Imagining the Creole City: The Rise of Literary Culture in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans: Review

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One relevant reason for this book is the recently reignited protests centering on race inequities and immigration across America, a conversation that is always sadly necessary in the American South. Local historian Rien Fertel addresses it by writing about the elite Creole literary circle that, starting in the 1820s/1830s, largely created and sustained the story of the region’s “exceptionalism.” That era of virtuous manifest destiny – not just in the South of course- is largely to blame for the lack of understanding among those who continue to grow up amid their own ethnic myths in the U.S.

For New Orleans, most people know the story of Creole culture only through Creoles of color who continue to inhabit the city, partly because they are largely responsible for much of what we continue to value culturally in New Orleans such as live music, public and family culture, and informal Carnival activities. But it is also convincingly identified here as resulting from the profiled writers unapologetic and sometimes incorrect assertion of their whiteness and its embedded privileges during Reconstruction through the turn of the 20th century. Yet the historical details contained here give those actions context and perspective; Fertel’s description of the politics of post-Louisiana Purchase New Orleans and the concern from the White House on any potential allegiance to the Old World as partially responsible for the Creoles’ sensitivity about the eclipse of their history is especially informative.

By offering individual profiles of prominent writers of Creole history starting with eminent historian Charles Gayarré, “Transcendentalist” New Orleans Choctaw missionary Adrien Rouquette and through those writers who took up the “cause” in the 20th century, including Grace King, Robert Tallant and Lyle Saxon, Fertel offers a human-scaled trek through that complicated history and time. Having the book end with the profile of George Washington Cable and his more inclusive history of the city,  he shows the reordering of history that began with Cable as well as the tension among writers, which (partly) led to Cable’s self-imposed exile from the city. Fertel does his best to fairly catalogue both good and bad (or the long and the short) of that tension; for example, he shares how Grace King’s later-in-life acknowledgement of Cable’s value to the city showed the potential for change among those earlier devoted only to the “gallant” Creole story.

The details gathered by many of these writers will continue to offer us a rich tapestry of Louisiana life and cannot be entirely eclipsed by their love of heroic epics or even their insistence on racial “purity” and entitlement that belied the truth that existed in the tumultuous and complicated times of Jim Crow’s America. Yet, the dismissal of most of these writers works in the last 50 years as provincial cheerleading with either a stated or unstated allegiance to the “Lost Cause” should be a lesson in these Tea Party days and is vitally important for any writer in these times to consider.

 

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About DW

New Orleans resident, writer, activist.

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