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The “Strange Country”

ISSUE:  Spring 1990

More than a half century has passed since Farrar and Rinehart published Stars Fell on Alabama, a book today that is hardly read outside the state named in its title. But its release on June 26, 1934 was greeted with a critical acclaim and commercial success that stunned the author, the publishers, and even the book’s promoters in the Literary Guild book club. There were enthusiastic front-page reviews in the book sections of the New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune, and other major papers, By midsummer, Stars Fell on Alabama was selling 1,000 copies a day, and Farrar and Rinehart ordered two additional printings in an effort to keep up with the demand. To author Carl Carmer’s chagrin, an enterprising composer borrowed the title for a dreamy dance tune that quickly became a hit.

The book also stirred critical and journalistic debate in the North and the South, a debate that still reverberated in Alabama when I first read it as a student at Birmingham-Southern College in the early 1960’s. Some Northern reviewers scolded Carmer for being “soft” on the South by romanticizing the old plantation days and being overly tolerant of contemporary racial injustices. Some Southerners, meanwhile, accused Carmer of having violated the hospitality of white Alabamians by reporting on the state’s tradition of lynchings, racial prejudice, and Ku Klux Klan activity. By modern standards, Carmer’s criticisms seem mild, indeed, and his discussion of slavery, the Civil War, and race relations sometimes suggests an overly forgiving attitude toward the prejudices of the conservative whites who were his hosts. Yet, even to this day, it is possible to find Alabamians who view of Stars Fell on Alabama with scorn, because Carmer was one of the first writers to bring into public view the commonplace racism that white Alabama preferred to keep hidden from the world, and from its own conscience.

Another source of debate was over whether Stars Fell on Alabama was “true” or “factual,” for the book inhabits a kind of borderland between journalism and imaginative literature. Carmer thought of himself as a folklorist, and as such he relied less on careful documentation than on what he called “folk-say”—the oral tradition of legends, fable, and myth by which a people sustain and define themselves. Carmer’s fascination with the peculiarities of place and local character led him to a concept that was at once intellectually suspect and artistically ingenious. This was his idea that the individual states were so different one from the other that they should be regarded as “separate countries.” Alabama-as-a-foreign-country is the central conceit of the book. Carmer advances this thesis with remarkable economy of language in his “Foreword,” a lovely, incantatory passage of barely 500 words that sets the tone for the entire book and also provides its memorable title.

In this “Foreword,” Carmer offers the fanciful notion that Alabamians live under a “spell” or “enchantment” that dates back to the spectacular meteor shower that was visible in the skies of the Southeastern United States on Nov. 12, 1833. Other writers, including William Faulkner in The Sound and the Fury, have referred to “the years the stars fell.” But Carmer found in this cosmic phenomenon a controlling metaphor for all that was strange, individualistic, savage, and magical in Alabama life. Granting that more literal-minded observers would “scorn such irrationalities,” he then set his course—as a combination poet, journalist, antiquarian, oral historian, and folklorist—”to write of Alabama not as a state which is part of a nation, but as a strange country in which I once lived and from which I have now returned.”

The product of Carmer’s sojourn, Stars Fell on Alabama, speaks for itself as a work of literature. But a new generation of readers would profit, I think, from some additional information about its New York-born author and about Alabama as he found it upon his arrival more than 60 years ago. The Alabama of that era—that is to say, a social, political, and economic order whose outlines were still to be seen when I was a child growing up in the 1940’s and 1950’s—is fading into history now. The laws that mandated segregation and the body of social custom that required of blacks an attitude of patient servility have been swept away. The rural society of sharecroppers and small, independent farmers and plantation grandees that fascinated Carmer has, for the most part, vanished. The cotton and steel industries have lost their dominance. And although Alabama politics is still rowdy enough by the bland standards of other states, the day is gone when those whom Carmer, in other writings, called “sockless barbecue orators” could bellow their way into the Senate by warning that the Pope was planning to invade through Mobile Bay and take over the state.

