Who was this strange man who founded the city in the first place? What was Jacksonville like before it was Jacksonville?” asked Tim Gilmore of the subject of his newest book, city founder Isaiah Hart.
Gilmore is one of Jacksonville’s most prolific writer-activists. With humor, aplomb, unflagging energy and attention to the forgotten and overlooked spaces of the city, this seemingly unassuming English professor is creating an archive of the stories and images that helped shape the city. He is also involved in dialogue around issues of civil rights and social justice, he writes at JaxPsychoGeo.com and organizes the JaxbyJax literary arts festival taking place Nov. 11. His most recent effort is The Book of Isaiah, a full-length historical novel (complete with a soundtrack and illustrations). Fellow FSCJ English professor Shep Shepard was enlisted to create the illustrations that illuminate the thrust and pictorial disposition Gilmore imagined.
The Book of Isaiah is a Gothic tale with contradictions and fascinatingly specific details. Hart opposed the Confederacy even as he owned slaves; he left a share of this wealth to one of his slaves, Amy, who’d become a kind of second wife while his wife Nancy was still alive; and had thoughts that conflated people and vegetation.
In advance of the book release, Folio Weekly caught up with Gilmore to ask him a few questions (they have been edited for clarity and space).
Much of your work revolves around what might be termed “Jacksonville’s forgotten history,” what drives this impulse?
I’m fascinated with cities, with the histories embedded in the landscape. Historically, one of this city’s biggest problems is that it hasn’t known itself. I try to explore and investigate this identity problem and write the stories of those investigations.
Since this is a book based on actual events, how do you extrapolate emotion from historical accounts?
I try to get to know whomever I’m writing about. I’d like to think that someone in the future is looking back at us now and trying to see who we are. There’s this ghostly line in Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” that’s always given me chills. Whitman’s writing in 1856 and he asks, “Who knows, for all the distance, but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?”
You seem to work very quickly, how much time do you dedicate to these stories/projects?
I write every night. Digging up any one story unearths so many more. I love to root around in old newspapers, old books, and wander through strange places that are hard to notice. I have two book projects going at the same time, one budding as the other nears completion.
An excerpt from The Book of Isaiah
Oh poor Nancy, daughter of Nancy!
Her eyes never looked you in the eye, even when they did. Her adulthood was but a childhood. She never thought when she spoke and never thought when she thought.
In the brutal vernacular of the day, Isaiah’s and Nancy’s daughter Nancy was an “idiot,” in the same way that Georgia’s state mental hospital opened in 1842 as Georgia State Lunatic, Idiot, and Epileptic Asylum.
The family had the means and the family had the slaves, and if the slaves at Paradise Plantation on Cracker Swamp raised the Hart children, they could take care of Nancy as a young woman child too.
Nancy’s mother Nancy had grown weary in the taxing of the swamps even in the fine great rooms staged above the landscape for ventilation.
Here, sickness followed sickness followed sickness. Water and air were interchangeable with the earth. If a thing died in the earthen water, you would strain it through your lungs all night and day for days.
The greatest violence Nancy’s mother Nancy felt daily, however, was Isaiah’s lust for that slavegirl who devoured him as the summer did the dead.
Then fire consumed Paradise.
The swamp went up in flames.
Nancy’s daughter Nancy had grown weary at Paradise, 21 years old but a small child, and oh sometimes did she resent her slave mothers.
Fire lies at the heart of all things. If you cut the swamp with a knife, fire oozes down the blade.
So did it.
So Nancy’s daughter Nancy fell burning through the heartpine floorboards and burnt to death in the waters burbling beneath the house.