Alabama native Robert Bell (1926-1999) is an important figure in the state’s literary history for his nationally recognized reference works on classical mythology and also for his distinguished career as a librarian and his novel, The Butterfly Tree. Set in a fictional town based on Fairhope, Baldwin County, the novel combines his affection for the city with mystical characters common to ancient mythological tales.
Robert Eugene Bell was born October 13, 1926, in Tarrant City, Jefferson County, to Archie Herbert and Jessie Adkins Bell. He graduated from Phillips High School in Birmingham in 1944. Bell did his undergraduate work at Birmingham-Southern College, earning a B.A. degree in 1950 after interrupting his studies to serve in the U.S. Army during World War II. He then attended Harvard University on a General Education Board fellowship, earning an M.A. degree in English in 1952. The following year, Bell took a job as a librarian in the Mobile Public Library and also continued his studies at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge that summer. In 1955, Bell took a position as assistant director of the Fort Worth Public Library in Texas; while there, he published his most noted work, The Butterfly Tree (1959). The novel is set in the fictional town of Moss Bayou, which is based on the real town of Fairhope, where Bell’s family had moved in 1947. The novel is divided into four sections for each season of the year and tells the story of Peter Abbott and his association with four very different people who are all secretly searching for the same mystical butterfly tree. Some of Bell’s best writing comes in his descriptions of the various settings throughout the four seasons and in his unique characters and their various perceptions of the elusive tree. The published work featured cover art by famed pop-artist Andy Warhol. Although The Butterfly Tree did not go into a second printing at the time, renewed interest led the University of Alabama Press to reprint it in 1991.
In 1960, Bell moved with his partner, Mark Hanrahan, to San Francisco, where Bell served as director of the Book Club of California. While there, the couple opened the Banquette Book Shop as well as a second location in New Orleans in 1962 and soon after moved to Mobile, where Bell took a position with the Mobile Public Library. In 1965, they relocated to New Orleans, and Bell worked for the New Orleans Public Library. The following year, Bell resigned and became a full-time student in the library science graduate program at Louisiana State University, graduating in 1967. Bell and Hanrahan then returned to San Francisco, where Bell entered the doctoral program in library science at the University of California, Berkeley. During his graduate studies, he also taught several courses at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, South Carolina. After graduating in 1974, Bell taught as an adjunct at Berkeley and worked in the reference department of the library at the City College of San Francisco before becoming head of the humanities and social science reference department at the University of California, Davis, library.
During his tenure at UC Davis, Bell pursued his love of classical mythology and published three award-winning reference works on the subject, covering such topics as symbols, women, and place names. His lifelong interest in Greek and Roman myths resulted in numerous trips to other countries, especially Greece, to do extended research. He also published several scholarly articles related to library science and humanities education. Bell retired from UC Davis in 1991 and continued to write fiction and poetry, although this work remained unpublished. He died on November 19, 1999.
Selected Works by Robert E. Bell
A Bibliography of Mobile, Alabama (1956)
The Butterfly Tree (1959)
A Dictionary of Classical Mythology: Symbols, Attributes, and Associations (1982)
Place-Names in Classical Mythology: A Biographical Dictionary (1989)
Women of Classical Mythology: A Biographical Dictionary (1991)
Meet Me At the Butterfly Tree (with Mary Lois Timbes, 2001)
- Robert Eugene Bell Papers, Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama, Mobile, Alabama.
- Rountree, Thomas. Introduction to The Butterfly Tree, by Robert Bell. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1991.