she was married and before she had been sent to the sanitarium. She had a sweetheart whom she finally married, and I imagine this gift was one of the attractions she presented to this young man.” So popular was the movement that a hall was built in nearby Freeville for meetings and conventions of Spiritualists. After Harriet’s death in 1863, the Carmers lost faith and resumed eating meat. A few years later, Spiritualism broke out again in a haunted house in the neighborhood. Myron paid his ten cent donation and heard strange rapping and drumming.

            Myron writes that Dryden folk were not at that time acquainted with the goings on of the Fox sisters in Hydesville. I think I hear the echo of Uncle Myron’s tales in Carl Carmer’s accounts of visits Hydesville and Lilydale.            

A Pilgrim on Carmer's Psychic Highway: Palmyra

            Carl Carmer visited the Hill Cumorah for the dedication of the statue of Moroni placed above the spot where Joseph Smith said he found the golden tablets inscribed with the Book of Mormon. Carmer’s dominant thought was that to him a folksy, homey landscape, was to Mormons, sacred ground. The sense that this is part of a pilgrimage road has grown stronger since his visit. The Hill Cumorah has a solid granite Visitor’s Center with a larger than life size stature of Jesus Christ, multi-media maps and videos. Campgrounds and parking lots surround the steep drumlin which also serves as the stage for the elaborate pageant presented yearly. 

             Just up the road is Joseph Smith’s farm, or a highly sanitized version thereof, with a housing development set down next to it. Up the road is the old Canal town of Palmyra, where the print shop that produced the first editions of the Book of Mormon has also been restored. 

             At the crossroads in Palmyra, five large churches stand as proof of the competing religions that Joseph Smith rejected. Back down the road to Cumorah are trailers and other signs of the rural poverty that was his original birthright. 
          At the Visitor’s Center, I’m welcomed by Elder Hill and his wife. They ask if I’m a convert to the Church. I explain that my interest is historical. Tears come to Mrs. Hill’s eyes and she offers me a copy of the Book of Mormon. As I never met a book I didn’t find interesting, I accept. After all, I’m at the Hill Cumorah. For once in my life, I resist being a smart aleck. I don’t ask about Joseph Smith’s reputation as a forger and diviner that preceded his miraculous discovery at Hill Curmorah. I respect their deep faith.

            In the early 19th Century, Joseph Smith felt compelled to people North America with the lost tribes of Israel. In the 21st, it feels like the intervening centuries have aged the land. Story, sacred and profane, populate it for me. Thank you Carl!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Songs from Carmer's Youth in Albion

Count on Carmer to give us a little bit of ethno-musicology!

His Uncle David and the musical Adelaide play Schubert's Marche Militaire and Schumann's Traumerai, but the first tune they teach him is Pop Goes the Weasel.

Of course, down by the Erie Canal, he hears someone singing four choruses of "When I came to this wonderful country..." For the fiddle, his father teaches him Such a Gettin' Upstairs, Nellie Gray and Bright Mohawk Valley. At the commencement dance, The Houghton Brothers play The Irish Washerwoman, with Mr. Minette calling. As they return from the lettuce fields, Bob sings with the workers: Juanita, I Was Seeing Nellie Home, Wait for the Wagon and Sweet Adeline.

Bob dreams of being able to play Portland Fancy, Fisher's Hornpipe and Hull's Victory.

Finally, for Uncle David and Adelaide's wedding, the Houghton Brothers play How Can I Leave Thee, Maid of Athens Ere We Part, and Then You'll Remember Me.

Friday, March 12, 2010

A Labor of Love for the Town of Albion, New York

     In 1950, Carl Carmer published Windfall Fiddle. It was a prize winning children's book, but it isn't much read these days. "Writing it," he said, "was a labor of love." Frankly autobiographical, the book tells us a remarkable amount about Albion, New York, the Erie Canal town where Carmer grew up, and his father was Superintendant of Schools.

     Story-telling and fiddle playing, Decoration day at the Cemetery, the County fair, the volunteer fire departments, one-tent-circuses and peddlers without licenses constitute the social life of the town as the 20th Century came on and they made an impression Carmer didn't forget, even after a half century. It is the kind of place extolled by my patron saint of Upstate New York, James Howard Kunstler. It had a human scale.

     Carmer's avatar, if you will, is a young man, Bob Carson, anxious to earn money to buy a fiddle. His vocational sorties take him from one side of the town to the other. From the orchards on the ridge to the north near Lake Erie, to the black earth farms of the Tonawanda Swamp, east to the sandstone quarries of Medina, west to the fairgrounds and back to the Canal running through the middle of town, Bob maps Albion or White Spring, as he thinks of it, for the reader. After finishing it, I feel I have a mental map of the town. It's a world as adventure filled as any Narnia or Hogwarts.

