March 2007

Colleen Mondor


Looking for Mr. Gilbert: The Reimagined Life of an African American by John Hanson Mitchell

Looking for Mr. Gilbert is one of those delightful history books that after reading prompts an overwhelming urge to call other likeminded readers and demand they go out and buy themselves a copy so they can read it and discuss it with you as soon as possible. It’s also the sort of book that I just know could so easily be overlooked in the stores -- lost behind titles that are flashier or trendier or written on topics that seem more significant. This is a book about an African American man who quite likely was one of the greatest photographers that no one has ever heard of. He is a man that history forgot, until author John Hanson Mitchell stumbled upon his life thirty years ago. He recognized an American treasure and then he spent the next several decades proving just how great his discovery was.

So really, honestly, how often do you read a book that covers the founding of the Audubon Society, the sexual mysteries of the “Boston marriage,” the truth behind one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary characters and the gastronomic excesses of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology? All of these subjects touched, in one way or another, the extraordinary life of Robert Gilbert. In finding him, Mitchell also found dozens of different mysteries, secrets and surprises within the lives of the people around him. This led him to write a book that is not only about a great and talented man, but also the very fascinating world in which he lived.

Mitchell first learned of Gilbert while sorting through a series of glass plate negatives stored in an attic by the Massachusetts Audubon Society. The negatives were credited to the society’s first president, William Brewster, who is a well known figure in American ornithology. Mitchell was curious about the well dressed African American man who appeared in one of the pictures -- he was certainly out of place for a late 19th century gathering of the Boston social scene -- but he gave him relatively little thought at the time. After he published a book that used several of the photos and credited them to Brewster he was approached by a research assistant from the Museum of Comparative Zoology who had recently worked on organizing some of Brewster’s correspondence and believed that his long time assistant, a man named Robert Gilbert, was actually the unacknowledged photographer of most of the pictures. What made this bit of information significant was that while there were a few known African American photographers in the late 19th and early 20th century there was, as Mitchell writes, “Not one [who] was making photographs of landscapes -- let alone birds’ nests.”

And that is how a historical mystery can get dropped in your lap. Mitchell is the sort who couldn’t resist the possibility of what Robert Gilbert represented, so he enlisted the help of his friend, historical researcher Tremont Williams who knows “half the people in Boston and Cambridge” for advice and then set off on Gilbert, and Brewster’s, trails. Mitchell was a man who wanted to know more and regardless of where he had to go, from Maine to Paris to the deep recesses of a dusty Harvard museum, he was going to find his truth. John Hanson Mitchell was a man now doggedly on the hunt for missing history.

There were so many ways that Looking for Mr. Gilbert could have been a stuffy, if not boring, book. It’s not as if Gilbert was a great explorer who went to Africa or the Arctic; he was actually a relatively unassuming man who married, had three daughters and led a quiet life filled with pleasant music and church with his family in Boston. He worked for William Brewster as an assistant, which meant hiking with him on his bird watching expeditions, taking photos, performing taxidermy, driving him and his wife to various destinations and serving as an all round vital member of their staff. Gilbert was with the Brewsters until William Brewster’s death and he remained in contact with his wife until her passing as well. There were no dark secrets of abuse or even overt racism in his relationship with his employer; on the contrary it seems as if Gilbert and Brewster had mutual respect for one another. The photographs, in fact, seemed not have been claimed by Brewster at all but were credited to him after his death -- as he seemed to have been the only one who could have taken them. As for those people who accompanied Gilbert and Brewster on their trips, it is doubtful that any of them were aware of the significance of the pictures, or that it would have mattered one way or the other if Gilbert was known as the photographer. He was just always there, working, in the same way that so many others have quietly been part of a society that saw them, but did not really notice them. Brewster clearly valued Gilbert and of that there can be no doubt; he just didn’t value him in a way that saw recognition beyond his employment and this is why what Mitchell has done with his book is so very very important.

Other than the serious significance that Gilbert’s recognition does to the history of photography, it is the way that Mitchell has written Looking for Mr. Gilbert that impressed me the most about his book. Rather than tell Robert Gilbert’s story in the past tense, as something obvious and established, Mitchell writes it as he learned it, from the first curious moments discovering the negative plates in the attic, through every single discovery and interview that occurred in the years that followed. He has written this history/biography as a modern day mystery, as a present tense search for clues to reveal just who Gilbert was, what Brewster did and where they traveled to. As he revisits the places that Gilbert photographed he tries to imagine what the scene was like 100 years before and why the specific locations were chosen. He hunts for Gilbert’s genealogical roots, for his living descendants, and for the people who might remember him at the museum, where he went to work upon Brewster’s death. On every page Mitchell is ripe for more discoveries, on the trail for more surprises and he artfully takes the reader along on a trip that reveals as much about American social history as it does about the relationship between two men. In the end readers will not be at all averse to Mitchell’s suggestion of a connection between Gilbert and F. Scott Fitzgerald -- by then you will be so used to the surprising things this one unassuming man accomplished that making his way into a literary classic is just another bombshell; just another example of how fascinating Robert Gilbert’s life truly was.

If you are a fan of history, particularly of the early 20th century, then you will find Looking for Mr. Gilbert to be irresistible reading. Mitchell has a true gift for making history come alive and has done a wonderful thing for Robert Gilbert with this book. Through his research, he has brought him into the spotlight that he so richly deserved all these many years and has given Robert Gilbert a new life. 
Looking for Mr. Gilbert: The Reimagined Life of an African American by John Hanson Mitchell
Shoemaker & Hoard
ISBN 1593761422
278 pages