Odds & Ends
A Newsletter of Eagles Byte Historical Research
February 1997, No. 17
He Heard the Lonesome Drum
Now I'm not saying that you can walk into any used book store in any part
of the world and find it. There may even be some shops in the U. S. that
don't have it in stock. But I'd be surprised if a good many didn't have
it somewhere on their shelves. I've come across it in New York, Los Angeles
and New Orleans.
I've never seen one with a dust jacket. The bare book is dark blue, with
a black title band across the spine, near the top. Above the band, in gold
script: The Rivers of America. Then the title, on the band: The Hudson.
The author: Carl Carmer.
Carmer did not write the first book in the River series, but he seems to
have written the most ubiquitous. (The bookstore in New Orleans that carried
it did not carry the Mississippi volume.) Neither was he the first
to introduce the American people to themselves. But it would be hard to
discuss the portrayal of those people without discussing him.
I don't know if our Carl Carmer is related to the Carl Carmer who was hauled
into court in Beverwyck, New York, in 1652, along with his wife, for selling
pretzels to the Indians. I'll leave that puzzle to the genealogists. But
it would be fitting, somehow. (The problem, by the way, was that the "heathen
were eating flour while the Christians were eating bran.")
Whether a descendant or not, Carl Lamson Carmer was born on October 16,
1893, in upstate New York. His father Willis Griswold Carmer, principal
of Dansville High School, was not with his pregnant wife Mary Lamson Carmer
when she went to visit her father's farm at Dryden. As Carl latter wrote,
"A good team of horses got them both into Cortland in time for me to
be born in the hospital there."
When he was five his father became principal of Albion High School in the
western part of the state and Carl Carmer left the Fingers Lakes. He would
Carl graduated from the high school in Albion in 1910 and entered his father's
alma mater, Hamilton College. Graduating, he was off to Harvard for his
Masters degree in English Literature, then on to a position at Syracuse
University where he taught writing to freshmen. It was while he was spending
a year teaching at the University of Rochester that he was drafted. A series
of jobs in the military followed - drill sergeant, sergeant-clerk in the
Division Judge Advocate's office, teaching in the School of Fire at Fort
Sills, Oklahoma. Then he was out - going back to teach at Hamilton, then
once again to the University of Rochester, where he eventually became a
Carmer now wanted to write and in 1927, when he accepted a teaching job
at the University of Alabama, it's likely that a chance to become a columnist
for the New Orleans Morning Tribune provided much of the allure.
Upon his arrival in Tuscaloosa, a colleague, aware of the dismal state of
Alabama race relations, warned him "...if I knew you well enough to
advise you, I'd say 'For God's sake, get out of here before it's too late.'"
It would be another six years before Carmer would follow his advice.
Meanwhile he began exploring his adopted state, traveling around the Cajun
Country, the Red Hills, the Black Belt, the Conjure Country. He learned
of a slave legend telling of a night when a shower of stars was seen over
the region, and saw for himself, "Moons, red with the dust of barren
hills...festering swamps, restless yellow rivers...enchantment-an emanation
of malevolence that threatens to destroy men through dark ways of its own."
He also talked and listened to ordinary people and wrote down what they
told him. In his introduction to The Hudson he referred to his book
as, "...more about tenants than landlords, more about privates than
generals, more about workers than employers." While visiting a white
family in the countryside he became aware that an argument in town over
a faulty record player had led to the shooting of a white man by a black
man and an ensuing lynching. He soon learned that the violence had grown
and resulted in the murder of innocent blacks. His hosts, while disapproving
of the killings, tried to distract him by asking him to tell them about
New York City. When someone asked if the governor could do anything they
were told, "He was elected by the Klan." The next day Carmer attended
the black church with his hosts, as a memorial service for the dead blacks
But he also recorded the lighter facets of Alabama folk life - listing fiddler's
tunes, quilt patterns, Sacred Harp singing and the superstitions of whites
and blacks. The researchers of the WPA would
soon pick up where he left off. He even self-published French Town,
a volume of verse.
He returned north, moving to New York City. At this time he married the
New Orleans artist Elizabeth Black (who would work with him on a number
of projects), became an assistant editor at Vanity Fair, and turned
the six-year southern experience into his first regional book, Stars
Fell on Alabama, published in 1934. New York Times critic R.
L. Duffus praised the book and Carmer's gift of "extracting from what
he sees, hears and feels an essence which is fundamentally poetic."
Using New York City as a base, as he did with Tuscaloosa, Carmer began returning
to the upstate New York region where he was born, and rediscovered a region
as varied, myth-crazed and lore-haunted as the deepest heart of the Conjure
Country. The people didn't talk of meteor showers. They talked of the winds
that "bring with them...a sound that is not a voice...It is the beat
of a drum. The roar of cities overwhelms it but there are few upstate farmers
who have not heard at some time or other that faraway tattoo." Some
referred to a British soldier walking to the scaffold as the drums echoed
his steps. Others talked of a crazed youth beating a drum on a hilltop.