     There's a kind of moral geography that runs through Windfall Fiddle, as well. After Bob has earned some of the twenty dollars he needs to buy his fiddle, he meets a mysterious vendor of patent medicine who styles himself an Indian. He's arrested for peddling without a license. If Bob will give him the money to pay his fine, he promises to return from Rochester with twenty gold coins. Motivated by kindness and his desire to have the fiddle without the work, Bob gives the peddler the money. Bob soon realizes that his greed had gotten the better of him.  I guess Carmer would have said that Bernie Madoff is as American as apple pie.

      Besides his father, Bob's chief mentor is a Civil War veteran and florist, a Frenchman, loquacious and sage. Bob enjoys Mr. Minette's stories, which teeter towards tall tales, in spite Mr. Minette's protestations to the contrary: "If it is not true, why should I be telling it to you?" Mr. Minette is Carl's muse; imagine learning the craft of story telling from a raconteur like him.

     The imagined town of White Springs has other characters, based on Albion's citizens. The Erie Canal had brought Italians, Poles and African Americans to the region, and Bob Carson seems to have made friends among all these communities. A fire at the lumberyard brings out three volunteer fire companies who engage in a water fight after their work is complete. The hero is an African American, Jake Garlock, whose full time job is as janitor at the bank. The 1910 Census for Albion lists 71 year old Jacob or Jaboc Carter, Black,  from Virginia,  as janitor at the bank.

     No doubt Carmer remembered Albion. I think it was the basis of his fundamental faith in the ordinary people of New York State. I'm going to visit Albion this March. Who knows what stories I may find?


Tuesday, March 9, 2010

"An Explosive Compound"

            That’s how a 19th Century Quaker described the marriage of William Prendergast: “the fire of the Irish temperament” and Mehitable Wing: “the persistence of Quaker passive resistance.” Perhaps this compound is what has made the tale so worth retelling: Wing and Prendergast, yin and yang. In 1766, Prendergast led an armed revolt against the Hudson Valley patroons. His gentle but resolute Quaker wife, Mehitable assisted in his legal defense at Poughkeepsie, and when that failed, rode in blue and white striped dress to Manhattan to beg for his life. Ultimately he was pardoned by King George III.

            I spent some summers horseback riding near where these events took place, and my father told me the story. For me, Wing was the star, Wing and her horse. Truthfully, I confused Mehitable with our other local heroine, Sybil Luddington, the “female Paul Revere,” who also rode a horse. Never mind that I was later married from the Meeting House where Prendergast held out against the British Grenadiers. New York State Regents History curriculum or no, I didn’t really get the whole Anti-Rent, down with landlords campaign. No matter, now I’m convinced that the story has a life of its own, its meaning changing with each telling.

Not Mehitable Wing! Sybil Luddington, Female Paul Revere, Also of Dutchess County.

            To research the story 1938, my father, Croswell Bowen, had only to drive a few miles from Hidden Hollow, his recently purchased summer home in Sherman, Connecticut.  Just over the Sherman border with New York is Quaker Hill, where the Wings had settled. The Akin Free Library there owns a complete set of pamphlets on the history of Quaker Hill. Or Bowen could have driven north to Lake Mauwehoo and the home of Warren Wilson’s daughter, Margaret Lund, for a copy of  Rev. Warren Wilson’s telling of the story. Warren Wilson was a Presbyterian minister sent to Quaker Hill as part of attempts to better life in rural areas. He became intrigued with Quaker Hill and the curious history of the odd borderland known as the Oblong. It is Wilson’s version of the tale that Bowen recounts. Dad remarks “It is not an unknown story up here,” but doesn’t make clear if the transmission was oral or written. The letter indicates he and Carmer already had already heard something of the tale, and knew the direction they’d take it: “Just as we suspected the story is certainly in her.” 

The Akin Free Library; Research Heart of Quaker Hill, LuceyBowen, 2009

            Meanwhile Carmer, in Manhattan, had access to newspaper accounts of the incident. Carmer puts these sources to use in The Hudson chapter “Without Indecorum of Behaviour.” In it, Mehitable shares the stage with William Prendergast’s activities and his qualities as a leader. Carmer was very interested in that episode; his friend the farmer-poet Henry Christman lived in the Helderbergs, the heart of the mid-19th century resurgence of the Anti-Renters. Although a self professed “Upstate Republican,” Carmer had a deep sympathy for working people, and for the origins of the American Revolution among ordinary farmers. Carmer traces the Prendergasts from their marriage, thru the rebellion and its aftermath. With the success of The Hudson, Carmer’s version brought the tale to a wide audience. Even as redoubtable a historian as Cornell’s Michael Kammen, as recently as 1983, relied on Carmer’s version.

