The images I keep of Termite Hall are always in the time around the two solstices. It’s late in the night, early morning hours even, and gas lamps are burning. That’s probably anachronistic. At the summer solstice, guests sit out on the porch, quiet laughter and near-empty gin & tonics. Some lean over the railing and hope to catch a rare breeze against the heavy, still heat. Full of crickets, the yard is deafening. In winter, the porch is full too, 50 degrees a respite against the superfluous wood fire next to the Christmas tree. String lights run between the eaves, and whiskeys mix again with quiet laughter, subdued this time because token children somewhere in the neighborhood are already asleep.
I don’t exactly know what all this means, but it seems like something.
Termite Hall, the rambling three-story Victorian at 2000 Dauphin St., listed in the National Register of Historic Places as the Greene-Marston House, sits five minutes by foot from the home I grew up in. For a while, Termite Hall ca. 1940 embodied for me the high point of culture in Mobile, Alabama, some kind of gravitational center (socially and geographically) for the intellectuals and poets that I supposed the city once had.
Passing by on Dauphin, it can be hard to get a good view of the place. Unkempt hedges and brambles in front, just a mossy pair of columns at the foot of the driveway, and a manor of arches and gables half-hidden behind a grove of oaks. There could be anything back there. Maybe those first few snippets of lore about Termite Hall, odd tales about enormous parties thrown there, extended families and guests who never moved out, even the fact that it had a name — Termite Hall — had a similar effect. They obscured my perspective on the house, allowed me to envision things about it, kept me from seeing the place up close.
This obscured perspective means that my obsession with Termite Hall is a tangled knot of: distorted childhood memories of Mobile (wrought iron things—benches, fountains, gates); old assumptions about the kind of events that occur on a regular basis in the city; the mythology I have of my birth place; Eugene Walter and roads with names like ‘Grand Boulevard Street’; a history of Termite Hall far richer in the retelling than in the actual occurrence; Adelaide Marston Trigg; a tendency to believe in golden ages; a wish that things of cultural significance have been hidden under my nose all along; etc etc.
The task of untangling this knot around Termite Hall means untangling my understanding of culture in the Azalea City. And explaining culture in Mobile — well, talking about it abstractly at least 1 — means explaining first the city’s inexplicable sense of self-importance and resultant (and unfortunate) small-mindedness. Second, however, it also means attempting to put into words what I have often heard in conversation but never had explained to me to any degree of satisfaction: the concept of a water culture. What follows will demonstrate the impossibility of this task. I now believe that what is called Mobile’s water culture functions as a sort of mysterious and ubiquitous force which pushes all fantasies and fictions about the city toward a degree of reality. I believe in water culture not as something of content (i.e., some concrete and demonstrable set of traits), but rather something formal and categorical (i.e., the name given to the trend of contradictions that seems to abound in Mobile and from which spring inordinately exaggerated, deep-seated, and honestly-held beliefs about life there). Water culture, as I understand it, is elusive, insubstantial, and, worst of all, thoroughly inconsequential. But whether or not its products are mirages or realities, water culture most certainly exists.
I first heard the term ‘water culture’ from my father. As in, the city of Mobile’s complex social structures and hierarchies reflect the water culture of ship captains, trade routes, ports, and longshoremen that have been present since the earliest days of the colony. I didn’t really grasp the deeper and more nuanced economic commentary on sea-centered capitalism that my father probably meant in this example, but ‘water culture’ felt hefty and mysterious on the tongue. I filed it away as something that might sound intellectual in certain social gatherings.
The first time I pull it out, it’s late October a few years ago, and Ben sits beside me on the bus to Chicago. I make a remark about fall in the Midwest: It’s different from home, where we barely have any autumn at all, where the leaves all give up the ghost on account of the never-ending heat of the late and then, later, indian-summer, which occasionally extends even into the first weeks of December.
Ben asks what it’s like down there. It’s like here, I shrug. It’s America. But I reconsider. That’s not really true. Maybe I engage with it differently because I grew up there, but Mobile’s something different. Then I remember my father’s words: it’s got a water culture, I explain, having no idea what that actually means, but thinking it sounds impressive enough and complex enough to mean something.
What’s a water culture? he asks honestly, inadvertently calling my bluff.
It means we have boats, I answer dumbly. He grunts and turns back to the fields streaking past the window. Unsure if my inability to expound on the concept indicates an irresponsible use of the term or its inherent vapidity and lack of content, I decide to let the conversation die and avoid any more embarrassment.
