E.O. Wilson’s Mobile

In 2010, Mobile Bay Magazine sat down with naturalist E.O. Wilson to discuss his first work of fiction — a book titled “Anthill” based in large part on his childhood in Mobile. In tribute to the life of the man sometimes referred to as “Darwin’s Natural Heir,” MB looks back at our conversation with the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author as he discussed his local family history and the origins of his “deep, spiritual attraction to Mobile.”

Interview by Jocko Potts

Portrait of E.O. Wilson
E.O. Wilson // Photo by Jerry Bauer

Family Ties

They’re almost as old as Alabama. You know, Alabama was acquired by the United States in 1813, and in 1826 my great-great-grandmother was born in Blakeley, and in a couple of years was brought over to Mobile. She married Henry Hawkins, who was one of that flood of people who came down to Mobile when it opened up. You know, Mobile grew from 500 people in 1813 to 29,000 in 1860.

At any rate, here we are in 1830, the first of the line that I have here. The Charleston Street house was built in 1840, and that was one of these old houses, off the ground. Unfortunately, it was allowed to go to ruin by the time I lived there for the final time, 100 years later in the 1940s. So that’s where the Hawkinses, Joiners and Wilsons lived for a hundred years.

The Hawkinses, including my great-great-grandmother, had their child there. She married a Joiner, and he went off with the Alabama Artillery, Co. A, out of Mobile. He joined as a 17-year-old just as the war started. He went through the entire campaign, from Shiloh to Lookout Mountain, down to north Georgia and then fell back all the way to Fort Blakeley in the last few months of the war. He was in the final battle at Blakeley.

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Then, he came back to Mobile. He didn’t have far to go. And he married a Hawkins girl and fathered my grandmother. He died in 1870. He was 26 years old, and he died in a boating accident out on the Bay after going through all that war. His father had also died in a boating accident before him.

Then, she started a little private school in the Charleston Street house to help make a living. She ran that a good part of her life, and raised her only child, who was my grandmother. My grandmother had four sons, the youngest of whom was my father, Edward.

I’ve had quite a connection with Mobile over the years. I lived in and out of Mobile. I spent part of my childhood here in the ‘30s. I came back as a teenager in the ‘40s, when we moved down to South Washington Street. That was the last time I lived here before going to Harvard.

I have a deep, spiritual attraction to Mobile. I don’t know exactly why, but I guess it’s partly because I had so many transforming experiences here. When I was a boy in my early teens, I was already working on natural history with butterflies, spiders, ants and black widow spiders, collecting those in the vacant lots around Charleston Street. I went through the Boy Scouts here and became a scout naturalist. I was a nature counselor at 14 over at Pushmataha in Citronelle.

It was just a wonderful boyhood, the parts that I had here. When I was 13, I had a paper route at the Mobile Press-Register. I would get up every morning at 3 a.m. They didn’t have any young men then — it was 1942 and there weren’t many 18- and 19-year-olds to carry papers, so I somehow got the job to carry a large number of them in downtown Mobile. And I delivered 420 papers (I’ve kept that number burned in my brain) every morning. I’d take two big canvas sacks on my new balloon-tired Schwinn bicycle, and I would ride over at 3 something in the morning, and I’d fill the first two sacks with Mobile Press-Registers, and I’d put one on top of the other. I made $12 a week. I’d be home by 7 and then ride the bike to school.

School Days

I graduated at 11 years old from Robert E. Lee School. In seventh grade, the year of Pearl Harbor, I went to Barton Academy and later went to Murphy.

I’ll tell you what I say whenever I go somewhere now. I say “I’m not a Harvard professor who was born and raised in Alabama; I’m an Alabamian, and particularly a Mobilian, who went up north to get work.

I’m spiritually attached to this place, and it’s one of the main reasons I made [“Anthill”] mostly a Mobile novel.

I left Mobile when I was 20, 21. I then spent 59 years at Harvard, but something was incomplete in my head. That was one of the reasons I wrote this novel and put it in Mobile; I’m looking to complete whatever’s missing, and I think I may be getting there.

A Special Place

Mobile is a city that has retained its tribal character. The people who’ve lived here most of their lives do not live in Mobile, they belong here. They have created a mood and a way of life and a feeling among themselves, black and white, that is unique to the city. Through that, they are able to distinguish themselves as an urban community, as a group with a history and a meaning, more than the vast majority of other American cities. Unlike most American cities, Mobile still has a soul. That’s what I find so appealing … to try and understand it, come back and try to understand it. I just hope it hasn’t lost too much of that.

We have the Mobile Tensaw swamp, which is actually one of the grand wildernesses left in eastern North America, and is probably seen by many as just that swamp over there. It’s one of the biologically richest places in North America, and one of the most interesting places as well.