            As a child I failed to see the significance of some of the details that Carmer brings forward in “Without Indecorum of Behaviour.” The first concerns Robert Noble’s anti-rent action farther upriver on the Van Renselaer Manor. Prendergast was leading a movement that threatened two very large patent-holders and their commercial interests. This was no dinner party. Robert Noble’s title to his lands, which Van Renselaer disputed, came from the Mohican John Van Guilder. Van Guilder and other family members came to the aid of Robert Noble in his fight against the patroon. Neither my father nor Carmer seem to have been aware that Van Guilder was the patriarch of the “border people, independent, primitive,” who finally settled in Guilder Hollow, north of Albany on the Vermont border, whose ilk Carmer labels “sociological islands” and writes about in “Witches Make Star Tracks,” elsewhere in The Hudson. I wonder if Van Guilder’s assistance provided the model for later Anti-Renters adopting “tin horn and calico” garb and masks. 
            Speaking of dress: Carmer includes the detail that Mehitable borrowed her sister’s blue striped linen dress to wear on her equine flight to appeal to Gov. Moore. This detail recalls the theme of songs and stories from around the world in which the witty and beautiful wife saves her husband or lover from some terrible fate. Mehitable is an archetype of English balladry, no wonder she made such an impression on judges and governors and gained Prendergast’s reprieve.

             Carmer observes “If this were not a true tale it would end here,” that’s to say, with Mehitable and William back on their leased acres, living happily ever after. But that was not to be. Another telling of the story is needed. Seeking information about the Prendergast revolt, Irving Wood, a professor of comparative religion at Smith College, claimed to have spoken with one beautiful older Quaker in 1881. “I do not know the story well,” she told him, “and I do not think thee will find many who do.” The story haunted her fancy, and she tried to imagine the conflicting emotions armed rebellion raised as Mehitable waited its outcome at home. “By and by, when she went out at the sound of still another hoof-beat, she found it was an old neighbor from Quaker Hill. And when she asked him, he only looked solemnly at her and said sternly, ‘Mehitable, thee is beginning to see the fruits of they sowing when thee married out of meeting. Only beginning to see. Those that take the sword shall perish by the sword,’ and he went on.”

            Woods added, that in addition to the disapproval of the Quaker community,  “The disappointment of his failure, and the stigma of a sentence of death seems to have weighed on William Prendergast.” The William Prendergast remained a customer of a store at Quaker Hill in 1771 but then the family moved, north, then west. While the Prendergasts are remembered in Chatauqua, where they finally settled, they were forgotten on Quaker Hill. As the old woman of Quaker Hill, observed, “Friends are not fond of keeping memories of wars and fighting.”

            Although one historian claimed that in the 18th Century, the “Story of Mehitable Wing was often told in Dutchess County, and she was called the heroine of Quaker Hill,” Michael Kammen found no reference to her in the 19th Century histories of Dutchess County. I am not surprised. Although Prendergast attempted to ally himself with the nascent revolutionary movement, the Liberty Boys, they would have none of it. The Revolution itself did not bring an end to feudal tenantry in the Hudson Valley; landlords like the Livingstons and Van Rensalaers took the patriot side and retained their power in the new government and courts. The armed resistance which had pitted neighbor against neighbor was quieted until 1844. The confrontations that took place then, between landlord’s agents, sheriffs serving eviction notices and down-rent tenants morphed into a political movement. In 1846, New York State amended its constitution to discourage the system of land rents. The landlords gradually loosened their hold on the land. Yet it was not until 1914, that the Wing Family association attached, to a boulder near the Wing homestead, a plaque telling Mehitable’s story. In 1940, Carmer took Mehitable’s story to the airwaves, as part of the DuPont sponsored radio broadcast, Cavalcade of America

            10 years later Carmer published the material again, as part of a series, "Winston Adventure Books," to which he was also consulting editor. Entitled Rebellion at Quaker Hill, A Story of the First Rent War, the tale is recast to suit the taste of pre-teen boys for adventures involving guns. Here the protagonist isn't William Prendergast or Mehitable, but Andy Wing, Mehitable's nephew. With her assistance he rides out after Prendergast and witnesses the events of the rebellion and Mehitable's intervention. Carmer gives to him the internal dialogue between his Quaker pacifism and his fears for his uncle. 
            In the most recent telling I’ve found, published in 2002, the story is emphatically Prendergast’s, and it is a tragedy. In an article “Crowd and Court, Rough Music and Popular Justice in Colonial New York,” historian Thomas J. Humphrey provides a detail of Prendergast’s rebellion that isn’t mentioned in Reverend Wilson’s or Carmer’s account. Prendergast and his group seized two tenants favorable to landlords Philipse and Beverly Robinson and subjected them to a mock trial in an outdoor court. Prendergast is briefly the master of political theatre. He presides and successfully intimidates the two. Inevitably, he is reversed, he surrenders and finds himself on trial for treason. Mehitable’s decorum and bravery are credited with saving him from a gruesome death, but the King’s mercy displays where power resides, and humbles Prendergast and his followers. 