Still others of drums beneath Cayuga Lake. Seneca Chief Jesse Cornplanter
told Carmer they were "the death drums of my people." The stories
became Carmer's next volume of Americana, Listen for a Lonesome Drum.
Carmer took still more stories of his state - the Chenango People, the Loomis
Gang, the Cardiff Giant, the Murderous Philologist
- and turned them into a 1949 sequel, Dark Trees to the Wind. It
was between these two books that he was summoned, along with other authors,
to the Manhattan offices of Farrar and Rinehart. Editor Constance Lindsay
Skinner, enthusiastic amateur ethnologist of the American Indian, announced
to the assembled authors that the publishing house was planning a series
of books to be called Rivers of America. They especially wished to have
the volumes written by poets. Pulitzer Prize poet Robert P. Tristram Coffin
was given the Kennebec; Carmer was offered the Hudson. He accepted the assignment
and plunged into research, traveling up and down the river's valley, talking
to its inhabitants, the tenants, privates and workers. He also visited the
history repositories, following leads to nearly forgotten episodes. While
attempting to pin down a story of Westchester farmers defying British troops
ten years before the Revolution, he visited archives in the state capital
at Albany. He wass told that records were no longer available, destroyed
in a 1911 fire. He hung around until one of the staff, wishing to get rid
of this pest, dug out the manuscript remains. The two of them discovered
that the borders of the material were burnt badly but that their author
had left very wide margins for adding notes and that the centers of the
pages remained untouched. Carmer had reincarnated the Minutes of the
Secretary of the Committee for the City of New York, 1766, and treed
The initial books and the series were a success.When Constance Skinner died
she was succeeded as series editor by poet Stephen Vincent Benet, Anthony
Adverse author Hervey Allen, and then Carmer himself. He wrote another
volume, on the Susquehanna. Eventually over forty rivers woul be covered
in nearly fifty volumes.The books spawned imitators and used book stores
today still carry volumes of The Lakes of America, The Trails
of America, and The Regions of America, not to mention the Foxfire
books and their descendants.
In 1964 Carmer edited The Tavern Lamps Are Burning: Literary Journeys
through Six Regions and Four Centuries of New York State. The announced
goal of his compendium was to be "a blast from a literary shotgun...the
peppered reader will be convinced that there is an over-all one of a kind
nonesuchness that separates upstate from the rest of the world." His
literary shotgun shells ranged from Henry Hudson's first officer Robert
Jouet, through Edith Wharton, Phyllis McGinley, Francis Parkman, Charles
Dickens and Rudyard Kipling.
During all of this work Carmer also turned out children's collections, verse
dialogues, and a folklore radio series - Your Neck o' the Woods.
He gathered the material for Folk Songs of the Rivers of America,
worked with science fiction author Lester del Ray and Cecile Matschat on
an anthology, and interviewed FDR about the president's scottie Fala for
a book about White House pets. He even became a Hollywood studio advisor,
as folklore consultant fo Disney's Melody Time animated feature.
Not only did Carl Carmer immerse himself in history, he also lived in it,
buying one of Orson Fowler's experimental 19th-century octagonal houses
in Irvington-on-Hudson. It was in this house that the environmental organization
Scenic Hudson was organized to help fight a Consolidated Edison water storage
site on top of Storm King Mountain. Up until his death in 1976, Carmer continued
to not only chronicle the state, region, country, people, and rivers of
his America, but to preserve something of them for us, off the page as well
as on it.
A search of Eagles Byte chronologies on the code "wrt"
turns up the following events for 1930 and 1931.
Mar 2 1931
Novelist-critic David Herbert Lawrence, 45, dies of tuberculosis.
Danish novelist-poet Jeppe Aakjaer dies at the age of 63.
Author Stanley Elkin is born in New York City.
Playwright Lorraine Hansberry is born in Chicago.
Author John Barth is born in Cambridge, Maryland.
English mystery writer Kinn Hamilton McIntosh (Catherine Aird) is born in
Playwright and screenwriter Harold Pinter is born in London.
Author Clifford Irving is born in New York City.
Editor-critic-novelist Wilfred Sheed is born in London.
Marc Connelley wins the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Green Pastures.
** Marya Mannes' play Café flops on Broadway.
Writer Philip Dunne arrives in Hollywood.
Future crossword editor Will Weng becomes a reporter for the New York Times.
