Digital Media Center
Bryant-Denny Stadium, Gate 61
920 Paul Bryant Drive
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487-0370
(800) 654-4262

© 2024 Alabama Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Untidy Pilgrim

This week, Don reviews "The Untidy Pilgrim" written by Eugene Walter with a new introduction by Katherine Clark.

Every once in a while, in this space I reread an Alabama classic to have that pleasure once again. Picking up “The Untidy Pilgrim,” now 70 years since its original publication, for a reread, I was chagrined to realize I had never in fact read it before. I only thought I had, probably because the first few lines are as well known among Alabamians as the introduction to “A Tale of Two Cities.” “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.” Now I have read it, and it is delightful.

Eugene Walter of Mobile, after serving in WWII in the Aleutian Islands and a spell in New York City, moved to Paris. As he explained it, before he left, he turned in the first few chapters to the Lippincott Committee and was in France when he learned he had won. These facts we knew. I had not known, however, that the prize committee was Jacques Barzun, Diana Trilling and Bernard DeVoto, three of the most distinguished critics of American literature ever. I suspect they were tired of what Walter would call ”the gloom and doom Southern novel,” the novel of Erskine Caldwell or, at its best, William Faulkner, full of poverty, rickets and despair.

“The Untidy Pilgrim” is none of that. Probably around 1950, a young man from upstate, Persepolis, certainly Demopolis, moves to Mobile to begin his life. We never learn his name. He rooms with one old lady and in the course of things interacts with a number of other old ladies, each eccentric in her own way. Our hero works in a bank, and means to be reading law in the evenings, but Mobile is too exciting a place for that. There are picnics in the parks and beer joints down at the waterfront. After one Saturday night our hero wakes up with his ”teeth all wearing cashmere sweaters.”

Our narrator’s cousin, the beautiful, not merely handsome, but beautiful Perrin comes to town and is so sarcastic and irritating that finally our normally pacific hero punches him in the face and breaks his nose and we’re glad. Our hero has a love affair, and the woman, Philine, gorgeous, with jet black hair, is irresistible and untrustworthy. Several scenes are set in Bayou Claire, Bayou La Batre, at the estate of uncle Acis, another marvelous eccentric—the novel is full of them.

Eugene Walter used to say he fought dailiness—the tedium of the everyday. “Some days I feed dates to the squirrels to see their reaction,” he would say. Yes, he did, but more importantly, he practiced delight in the daily—taught us to pay attention. The everyday, if properly seen, is extraordinary, full of marvels, joy, beauty. Eugene used to complain that his name was misspoken as Walters, plural, and would insist “I am singular.” Yes, he certainly was.

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.