            I was inspired to consult some of Humphrey’s sources. At about the same time as Carmer was writing The Hudson, the social historian Oscar Handlin, examined the court record of the trial in the archives of the New York Historical Society, and published them in the New York University Law Review.  Ah, original sources! I’m a huge fan of crime procedurals, and this document is a treasure of a script. The attorney general, John Kempe, questions each witness, and their testimony is recorded. Not a lawyer, but William Prendergast himself cross examines them. We can almost hear Mehitable, who accompanied him, prompting his questions. She’s a Quaker, committed to non-violence; the questions constantly force the witnesses to acknowledge Prendergast’s previously peaceful reputation, and his continued statements that the dispute was only with the landlords over rent and all other debts should be paid. Yet, as Handlin observes “The notes were made while the trial was in progress, and therefore do not form a finished narrative.” It was to Carmer, with his story teller’s magic, to do that, and to do it in a number of different fashions!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Carmer, Jesse Cornplanter and the Anthropologist Fenton

Carmer Conducting Fieldwork Among Shad Fisherman, Croswell Bowen, 1938

In his author’s note to Listen for a Lonesome Drum Carl Carmer writes “I have described the events narrated here substantially as they occurred.”  I pointed out earlier in this blog that Carmer’s narrative stance is akin to an anthropologist’s or an ethnographer’s. But not quite. William N. Fenton, who introduced Carmer to Jesse Cornplanter, was an anthropologist, trained at Yale University. Consider here how Carmer constructs his accounts of Jesse Cornplanter and what Fenton has to say about it.

Not Jesse Cornplanter Carving! Iroquois and the New Deal author Laurence Hauptman says this is Kidd Smith. Photo from National Archives.
        As in his earlier Stars Fell on Alabama, Carmer draws us into the scene with his description of traveling, this time through winter’s snow to the Tonawanda Reservation. Cornplanter’s house, the Long House and later the Cattaraugus reservation, are the setting for Carmer’s telling of the stories and description of the ritual performances of the Seneca. Four chapters cover The Faces, The Dark Dance, Seneca beliefs about witchcraft, and the Maple Thanksgiving. Much of what happens is quoted in direct speech, and some of the conversations deal with Seneca political concerns, not ritual. Once again, Carmer is a gracious guest, and wins the reader’s sympathy to his sentiments: “And I felt ashamed that the people of my native state had not long ago realized the wealth that lies in the literature of the tribes of the Iroquois Union.”

Fenton is quick to acknowledge that Carmer’s work cleared a path for him. When Fenton began his teaching career, the popularity of Listen for A Lonesome Drum, in which Fenton is mentioned, guaranteed his celebrity with both academics and students. I’m intrigued by Fenton’s account of Carmer’s methods. Fenton wrote “I would soon learn that creative writing marches to a different drummer than historical ethnology.” Fenton saw that Carmer altered chronology, shifted scenes and characters. He had seen the chance to work with Carmer as an exchange of field work methods. He discovered that Carmer never made any notes, but had the ability to recall whole conversations. Fenton describes himself as an “inveterate scribbler.” His notebook system used right hand pages for observation, and left hand pages for questions, comments and additions, to be followed by transcription. In spite of borrowing Fenton’s notes, Carmer doesn’t get all his details right; to Fenton’s disappointment, but not to the Tonawanda Senecas, who liked Carmer’s writing.

William N. Fenton

When Fenton reviewed Carmer’s Dark Trees to the Wind, which contains additional material on the Iroquois, Fenton observed “Neither a proper folklorist not a true historian, Carmer belongs rather to the belles letters.” Seems a bit harsh to me. Fenton grants anthropologists and historians the privilege of investigating and representing the Iroquois, and writers like Walter D. Edmonds, Edmond Wilson and Carmer the same, but based on their knowledge of world literature. But he criticizes Carmer for adhering to aesthetics rather than educational or informational standards. What I’ve learned about Carmer’s writing, particularly from examining his use of my father, Croswell Bowen, as a collector, is that the story is primary. Listener or reader expect a shape, and know that the writer or teller may play within that shape. My sense is that Carmer saw himself as a teller of tales like those he’d listened to with his father in upstate New York. Fenton was an expert in discovering underlying ritual patterns yet didn’t privilege Carmer to do on the page what oral storytellers always do on the porch, which is swap lies.

(Fenton’s comments can be found in “The Iroquois in the Grand Tradition of American Letters: The Works of Walter D. Edmonds, Carl Carmer, and Edmond Wilson,” in American Indian Culture and Research Journal 5:4 (1981) 21-39.)

