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.