Three Hundred Years of Decadence: New Orleans Literature and the Transatlantic World LSU Press, 2019 224 Pages
Thomas Jessen Adams and Matt Sakakeeny, eds. Remaking New Orleans: Beyond Exceptionalism and Authenticity Duke University Press, 2019 368 Pages
T.R. Johnson, ed. New Orleans: A Literary History Cambridge University Press, 201 396 Pages
2019 saw the publication of three books that, taken together, provide a revealing snapshot of the academic apprehension of New Orleans in our time. Robert Azzarello’s Three Hundred Years of Decadence: New Orleans Literature and the Transatlantic World, was released early in the year. It was followed by Thomas J. Adams and Matt Sakakeeny’s edited volume, Remaking New Orleans: Beyond Exceptionalism and Authenticity. Late in the year, New Orleans: A Literary History, edited by T.R. Johnson, appeared.
Azzarello’s book wins the award for focus, simply because it was all written by him. The other two are anthologies of scholarly articles and, as such, benefit from a great range of voices and approaches as much as they suffer from efforts to contain the scope of their inquiries under a coherent intellectual umbrella. Though all three books are careful to consider the long span of New Orleans cultural history, from the founding to the present, they are most interesting for how they convey preoccupations about New Orleans and its history that are very much germane to our own moment. Many intellectuals and academics today are in a decidedly anti-romantic mood, evincing a distrust in myth, fantasy, aesthetics, and libido as liberating forces. This very positivist if not puritanical stance poses problems for poetics in general, and, more particularly, for traditional understandings of New Orleans as symbol in the national imagination, since much of the mythology of the city has countered perceived Anglo-Saxon American notions of value—hard work, capital accumulation, functionalism, delay of gratification—with ideologies of living for the moment, for beauty, and for sensual experience. In addition to this post-Katrina identity crisis, there is the pervasive inferiority complex felt by many (Americanist) New Orleans intellectuals and cultural producers, at least those who are keen to earn national recognition. Azzarello calls it “the tenuous literariness of the city vis-à-vis a larger, more national corpus”. Finally, there is the scholarly anxiety of speaking for subalterns[ii]. For a variety of reasons, New Orleans has been perceived, and often perceives itself, as a colony apart from a more legitimate and more privileged American hegemonic body. Non-native aficionados of New Orleans can suffer from an anxiety of authenticity, and locals can have the feeling that they are being mined as inarticulate native subjects, robbed of their own intellectual voice so that the more privileged American outsider can win the prize for interpreting the subaltern’s experience for her. This anxiety is most acute, and directly addressed, in Adams and Sakakeeny, while it barely touches Azzarello, since he presents himself and feels himself as a native New Orleanian, even speaking at times of the city in the first person plural[iii].
On the side of the traditional celebration of New Orleans as having its own distinctive literary corpus, with attendant sign-systems, is the native, Robert Azzarello, while the opposing impulse, to reject the notion of New Orleans exceptionalism in all its forms, is voiced by Adams and Sakakeeny (though the collected articles in their anthology don’t uniformly support the claims of their introduction). In between is T.R. Johnson’s Literary History, many of whose articles voice New Orleans exceptionalist attitudes, though mostly without a conscious defense of the idea of New Orleans as a body of texts with its own internal semiotic logic, probably just because of the book’s sprawling and diffuse approach.
Robert Azzarello and New Orleans Decadence
Robert Azzarello’s study takes up the task of tracing the notion of “decadence” in New Orleans literature. It goes without saying that “decadence” (perceived in a variety of ways) is part of the mythology of New Orleans alterity in the U.S. American context. Azzarello opens his inquiry with a careful elucidation of “New Orleans Decadence in Theory.” He quotes historian Alecia P. Long on how Americans have viewed New Orleans as “different” and “decadent” and “that its cultural distinctiveness is related to its reputation for tolerating, even encouraging, indulgence of all varieties”[iv]. But then he moves beyond a simple understanding of decadence as hedonism by saying that it “reveals something more culturally and politically significant than polymorphous indulgence in so-called vice” [v].