Well, the city does have boats. The conversation with Ben returns to my mind some time later. The docks are the city’ s most important industry . Yet the very idea of a water culture or water society suggests more than a mere economic dependence on the water. It suggests a total inundation into and governance (however subliminal) of every part of life in the port city by the phenomenon of water.
I try tackling the concept abstractly. Perhaps water culture is a geographical manifestation of objectivity—a clear differentiation between land and sea, a line, an example from nature of a binary world-view, either you are in the water or you are on land. In addition, the city has a clearly identifiable source: growth is forever understood linearly, from the water→inland. Life on the water suggests an overarching, clear-cut construction integral to nature. A cartographic explanation for the Mobilian’s disposition toward fundamentalist thinking, perhaps, black and white moralities, black and white in general.
But that’s nonsense. San Francisco sits on a bay , too; Chicago has a lake shore; NYC is built upon bridges; and those cities certainly don’t project the proclivity toward conservative or objective ideologies that one may want to pin on Mobile. Besides, geographically speaking, the water topography in the Azalea City is in actuality far more convoluted and ambiguous than a clear-cut water’s edge.
Mobile is no beach town; there is no simple coastline. The bay is formed by the collision of the Gulf pushing up from the south and the Spanish, Tensaw, Mobile, Blakely, and Apalachee rivers all flowing in a complex tangle of branches and fingers from the north. The Mobile-Tensaw Delta and its brackish domain, neither fresh nor seawater, is the second largest in the nation. Marshland, swampland, neither terra firma nor a sand bar. Dog, Fish, and Fowl rivers slice into the walls of the bay like some early draft of Yeats, and the Mobile river flows so close to the western shore that even long-time residents of the city pause and silently question themselves upon exiting the old Bankhead Tunnel: what body of water did I just drive beneath?
To speak of Mobile’s water society, attempts to get at something far more complex, far more involved, even more so when taking into consideration that the ‘city’, the one in which people live and have society, only indirectly links to the water, at least geographically speaking: downtown lacks true access to the bay, and what riverfront it does have on the Mobile is largely obstructed by industry and docks. Locating water culture paradoxically requires a search inland, on dry ground.
A drive down Dauphin Street beneath the canopy formed by the century-old live oaks, or an evening stroll around Washington Square to the noise of the fountain and the shuffleboard shouts from the open doors of Callaghan’s bar might give evidence of it. Try standing under the pergola of string lights at the Blacklawn block party in late fall or passing by Georgia Street porches overflowing with flowers on Easter Monday. Maybe it has to do with the curious feeling given off by the enormous white faux-Baroque Methodist church that dominates the corner of Government and Broad Streets, the one with a historical marker bolted to its stucco façade that attests to the origin of its nickname, the Beehive, on account of its one-time status as the religious and social center in the city.
These are the vestiges of old Mobile—those parts of the city that pre-existed World War II. Fearnway, Ashland Place, Monterey, Houston Street, Oakleigh District. The wrought-iron porches on Congress and Joachim or the odd rituals that take place in the Church St. Cemetery in late February. The fish and oyster markets down Old Water Street or the 19th-century artifact cottages out behind Tuthill.
Yet whatever key these parts of old Mobile provide to the question of water culture, whatever aura or sense of authority these sections of town hold on account of their age or former status, it only shimmers on the periphery; turn a focus on it, try to look more closely, and it flakes away, instantly disappearing into the flatness of the present. The streets of old Mobile are all too short. They quickly empty out into a much newer city, a six-lane, a self car wash, a string of fast food huts, and the old mystery suddenly seems like a mirage or rainbow-end, surpassed without ever having been reached.
That’s not necessarily intended as a lament or critique of the new against the old. If the new Mobile represents a departure (in whatever respect, aggressive, relaxed, intentional, accidental) from the true water culture of the old city, this is not without certain advantages. Travel, for instance. Water culture is slow; travel by boat requires time. Commercial jet lines began operating out of the abandoned Bates Field sometime in the late 70s. I’d much rather fly to Houston than take the steamer.
Part of the difficulty in writing about the Azalea City is that it forces one to compress the aura of the place—the incessant self-inflation of the city’s ego, the cultural richness lacking relevance, the old Mobile water culture je ne sais quoi—into an intelligible sentence. All the more difficult, writing about Mobile forgoes the canonical benefit of the novels, essays, poems, dialects that accompany and instruct the writer of New Orleans, Atlanta, Savannah, or myriad other Southern cities. Even Yoknapatawpha had a Faulkner. Writing about Mobile is an isolated and isolating experience.
