- Why We Are Here: Mobile and the Spirit of a Southern City by Edward O. Wilson and Alex Harris
In recent years, Edward O. Wilson, award-winning entomologist and author of more than twenty books, has turned a nostalgic eye towards Mobile. With the publication of his latest book, Why We Are Here, a collaboration with photographer Alex Harris, Wilson offers a kind of "reclining years" meditation on the place of his youth.
Why We Are Here serves as Wilson's contribution to that most non-exclusive of literary clubs. There are, perhaps, more coffee table-style books on Mobile than any other city of comparable size in America. Among the authors of these highly-popular works include a number of historians, educators, award-winning journalists, politicians, preservationists, and even this reviewer. The format for each is relatively similar: Photographs are favored above context or nuance. One happy exception to this would be Mobile: The Life and Times of a Great Southern City (Windsor Publications, 1981), written by Drs. Melton A. McLaurin and Michael V. R. Thomason, which contained the first revisionist history of the Port City in more than two generations. It set a high bar that none of its successors in the photo book genre have yet to match and that only Thomason's more recent edited work, Mobile: The New History of Alabama's First City (Tuscaloosa, 2002) equals in terms of scope and significance. [End Page 155]
To be fair, Why We Are Here is, perhaps, the most visually-appealing coffee table book on Mobile to be published in quite some time, due in no small part to the photography of Alex Harris. This is particularly true of his photographs capturing the interactions between Mobilians and their environment.
Wilson asserts that his book seeks to capture the "spirit" or the "soul" of Mobile, the impact the city has upon both its lifelong residents and first-time visitors (x). His narrative is peppered throughout with a series of interesting personal accounts, like the story of bar pilot "Black Bill" Wilson, his hardscrabble ancestor who was imprisoned for refusing to guide Union vessels through the perils of Mobile Bay and the author's own experiences growing up on Charleston Street in a house filled with relatives. Indeed, Wilson's recounting of his own family stories constitutes the most evocative element of the book.
It is tempting to give Why We Are Here too much credit, to invest upon its acclaimed authors a kind of unrealistic hope that the book will become something that it clearly is not. There is nothing new hidden within the book's pages, and inaccuracies abound. The French did not introduce ornate iron work to Mobile. The Clotilda, the last slave ship to enter America, plied the waters of the Mobile River in 1860, not 1859. Slackabamarinico, the pseudonym of that rebellious Joseph Stillwell Cain, founder of the city's modern Mardi Gras celebration, is misspelled. Sins of omission fill the narrative as well, for example, when Wilson chooses obfuscation over honesty, writing that the segregated nature of Mobile's Mardi Gras has "begun mercifully to devolve into insignificance." Nothing could be further from the truth.
Mobile is a city of contradiction, an ever-changing, quixotic seaport seemingly encased at times in antebellum amber. Wilson may, in fact, be correct that Mobile has a soul. But it is a divided soul, one still uncertain about the future, its place in the wider world, and whether or not its people-the Mobilians-can do anything about it. [End Page 156]