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.)

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