October 16 marks the birthday of bestselling author and former University of Alabama professor of English, Carl Carmer. Born in 1893 in Cortland, New York, Carmer came to The University of Alabama in 1927 after completing graduate work at Harvard University. His experiences in Alabama led to his best-selling book, Stars Fell on Alabama.
The New York Times review from the period said, “Carmer reveals himself here as a writer of more than ordinary perceptiveness and imagination, with the power of extracting from what he sees, hears, and feels an essence which is fundamentally poetic.”
What he saw, heard, and felt, from experiences all over the state, still stand today as powerful documentation of folkways, and of the racial violence and conflict that existed in Alabama. Carmer became friends with people who took him all over the state, and he experienced first hand everything from foot-washings and shape note singing, to myths and superstitions (like the legendary night in 1833 when “stars fell on Alabama — the Leonid meteor shower), as well as the horror of an actual lynching — and he wrote about it all with great honesty.
Carmer left Alabama in 1933 (coincidently one hundred years after the stars fell…)to serve as the assistant editor at Vanity Fair magazine.
Carmer had a colleague, Clarence Cason — who also wrote honestly about Alabama during this same period. An essay on Carmer and Cason, exploring their work and Cason’s tragic fate was published in 2003 in the journal Southern Cultures, by Dr. Phil Beidler of the UA Department of English. This fascinating essay,Yankee Interloper and Native Son: Carl Carmer and Clarence Cason Unlikely Twins of Alabama Exposé is a very worthy read and gives a great glimpse into these two men and the period in which they wrote.
Carmer went on to write thirty-seven books in all, in addition to his editorial and consultant work, advising on matters of folklore for Walt Disney productions! He also recorded four albums of folk music. His most famous work, Stars fell on Alabama has been in print for many years, most recently reprinted by The University of Alabama Press in 2000, with an introduction by former NY Times editor and Alabama native, Howell Raines. The images above are first editions of the book from the Hoole Library’s Alabama Collection. Carmer died in 1976 at the age of 93. Today is the 115th anniversary of his birth.