The Nancy Drew juvenile mystery series begins publication. ** Oliver LaFarge
wins the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Laughing Boy. ** Mary Heaton
Vorse's Strike and Harvey Fergusson's Footloose McGarnigal.
** James Branch Cabell completes Storisende Edition, the 18-volume
collection of his Poictesme novels.
European Drama - Carl Zuckmayer's The Captain from Kopenick.
Historian A. J. P. Taylor returns after spending two years in Vienna studying
Josef von Sternberg's Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel) with a screenplay
Stefan Zweig's Three Masters: Dickens, Balzac, Dostoyevsky is translated
Beatrix Potters The Tale of Little Pig Robinson . ** Graham Greene
leaves the London Times to become a film critic for the periodical
Night and Day. ** Arnold Zweig's novel Claudia is translated
Novelist E. L. Doctorow is born in New York City.
Author Mordecai Richler is born, in Montreal, Canada.
The Arkansas state legislature passes a motion to pray for H. L. Mencken's
soul. He hadcalled the state the "apex of moronia".
Novelist Toni Morrison is born in Lorain, Ohio.
Essayist John McPhee is born in Princeton, New Jersey.
Author Donald Barthelme is born in Philadelphia.
Anais Nin joins the bookstore Shakespeare and Company.
Susan Glaspell wins the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Alison's House.
Dumas Malone is made editor-in-chief of the Dictionary of American Biography,
a post he holds for the next five years.
Margaret Ayer Barnes wins the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Years of
Grace. ** Robert Frost wins his second Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
General John J. Pershing publishes his war memoirs.
Edward Wagenknecht's biography of Jenny Lind.
British playwright David Cregan is born.
Antoine Saint-Exupery's Night Flight is published. ** Peruvian poet
César Vallejo's only novel, Tungsten.
Publisher Hamish Hamilton starts his own imprint.
Octavio Paz' first book of poetry is published.
Dissident novelist Yevgeny Zamyatin is allowed to emigrate to Europe.
PEARL OF AN URL
Continuing with this month's folklore theme, our featured URL belongs to
The American Folklore
Center of the Library of Congress.
By following the links collected there you can find material such as texts
of free Gopher publications, an essay by Mary Hufford - on American traditional
culture, information about
folklife collections at the Library of Congress, other WWW services related
to ethnographic studies, links to related subjects. Nothing sexy (it will
lead you to an e-text of Boccaccio) - just a lot of good solid information.
You were asked to name the Boston publishing house that created the magazine
illustrated Youth's Companion. It was, believe it or not, Perry Mason. As
U. S. humorist Dave Barry puts it, "I'm not making this up."THIS MONTH
Since there is little response generated each month by the trivia question
and since it is difficult to come up with questions that can be easily answered
by those in all parts of the world, I am discontinuing the trivia section
for the time being. Let me know if you miss it terribly.
EB SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY
(more detailed versions available)
Some of Carmer's books:
- America Sings, ed. (New York, Knopf, 1942)
- Dark Trees to the Wind (New York, William Sloane Associates, 1949)
- The Farm Boy and the Angel: The Mormon Vision and the Winning of the
West (New York, Doubleday, 1970)
- French Town (New Orleans, Quarter's Book Shop, c. 1928)
- Genesee Fever (New York, Farrar, 1941, novel)
- Hurricane Luck (New York, Aladdin, 1949, juvenile)
- The Jesse James of the Java Sea (New York, Farrar & Rinehart, 1945)
- Listen for a Lonesome Drum (New York, William Sloane Associates, 1936/1950)
- The Hudson (New York, Farrar & Rinehart, 1939)
- Stars Fell on Alabama (New York, Doubleday, 1934/1952)
- The Susquehanna (New York, Rinehart & Company, 1955)
- The Tavern Lamps Are Burning (New York, David McKay Company, 1964)
- Dorson, Richard M. - American Folklore (University of Chicago Press,
- Glimm, James York - Flatlanders and Ridgerunners: Folktales from the
Mountains of Northern Pennsylvania (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1983,
- Holbrook, Stewart H. - The Old Post Road: The Story of the Boston Post
Road (New York, McGraw-Hill, 1962)
- Korson, George - Black Rock: Mining Folklore of the Pennsylvania Dutch
(Baltimore, Johns Hopkins, 1960)
- Pound, Arthur - Lake Ontario (New York, Bobbs-Merrill, 1945)
- Texas Folklore Society - Folk Travelers: Ballads, Tales and Talk (Dallas,
Southern Methodist Universoty Press, 1953)
- Thompson, Harold W. - Body, Boots & Britches (Philadelphia, J. B.
- Wood, Pamela, ed. - The Salt Book (New York, Ancvhor/Doubleday, 1977,
* * *
I hope you've enjoyed this issue of Odds & Ends.
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