A Deeply Southern and Deeply Foreign City

A review of Why We Are Here: Mobile and the Spirit of a Southern City
by Edward O. Wilson and Alex Harris

by Benjamin Schwarz

September 2012 Atlantic


The American South has always been a place apart, and the South’s great historic port cities—Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, New Orleans, Galveston—have themselves always been somewhat exotic implants in that eccentric region. In this book, the great naturalist E. O. Wilson, who grew up in Mobile, and the photographer Alex Harris evoke and explore that exceptional city and its surroundings. Fittingly, they emphasize the striking semitropical flora and fauna of the Mobile area—“The city sits in the middle of the biologically richest part of North America,” Wilson asserts, home to “the greatest diversity of aquatic organisms in America” and, yikes, some 40 species of snakes—and its astounding setting on the great, wide, nearly landlocked Mobile Bay.

But both authors concentrate on the city’s equally idiosyncratic culture and history. Founded by the French as the original capital of French Louisiana, in 1702 (Mardi Gras has been celebrated nearly continuously there since), Mobile was subsequently governed by Britain and Spain, before becoming part of the United States in 1813—most records of the city’s first 111 years are archived in Paris, London, Madrid, and Seville. Mobile’s Catholic population was historically the largest in the South, outside of New Orleans (the city has the South’s oldest Catholic college), and Jews played a prominent role in the city’s political and cultural life (Mobile’s congressman in the early 1850s was Jewish, as were two of its mayors).

For much of its history, the city, located on one of the continent’s great natural harbors, was essentially surrounded on three sides by nearly impenetrable wetlands and forests, which even today, Wilson says, make up “one of the largest surviving wildernesses in the eastern United States.” Mobile’s geography, as Wilson notes, exerted an “isolating effect” on the city’s relation­ship to the rest of the country, even while making Mobile unusually open to the rest of the world. The upshot, revealed in this uncommonly effective marriage of photographs and text, is a place at once deeply southern and more than a bit foreign.


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