Then there’s the long leaf pine, which should be called a savannah forest, the African term for this kind of habitat, but here it’s just called the savannah. It once covered 60 percent of the entire South. It was virtually all cut down to make money, when the South needed it. But it’s unique, there’s a lot of it left around Mobile. That combined with the other habitats make the Mobile area one of the richest, in terms of species and ecosystems, natural environments in the world.

In fact, I’d like to see the Delta made into a wildlife refuge.

Social Class

It didn’t matter to me. My father was from this fairly old Mobile family. They weren’t like the Semmes (in “Anthill”), patricians with a colonnaded house, but they were kind of upper middle class in Mobile in those days. And that was a tradition my father believed in, you know, that he was a member of that upper class.

We never had enough money. And I don’t mind saying, because I’ve said it in my book “Naturalist,” that my father had a problem. First of all, his brothers all died off, and then he had a problem with alcohol. So we had a tough time because of his alcoholism. We were just descending economically, and probably socially as well. I look on our particular family, over a couple of generations, as the equivalent of what Woody Allen once said of himself. He said that he started on the top and climbed on down.

At any rate, my mother was from north Alabama. She was Scotch-Irish, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but he always sorta looked on her as a hillbilly he met in Birmingham.

You know, there’s a theme that I’m developing in my written work that I’m eager to test out. That is that there are two Alabamas, really.

To Mobile, people came in by sailing ship, for the most part, up to the Civil War. They came from all over — Europe, the Atlantic seaboard, West Indies, from along the coast, New Orleans over and all that. They were polyglot, the beginning of an international cosmopolitan city. But, of course, it went to almost nothing by the time the Americans took it over. Then, it was stalled by the Civil War and Reconstruction.

When the interior was opened up by the end of the Creek War — we’re now talking 1814 — the interior of Alabama was filled up substantially by people of Celtic origin. They go back to the 1700s, when England, having run the Highlanders off into Northern Ireland, created the Scotch-Irish. They were invited over, because they wanted English-speaking Protestants to fill up the country. Well, these people were ready to go, and they came to Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina in the 1700s. They were frontier people in that they were opening lands. And they came into Alabama, and that’s where my mother’s people came from. My mother was a Freeman.

So, that’s a fascinating thing about Alabama. And it’s also fascinating about Mobile, because Mobile wasn’t part of that. It was unique.

After the Civil War, though, everything was turned upside down. We again had two Alabamas, but it was a different kind of division. By the middle of the 20th century, we had the growth of towns and cities and of a pretty strong middle class.

But the rural areas, with white and black sharecropper population, and the mill towns, they were the other Alabama. I mean, they were the ones featured in “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” and in books like “The Most They Ever Had,” by Rick Bragg.

The little towns like Brewton and Evergreen had it pretty well, middle class people, streets, cars, movies and decent food. But in the ‘30s, especially, you drove on out, and you were in the Third World.

Turn the Kids Loose!

I think, and most child experts agree, that kids are simply spending too much time living in an artificial world in front of a screen. They should be exposed to the outdoors at an early age, in a way that makes it completely enjoyable, as an adventure.

If you want to know frogs for the rest of your life, you go out and hunt one, let the kid hunt alone, or in a pair, no more. Turn the kid loose! To get the concept of frogs, you have to go hunting. You’re going to maybe hear it calling, and you’re going to find that frog wherever it lives naturally and watch it for a while. And you need to catch it! 

You’re going to keep it for a while in a jar, and look at it, maybe show it off. And be sure to turn it loose. Watch it kick away, and you’ll have frog in your mind for the rest of your life. That’s what I think we should be doing with kids.

Drawn from Memories

I can tell you that Aunt Jessica in the book, for example, was my grand aunt Nellie Wilson, who was Black Bill Wilson’s daughter, who was here and remembered the occupation by Federal troops during Reconstruction.

My father used to frequently go up to where she lived on Broad Street. It was like the one I described in the book as being up in Satsuma. He would take me along so that I could know about my family and background. Well, I hardly listened to a word. I sat politely while my father sat down with this old lady. And in come my cousins. I’ve forgotten their names now. I remember one that was the wife of some Wilson, and she wasn’t quite right, and there’s a character in the book written with her in mind.

But, he and my grand aunt Nellie would sit there and talk about family histories and stories. My God, I wish I had listened! She knew everything, the whole pedigree, every person. So Aunt Jessica in the novel is a real person to me.

I found [writing fiction] awfully hard — for a person who’s spent their whole life writing nonfiction. I found that you have to create a whole world. You have to create a whole people, and they all have to have names and histories, and you have to have places and the whole thing has to evolve. The story has to be consistent, and it all has to be held in your head! So by the time I finished “Anthill,” I knew these people better than I know my cousins out in Wilmer.

Where Would I Live Down Here?

That’s an interesting question, and odds are it would be Dauphin Island. One thing that gets in your soul if you live down here is that after a while you like being near the water. Dauphin Island would be a nice place to be, because you’re right there at the water all the time.

E.O. Wilson
June 10, 1929 – December 26, 2021

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