Saturday, April 14, 2007

Book Review: "Looking for Mr. Gilbert"

John Hanson Mitchell's Looking for Mr. Gilbert: The Reimagined Life of an African American (2007, Shoemaker & Hoard) is the sort of book that gives me fits. It's nicely written with some very fascinating details and much potential, but something about it just didn't quite work for me.

After stumbling across some old photographic plates long attributed to Harvard ornithologist William Brewster, Mitchell finds out that the photographer was likely Robert Gilbert, Brewster's longtime assistant. The book is the story of Mitchell's pursuit of knowledge about Gilbert, particularly regarding his role in the ornithological scene of the late 1800s and the aftermath of his time with Mr. Brewster (when he lived in Paris, &c.).

Unfortunately Mitchell decided he needed to move beyond what facts are known about Gilbert's life and offer significant and unwarranted speculations to fill in the gaps. Of course since nothing is footnoted the reader's never sure where fact stops and fiction begins, which is always a troubling state of affairs. If Mitchell wanted to write a novel about Gilbert, he ought to have done so (and easily could have, there's plenty of grist for the mill). Aside from the biographical details - imagined or real - Mitchell's discussion of his own travels in search of information about Gilbert is the more interesting part of the book. He meets some real characters along the way (even if he doesn't ever manage to learn much of relevance from them).

Mitchell's flights of fancy sometimes seem rather overwrought, as when Mitchell 'finds' Gilbert in an F. Scott Fitzgerald character from Tender is the Night and meanders on for pages drawing conclusions about Gilbert's life from Fitzgerald's novel.

Perhaps the most ironic deficiency of this book is the lack of illustrations. Considering that the man he's searching for was, er, may have been, a photographer, the number of photographs in the book is surprisingly meager. Instead, at many points find Mitchell describing photographs to the reader - hardly effective without the visual accompaniment.

Mitchell's prose is clear and pleasant, and his topic is certainly a worthy and interesting one. If you can overcome the difficulties I had with it, I'm sure it would be an enjoyable read.