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.