Interview with editor of N.O Lit: 200 years of New Orleans Literature

Listen to The Anthology of Louisiana Literature‘s 2-part interview with Dr. Nancy Dixon, editor of one of the necessary books for any New Orleans scholar or armchair historian: N.O. Lit: 200 Years of New Orleans Literature. Even if this brilliant woman wasn’t my pal, I’d still be urging you to get a copy. I open it up again and again to read her selections from different authors.

The 560 pages includes a well-curated set of short fiction and plays that reflect the city’s literary history, from Paul Louis LeBlanc de Villeneuve’s 18th-century play The Festival of the Young Corn, or The Heroism of Poucha-Houmma to Fatima Shaik’s 1987 short story “Climbing Monkey Hill.”

Dixon provides informative introductions to each author’s section, placing the works and their creators within the context of the city’s history and the history of its literature, making the anthology both an enjoyable artful artifact and an important academic resource.

Part 1

Part 2

Unfathomable City

Unfathomable City: A New Orleans AtlasUnfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas by Rebecca Solnit

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wrote an earlier review of this book ( I keep busy) and have now decided to update it since receiving the actual published book as I used the advanced reader copy for the previous review and now after reading more of it in a different location than the last time and viewing all of the maps that weren’t in the ARC and let me share that I did all of that new stuff all on All Saints Day, no less. Told you: multitudes.

I decided to do it without the cranky insertion of MY New Orleans up front that was in the previous review and to simply state that it’s a well designed, well-edited and at times beautifully written and illustrated homage to our mysterious city.
This book gives credit where credit is due. To the city’s geography, to its outlandish robber barons of bananas and oil, to the nameless and named that have brought us and bring us music, food, and public displays and joy and sorrow and pain and punishment. It neatly shows a number of juxtapositions that may be uncomfortable for some to view and others that are certainly unfathomable, but it does show them. There. credit given.
Now, back to me:
If you look through my reviews, you can spot a certain fondness for maps. I love them and love poring over them before, during or in spite of actually traveling to the place depicted.
If you read my reviews, you will no doubt spot a serious fondness for essayists. I admire what seems to me to be honest human bravery in extending a point or a purpose to a new end. Taking a walk with an author is how I visualize an essay, and yes there are times that I turn back before getting to the end, but I still appreciate the offer. So maps and essays seem like two sides of one coin and when put together well can alter or color each other’s point and purpose.

So that this is a book of illusory and real maps combined with odd and delightful essays, edited by two sensitive writers is enough for me to tell you.

Let me let the writers and artists tell you themselves in essays and maps such as:

Civil rights and Lemon Ice

Hot and Steamy: Selling Seafood and Selling Sex

Ebb and Flow: Migrations of the Houma, Erosions of the Coast

Juju and Cuckoo: Taking Care of Crazy

Stationary Revelations: Sites of Contemplation and Delight

The first essays introducing this book are alone worth poring over and sharing; how often is that true? That should tell you about the care and thought put into this entire work and offer the best reason to plunk down your money, open it and thumb through while having a Pimm’s or a coffee in front of you, tucked away in a shady corner of our shared city. Enjoy it all.

View all my reviews

1850 house

Our Yesteryear councilwoman Jackie Clarkson calls the French Quarter “our front porch” and as much as I hate to agree with her, I do sometimes find it impossible to counter everything she says. That statement I agreed with (it is a miracle, but it is still possible we mean it in very different ways. That is how I comfort myself.)

So to continue the marketing, the front porch of the front porch is Jackson Square. What remains amazing about the Square is even with all of the rules and regs that go along with good preservation,  “new” still shows up there every once in a while. New art appears on the fence (I didn’t say it was all good art), young musicians show up to replace those now recording and appearing elsewhere and trust me- a new hustle is coming sooner or later from those unwashed over there.

In many ways, Jackson Square is the most modern of places. So, when you walk in a door and head upstairs to see the 1850 House, you might enjoy the juxtaposition.

It’s one of 3 museums on the square and certainly the most invisible one. Found in the middle of the Lower Pontalba block, you pay your small fee and are quite courteously shown the stairs to go up and reminded to take pictures and left alone to do that (well except for the cameras keeping track on every floor).

The stairwell pictured is theirs. I took the picture, because it is certainly a typical stair for the French Quarter, but probably not for any other citizen of the city. Unevenly worn treads and the smooth bannister tells you this has seen some folks.

1850 House Pontalba

What is amusing is the central air vents strewn carelessly around the room and the mechanics to manage the system groaning between the “gentleman’s bedroom” and the large back bedroom; Also amusing are the odd little placards explaining what you are looking at:; for the most part, certainly dated with very basic information. What is very nice are the stories of the first tenants of the building: I learned a great deal about the type of resident these apartments attracted and their businesses in New Orleans (first) heyday. I wish someone would find out what happened after mid 1860s in these rooms, but maybe if we start to climb those stairs more regularly and ask, they’ll tell us more.

The Cammacks-1853-1856

I liked the back stairs the best with the view of the courtyard. I stood back there for a few minutes, enjoying the sounds from the square but really feeling the lack of activity in this house (really not a house at all anymore). For now the lights go off at 5:30 pm and the door is shut. No families, no mourning, no dinner at the table. Just history.

I wonder who was the last person to live in this building and when. One of those immigrants when it became a “slum” (as alluded to in the language) could tell us a thing or two about life in the 20th century. Any museums for that? I might enjoy a walk through that time too.

I guess I have to explain it.

