Literary Mobile: On the Street Where You Live

When my hometown of Pascagoula, Mississippi, renamed the street where my parents lived, my father glowed with pride. Our address now read Paul Harvey Avenue, named for the popular author and radio commentator. We’d moved up in social circles. Our street was named for someone important.

I recalled this recently In Mobile, Alabama, when researching my literary travel book.  Mobile has an entire historic neighborhood where all the streets are named for famous writers. It’s especially fitting since the neighborhood, Ashland Place, was carved out of the estate where Augusta Evans Wilson, the first woman author to earn over $100.000, lived and wrote.

Of course, she has Augusta Street named after her in a much older section of town, the Oakleigh Garden Historic District. Oakleigh dates as far back as 1830 with its crown jewels of Washington Square, a shady, sprawling park in the residential neighborhood, and the historic Oakleigh House built in 1837. Visitors new to Mobile will tell you they feel like they’re in New Orleans when they walk the sidewalks of Oakleigh Garden. Founded in 1702,  Mobile is actually sixteen years older than New Orleans.

About three miles northwest of Historic Oakleigh Garden Neighborhood is Ashland Place Historic District, the first streetcar suburb outside bustling old Mobile. Development of the neighborhood, which today has 81 homes, began in 1908 after the widowed writer Augusta Evans Wilson sold the property to a developer. Houses were already popping up among the gorgeous oaks by 1926, when Ashland, the home where Evans wrote at least three novels, was destroyed by fire. Remnants of the entrance to the original 40-acre estate are still visible at the two stucco pedestals and the entrance arch. The small “guard” houses still stand but aren’t visible in the photo below.

This old postcard shows the home Ashland in the distance before 1926 when the Greek Revival antebellum home burned.
The front entry to Ashland Place in Mobile as it looks in 2021, almost 100 years after the fire destroyed the original home on the 40-acre estate.

Meet the Streets

Ashland Place, nestled between Springhill Avenue and Old Shell Road, has only four streets, each named in honor of a writer with connections to Mobile. The stately homes in this prestigious, lush neighborhood point to a time when developers honored literary and cultural figures of the day with street names, perhaps to add cultural prestige to the neighborhood.

LanierLanier Avenue pays tribute to Sidney Lanier (1842-1881). This poet, professional musician, author and editor, is a Georgia native, but spent several years in Alabama. He recuperated at an uncle’s home in Point Clear on Mobile Bay following the Civil War. He had contracted tuberculosis while a prisoner of war. Following his stay in Point Clear, he lived in both Montgomery and nearby Prattville teaching and as an academy principal. He became a professor of literature at Johns Hopkins, an ironic commentary since prior to the Civil War he had wanted to go to Heidelberg to earn his Ph.D. to become a professor. The war broke out and like many young men, his plans changed.  He penned ten volumes of poetry in his short life; he died at 39. His most noted poem is “Marshes of the Glynn” and up until the 1960s school children still memorized his poems, many about nature.  Schools, streets, bridges, and lakes across the South are named in his honor. A World War II Liberty cargo ship and a U.S. postage stamp also honored him.  

DeLeon Avenue honors Thomas Cooper de Leon (1839-1914), a poet, editor, journalist, DeLeonnovelist, and playwright who lived in Mobile the last thirty years of his life. His most noted work is Belles, Beaux and Brains of the Sixties which profiles the men and women of the 1860s — from socialites to politicians to soldiers ­­­­– especially in the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia,. It’s interesting reading for those who enjoy history and a valuable resource for anyone studying or writing about the 1860s. He even includes some photos I’d never seen before of Winnie and Varina Davis, wife and daughter of Jefferson Davis.  DeLeon edited three Mobile newspapers, including the Mobile Register (now the Mobile Press Register), and managed Mobile’s Mardi Gras for years. He is a native of South Carolina; the online South Carolina Encyclopedia says his play  Hamlet, Ye Dismal Prince (1870), is alleged to be the first American play to run one hundred nights. DeLeon, who fought for the Confederacy, is sometimes called “The Blind Laureate of the Lost Cause.” He lost his vision in 1903.

RyanRyan Avenue honors Father Abram Joseph Ryan (1838-1886).  Following the Civil War, Father Ryan, the Catholic priest dubbed the “Poet of the Confederacy,” spent ten years in Mobile. He was first assigned as an assistant at Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception and then as pastor at St. Mary’s. Near downtown, there’s a bust and a portrait of him at Portier House and a bronze six-foot statue of him holding a book of poetry at the Father Ryan Memorial Park. Though he did not die in Mobile, he loved the city so much he requested his body be returned to St. Mary’s and buried there. His most famous poem is “The Conquered Banner,” at one time required reading for school children in Alabama. He was well-known in his time for his sermons, writings, and lectures, according to Alabama Living online.  His poems are online at https://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/ryan/ryan.html. Reading them gives new respect to rhyme, meter and form in poetry. (Yes, old-fashioned poetry that rhymed!) Father Ryan is even mentioned in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.

LeVertLeVert Street honors Madame Octavia Walton LeVert (1811-1877), the author of Souvenirs of Travel. She was called “The Pride of Mobile” though she was born in Georgia. Her grandfather was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and her father was an acting governor of the Territory of Florida.  As a young socialite visiting Baltimore in 1827, she was the object of the poem “To Octavia” by Edgar Allan Poe.  Scholars question whether Poe actually wrote the poem or simply adapted the nine lines for her. However, it is known that Poe met her and inscribed the lines by his hand in Octavia’s album.  After her family moved to Mobile in 1835, she married a physician and began to entertain. She acquired the respected title of “Madame” LeVert. She entertained hundreds of people – all were welcome – at her “Monday” salons, reflective of the popular literary salons of Europe.  She traveled the world and was presented to the Pope, Napoleon, and Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, which she wrote about in her book. The LeVert Home, the scene of the cultural salons at Royal and Governments Streets, was demolished in the mid-1900s. Fortunately, her cultural influence is remembered with LeVert Street in Ashland Place.

Ashland Place, Mobile, Alabama, 2021, Photos and Design by Diane Skelton

Driving through Ashland Place is a cultural experience in itself – as if visiting an art museum, with gorgeous historic homes reflecting architecture that respects individuality and landscape. Though these street names honor writers who may soon face the “cancel culture” firing squad, I am reminded they were the cultural and literary figures of the day.  Just like Paul Harvey was to my dad.

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