Ignoring whatever brief references to the city appear in Lee’ s To Kill a Mockingbird, a literary tradition of any serious and non-incestuous character for the city can claim something like two works: ‘My Dream of Mobile’, an essay in the 1945 travelogue The Air-Conditioned Nightmare by surrealist Henry Miller, and The Untidy Pilgrim, a 1954 novel set in the port city by native son Eugene Walter.
Miller’s stream-of-consciousness sketch reads like the account of a near broke, strung out, exiled, and quickly unraveling writer who stumbles upon a copy of The Travels of Marco Polo in a public library and fancies himself cobbling together a similar account of contemporary exotic locales–mostly because that’s what it is. The former French colony of Mobile (among other places in America that he has never visited, Miller admits early on in the essay) strikes the author as a suitable place to begin on account of the same aura that I mentioned above, the one that evades expression so well. But Miller doesn’t even try to wrestle with it, simply characterizes the city as hazy, fuzzy, amorphous, crumbling.
Miller fixates on the image of the Union Navy’s Admiral David Farragut steaming up to the city during the Battle of Mobile Bay . Though he can’ t verify that Farragut ever did steam into Mobile Bay (he did; August 15, 1864), Miller likes to imagine that his own entrance to the city would unfold in a similar fashion. The essence of Farragut’s importance to Miller is unclear, as his writing quickly veers to claims about
- the etymology of the city’s name (‘Mobile is a deceptive word. It sounds quick and yet it suggests immobility—glassiness.’),
- the musical persona of the city (‘Guitarish. Perhaps not even that resonant — perhaps mandolinish.’),
- and the general atmosphere of lethargy that hangs over downtown (‘I have never once though of work in connection with the word Mobile. Not anybody working.’).
Concerning water culture, about the best we get out of Miller is a reassurance that, yes, there is water somewhere on the edge of the city, a bay in fact. But beyond that, for all Miller’s piece provides, the Bay could just as easily link Mobile to Perpignan, Ponce De Leon Springs, or Maine as it could (and actually does) to Bon Secour and Fort Morgan Point.
At any rate, Miller’s Mobile never actually appears. Instead, the essay snags on the author’s free association and tangential discourse until the entire piece founders on a line of moon-soaked French nonsense somewhere out in Mobile Bay, never having actually reached the shore. I’ll let Miller be, content and alone on his cot, still floating with a bottle of absinthe out in the shallow water. Besides, steaming into the Bay, as Miller wants to imagine, wouldn’t take you to the city. You need to navigate the River for that.
Eugene Walter, on the other hand, took advantage of his native status and approached a description of the city from within. Walter, Mobile’ s literary patron saint, used the city as the backdrop for his first novel, The Untidy Pilgrim, which follows a presumably autobiographical young man in late forties-Mobile as he spins in and through the city’s many social circles. With the true bravado of Southern Lit, the novel pits the cultural trappings of the Azalea City against the only other metropolis in the country that Walter believes could rival it (New York) and not without a southerner’s heavy skepticism about the place. When three of the novel’s central characters flee to Manhattan for a year, the events are boiled down and glossed over in about 35 of the books 250 pages before the Big Apple becomes boring and the action returns to the southern port. The rest of the chapters move lazily through southern living rooms, dockside warehouses, and cabaret brothels, slow-cooking the city into a caricature of its pre-war aspirations. Pilgrim paints a Mobile that is sultry like Savannah and fetid like New Orleans, overgrown with enormous oaks and Spanish moss, populated by eccentric old maids and tangled genealogies.
The novel’s opening pages make clear Walter’s conceit that Mobile represents something different merely by merit of its location. When heading south toward the city, he writes, one notices about forty miles or so north of the coast a distinct change in the landscape, the plant life, and the sanity of the inhabitants. The Salt Line, he (and no one else) calls it, referring to the infiltration of the salt water and all its cultural effects up from the coast. Water culture, in other words. Having grown up with it, Walter understands the oceanographic nuances of the city far better than Miller. The significance of the River (which, in a very pragmatic sense, Miller failed to note) figures explicitly into the novel’s treatment of this water culture, a treatment that is uncanny if not also tongue-in-cheek. One character, looking out over the River, explains that the water has a strange way of hiding things: after long rainstorms like this, skeletons have been known to wash up on the banks of the River.