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Listening for Carmer, Part II, Seven Stops on the Psychic Highway

Carl Carmer's Psychic Highway, Google Maps Style
     "Across the entire breadth of York State, undeviating, a hilly strip scarcely twenty-five miles wide invites the world's wonder. It is a broad psychic highway, a thoroughfare of the occult whose great stations number the mystic seven." So wrote Carl Carmer in Listen for A Lonesome Drum, before presenting the material which demonstrates for his readers that indeed, upstate New York, like Alabama is under some supernatural spell.
     He presented much of this material in both book form, and in the "Reporter At Large" section of The New Yorker magazine. In 1936, The New Yorker published six of Carmer’s essays on the curious psychic events of upstate New York. Carmer’s accounts of the Lily Dale spiritualists, Orson Fowler’s phrenology, and the Oneida Community provide the depth in the magazine’s coverage of Upstate New York: a place either out of mind or of another time. Although this period pre-dates Caroline Gordon’s masterful examination of the world-view of The New Yorker readers and writers, The World Through a Monocle, Gordon's analysis helps us understand this audience. Gordon found that New York City sophistication and tolerance mixed oddly with the interactions between races in cartoons of maidservant with mistress or master conversations. In the thirties, the magazine’s stance towards citizens in the rest of the state was similarly marked. The “Talk of the Town” section featured a short piece about an upstate visitor, lost in Manhattan traffic, directed by a helpful policeman to the Holland Tunnel so that she could spend her vacation in Atlantic City, instead of NYC, as planned. Another “Talk” piece described a similar encounter in which a policeman, seeing a visitor’s Westchester address on his license, excused him as a farmer and sent him on his way.
    Why are writer and reader were complicit in accepting, even anticipating, extra-ordinary stories of upstate goings-on? I've concluded that Carmer  and his readers accepted some part of the Romantic notion of an aesthetic experience of place. These upstate goings-on fill the need to experience the weird, the picturesque, and the uncanny in order to define a location.
     If we travel the Psychic Highway today, should we expect to find any trace of the weird or supernatural? Carmer's first stop was the Niskayuna Shaker Family Dwellings near what is now Albany Airport. The last of the Shakers here had recently departed for New Lebanon, across the River, and so he visited them there. Some seventy years later, I visited both. Niskayuna once encompassed several Shaker "families," the entities into which the community was divided. Some of the families' buildings no longer exist. Albany County used one, called the Ann Lee Home, after the founder of the Shaker religion. Other buildings are privately owned, and used as rental apartment buildings. The West Family Farm remains under cultivation by the children of the man who bought it when the Shakers departed. Nothing strange here, unless you think strange any folk attempting to make a living farming in New York in these difficult times.
     New Lebanon is another story. On one hand, the Darrow School is sited at one of the family farms. The school was founded by Shakers and their supporters. The gigantic stone barn is in ruins, but stabilized. Down the road, Shaker spiritualism has manifested itself. A Sufi community, The Abode of the Message has found a home there. In addition to practicing organic farming, the Sufi see the world in ways similar to the Shakers, believing that "The world, within and without, continuously presents us with signs of this universal force of love."

     I've not traveled west to the next stop on the psychic highway, the Oneida Community, which Carmer tells about as a tale of "conscientious Yankee craftsmanship and business acumen but also of such courageous social experiment as the world has witnessed but once." The community tried to perfect their lives on earth. The community's Mansion House has the motto, "Still Perfect." Believers in life-long learning, the Mansion House today offers plays, lectures and other educational programs. Visitors can still lodge and eat there, and take a guided tour of the communal dwelling. I'm not so confident about finding Fat's Diner, where Carmer had an egg sandwich and inquired of Fat what the working folk thought of their bosses at the flatware factory, but Cemeteries, like the Community Cemetery where Oneida founder John Humphrey Noyes is buried, seldom move.

     A required stop on this road trip down the Psychic Highway would be Cobbs Hill in Rochester.  Carmer describes how William Miller went there to await the Second Coming, the rapturing and the end of the world on October 22, 1842. He wasn't alone in his disappointment. Cobbs Hill is now a park.

Next we should head south to Penn Yan, where Jemima Wilkinson, the Public Universal Friend held sway over the Jemimakins. Carmer tells how this woman miraculously returned to life after seeming to die of the plague, and founded a colony on the shores of Seneca Lake.  A history of the  town of New Jerusalem states "The oldest denomination or sect to find a foothold within the town of Jerusalem was probably that of the Society of Friends, headed by Jemima WILKINSON, or the Public Universal Friend, as she styled herself.  This remarkable woman made the town her home in 1794, and her domicile was the place of meeting for her society." Although she "left time" in 1819, Carmer found not only families descended from her followers, but also artifacts from her existence, such as her crescent shaped coach. Today we  can see the exterior of her house, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

     The next stop on this journey is Hydesville, New York, where the three Fox Sisters are said to have founded Modern Spiritualism. Carmer tells how the three sisters first exploited and then exposed their methods for communicating with spirits. The foundation of the house where the Fox sisters first developed their techniques is now enclosed in a protective barn, and is a pilgrimage site for Spiritualists.

     Mormons from all over the world visit the Hill Cumorah, the next stop on our journey. Carmer recounts the story of Joseph Smith and the tablets he discovered here. Carmer climbed the hill on a summer day in 1936, and exchanged ideas with a Mormon elder. Carmer returned later to view the unveiling of the statue of Moroni. For Carmer the revelation was that an established, international religion viewed his native state as holy ground. Nowadays, one can visit not only the Hill Cumorah, but Joseph Smith's farm and the place where the book of Mormon was first printed.

