Academic journal article Hollins Critic

Journeys to and from the Page: Carl Carmer's Stars Fell on Alabama

Academic journal article Hollins Critic

Journeys to and from the Page: Carl Carmer's Stars Fell on Alabama

Article excerpt

Books, like people, have difficult heritages, some more difficult than others. Book historians know this, as do genealogists or anyone attempting to track the life cycle of a literal, physical presence. After all, where does a book begin or end? At some point, any sane person adopts a pair of blinders; otherwise you're bound to go on forever tracking the elusive progenitor, the thrice-distant relative, the bastard offspring. But good book historians are only mildly sane: eternally curious, they'd rather get lost in the voyage than make it home empty-handed in one piece. Fortunately for us, some of them do make it home, albeit a bit shell-shocked and worse for the wear. It's no matter; their cargo is what we treasure. Roving, redundant, and vastly incomplete, the histories of books are like the histories of lives. If they're worth something at all, they wear the hard-worn rags of their subjects, their retrievals having been just as difficult as their compositions. After all, don't books and their histories tempt us with the same promise, that somewhere deep in the mire one may turn up gold?

In late 2004, a short-story collection by a young Alabama native named Brad Vice won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction and was published by the University of Georgia Press in 2005. Entitled The Bear Bryant Funeral Train, the collection featured many of the hallmarks that frequently adorn Southern literature: Ku Klux Klan rallies, sugar-infused bourbon, oak-shaded porches, and the hallowing of a regional icon, in Vice's case former Alabama football coach Bear Bryant. "Tuscaloosa Knights," the first story of the collection, starts out like this: "And that's how it began. Three distant notes, high blasts on a bugle, then a drop of a minor third on a long wailing note." Shortly after the book's publication, a reading advisor spotted Vice's brand-new book on a fall day in a Tuscaloosa library. She picked it up, began reading and thought: "I've read this before."

In fact, she had. In addition to the opening phrase, Vice's story lifts a dozen or more passages from a 1934 bestseller by the late New York folklorist Carl Carmer entitled Stars Fell on Alabama. By that point, the book was over seventy years old and had fallen out of favor, though it still held a place on the shelves of many libraries and private Southern collections and was still in print in a handsome new paperback edition with an introduction by Howell Raines published by the University of Alabama Press in 2000. Hearing the familiar phrase piqued reading advisor Margaret Butler's curiosity. She checked a Carmer copy to make sure: Yes, there it was: the chapter with the opening phrase of Carmer's "Tuscaloosa Nights" just as she had remembered it. Discovering other identical phrases, she began to wonder if Vice's publishers knew--knew that a good bit of Vice's story wasn't in fact Vice's but Carmer's. She didn't see any sort of citation or epigraph. Carmer's name was entirely absent, save in her memory. She decided to consult her supervisor, and, later that day, the two sat down and began a letter to Vice's publisher.

From this point in the story, it gets easier to guess what happened. Within weeks of being alerted, the University of Georgia Press rescinded Vice's award and pulled his book from the presses. Vice, meanwhile, had come out with a series of conflicting statements to various news outlets, some laced with apology, others with a sort of veiled indignation. Vice's explanations for his "borrowing" ran the gamut. Insisting the story was an homage to Carter, he defended himself with claims of postmodern artistic license and confusion about the rules of fair use. Others writers sounded off as well. Then-editors of the online quarterly journal storySouth, Jason Sanford and Jake Adam, rose up in Vice's defense. Vice's failure to acknowledge Carmer was "unfortunate" but not a capital offense, Sanford wrote. Certainly not plagiarism. "What Vice did is similar to someone writing a story based on William Shakespeare's 'To be or not to be' soliloquy--i. …

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