My writing is anchored in a remote town in the southern United States, a utopian community formed in 1894 to demonstrate the efficacy of Henry George's theory of the Single Tax. I have, in some instances, referred to the town as South Haven, as it was formed by Midwesterners who brought their families with them to experience the economic and intellectual boom they felt sure their utopia would bring about.
The town exists, on the eastern bank of Mobile Bay, an anomaly today. Its actual name is Fairhope, a name chosen by the founders to indicate their belief that the experiment had a "fair hope" of success. Over the years the town itself has grown but only as the theory of the single tax receded in importance to it. By the late 1920s the town was incorporated outside its utopian colony roots, and the dreams of the founders for an economic utopia began to be undermined at every turn. They soldiered on, in denial, as time after time cases were brought before the state Supreme Court, until by now the single tax is seen as the least attractive facet of the town. It is still referred to as utopian, and sometimes as an artists' colony, but in reality it is simply a beautiful, clean little city with a lot of restaurants, expensive shops, and the enviable position of a well-situated, predominately white-populated settlement with sunset views of Mobile Bay.
It was not so when I was growing up. In the 1950s Fairhope attracted non-conformists and outliers, sometimes cantankerous and often amusing, but almost always harmless. There was an ease to Fairhope's intellectual pretexts, and a certain comfort in its eccentricities. When I moved back in 1988, it was on the verge of becoming the retirement haven and tourist attraction that it now is, and I started writing about the way I remembered it, hoping to show newcomers what I and my generation had seen as the essence of Fairhope. Naively I hoped this would show them how to appreciate the Fairhope I had known.
A Centennial celebration was planned for 1994, and I was put in touch with a writer who had lived in Fairhope when I was a teenager. His name was Robert E. Bell, and he had had a novel published in 1952--a novel set in the mythical town of Moss Bayou--his name for Fairhope--entitled The Butterfly Tree. In those days, Bob and I were among the last avid letter writers, and we began a vivid correspondence about our memories of people we had known in Fairhope in the 1950s. At one point, I wrote him, "I believe there's a book in this," and persuaded him to join me in publishing some of our letters in book form. Nobody much remembered Bob Bell at that point, but University of Alabama kept The Butterfly Tree in print, and our book was called Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree. His local celebrity grew, especially with the young writers flocking to Fairhope.
Bob died before MMATBT was published. I've since reworked that book, edited Bob's contribution out, and retitled it The Fair Hope of Heaven. No publisher, not even the University of Alabama Press, had any interest so I self-published it, but it has yet to sell more than 1,500 copies. I followed up with a historical novel set in Fairhope at its prime, 1921, called That Was Tomorrow, which I also self published.
I can't quite shake Fairhope out of my writing, or out of my heart, but I have a friend who says I'm using "old" Fairhope as a crutch. I should expand my horizons. I want to do that as I go forward, but I am what I am, and much of what I am is because I grew up in the odd little town that doesn't exist any more. But I'm still writing--always with the feeling that my best work lies ahead. And it might not be about Fairhope at all.