The heuristic of decadence that he develops emphasizes its paradoxical qualities. He explains that decadence does not simply mean “decay,” but that it is “ontological as much as axiological,” which is to say that it “evaluates as much as it describes”[vi]. Though many people think of cultural decadence as a riposte to bourgeois capitalist ideologies of moral progress, Azzarello maintains that decadence includes resistance to progress alongside progress itself—that’s the paradox. 19th Century Marxists, for example (and much of the socialist movement after that time) decry “bourgeois decadence,” while urban bohemians of many generations have viewed their embrace of a different understanding of decadence as a rejection of bourgeois values.
The most helpful step in Azzarello’s definition of decadence is his historicizing of the idea in “the afterglow of romanticism”[vii], particularly in the post-romantic revisions of Baudelaire, Nietzsche, and J.K. Huysmans, French author of a trend-setting 1884 decadent novel A rebours. Citing Matei Calinescu, Azzarello argues that Nietzsche’s decadence lies in his concept of the transvaluation of values, whereby “the supposed good and the supposed bad cannot maintain their stability and end up morphing into one another” [viii]. This, according to Calinescu, qualifies decadence as one of the “five faces of modernity” (alongside modernism, avant-garde, kitsch, and postmodernism). For this reason, Azzarello maintains, decadence cannot be understood in opposition to modernity, but only as part and parcel of it.
Of the several attributes of decadent poetics listed by Azzarello, five seem especially important with an eye to perceptions of New Orleans decadence as an aesthetic: “reveling in inadequacy, debility, failure and weakness…; a bipolar if not schizoid relation to modernity; an obsession with artistic refinement at the expense of rational judgement; a seemingly careless indifference to the world that is in fact carefully scripted and consciously performed” and “a fixation on artificiality and ornamentation over substance”[ix].
Over the course of the succeeding seven chapters, Azzarello does an admirable job tracing the development of his particular conception of decadence over three centuries of New Orleans literature, from the colonial period, through the 19th and 20th Centuries, and up to and after the PTSD years of the post-Katrina era. His literary history, like the histories offered by Johnson and Adams and Sakakeeny, pays due attention to early New Orleans, and to non-Anglophone texts. Indeed, the common strength of all three books, and something for our contemporaries to pat themselves on the back for, is the growing understanding of New Orleans (and American) literature and history as polyglot. It’s true that there’s always been an awareness of New Orleans heritage as linguistically mixed. The consciousness of a “Latin” and African past has, in fact, been a big component of claims to New Orleans exceptionalism in the American cultural context. But recent years have seen an active engagement with non-English literatures of the city on a larger scale. One concrete development is lauded by Jarrod Hayes in his chapter in Johnson’s Literary History, “Coloring Sex, Love, and Desire in Creole New Orleans’ Long Nineteenth Century.” He credits Tintamarre, a website and then publisher promoting and translating Francophone Louisiana literature since the early 2000s. The inclusion of Rien Fertel, author of Imagining the Creole City: The Rise of Literary Culture in Nineteenth Century New Orleans, in both Johnson’s and Adams’ and Sakakeeny’s anthologies, is evidence of the excitement students of New Orleans feel at lifting the curtain on the vast and comparatively understudied corpus of Francophone Louisiana literature. Sadly, though, Johnson’s book neglects to note attempts to recover Francophone poesy as a living form in our own time, as, Azzarello reminds us, poet Sybil Kein has done.
Containing New Orleans Literature
Though Johnson’s preface does not address the challenge and promise of a multi-linguistic literary corpus, Azzarello does. He writes that “New Orleans literary scholarship has tended to confine itself in a number of ways” including because of how “critics have tended to study the English-language literature almost exclusively, at the expense of texts written in a variety of European languages…as well as orature and lyric spoken and sung in a variety of native and African languages”[xi].