Walter’s most condensed and oft-quoted description of the city’s society is as figurative as it is ambiguous. ‘Down in Mobile they’re all crazy, because the Gulf Coast is the kingdom of monkeys, the land of clowns, ghosts and musicians, and Mobile is sweet lunacy’s county seat.’ Mobile is a separate land, he writes. It doesn’t belong to North America so much as it does to North Haiti, a position that corroborates (oddly) the observations of the positivist Bertrand Russell in his essay ‘Homogenous America’: the Old South is the only part of the nation that can actually claim to be different than the rest of America, so different that ‘one feels as if one had arrived in a different country’.
All well and good save two major issues. First, if Walter’s novel of north Haitian monkey kingdoms indeed points to the powerful water culture I want to claim for the city, it doesn’t help articulate what the characteristics of the phenomenon actually are. Second, a closer look at the life and work of this author reveals that Walter, native son though he may be, spent so much of his life away from Mobile that a good deal of homesick nostalgia must be first distilled out of his comments for them to be of any use.
In the late 1970s, about the same time my father was returning to Mobile after a few years working in Birmingham, Eugene Walter was returning to the Azalea City, too. Walter’s pilgrimage home, however, involved a slightly longer route than my father’s and far more fanfare.
Shipped out to Alaska as a cryptographer during World War II, Walter lived briefly in New York after V- J Day before heading onto Paris and Rome for the next three and a half decades of his life. Digging through the box of letters—now housed in the McCall Library Archives (1504 Springhill Avenue)—exchanged between Walter and his first cousin and lifetime Mobile resident Caldwell Delaney presents a paper trail as remarkable as it is geographically diverse. He addresses Delaney as ‘Fust Cuzzin,’ scratching out notes to him
- first on military letterhead [‘Afterwards, Lt. H—(the handwriting expert) analyzed our scribbles. Mine was judged “impulsive, nervous, unusual,” though anyone could have judged that.’],
- then later on self-made stationery [8, Rue Garanciére, Paris.IV; 18 Corso Vittorio Emanuele, Rome],
- or crammed into blue- and red-bordered envelopes from the Paris Review [‘I hope the people who destroyed the Russell house will ROT in the deepest pits of HELL for eternity.’].
Indeed, Walter’ s adventures are noteworthy, if only for the cast of characters he managed to connect himself with. After Walter left childhood friend Truman Capote and new acquaintance Tallulah Bankhead in Greenwich Village, Paris found him in the company of Richard Wright, T. S. Eliot, Gore Vidal, and George Plimpton, the last whom he helped with the founding of The Paris Review. In Rome, translation work for Federico Felini landed him a part in 8 1⁄2 (in addition to a series of Italian television soaps), and his friendship with Ingeborg Bachmann and Hans Werner Henze resulted in the two creating for Walter the central (silent) role in the opera Il Giovane Lord.
If you want to read the incredibly bizarre story of Walter’s life, you can, and in his own words even—Milking the Moon, the memoirs he dictated just before his death. But the Walter that I’m interested in is the Walter that all his biographies and autobiographies take for granted: the Eugene Walter who, despite spending the prime of his life outside of Mobile—in no less than the three most culturally elite cities in the world—with a clique of literary, film, and music gurus to rival nearly any artistic circle, still returns to spend the last two decades of his life in the Azalea City. In fact, the periods in Mobile that bookend Walter’ s life reveal more about the origins and effects of the city’s ineffable water culture than anything he wrote in The Untidy Pilgrim.
Walter’s correspondences with Delaney are perhaps most telling of all. From his first reports in Alaska to his complaints about having to pack up his life in Rome, an odd juxtaposition underlies them all, namely an ever-intensifying rhetoric of homesickness against his continued and mostly voluntary absence from Mobile. His letters are filled with unelaborated references to addresses in the city (156 St. Anthony, 1511 Government, 1115 Palmetto, 2000 Dauphin, 109 N. Lafayette, 62 Ridgelawn) and incessant, berating demands to be kept abreast of events and gossip in Mobile: ‘Please write me, write me. A long letter. I’m hungry for Mobiliana, especially Caldwelleán Mobiliana, with lewd surmises and dirty digs. • I’m excited, there have been earth-shaking things happening in Mobile and me not there. Alas, I’m nearly died at missing the Trigg-Marston, & am now molargnashing over missing the forthcoming Plum-Young. • How’s Mobile’s sex life? Vernal, tolerable vernal, I’spose. • Tell me WHAT ARE MOBILIANS SAYING ABOUT ‘STRANGE FRUIT’ AND MISS LILIAN SMITH.??????? I can just imagine, but tell me anyway.’
