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."

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