Despite the absence of a critique of literary critical tradition in Johnson’s short preface, his collection certainly does cross several linguistic and generic boundaries. In addition to chapters on French-language writing by white and black authors, he includes a fine chapter on Spanish writing in New Orleans by Kirsten Silva Gruesz–including attention to “the earliest known novel written by a proto-Latino”[xii]–and a chapter on Asian-American New Orleans by Marguerite Nguyen (who is also featured in Adams’ and Sakakeeny’s book). He transcends the generic limitations of traditional literary study, too, by including a chapter on rap and bounce, by Holly Hobbs. The range is certainly wide, not only of texts, but of critical approaches. Some include close reading of certain themes or tropes in particular texts, like Tara J. Green’s chapter on three stories by Alice Dunbar-Nelson, or Thadious Davis’ chapter on William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! or Richmond M Eustis Jr.’s chapter on Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. Others, like Emily Thoth’s chapter on Kate Chopin, Cory MacLauchlin’s chapter on John Kennedy Toole, and Kalamu ya Salaam’s chapter on Tom Dent, are more focused on sharing details of the authors’ biographies and/or sketching out the historical moment in which they worked.
Johnson’s preface seeks to prepare the reader for the variation in focus and style by saying that the “dislocations” should “spur the reader to undertake much broader reflections and to trace subtler and more complex historical arcs and thematic clusters among these essays, allowing them to bump into and bounce off each other in original ways”[xiii].His preface also tries to address the gaps in the literary history that the book’s title purports to cover. There are, in fact, many gaps, which is not to say that what is in the book is not interesting and valuable. The title, though, suggests a more comprehensive treatment than the book can possibly deliver. Johnson’s effort to explain fairly significant omissions also falls short. He writes that missing authors were not included “because they either never engaged the topic of New Orleans at all or didn’t do so in imaginative ways that transformed well-established understandings of the place”[xiv]. The first criterion makes perfect sense, but the second is needlessly dismissive of a large number of New Orleans writers, including living ones.
The essays in Johnson’s Literary History are a sampling, several tips of icebergs, even regarding the authors or genres that did make the cut. There are essays on particular works of authors who also penned many other works. And there are essays on genres—like Taylor Hagood’s chapter on “The Gothic Tradition in New Orleans”–that basically just scratch the surface, albeit in interesting ways. Daniel Stein contributes a great essay on Louis Armstrong’s autobiographical writing, but it would be nice to consider musical autobiographies as a genre more broadly, including the ones Stein mentions (Sidney Bechet’s and Danny Barker’s) as well as more recent efforts like Dr. John’s Under a Hoodoo Moon. It would also be nice to have a chapter on personalized popular histories of the city, a genre that dates back at least to Charles Gayarré’s 1847 declaration that his own history of the city would be rendered “con amore, and with such reverential enthusiasm, and I may say with such filial piety, that it has grown upon my heart as well as upon my mind” [xv]. Exemplars of the genre include Henry Castellanos’ New Orleans as It Was (1895) and Grace King’s New Orleans: The Place and the People (1895), Lyle Saxon’s Fabulous New Orleans (1928), Robert Tallant’s The Romantic New Orleanians (1950), Tom Piazza’s Why New Orleans Matters (2005), Ned Sublette’s The World that Made New Orleans (2009) and, most recently, Jason Berry’s City of a Million Dreams (2018).
But by far the most underrepresented genre in Johnson’s Literary History is poetry. That absence is difficult to explain. Several chapters include reference to poets, notably Jerrod Hayes’ chapter on Afro-Creole writing. There’s also a chapter detailing the lasting impact New Orleans had on Walt Whitman, by Ed Folsom. But there is no chapter devoted to a New Orleans poet, poetic tradition, or group of poets. Johnson suggests his anxiety about that absence when he lists authors that he feels bad for not including in his preface. Several are poets, but it’s hard to believe that they are denied recognition because they didn’t represent New Orleans in “imaginative ways.” A chapter grouping together three of the poets Johnson apologizes for leaving out—Everette Maddox, Andrei Codrescu, and Lee Meitzen Grue—would not be difficult to imagine, especially given the chapter on women fictionists of the same period[xvi].