So what follows is a brief guide to a writer and an historical period that deserve to live in our memories just as this good book deserves the new life it is getting through its recent republication by the University of Alabama Press. Carl Lamson Carmer was born in Cortland, New York, on Oct. 16, 1893, the son of educators and descendant of solid Yankee Revolutionary stock. He took a master’s degree at Harvard, then he taught at the universities of Syracuse and Rochester before serving as an artillery officer in World War I. Finally, in 1921, Carmer arrived in Tuscaloosa as an associate professor of English. He and his first wife, Doris, a woman of comfortable financial means who was somewhat older than Carmer, set up house in the Highlands, a fashionable new suburb, and Carmer quickly became a popular figure on campus and on the Tuscaloosa social scene.

Carmer’s contemporaries remember those as the halcyon days at the university. The Great Depression had not yet gripped the state. Although the Klan had enormous power in state politics and was at war with any progressive impulse that popped to the surface, this was nonetheless a period of some intellectual and artistic ferment on the campus. Carmer and Hudson Strode, the university’s dapper teacher of writing, competed—jealously, their friends observed—for leadership of the literary scene. “Blackfriars,” the student theater group, regularly toured its plays around the state. Rammer Jammer, one of the better and more risque college humor magazines of the era, was founded on the campus in this period. And always, because Tuscaloosa is Tuscaloosa, there were the parties—drinking bashes along the river, dinner parties at the country club, fraternity house dances where Carmer dazzled the students with his smooth steps.

“He was a very attractive man and quite a ladies’ man,” recalls Robert Harwood, a student of Carmer’s and later a justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. “Everybody liked Carl. He was very popular with the students. They liked him as a professor and all of them that could would take courses under him. He had what I would describe as the Princeton look . . .tweeds and button down collars.” But Carmer was not simply a social butterfly. He had a solid literary education, and all during his years in Alabama he was rambling around the state collecting stories and folk songs for what he assumed would be a scholarly article on Southern folklore. He was also struggling to find his literary voice, publishing a book of poems, entitled Deep South, that dealt with some of the same themes and lore that would find more mature expression in Stars Fell on Alabama.

In his Alabama rambles, Carmer was lucky enough to find excellent guides. Harwood, who was running for the state legislature, took Carmer to all-day singings in rural Tuscaloosa County and also introduced him to his father, Judge Bernard Harwood of Tuscaloosa, a courtly barrister who was a storehouse of yarns about plantation days. Knox Ide, a student from Anniston who would go on to be a successful New York lawyer, toured the hillbilly precincts of north Alabama with Carmer. Mobilians such as Tennant Griffin and Francis Inge introduced him to the lazy, aristocratic flow of life along the coast, where Carmer found his way to that odd, multiracial outpost of so-called “Cajuns” around Citronelle. Earl McGowin, scion of a wealthy lumber family and later director of the Alabama State Docks, exposed Carmer to the wire grass country and to the life and manners of wealthy white Alabama. But it was through Fannie Pickens Inglis, nee Tartt, a vivacious young sorority president from Livingston, that Carmer made the indispensable connection without which Stars Fell on Alabama would almost certainly not exist in its present form.

Fannie Pickens Inglis introduced her teacher to her mother, Ruby Pickens Tartt, in 1926. This was only a year before Carmer left the university faculty following a local scandale that resulted from his friendship with a female student. Carmer’s marriage broke up, and he moved to New Orleans, securing a job as columnist on the Item-Tribune and resolving to make his way as a writer rather than a teacher. During his year of newspapering, Carmer returned to Livingston with his new wife, Elizabeth Black, an artist from New Orleans. They stayed for a long visit in the Tartts’ guest house, and during that time Carmer and Mrs. Tartt toured the great plantation houses of the Black Belt. From her, Carmer drew his store of antebellum legends, and through Mrs. Tartt, a collector of folk music and spirituals and a pioneer in recording the personal histories of former slaves, Carmer was exposed to Alabama’s black history and folklore. This encounter gave him material to go along with his research and experience in white Alabama. Also, while visiting “Miss Ruby” and her husband Pratt Tartt, Carmer observed the lynching that provides the dramatic center of his book. But, as Carmer acknowledged in a memoir published years later, he got something even more valuable from Ruby Pickens Tartt—the idea of the book itself. “I said I planned to send notes on Alabama folkways to the Journal of American Folklore,” he recalled. “Miss Ruby’s eyes brightened and her long oval face was suddenly animated. “Notes!” she said scornfully. “You must write a book”.”