To read these letters and hear Walter caw on about the city suggests a social scene as squalid as it is vibrant, but alive and virile regardless. And yet, these comments come from Walter’s pen while he charts a course from Alaska to New York, from New York to Paris, from Paris to Rome, farther and farther and farther from his beloved Azalea City. For more than thirty years he threatens Delaney with his homecoming before it actually takes place in 1979.
Walter died of liver cancer when I was very young, but while he was still alive, following the return to Mobile, he lived with his cats three blocks west of us in a bungalow renovated by the city’s historical commission. He would turn up on Mr. Boyd Miller’s front porch, drunk as a skunk at 1 in the morning, reporting to have been locked out of his house and asking if Miller by chance had a key to let him in, my father laughs. Southern humorist Pat Conroy describes Walter’s cooking as incomparable, even if the table was coated with a layer of cat hair. The former ex-pat made his presence known in the city by devoting his last years to a weekly ten-minute radio program on the local college station, ‘Eugene At Large’.
Practically speaking, Walter’s homecoming may have been a case of the road simply running out on him. Despite the general fanfare and falderal surrounding his arrival, he returned to Mobile nearly penniless. Worst of all for Walter, though, was the port city’s cultural poverty that stood in stark contrast to the vibrant scenes he participated in (or at least waxed nostalgic about in his letters to Delaney) during his youth. ‘What’s really got to me since I’ve been back is that Bienville Square, which had formerly been like a street salon, with everybody downtown on Saturday, was absolutely empty. I remember one Saturday when I came back taking a walk in Bienville Square. There was nobody there. And I thought, Oh my Lord, what’s happened?’
To Walter’s dismay, the culture he remembered so fondly had been eroded by the complex socio-economic forces that redrew the city in the twenty-five years during and following World War II. This compounds, of course, with the nostalgic scaling-up and buffing done to Mobile-ca.-1940 by Walter’s own memory. But I have a hard time believing that a man who had spent the previous thirty years running with the cultural elite of Paris and Rome could then return to the spiritual damps and Alabama anoxia of Mobile (‘Twenty four hours in Mobile and you have the feeling a plastic bag is tied around your head and you’re breathing your own air,’ notes Walker Percy.) and be satisfied living on Grand Boulevard Street [sic]. He had no family save his cats, and one would think that Walter would have needed something more than a 10-minute weekly radio spot to keep him occupied for those last two decades. He would have searched in more places than on Bienville Square and down Broad Street, and he must have found it somewhere, in someone.
Well, he was all the time hanging out at Termite Hall, my mother explains casually—common midtown gossip from earlier days in Mobile. That is, at the family house of the née-Marston sisters, 1940s friends Eleanor Marston Benz and Adelaide Marston Trigg, at 2000 Dauphin St.
I don’t know when Walter and the Marston sisters first became friends. Perhaps Mobile’s Catholic society, of which they were all a part, brought them together from a young age. Maybe it was an adoption of sorts, sympathy from the Marston family toward Walter’s lack of one. Raised first by his grandparents, Eugene was taken into the care of local department store owner Hammond Gayfer after their death. From all accounts, Gayfer and Walter fit well together, as Gayfer’s house often found itself hosting local southern writers and artists, in whose presence young Walter was all-too-eager to be. Yet despite the support he received from Gayfer , Walter’s adolescence in Mobile had something of an orphan quality to it, a point that reveals a darker irony in being called a son of the city. Perhaps it was pity or good Catholic guilt that encouraged the Marston sisters to extend hospitality to him.
Nothing, however, suggests that the friendship that grew between Walter and the members of Termite Hall was contrived; in fact, just the opposite. Odds are that Walter and the Marston sisters found a common love of books. Eleanor Marston Benz worked as the librarian of the city’s Catholic high school for nearly fifty years, a library whose front face now bears her name in enormous black letters. Her sister, Adelaide Marston Trigg, gained an even more prominent bookish reputation in 1941 when she opened on Bienville Square what, at the time, was Mobile’s only existing bookstore, The Haunted Bookshop.