     On to Lily Dale, or the Lily Dale Assembly. Much, much more than a foundation remains of this center of Spiritualism. These days in July and August, there are astrological readings, sweat lodges, spirit walks and mediums galore. At the Inspiration Stump you will feel the most profound energy of Lily Dale, and may receive a short message from the spirits. The mediums and trumpet speakers labored so hard to convince and convert the doubting Carmer that he drove to nearby Chautauqua as quickly as his car would take him.

If it were me, I'd head down to Dryden, near Ithaca, off the Psychic Highway. I'd visit the Pioneer
Cemetery and find the grave of Carl's ancestor, one Isaac Carmer who d. Jan. 26, 1853, ae 101 yrs, 10 months, 29 days.

"Revolutionary War Soldier - Isaac Carmer (1760-1853)  Enlisted at Sandyston, NJ, March 1, 1776 in the Third Regiment of Sussex Co., NJ,  Militia.  He served under Lieutenants Aaron Westbrook and Daniel Depue, and Captains Peter Westbrook, Jacob Rosencrantz and James Broderick.  His active service consisted of short tours of duty, usually for one month, in each of the six years 1776 to 1781, inclusive.  He was pensioned at Dryden, NY.  (Rev. War Pens. App. File No. S864, National Archives, Washington, DC) Dryden Census 1850, Isaac was living with John Carmer, Isaac's age was 98 years old at that time."

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Listening for Carmer, Part I

From East to West, Krebs, Physical Culture Hotel, Covenanters, Genesee Valley Hunt, Tonawanda Reservation

     Homer's Odyssey is the mother of all travel narratives, the hero's journey. After the Trojan War, Ulysses' trip back to Ithaca brings him to the many curious corners of the Mediterranean, and finally home to Penelope. Often forgotten is that Ulysses had to wonder again, further inland, before he was allowed to return home for good.
     Carl Carmer's traveler's account of the deep south as a foreign country, Stars Fell on Alabama, was an enormously successful travel narrative. Carmer was encouraged, certainly by his sister Katherine, and probably by his publisher, to apply its trope to his native York State. This he does in Listen for a Lonesome Drum, which purports to be the account of his travels after returning from Alabama to his upstate home. Drum doesn't disappoint, informing the reader of the folkways of Upstate New Yorkers from one end of the Erie Canal to the other, and from the Adirondacks to the Helderbergs.
     I'm curious to know what remains. A Carl Carmer Road Trip is called for. Drums is our guide, the internet, our vehicle for this expedition. Carl might approve, as long as we did the driving.
    "I passed another lake, Skaneateles, and rolled to a stop at a curb where dozens of cars had already drawn up. Eagerly I sought the door of a pleasant white house set in a row of others a quarter-mile away from the water. In front of it hung a simple sign-but all habitual travelers of York State know that here is the spot where the poetry of the countryside is to be forsaken for that of cruisine." Carmer is speaking of Krebs, established in 1899. His description of the upstate food they cooked the upstate way makes your mouth water, even across the years. Between May and October, Krebs serves that same traditional meal, family style, from a buffet cart: prime rib, fried chicken, two kinds of potatoes, gravy, with homemade pies, brownies and sherbet for desert. Or at least it has for the seventy three years since Carmer visited. In December, 2009, the restaurant was put up for sale. It has had only three owners: the Krebs, their adopted son Fred Perkins, and Jan and Jerry Loveless. The Lovelesses want to retire, but hope the new owner will keep Krebs as its been for more than 100 years. In truth, some reviewers of the restaurant don't care for its timeless cuisine, but I would love to relive Carmer's meal. (The asking price is less than two million, and that includes the restaurant, two other houses and two and a half acres. Contact Linda Roche if you are interested.)
     Thus sated, Carmer heads west to his sister's home. Other peregrinations take him south to the hills above Hemlock Lake, where the weird Caleboguers were said to live. Northwest of Conesus Lake another group, the Covenanters, who hold to the religion of the Second Reformation in Scotland, and took refuge first in Ireland before settling around Caldonia, NY. The Presbyterian Stone Church there seems a fitting trace of their steadfastness.
     Carmer himself acknowledges that the most picturesque of dwellers around Geneseo are the scant circle of landowning families, the Wadsworths, the Chanlers, the Stowes, the Chandlers and so on. He describes them as avid hunters. "In hunting season," he writes, "the valley distances echo the sound of the horn, the pink coats glow through the morning mists." "The whole relationship between the landed gentry and the countryside is cordial and amusing," Carmer continues, "but a little as if it were the creation of Gilbert and Sullivan."
      Can such traditions continue into the 21st Century? Why yes, in 2010, the 134th season of the Genesee Valley Hunt will open as usual in September, at one of the manors, The Homestead, that Carmer describes. Presumably, it will again be led by a member of one of the landowning families. As in years past, the Valley will give the impression of "divorce from the rest of living."

