So I return to the theme begun in Naturalism and the Supernatural: did you know that “Summerland” refers, in the Spiritualist tradition, to the place where the dead reside? I guess the name makes sense for that place, when you consider the fact that Spiritualism came into being—into popular being, anyway—after the Civil War, when a lot of parents in the North and the South alike had lost their children. Spiritualism, with its promise of easy communication with the shades, was a natural mode of consolation for those bereaved folks; and so it makes sense that the mediums who offered to put the living in touch with the dead would have come up with a pleasant name for the afterlife. “Summerland”: what could be better than that? It sounds sunny, and big, and American. It calls up images of wheatfields, and green hills, and happy dead boy soldiers reclining under, let’s say, chestnut trees.
My question, though, is, why call a resort in the Catskills by that name? Because consider: now that “Summerland” means “the land of the dead,” those wheatfields seem to glow under a dimmer sun; the hills are a darker green there now, and the boys look paler than they should in the shade of the trees. The name becomes somber; it becomes morbid. Did Summerland’s owners want that? Did they cater to Spiritualists, of whom there used to be more than a few in New York State, mostly towards its Western extremity? Were there special activities for the bereaved? I imagine the following program:
8:00 a.m. Wake with the Departed
9:00 a.m. Spiritual Uplift (Calisthenics)
10:00 a.m. Doubles Tennis With Your Spiritual Companion
11:00 a.m. Aquatic Lesson: The Dead Man’s Float
noon Turning Table Buffet Luncheon
1:00 p.m. Siesta
and so on. This is fantasy—nothing of the sort ever happened at Summerland, or my grandfather would have told me about it, I’m sure. Still, the coincidence is odd. Maybe A.J. Schell, who named the resort (more on him later), didn’t know about Spiritualism; maybe he was supernaturally inspired.
Years later, I would take Summerland as the title of a novel about the strange life of my great-great-uncle Othniel Rowland.