Azzarello devotes lots of attention to poets, several of whom didn’t earn the shout-out in Johnson’s apologetic preface. He calls Codrescu, incidentally, “a theorist and practitioner of decadence”[xvii]. He also explains why poetry can be a hard sell in today’s anxious, distrustful, and positivist intellectual climate: “Poeticism may be understood as a liability with regard to the actual text’s truth value. The more poetic the language, the skeptic will contend, the further it swerves from the truth”[xviii]. In his reading of post-Katrina poems by Martha Serpas, he acknowledges that “…there is always a risk that poeticism presents a fundamentally inaccurate picture of what it says it represents. There is always the risk that the poet’s aesthetic sensibility will get in the way of pure ontological description”[xix]. By reserving his defense of poetics for the chapter on post-Katrina writing, Azzarello acknowledges that the current suspicion of the truth value of poetic and aesthetic expression has something to do with the emotional crisis faced by New Orleanians as a result of that cataclysmic event. The scale of the suffering demands sensitivity, but also a desperate search for factual causes and an impatience with subjective, personal, or fanciful renderings. Poetry is unable to control its own meanings, too vaguely wrapped up in private, unconscious associations, in fantasy, myth, and libido. The debunking zeal behind the scholarship favored by Adams and Sakakeeny has neither the time nor the inclination to dwell on what Everette Maddox means by “moon-eaters” in his famous poem, “Moon Fragment”[xx]. You can’t debunk a poem. The simple positivist mission of empirically demonstrating that “myths” are “false” is the antithesis of the poetic mission.
New Orleans Mythology as Mystification of Social Conditions
Empiricist debunking of common myths of New Orleans is what Adam’s and Sakakeeny’s Remaking New Orleans is all about. The genre of most of the essays might best be described as Sozialforschung, the critical assessment of people’s ideas and feelings in light of verifiable, usually economic data. Like Marx’s famous base and superstructure model, they tend to view culture as either a reflection or, indeed, a mystification of economic conditions. As their sub-title suggests, their main concern is to debunk myths of New Orleans exceptionalism and myths of New Orleans authenticity. Their dismantling of the concept of authenticity is a slam-dunk, especially after Adolph Reed Jr.’s closing chapter, “The Myth of Authenticity and Its Impact on Politics—in New Orleans and Beyond.” What the book’s best critiques of authenticity accomplish, including Reed’s and Aaron Nyerges’ provocatively titled “Phony City,” is to expose the falsehood of the concept of authenticity generally, with New Orleans authenticity as really only one illustrative example in a sea of them. Reed begins by questioning claims to racial authenticity and linking them to older racist perceptions of racial essences. He is bemused by today’s current obsession with cultural appropriation, not limited to but certainly present in contemporary New Orleans. “If anything, the discourse of cultural appropriation…sacrifices concrete grievances on the altar of declaiming on the depth, persistence , and pervasiveness of generic racism. A racialized notion of culture, that is, obscures the workings of political economy” [xxi](313). Reed is not arguing that racism has not been a historical reality, or that racism no longer plays any role at all in society. But he is saying that the ritualistic invocation of the specter of personal (rather than institutional) racism—like a group confession in a religious service—can obscure a more productive accounting of material disparities.
The most illuminating essays in the book, like those by Vincanne Adams and Cedric Johnson, show how the predominance of concern over what people feel can mask the more urgent matter of what they have—or don’t have—in economic terms. In many ways, their arguments resemble the debates between Axel Honneth’s emphasis on recognition as a measure of a just society, and critics who feel that he downplays distribution of wealth and resources in favor of symbolic acknowledgment[xxii]. “Race reductionism and claims to authenticity come together,” Reed writes, “in the conventional terms of debate over gentrification that characterize displacement for rent-intensifying redevelopment as a cultural issue folded into overarching narratives of aboriginality and (racial) authenticity. This orientation leads to demands for inclusion, often cast in pluralist terms as recognition, not redistribution, and distances the issue of displacement from the machinations of the publicly supported real estate market”[xxiii] . This would seem to be a clear-cut case of cultural arguments masking and precluding the economic arguments necessary for grasping the material reality of the problem. Reed reminds us that we should subject the myth of authenticity to Marx’s key question for discerning social power structures: cui bono? Who benefits?[xxiv]. In the case of New Orleans and the United States, where economic inequality has reached new heights even as previously marginalized identities gain more and more public respect (lip service?), the answer is clear: entrenched capital.