Although the shop managed to develop a respectable presence, hosting readings and book signings with writers as diverse as Thomas Mann, Harper Lee, and native-Mobilian William March, a look through the old guest registers reveals the impact Walter had on the bookstore. The signatures and dates quickly give way to full-page doodles and cartoons signed ‘EW’ or ‘Willoughby’ with an accompanying four-circle dog paw print, the latter being from Walter’s sometimes-human, sometimes-canine alter-ego, Sebastian Willoughby.
I think he started coming around here because he was bored and looking for company and would just end up spending the whole day nosing around the shop, explains Angela Trigg, Adelaide’s granddaughter and owner of Bienville Books, a resurrected, relocated, and renamed offshoot of the no-longer-extant Haunted Bookshop.
I visit to ask Angela what she knows about the history of Termite Hall. Well, I live there now, she explains flatly. She lets me look through what boxes of Adelaide’s keepsakes she can find in her attic apropos to the bookshop and Walter. I get the feeling he got on my grandmother’s nerves, she notes.2 I spend an hour flipping first through diaries and registers from the early days of the Haunted Bookshop. The entries turn quickly from lists of books read and thought-provoking quotations to costs of plumbing repairs and logs of hours spent working overtime.
More interesting, though, are the pieces of memorabilia from Termite Hall. (1) Hand-made programs from meetings of the so-called ‘Willoughby Institute’: 1941-42, 156 St. Anthony St. and 2000 Dauphin St., members (among others) Francis Kinney, Willie Mae Smutz, Caldwell Delaney, Adelaide Marston, Eugene Walter (pres.). The program (blue cardboard with fountain pen-inscribed parchment leaves) lists roll call, recitation of minutes, then contributions from each member—lectures on fashion or etiquette from some, poetry readings from others, and a play from Eugene. (2) A log for the meetings of the SIP Sisters, a women’s group led by Adelaide. After opening their meetings with a roll call answered by choice verses of Shakespeare, The Sisters In Progress devoted themselves to the discussion of local society and occasionally took up a new piece of literature or contemporary moral argument. The evenings usually closed with a communal supper, except when the women were too hungry to wait (often), in which case they began with the cooking, whose planning and grocery gathering, as Adelaide notes in the log, usually dominated so much time that afterwards, there was very little energy left to stir up interest in a debate on women in the workforce.
If the SIP Sisters represented the intellectual and progressive feminine avant-garde of the city, they still carried out their agenda within the boundaries of Mobile’ s conservative and religiously oriented social system. Adelaide is quick to remark in the introductory notes to the SIP Sisters’ logbook that the acronym SIP should by no means suggest that the meetings involved the consumption of alcohol. Whether this was a product of naïveté or deep-seated conviction is unclear (there are rumors that in the later years of the Haunted Bookshop, those who regularly hung out in the store knew that the selection of a few choice books from the shelves would reveal a hidden bottle of hard liquor). The paraphernalia from the Willoughby Institute rings with a note a bit more raucous and a bit less disciplined—to be expected with young Walter at the helm. Stationery, pamphlets, and small volumes of poetry from later in his life appear under the name, too, paired with locations equal part European capitals and Mobile neighborhoods (again, the conceit of the Southern writer): The Willoughby Institute ROME•SPRING HILL•DOG RIVER•PARIS. These locations, I realize, refer not to offices or contacts, but rather to the locations that bore Walter’s self-created and ever-expanding aura.
‘The Hall has always been a place where people came for a week’s visit and stayed a year, where everybody read and ate, ate and read, and listened to music and danced and painted pictures and climbed trees and ate and gardened and read and ate. Naturally, it’s haunted, delightfully so.’ The Termite Hall so described by Walter in 1982 is a salon of the highest intellectual and cultural variety, most of all, one where Walter, even with his cultural caliber and artistic status, comes off as just one more guest, hardly the center of attention. No wonder no one wanted to leave.
But I get carried away. Angela Trigg points me to a passage in her grandmother’s diary: Adelaide’s worries that the Bookshop will never survive in Mobile, warnings from friends and relatives—no one in Mobile wants a bookstore, because no one in Mobile wants to buy books. If that is a fair barometer for the cultural climate of late 30s and early 40s Mobile, then not only the Haunted Bookshop, but other like-minded intellectual endeavors (Willoughby, SIP, etc) as well would have been a bit out of place and swimming upstream in the city. If the Termite Hall of Walter and Marston was ever the cultural high point that I want to imagine it was, it was an aberrant spike and not a culminating zenith.