But Carmer returned to New York in 1928 without having made a start on his book. For the next five years, he worked as an editor for Vanity Fair and Theater Arts Monthly. Finally, in 1933, he took time off to write his Alabama book in what turned out to be a career-making gamble. The success of Stars Fell on Alabama established Carmer as a full-time writer in a career that extended until his death in New York in 1976 at the age of 82. By that time, Carmer was regarded as perhaps the leading historian and folklorist of the Hudson Valley. This was the territory of Listen for a Lonesome Drum, a legend-haunted book that applied the literary techniques of Stars Fell on Alabama to Carmer’s native region. His other books, all set in upstate New York, included Dark Trees to the Wind, a novel, Genesee Fever, and The Tavern Lamps Are Burning.

Carmer was also a leader in the effort to clean up the Hudson River, and he and his wife restored one of the historic mansions of upstate New York, an eight-sided architectural oddity named Octagon House and also known as “the Taj Mahal of the Hudson Valley.” Carmer gained prominence in the Manhattan literary community, serving as president of the Author’s Guild and the Poetry Society of America. He was a director of the American Civil Liberties Union and active in the effort to secure humane treatment for American Indians. But he never again achieved a popular success on the scale of Stars Fell on Alabama, possibly because the later books lacked the emotional vitality of Stars Fell on Alabama. Written when Carmer was 40, it is the work of an author still young enough to remember the adventures of his youth but seasoned enough in the ways of the world to know that the passions and friendships of that time could never be recaptured.

For me, the book has an enduring charm because of its almost whimsical blending of journalistic and historiographic inquiry, and the kind of relaxed, front porch gossip that stands in memory as one of the chief pleasures of life in Alabama. What Huckleberry Finn said of the novel that bears his name—that it “is mostly a true book with some stretchers”—could also be said of Stars Fell on Alabama. “There is a basis of fact in everything, but with quite an overlay of fiction,” said Harwood, who also noted Carmer’s tendency to “mix up” or “blend” several real-life Alabamians into a composite character.

For example, the character “Knox,” who serves as Carmer’s guide to the Klan rallies around Tuscaloosa, a political rally at Eutaw, a fiddlers’ contest and fa-so-la singing in north Alabama and to the famous “Scottsboro Boys” trial in Decatur, appears to be compounded of Harwood, Knox Ide, and others. The comical “shooting at Eutaw” was witnessed by Harwood, when his friend, Alex H. Byrd, the former real-life postmaster of Eutaw, was accidentally hit by a ricocheting bullet. The shooting started when two prominent citizens ran into one another outside the courthouse and got into an argument over the Klan. Carmer borrowed Harwood’s story and made it into a glamorous misadventure for another of his composite characters, “Tennant,” an ironic young lawyer and plantation manager whose name apparently was picked up from Carmer’s Mobile friend, Tennant Griffin.

So it went with Carmer’s crazy-quilt technique of creating characters. When it came to use of historical events, romantic exaggeration and oversimplification were part of his method, as well. Take, for instance, Carmer’s account of Aunt Jennie Brooks, a legendary figure in north Alabama who supposedly swore her sons to avenge the death of their father. Henry Brooks, like many men in the Alabama hill country, declined to enlist in the Confederate Army and was killed by Confederate “home guards.” The guerrilla fighting between Unionists and rebels in north Alabama is a little-known footnote to Civil War history, and Carmer was one of the first writers to take note that many white Alabamians did not regard slavery and the Confederacy as a “noble cause.” But Carmer also overlooks the fact that after the Brooks boys carried out Aunt Jenny’s vendetta they went on to terrorize north Alabama and Oklahoma as thieves, moonshiners, and shootists.

Carmer’s account of the “Vine and Olive Colony” established by Napoleonic exiles at Demopolis is richer in detail but similarly romanticized. However, Stars Fell on Alabama in its day served a valuable role in preserving and popularizing Alabama history for readers who lacked access to or interest in the historical scholarship of the period. Carmer deserves credit for preserving the folk legends created around the state’s most notorious real-life outlaws—Steve Renfroe, Rube Burrow, and “Railroad Bill.”