As Reed has indicated elsewhere, neo-liberalism is capitalism “freed from effective opposition”[xxv], and it’s clear that the pre-occupation with recognizing distinctive identities (racial, ethnic, gendered, regional) has at least distracted from, if not abetted, the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands. As Reed also notes, the fetishization of (often racial) authenticity in New Orleans has gone hand-in-hand with the rise of the tourist industry, which converts local cultural authenticity into a form of capital, though poorly remunerated. However, another question, in addition to cui bono, could be asked of the myth of authenticity, and literary study can help answer it: what need does the myth of authenticity seek to satisfy for those who embrace it? In other words, what is the claim of authenticity a sublimation of?
This question points to the flaw in many of the arguments in Remaking New Orleans, though one of its chapters provides clues. Anthropologist Helen Regis interrogates the perception of New Orleans identity on a spectrum extending from native to transplant to tourist in “Local, Native, Creole, Black: Claiming Belonging, Producing Autochthony.” In a refreshing maneuver, Regis turns the gaze away from fetishized inarticulate native subjects back onto the observers, including scholars. She also acknowledges the process by which transplants can embrace local belonging through performance, which requires vetting and mentorship from already established “locals,” “natives,” or “autochthones”[xxvi]. Her generous understanding of how distinctive local cultural practices grow and change, while preserving a measure of “authenticity” through interpersonal links to a cultural history, is a salutary antidote to the acute anxiety of authenticity inhering in Richard Campanella’s “supernative” paradigm, which portrays assimilating transplants as gentrifying poseurs[xxvii].
It also seems to complicate arguments elsewhere in Remaking New Orleans that wish to see adherence to myths of distinctive cultural identity merely as covers for growing displacement and economic inequality. What they don’t acknowledge is that the deployment of authenticity capital by locals is an effort, however desperate, to push back against perceived colonization. Regis shares the typical example of a native posing the old local authenticity test of where someone went to high school[xxviii]. The prevalence of this question illustrates the bond people from New Orleans feel with others who experienced the formative years of childhood and youth in the city. Regis is aware that a hasty rejection of local authenticity can itself be a sign of non-native scholars’ own anxiety of authenticity. It’s curious that Adolph Reed, in his essay roundly debunking the myth of authenticity, offers a childhood memory of sharing a hot-sausage po-boy with dad at Mulé’s, an extinct 7th Ward eatery. He surely realizes that, for locals, ‘ain’t dere no more’ nostalgia serves as a marker of authenticity intended as a bulwark (again, however desperate and ineffective) against encroachments by well-heeled new arrivals[xxix].
Adams’ and Sakakeeny’s case against New Orleans exceptionalism, as distinct from the myth of the city as exceptionally authentic, is weaker. They view New Orleans exceptionalist ideology as something foisted on the natives from without, dismissing the role of New Orleanians as agents in their own representation. Their stance falls under the heading of speaking for subalterns, of viewing New Orleanians as inarticulate native subjects whose experience must be interpreted for them. Kevin Fox Gotham’s theory of “touristic culture,” wherein natives of a tourist destination begin to interpret their own home in the way tourists do, is an important precursor to this particular strain of false consciousness theory[xxx]. Their introduction, written with Sue Mobley, also quotes Shannon Lee Dawdy, a contributor to the volume, on the ubiquity of “romanticized exoticism” attached to foreign shores by metropolitans, though “what stands out in the New Orleans case is the extent to which this idiom came to be appropriated by locals”[xxxi]. Their critique establishes clearly that New Orleans as social and historical anomaly in the American context has been overstated, and that it verges on the mythical. But that’s as far as the critique goes. It does not consider why New Orleanians, as conscious agents of their own representation, might choose to embrace this or that particular of New Orleans exceptionalist ideology. And it entirely dismisses the utopian, liberating, or revolutionary potentialities of aspects of New Orleans exceptionalist mythology. A deeper focus on New Orleans literature could reveal the ways in which dreams of New Orleans alterity can supply materials for a critique of Anglo-Saxon, puritanical, capitalist American cultural hegemony more broadly.