Interestingly, Termite Hall’s role as a meeting place for Eugene, Adelaide, & co. is hardly the house’s first time in a role as a joining point. Before the monikers Termite Hall or Greene-Marston House, 2000 Dauphin St. once was called the Half-Way House, as it purportedly lay halfway between the courthouse downtown and the wooded escapes (as well as escapes from yellow fever epidemics in town) surrounding the Jesuit university up Spring Hill. In the age of Eugene Walter, the house continued this role, but it transcended a mere geographical midpoint and became an intellectual and cultural meeting point, too. Most of all, as a symbol of the societal shift between old and new, pre- and post-War Mobile, the 2000 Dauphin St. of Adelaide Marston and Eugene Walter should be seen, figuratively speaking, as a temporal Half-Way House, too.
Most important for Walter upon his return to the Azalea City in 1979, however, was the house’s perceived resistance to the post-War societal and urban shifts that concerned him so much about new Mobile, now a city of malls, poorly planned six-lanes, and the unapologetic suburban sprawl of the 70s. For Walter, the chief detrimental consequence of these shifts wasn’t the white flight, which in fact placed the most noticeable blight on the old city and his boyhood downtown. Rather, Walter seems most upset by the linking (and, in his mind, subsequent bastardization) of the old city French colony culture with the rural agri-culture of the western part of the county. For Walter, the creation of the suburbs in the west part of the city and the infiltration of the old high society with the formerly separate rural customs would have been doubly devastating. The shift was a microcosm and an aftereffect of Mobile’s linkage to and integration with (or contamination by, from Walter’ s perspective) the rest of the state in the period around 1945. ‘Then in the Second World War,’ recalls Walter in his memoirs, ‘all those peasants from the fields came to work in the shipyards. Forbes magazine said that Mobile was one of the towns that grew the fastest during World War II. And those peasants did not go back to the fields when the war was over. They stayed in town and built Baptist churches on every corner.’ An erasure of the old Salt Line, in other words. A desiccation of the water culture.
But it would be irresponsible not to note, too, the larger questions of social justice at play in the background of Walter’s grief. Although he directs the lament toward what he saw as the end of Mobile’s real golden age (symbolized in places like Termite Hall), his complaints are admittedly hypocritical. Declining to return to the Azalea City after his service in Alaska, Walter escaped the post-war changes for brighter stages and bigger parties. Meanwhile, the salons of 2000 Dauphin St fell prey to more abstract termites, namely 1) chauvinistic or (more accurately) pre-feminist social archstructures of the city ca. 1940, pressuring the SIP Sisters one by one all to fulfill the southern expectation of marriage and children, and sacrifice Ophelia’s soliloquies for more domestic duties; and 2) the war, which shipped men like Walter off to the Aleutian Islands, which forced the Hall to partition off its living rooms to create housing for the non-Mobilian workers imported to work at Brookley Field, and which ushered a wave of modern expansion and development into the city following the fighting’ s end.
Further, although the salon’s patroness Adelaide, in her capacity as a female entrepreneur of literature and philosophy, represents a strong and important counter-cultural figure in early-40s Mobile, the social platform of Termite Hall’s golden age was one rooted (even if indirectly) in segregation and a static socio-economic structure. The flowering social scene of Walter’s youth in Mobile, the one he shoots through such glossy and nostalgic filters in The Untidy Pilgrim, is a southern city whose structure is inherently linked, whether intentionally or unintentionally, with pre-Civil Rights segregation and Southern hierarchies of wealth. No discussion of that time can completely avoid an association with those integrated injustices, even though I can imagine neither the flamboyant Walter nor the progressive Adelaide as segregationalists or bluebloods. In Walter’s mind, the disappearance of the Willoughby Institute, the SIP Sisters, and the other salons of Termite Hall represent a decline of the city’s true water culture and coincide with the appearance of a nouveau riche — people whose wealth was made independent of docks capitalism, people who had no interest in spending Saturday evening on Bienville Square, and people who could not claim to be native Mobilians. As tragic a blow as this was to Walter, and as much as this nouvea riche undermines my own mythologizing of water culture in Mobile, it represents a democratization of wealth in what was formerly a static aristocratic system.