And if Carmer was not always a stickler for historical precision, his approach of seeing history with the poet’s eye sometimes hunted down larger truths. Here, I am thinking of his portrait of “Mary Louise,” the beautiful Black Belt matron who is introduced to the reader as the prototype of the talented Alabama woman who gave up a career in the arts to return home and marry. In drawing “Mary Louise,” Carmer also provided our most accurate and most detailed literary portrait of Ruby Pickens Tartt. This remarkable woman, who died in 1974 at 94 years of age, deserves a place in Alabama’s feminist pantheon alongside Julia Tutwiler, Helen Keller, Tallulah Bankhead, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Rosa Parks.

As a field scout for the eminent folksong collectors John and Alan Lomax, Mrs. Tartt found the black singers in rural Alabama who provided many previously unrecorded songs, such as “Another Man Done Gone,” “Black Girl,” and “Steal Away,” that are now part of the nation’s musical heritage. Altogether, Tartt is credited with the addition of more than 300 songs to the Library of Congress archives. As a collector of slave narratives, she dealt—in a candid way I find totally remarkable for a woman of her time, background, and social position—with the sensitive subject of the sexual predation of black women by white men in the days of slavery.

Everyone, including Tartt herself, agreed that “Mary Louse” was an accurate depiction of her real-life model. But when it comes to literary detective work, “Mary Louise” posed a problem, as well. Carmer gave her as a husband the dashing, gregarious “Tennant,” who bears little resemblance to Tartt’s real-life husband, Pratt Tartt, a shy man made even more retiring by his deafness. Yet, it is this “Tennant,” who serves as Carmer’s guide to the “big houses” of the Black Belt—Thorn Hill, Rosemount, Gaineswood, and Bluff Hall.

It was Tartt’s biographer, Virginia Pounds Brown, who suggested to me that “Mary Louise” and “Tennant” were both based on “Miss Ruby.” Later I was able to confirm this by finding, in the possession of Fannie Pickens Inglis, a copy of Stars Fell on Alabama that had been annotated by Ruby Pickens Tart. Her marginal notes attest that she was the guide on the motor tours that Carmer took with “Tennant.” Tartt’s notes also record that she told Carmer the Gothic tales such as “The Gilded Mirror,” “The Tale of the Wedding Ring,” and “Two-Toe Tom.” According to these notes, Tartt also introduced Carmer to two of the book’s main black characters, Centennial, the teller of the Uncle Remus tales, and Antimo, the raconteur of the Dollarhide hunt club.

The lynching in Stars Fell on Alabama took place as Carmer described it, according to Fannie Pickens Inglis. In her marginal notes, Tartt made a simple entry beside Carmer’s account that, in effect, confirmed its accuracy. She simply wrote, “From our house, RPT.” Tartt’s marginal note about Carmer’s account of their attendance at services in a black church in mourning over the death of “Preacher Ben,” the elderly black man who, although an innocent bystander, was killed by the lynch mob. Tartt, referring to a minister named Smith who was a friend of hers, wrote, “We heard Smith at Pilgrim Church preach the above sermon, RPT.”

So it seems clear that Carmer was at his most accurate in writing that part of his book that created the most dismay in Alabama. Although progressive editorialists in the state praised the book, some Alabamians said it made extraordinary events appear routine and thereby gave a warped depiction of white Alabama. But, in fact, lynching of blacks was a fairly common occurrence in the state during Carmer’s residency. Between 1921 and 1927, five blacks were lynched in Alabama. Indeed, in condemning Carmer for exposing their state’s “fateful compulsion” toward this kind of violence, some white Alabamians were exhibiting a pattern of behavior that first appeared in Alabama during slavery days, grew stronger during Reconstruction, and surfaced with special force during the civil rights struggles of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

This pattern of behavior consists of two somewhat paradoxical parts. First, there is the denial response in which it is argued that racial violence was not a normal part of life in the state. Secondly, there is the accusation that anyone who exposes racial violence is a “trouble maker” intent on “embarrassing” the state. Such a mindset was at work in regard to Carmer’s book in 1934, just as it surfaced again in the early 1960’s when some Alabamians tried to convince themselves that the state’s problems were caused by the television news cameras rather than by the bombings, police assaults, and political demagoguery taking place in Birmingham, Selma, Tuscaloosa, and Montgomery.

