Southern Authors: Eugene F. Walter, Native Son of Mobile
Mobile Alabama's Native Son
Walter was born and raised in Mobile, Alabama which he was quoted as describing as "a separate kingdom. We are not North America; we are North Haiti." He was great friends during childhood with Truman Capote but he lived far from a life of luxury, he was abandonded and left to fend for himself on the streets of Mobile.
When World War II broke out, Walter joined the Army and became a cryptographer, returning to United States and settling in New York City for a short time before crossing the Atlantic to sell ice cream. He eventually settled in Paris where he worked for the Paris Review and Transatlantic Review before moving to Rome to work with Marguerite Caetani, Princess di Bassiano on her literary journal.
When he and the Princess didn't quite get along, he moved on to acting and became quite the social sensation in Rome. He threw extravagant dinner parties, which became legendary with those in attendance including T. S. Elliot, William Faulkner, Judy Garland, Gore Vidal and Richard Wright to name a few. For reasons unknown, he returned to his home town of Mobile in 1979 and lived there until his passing in 1998.
The Untidy Pilgrim was written in 1954 and chronicled the life of a fictional young man trying to make it in the "kingdom of monkeys", as he described the deep south salt line of Mobile. The tone of the novel matches the darkness of the likes of Faulkner and Capote, yet is deliberately comedic in its portrayal of life in the deep coastal South that is Mobile.
The novel won the Lippencott Fiction Prize for Young Novelists in 1954 and was reprinted by the University of Alabama Press in 2001. Walter went on to write several Southern cookbooks and was featured in many publications, including Gourmet and Harper's Bazaar.
He passed away in 1998 and is buried at the historic Church Street Graveyard, which has been officially closed since the 1890s. The Parks Department made an exception to allow for his interment there. He returned to Mobile in basically the same condition in which he left it in 1938, destitute and at the mercy of the "kingdom of monkeys", the City of Mobile.
Katherine Clark wrote a biography about Walter entitled Milking the Moon: A Southerner's Story of Life on this Planet, which was published on August 21, 2001. The excerpt below is from an article in The Washington Post.
Jonathan Yardley's Review of Milking the Moon:
To Katherine Clark, who sat with Walter for four months in the spring and summer of 1991 while he talked into her tape recorder, we owe an incalculable debt. Not merely has she rescued him from manifestly unwarranted oblivion, but she has edited his oral history into a book as amazing as the man itself... Of all the characters whom we meet in these pages, by far the most interesting and endearing is Walter himself. He may have been a minor figure in literary and cinematic circles, but he never had any illusions about his own grandeur, and he was grateful for everything his work and friendships brought him. His curiosity was bottomless, and he followed wherever it led: "I really am like old America: just get up and get in the covered wagon and go three thousand miles because you want fresh air... Most people really don't take chances, you see. They wanted to go. But they didn't have the -- I don't know what it is. It's not courage. It's not ambition. It's cat and monkey spirit. Let's see what's over there. Let's just have a look."
Perhaps all of us harbor, somewhere deep inside, a free spirit yearning to break loose, but few of us have the...whatever...to go ahead and let it do so. Eugene Walter did, and led a life with "more delights than regrets." The story of that life, as told here, is absolutely over-the-top, a treasure, a wholly unexpected surprise. Not since John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces -- another posthumous book by another unknown Southerner -- has a book come from so completely out of the blue to give me so much pleasure.
The Untidy Pilgrim is a thoroughly enjoyable, quirky read, which I highly recommend. If you want to study up on some serious Southern Cuisine, spend some time with a few of Walter's many Southern Cookbooks. This very talented man contributed much to the literary world as well as arts and theater. Mobile should be proud!
Are you familiar with Eugene Walter's work? Share your thoughts and comments below. Until next time...Godspeed!