Southern Cultures 9.1 (2003) 18-35
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Yankee Interloper and Native Son: Carl Carmer and Clarence Cason
Unlikely Twins of Alabama Exposé
In the early 1930s, Carl Carmer and Clarence Cason wrote two remarkably similar, controversial cultural exposés of early-twentieth-century Alabama—Stars Fell on Alabama (1934) and 90 Degrees in the Shade (1935). One author was a cultural outsider; the other was an Alabamian born and bred. Yet despite this difference, the shared cultural fable they fashioned became an intensely southern story: both humorous and dark, teasing and haunted, absurd and poignant to the point of being lurid in Carmer's case and even tragic in Cason's. Moreover, the authors' strangely intertwined destinies, down to the similarities of their names and the comparable subjects and timing of their books, are marked by biographical and literary coincidences hardly seen in fiction, not to mention history. Yet their story is equally important as a parable of numerous intensely human missed connections and ill-imagined mirrorings as well—the ironies of a peculiarly southern and peculiarly modern set of meanings and morals.
The setting was Tuscaloosa, Alabama, once a bustling river town and site of the state's old frontier capital, but by the 1930s a sleepy, middle-sized city distinguished mainly by the dual presences of the state university and the state hospital for the insane. The principals were two writers of somewhat sensational and high-profile cultural critiques of life in early twentieth-century Alabama, books that received substantial attention not only within the state and the region but on the national scene as well. Both authors were born in the decade just before the turn of the century, both saw military duty in France during World War I, and both achieved considerable visibility as University of Alabama faculty members. The first was a young New Yorker named Carl Carmer, who arrived at the university in 1921 and spent the next six years teaching in the English department. The second was a native Alabamian, Clarence Cason, a 1917 graduate of the university and a member of the journalism faculty from 1928 until his untimely death in 1935.
Beyond these comparisons, however, visible similarities markedly diminish. Carmer was a true scion of the great Northeast, a graduate of Hamilton College [End Page 18] with a master's in English from Harvard. Styled by his students as a "'missionary of Eastern culture'" as well as "'one of those damn-Yankee professors who lectures on poetry and goes without a hat,'" he came to be regarded as a charming interloper, or in many quarters something a good deal worse. If a Yankee, at least he came with the kind of colonial pedigree southerners could respect—an upstate New Yorker descended from the old Dutch patroons. Handsome, likeable, nicely turned-out, he was a well-bred sophisticate who ran with a fast crowd and was himself something of an operator. With a somewhat older wife, said to be of wealthy background, he made his home in a neighborhood called the Highlands, the town's fashionable and expensive new suburb. He played golf and tennis at the country club and enjoyed dances and drinking parties, frequently unattended by his wife. In fact, as a literary barometer of domestic attachment, amidst the various journeys and adventures recorded by the somewhat raffish first-person narrator in his book, the spouse likewise went unmentioned. Perhaps this was as it should be, since by 1934 a new wife's name appeared on the dedication page of Stars Fell on Alabama. 1 [End Page 19]
Carmer's classroom specialty, poetry writing, was one that surely made the manly young easterner seem romantic to students of a literary bent—both male and female—and his work frequently pitted him as a rival of the English department's other resident cosmopolitan and charismatic teacher, Hudson Strode. When Carmer left in 1927, it was under a cloud of scandal. Consensus remains that the matter involved a female student. One account has...