Across the entire breadth of New York State, undeviating, a hilly strip scarcely twenty-five miles wide invites the world’s wonder. It is a broad psychic highway, a thoroughfare of the occult whose great stations number the mystic seven. For where, in its rolling course from east of Albany to west of Buffalo, it has reached one of seven isolated and lonely heights, voices out of other worlds have spoken with spiritual authority to men and women, and the invisible mantles of the prophets have been laid on consecrated shoulders.
—Carl Carmer, Listen for a Lonesome Drum
In my mid-twenties a wise friend, recognizing the tenor of my love for my home state, suggested I read Carl Carmer’s 1936 book, Listen for a Lonesome Drum: A York State Chronicle. There, in the chapter “The Woman Who Died Twice,” I first learned of Jemima Wilkinson, also known as the Universal Friend, a spiritual leader in late-18th and early-19th century Western New York.
A Rhode Islander who claimed to have died of plague in 1776 and to have been reborn as God’s messenger, Jemima Wilkinson acquired a large and prosperous following while still a young woman. Some of her preaching diverged enough from that of the established churches for conflict to arise, and so she and her followers left civilization for the frontier. Buying land in the area around the northern ends of Keuka and Seneca lakes, the Universal Friend spent the rest of her life there, trying to realize and maintain her vision of a new Jerusalem. (A 1964 biography, Pioneer Prophetess: Jemima Wilkinson, The Publick Universal Friend, by Herbert A. Wisbey, Jr., was recently reprinted by Cornell.)
Because I grew up in places not very far to the east and west of where she built her community, and because I identify that part of the world as home, Jemima Wilkinson’s amazing, strange story has a special fascination for me. Early on in my infatuation, I began a long poem on the Universal Friend—having in mind something like Kenneth Irby’s “Jed Smith and the Way” or those parts of Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems that deal at length with figures from Gloucester’s past—but decided not to continue work beyond the research and notes stage.
Until fifteen years later, when I was writing The Mornith War. The Universal Friend had stayed with me all that time, and I found myself translating the person I had imagined through a historical perspective into a character of fantasy, and the figure around which the story revolves: Mary Tammer, the Prophet of Free Farm.