When I was 15, my mom moved me to the French Quarter from suburban Cleveland Ohio (via a short stop in Mandeville). We had spent many summers in New Orleans and my mother, who had grown up in the Garden District, seemed to always find her way back to the Quarter when we came to town, even with the clear-as-bell disapproval from her parents. We never spent any time Uptown; somehow she had few memories of life there and less interest in showing it to us.
So, when we moved to the Quarter, she was in her own heaven and at the same time, loosened her hold on me, so it is pretty obvious why I initially liked being there. But soon I realized this was a special neighborhood of deep history and lively city street activity and that it suited me personally. I roamed every day and some nights and met shopkeepers, proper ladies, street-walker, schoolteachers, hustlers, nuns, old old people who sat on their stoops on sunny mornings, workers who told me gossip while they swept, artists who started the day with a drink at the dark bar nearest to their room, transient people who told very little about themselves and many more Herbert Asbury and Frances Parkinson-Keyes types.
I learned to have tolerance; that was not something that had been shown to me in suburban Cleveland, even though my mother heroically tried to overcome that culture with her own New Orleans attitude. I also learned about the entire city and its history both old and newer. Like the immigrants and states and nations and all of the companion events sweeping over us, as they do…
So I write about the French Quarter because I think it represents some of the best things about city life and has some fractures that, if we mend them, we could once again have a completely dynamic city center that everyone uses at some point.
So when a colleague this week said with a laugh (about the French Quarter) as we were discussing neighborhoods , “Oh that’s not real New Orleans”, I heard it with a pang. I realize again and again when I tell people I am writing about the Quarter, many think why? How is that valid?
I think it is for the reasons above and for these:

Small businesses are the real life of any region; they show ingenuity and application in a single space. I learned about what we made and what we valued here from watching those businesses.

Food is a significant part of our city diary. Check out the offerings that span the culture in that one neighborhood.

Conversations teach: Sit in a spot in 3 or 4 different times in a single week. You will see a cross-section of the city go by and hear some amazing conversations.

24 hours, 7 days a week. It has that going for it.

Public space is necessary: Tahrir Square showed us the significance of the use of public space. We may never have to resort to that (well let’s not say never), but our public square is around 120 blocks large and sits along the river, waiting for you to use it. If and when you need it.

As for tourists, they are some of the lifeblood of the city’s economy along with the port. I know almost nothing about the port, but I talk with America and share thoughts and disagreements constantly as they come to admire our city. I wish we had better things to offer in the Quarter for all of us to mingle and know each other, so that is also why I work to make it better. And don’t forget many of those tourists are interested in more than beads and hurricanes, they might actually offer something. Lucky for us millions come to visit us.

And finally, because it’s the right scale. I can walk the entire Quarter in a few hours (and have done it many times). I can find parts that are quieter than City Park, livelier than Frenchman (well on a Thursday; nothing compares with Saturday there), more beautiful than St. Charles (age has its advantage), more radical than Bywater and so on. I don’t mean to compare but for those who ask why the French Quarter, I guess I have to.
Those blocks signify New Orleans, my own family’s history, my history, the bad and good of city life, and the potential, too.

I hope that helps.

Village. Town. Phalanx. Skyscraper Condemnation Affiliate. All of the above.

As of the census of 2000, there were 4,176 people, 2,908 households, and 509 families residing in the French Quarter.
Social theorist Charles Fourier (1820s) •”We are amazed when we calculate the benefits which would result from a union of 1600-1800 persons occupying a vast and elegant edifice in which they would find apartments of various sizes, tables at different prices, varied occupations and everything that can abridge, facilitate and give a charm to labor. . .The Phalanx will produce an amount of wealth tenfold greater then the present. The system allows for a multitude of economies of operations and sales which will increase the return enormously. . .The officers are chosen from among the experienced and skillful members–men, women and children, each elected from the members of the Phalanx. . .By means of short industrial sessions everyone will be enabled to take part in seven or eight different attractions with industry not now done, and will eliminate discord of all kinds. A refinement of taste will be cultivated. Minute division of labor will increase production and lower costs. It requires a tract of land three miles square, well-watered, flanked by a forest. The personal and real estate of the Phalanx will be represented by stock divided into shares. Each Phalanx will engage in both agriculture and industry. ”

•The soul of India lives in its villages”, declared M. K. Gandhi

•Village life, Miss Marple maintains, has taught her everything about the vicissitudes of human behavior.

Medieval villages and towns:
Villages range from 20 to 1,000 people, with typical villages ranging from 50-300. Most kingdoms will have thousands of them. Villages are agrarian communities within the safe folds of civilization. They provide the basic source of food and land-stability in a feudal system. Usually, a village that supports orchards (instead of grainfields) is called a “hamlet.” Occasionally, game writers use the term to apply to a very small village, regardless of what food it produces.
Towns range in population from 1,000-8,000 people, with typical values somewhere around 2,500. Cities and towns tend to have walls only if they are frequently threatened.

•Excerpt from “The Village Green Preservation Society” (from The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, Ray Davies writer):
We are the Office Block Persecution Affinity
God save little shops, china cups and virginity
We are the Skyscraper Condemnation Affiliate
God save tudor houses, antique tables and billiards
Preserving the old ways from being abused
Protecting the new ways for me and for you
What more can we do
God save the Village Green.

I would say that if the village perishes India will perish too. India will be no more India. Her own mission in the world will get lost. The revival of the village is possible only when it is no more exploited. Industrialization on a mass scale will necessarily lead to passive or active exploitation of the villagers as the problems of competition and marketing come in. Therefore we have to concentrate on the village being self-contained, manufacturing mainly for use. Provided this character of the village industry is maintained, there would be no objection to villagers using even the modern machines and tools that they can make and can afford to use. Only they should not be used as a means of exploitation of others. Gandhi