     Even older than the Genesee Valley Hunt is the Tonawanda Indian Reservation. Carmer seems to have stayed there for several weeks, and describes the dances he witnessed. He went there at the invitation of Chief Jesse Cornplanter, a most remarkable man, a pivotal figure in 20th Century Indian affairs. Whatever you may think of Carmer's techniques as a folklorist, ethnologist or historian, he conveys in these chapters his appreciation of being invited into the Seneca world, as well as the immediacy of what he saw and felt. An artist and author, Jesse Cornplanter was the last direct descendent of Cornplanter, Seneca war-chief. After the American Revolution, and with his half-brother, Handsome Lake, Cornplanter tried to lead the Iroquois to return to traditional Indian ways of life and ceremony. In spite of the best efforts of some of those landowners in the Genesee Valley Hunt, the Seneca managed to hold onto some of their land and avoid removal to Kansas. In his own time Jesse Cornplanter served both the United States, in World War II, and the Iroquois nation, by documenting and preserving traditions. How to recapture Carmer's experiences with Cornplanter? You could visit the New York State Library, where Cornplanter's drawings are kept. Or you could visit the Four Corners Cemetery, on the Reservation, where he's buried.
     The last stop on this Carmer Road Trip will be the place Carmer passed on his way to Chautauqua. "I had stopped for lunch at the dignified old red brick building on the side of the great hill that rises above Dansville. It is one of the earliest recollections of my childhood, this long many-windowed institution which adults call the Jackson Sanitorium." He soon discovers that it has become the Physical Culture Hotel, under the direction of one Bernarr MacFadden, the Jack LaLanne of his day. Carmer found the guests a little too enthusiastic. The hotel-spa closed in 1971, and in spite of rumors of restoration , appears in this picture from Google maps, a ruin.

Friday, February 19, 2010

It Took Great Editors and Great Writers to Make The Rivers of America Series

     Carl Carmer's role in the Rivers of America series, first as the author of The Hudson, and subsequently as an editor, was assigned to him by a remarkable woman, Constance Lindsay Skinner. Skinner was born Canadian, in Cariboo, near Vancouver, British Columbia in 1877. She lived the history of the western frontier; her father traded furs for the Hudson's Bay Company.  She worked first as a journalist, and then as one of just three women who contributed to the Yale University Press's first attempt at a comprehensive, fifty-volume, American history for the general reader. In a male dominated field where academic training was becoming the norm, she lacked a degree. She pioneered in the writing history that combined literature and folklore. (There's an essay on her in Creating Historical Memory; English Canadian Women and the Work of History.)
     She proposed a series which told America's story through its Rivers. The authors were to be from the various river valleys, and write from a native's sense of place. By 1939, the first volume, Kennebec: Cradle of America by Robert P. Tristam Coffin had sold 12,000 copies. When she died, four more volumes had been published. She died having just finished editing the galleys of Carmer's The Hudson.  Carl Carmer and Stephen Vincent Benet then edited the series from 1940 to 1943. Carmer authored another in the series, The Susquehanna and edited the series from 1946 thru 1974. If you ever aspire to owning the entire series, and like to lurk in antiquarian bookstores looking for certain volumes, you may want to invest in Carol Fitzgerald's The Rivers of America, A Descriptive Bibliography. You'll find details of every volume: author biographies, editions, printings, editors and publishers. Flow on!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Post Modern is Older Than You Think