In a prescient editorial defending Carmer’s book, the Birmingham News-Age-Herald diagnosed the denial response with which Alabama’s majority culture had historically greeted any attempt to expose or reform its racial practices. The editorial called on Alabamians to abandon this defensive “bristling” and admit that Stars Fell on Alabama had “framed a challenge” to the state to improve race relations. Under the headline, “Opinions Clash on Carl Carmer’s Book,” the Birmingham News-Age Herald ran a lengthy story by James Saxon Childers, a novelist and journalist from Birmingham, arguing that lynchings were destroying Alabama’s standing in the eyes of the nation. Saxon interviewed Carmer, by then living in Manhattan, who said that the news of lynchings and intolerance in Alabama “keeps me constantly on the defensive. My friends say they cannot understand why I love Alabama as I do.”

Progressive editorialists such as John Temple Graves of Birmingham and Grover Hall of Montgomery defended the book in Alabama newspapers. But the public criticisms continued, often in letters to the editor such as the one in a Birmingham paper that revived the old gossip about Carmer’s hurried leavetaking from Tuscaloosa by saying he should “add another chapter to the next edition of his book and tell why he left Alabama.” In Livingston, meanwhile, Ruby Pickens Tartt was at odds with her nephew Thomas Tartt, a banker, over the book. A surviving letter shows that she, who had provided the heart of the book, understood its artistic values, as well.

“Dear Thomas,” she wrote,

“I’m sending Carl Carmer’s book, Stars Fell on Alabama, as promised. I’m hoping even though you are prejudiced that you will find the book as a whole has charm and individuality and that you will agree that much of it is beautifully written. Remember, Thomas, that all true art, no matter what the medium, must be representational. It must interpret life and that is Alabama as it is today. There is much that is deeply and truly beautiful in our people and the land and he has not overlooked it. Why want [it] to be sentimentally and superficially “pretty?” Besides there is such a thing as artistic integrity, a creative worker’s compulsion to write or paint the thing as he sees it. This he has done. Why not be fair?”

At a remove of almost 56 years, it seems hard to understand how a book like Stars Fell on Alabama—which dealt only briefly with lynching and was generally accepting of white Alabama’s attitude of keeping blacks in a position of social and economic inferiority—could stir so much debate. But to review this ancient “clash” over Stars Fell on Alabama is to remind ourselves once again that Alabama and the South were frozen in silence on the race issue and to break that silence stirred deep fears. For even to discuss race was to risk confronting the reality that “the Southern way of life” was in conflict with the ideals of the nation and the religious principles professed by the very people who perpetuated that way of life.

To be certain, race lay at the heart of the controversy over Stars Fell on Alabama just as it lay at the heart of the cultural matrix that produced the magical qualities that Carmer celebrated, sometimes without fully understanding. Carmer could not claim unfailing prescience on the racial issues. As late as 1960, he would write that the state’s racial problems were “insoluble,” even though, by that time, it was becoming clear that the most glaring injustices, segregation, and disfranchisement, could be solved through calm, colorblind enforcement of the Constitution and the law.

Yet it can also be argued that this book helped start the long process by which Alabama began to think in a more serious, constructive, and less reflexively defensive way about the appearance it presented to the eyes of the nation. In a personal way, this was for me literally an eye-opening book. It taught me to see Alabama in a new way, as a place where it was possible to look beyond the bland, everydayness of routine existence to find a realm of hidden, mythic forces, buried history, and literary possibility. The “strange country” that Carmer visited hardly exists anymore save in his pages. Alabama is a healthier, richer, more just, and better-educated place. Yet whenever I read the dazzling initial image of the book—when I see through Carl Carmer’s words a blood-colored moon and pine trees standing darkly against the sky—it is possible to understand the power of that old, dark magic.


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