Finally, I suppose that any student of Walter would begin to doubt the legitimacy of his depictions of the city, at least generally, when considering the questionable literary ethos presented by his curriculum vitae. Despite the fact that his Untidy Pilgrim won a Lippincott Fiction Prize for Young Novelists in 1952, that he picked up an O’Henry citation for the short ‘I Love You Batty Sisters’ in 1957, and that he helped George Plimpton found The Paris Review and Botteghe Obscure with Marguerite Caetani, Mobile’s one true literary golden boy nevertheless presents an oeuvre whose large majority is cookbooks: American Cooking: Southern Style, Hints and Pinches; The Happy Table of Eugene Walter: Southern Spirits in Food and Drink; Delectable Dishes of Termite Hall.
Appropriately enough, it is in the last title that one finds his description of the Hall cited above. But even there, it comes to reader in a one page introduction, misplaced, unexplained, and frankly, unrelated to his recipes. It feels like a line from an aborted novel, as if Walter had ideas for a piece focusing on the power of the old manor at 2000 Dauphin St., but was forced to abandon it when he realized that even his talents for creation and invention out of near-nothing (Walter explains in his memoirs how he would occupy himself at Gayfer’s by constructing costumes and scenery from construction paper for use in the one-acts he wrote and directed in his foster home; elsewhere: ‘As a child of the hurricane, I always have the basics. And colored paper to cut out for games.’) wouldn’t be enough to keep afloat the massive nostalgic weight of yearning located in that house. Perhaps the most powerful termites of 2000 Dauphin St were the very thoughts and idealism that allowed Walter to create it—he could only find a salon of such grandeur and magnitude at a great distance, in the powerful deceptions of homesickness that he continued to feed, even cultivate from New York to Paris to Rome. If Termite Hall is indeed haunted, as Walter claims with delight in the cookbook’s introduction, it is so only with the inventions of his own memory.
Ultimately, it is Walter’s very ability to craft such a vivid picture of Mobiliana that makes me call into question entirely his claims about the city’s water culture. Termite Hall exists today as an old house slowly crumbling and rotting away, with no help from the man who could do nothing more than steal its name to promote a cookbook that Mobilians don’t use. I can’t help but feel a bit cynical when an old Eugene Walter remarks. ‘Eventually, all Southerners return home, not to die, but to eat gumbo.’
I suppose Walter’s description of Mobile — this kingdom of monkeys, north Haiti — is a kind of wishful thinking and another manifestation of the city’s perpetual insistence that it is relevant. But post-reconstruction Mobile has never once competed with the cultural oddity of New Orleans nor with the ambitious economic gunnings of Atlanta. It didn’t witness civil rights like Montgomery or Birmingham, and, despite being home to a few of James Brown’s J.B.s, it never had enough of the artistic consciousness of a place like Memphis. Its very name suggests transience and instability. It’s hot, stuffy, and wet. The climate is oppressive, people say. Mildew appears from nowhere and overgrows an entire front porch.
Perhaps that’s the best depiction of water culture — like humid air so saturated with water that an invisible mildew spore can grow to consume a house, water culture is that tendency for societal value to appear and bloom out of nothing and for no apparent or discernable reason. Mildew’ s tendency to drive Mobile’s house owners insane further substantiates the comparison. After all, Walter names the city sweet lunacy’s seat, and for all I know, the hallucinating and intoxicated Henry Miller is still drifting in the Bay. The two authors’ indifference to—even embrace of — the insanity might be the only true way to approach the Azalea City.
Maybe my dream of Termite Hall is like Walter’s view on the course of civilization or like Miller’s admission that his knowledge of the city is a total fiction, illuminating something essential about the obsessive and lunatic Mobilian culturalist, namely our tendency to imagine things out of thin air and pass them off as the way things really were:
- Walter: ‘I don’t know one tiny bit of history. I mean History. For me, Columbus discovers America, then the War between the States takes place, then Tallulah and the Sterling girls are born, and then we’re now.’
- Miller: ‘The Mobile I knew was thoroughly imaginary and I wanted to enjoy it all by myself.’
Oddly, what Miller’s tale leaves out about Farragut is the historically bizarre note that, not only did the admiral steam into Mobile Bay, he did so lashed in Odysseus fashion to the mast of the flagship Hartford. I’d venture to say that Farragut had it right, that the city indeed has a Siren quality about it, smashing fools like me and Walter and Miller (and anyone else who wants to sail into port and capture the city) on the rocks of our own fantasies. Perhaps that’s where all the skeletons in the river come from in The Untidy Pilgrim. Sirens, mythology says, are fated to live only so long as the mortals who hear their songs do not pass the singers by.+