Carl Carmer's Octagon in Life, 1947

The Octagon in 2009, Lucey Bowen

     As I traveled the Hudson Valley on the 400th Anniversary of Henry Hudson’s voyage of discovery, most people were unaware Carmer had been in charge of the previous celebration, just fifty years ago. While his stature is still high among specialists in Hudson Valley history and literature, few people other than librarians are now familiar with his writing. If there is a purgatory for writers, it might be this: a quarter century after your death you are remembered as the one whose work was incorporated, without overt acknowledgement, into a younger man’s prize-winning short story. Carl Carmer’s 1934 bestseller, Stars Fell on Alabama, was the basis for Vice’s short story Tuscaloosa Knights, in his The Bear Bryant Funeral Train. In 2005, this exploded into a literary scandal. Vice lost his prize, his book contract and his teaching job. Defenders of Vice spoke of post-modern writers appropriating older works for transformative purposes. Questions of plagiarism, non-fiction, fiction, and fair-use were raised. 
If  Carmer is almost forgotten, it is our loss. Carmer should be remembered for Stars, for his quartet of books about New York State’s folk history, for his radio broadcasts of regional folktales and songs. He should be remembered as a raconteur, a speaker popular all across the country in the 1940s and 50s. He should be remembered for his work in the 1960s on the pivotal environmental suit that stopped construction of a generating plant at Storm King Mountain, and for his activism in saving the architecturally distinctive house, Boscobel, in the previous decade. In short, for initiating much of the conservation and preservation efforts which make the Hudson the cleaner, much-loved river it is today.
Other than chapbooks of poetry, Stars Fell on Alabama was Carmer’s first book. He was not from the South he wrote about in Stars. He was born in a small town in western upstate New York, educated at Hamilton College, later at Harvard and went to the University of Alabama to teach. Stars Fell on Alabama was the 6th most-sold book in the country. In the wake of the 2005 scandal, Vice’s own publishers, the University of Georgia, asserted that Stars was a work of fiction, in spite of its original publication as non-fiction, a memoir. Its current publisher, the University of Alabama, labels it neither purely journalistic nor novelistic, rather, Folklore or History. This serves to highlight Carmer’s style. Carmer was creating something different. Stars was unlike most of the Nonfiction titles of its decade, or this one. It’s neither history, nor biography, nor self-help nor instruction. Perhaps its closest parallel is Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, which sold well in the late 1920s. Both portray purportedly exotic peoples, using anthropology’s participant observation method. With Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind,  #1 bestseller in Fiction sales in 1937 and 1938, Stars shared a southern setting. 
Stars is the first person narrative of Carmer’s sojourn in Alabama. Drama is created when he’s warned by a fellow professor not to stay. He witnesses a Klu Klux Klan rally; his host points out that you can identify the participants by their shoes. This is the section borrowed by Brad Vice. Carmer described his writing in Stars and his later works as a patchwork quilt. He signals his intentions in several ways. He states that his historian friends have told him that there is no such thing as truth. He prefaces his tales with the remark that he is telling them as he heard them; a device storytellers often employ to gain the listener’s attention to upcoming exaggeration. He admits to changing identities of real people to protect them from embarrassment. More than this, the central device he employs in writing about Alabama is that of dreams, enchantment, magic, time out of time: Alabama is under the spell of a long-ago meteor shower. 
In Stars, Carmer’s vacillation between charm and outrage established him as a novelistic, perhaps untrustworthy, narrator, at least to the Alabamians of the era. This strategy anticipates the post-modernism that Vice pleads. Vice bowed to the literary advisor who told him that post-modern fiction had to look like realistic fiction: no epigrams. Different times, different moralities. Carmer was born in 1893. Carmer was gracious and explicit in thanking his sources, living or dead. His acknowledgements list them and where they’re from. 
  Carmer’s authorial identity as a narrator, that of the single male traveler, in spite of being twice married, is questionable, although he advised folklorists to send their wives on vacation while collecting. His congeniality was real. One author spoke of the Carmers as the most generous hosts in Greenwich Village. They regularly gathered writers and editors around their dinner table. Stars readers can hardly help but identify with Carmer, a courtly figure who likes and is liked by almost everyone he meets. His hosts guide him through the regions, sub-cultures and social groupings of the state. The end result is a collection of tales, songs and other folkways acknowledged to be representative of life in Depression Alabama. Vice’s is also a collection of stories. His Tuscaloosa story has curious anachronisms. Carmer’s sojourn in Alabama took place between 1928 and 1934. Vice’s story takes place five years after the crash of 1929, that is 1934. Yet Bear Bryant’s leg was not broken until 1935, and Vice’s heroine alludes to Gone with the Wind, not published until 1936. I wonder if Vice had a purpose in this, a deliberate slip, to remind the reader that this is fiction. A reader familiar with Carmer’s Stars, reading the stories of The Bear Bryant Funeral Train would find that the two books do inform each other. Vice’s story has a heroine, contrasting with hero’s journey narrator of Stars; Carmer writes himself as a solitary visitor. In Vice’s story the narrator is feminine, perhaps feminist, highlighting Carl’s male point of view. Vice carries further Carmer’s conceit of Alabamans as under a spell: the inmates released from the asylum and about to meet the other madmen, the ones who wear sheets. 
Forgotten today, Carmer was at the height of his success in the midst of the Depression. In 1936, he followed Stars with Listen for a Lonesome Drum, about his native state, New York. His paternal ancestors were among the first settlers of the Hudson Valley under the Dutch East Indies Company’s tenure. He was strongly attracted to narratives that conveyed the democratic impulse among New Yorkers, such as the Down-Rent Agitations prior to the American Revolution and in the early 19th Century. In Listen for A Lonesome Drum, he continued to employ the device of the first person narrative of a journey, as in Stars. The readers, and indeed, his own sister, recognize him as the man who’s just published Stars and returned to the familiar ground of Upstate New York. His devices include more kinds of tales, and some local accounts of historical events. Always he includes the storyteller’s disclaimer, “I’m going to tell you this just as I heard it.”  
     The next year, editor Constance Lindsay Skinner, with publisher Farrar and Rhinehart, launched the Rivers of America series. These were to provide readable interpretations of American history, authored by writers, not historians, and centered on the role its rivers in America’s development. She asked Carmer to write the volume about the Hudson, an inspired choice.