Who Writes New Orleans Literature?
The books by Azzarello, Johnson, and Adams and Sakakeeny have lessons for each other. The rigorously materialist calculus of Adams and Sakakeeny can add a needed social and economic dimension to understanding certain common tropes of New Orleans literature–like decadence–while the literary corpus of several centuries of imaginative writing about New Orleans can explain myths of New Orleans exceptionalism in a less dismissive and more illuminating way, in light of the force fantasy and desire exert in real people’s lives every day. A consideration of national economic and social forces, for example, might explain why so much of the contemporary literature examined in Johnson’s anthology comes from people who did not grow up in New Orleans, or even live here for an extended stay. The “tenuousness of the city’s literariness” often results in outsized attention to established national writers who deign to write about New Orleans, at the expense of local writers who don’t have the same access to national literary gatekeepers. A local awareness of national literary marginalization is expressed well in Cory MacLauchlin’s Literary History essay on native New Orleans writer John Kennedy Toole, as the deceased author’s mother “heard the voice of the insular publishing world that deemed New York the center of the universe, seeing a New Orleans author as akin to those artists who…spring up in ‘New Zealand or Taginyaka’ lacking the ‘assurance of worldliness’”[xxxii]. In other words, however picturesque New Orleanians may be, they are inarticulate native subjects (subalterns) who should leave interpretation of their experience to others.
This tendency of national voices to crowd out native ones was especially prevalent after Hurricane Katrina[xxxiii]. Kevin Rabalais’ essay on “The Literature of Hurricane Katrina” in Johnson’s collection is a case in point. He writes that, after the storm, “the residents of New Orleans began to tell their stories while they were hot”[xxxiv]. Yet his survey of post-Katrina writing largely leaves out the lively conversation of New Orleanians with each other during that very fecund period for local writing. He considers works by some of the more established transplant authors—Jed Horne, Tom Piazza, Chris Rose—as well as national journalists mining the material of inarticulate native subjects (e.g. Dan Baum’s great book, Nine Lives). He even devotes attention to San Francisco literary celebrity Dave Eggers, whose Zeitoun clearly dramatizes the difficulty in writing about a place and people the author has little knowledge of or exposure to (since the titular hero of Eggers’ book also happened to be a serial domestic abuser). These are all important books for understanding the Katrina moment, but they’re more geared for national than for local audiences. As a New Orleanian on the ground in the post-Katrina years, I certainly remember the prominence of the literary website, Nolafugees.com, though it gets no mention in Rabalais’ survey, probably because it was a local operation directed at a local audience[xxxv]—whereas most of the books covered by Rabalais arrived with the marketing punch of national publishers. Nolafugees also published three books of fiction, essays, and satire that had originally appeared on their website. The titles of all three books appear in a list of books seen on a local bookstore shelf by a visiting New Zealand writer. Rabalais quotes her list[xxxvi], but the names of all those local authors and independent presses don’t make the cut. Local bloggers were also very active, coming together to form an annual conference, Rising Tide, to share work and advocate for neighbors. Websites and blogs are analogous to the niche newsprint whose essays and serial novels 19th Century literary historians assiduously unearth today. Rabalais does acknowledge the archive created by the University of New Orleans, some of which was collected in Voices Rising: Stories from the Katrina Narrative Project (2008). However, as an archive, these personal narratives continue the pattern of framing locals as inarticulate native subjects whose experience requires the mediation of an expert (from somewhere else).
T.R. Johnson’s epilogue, entitled “Swan Song?”, also surveys more recent work, and it’s comprised mostly of established national authors who chose to write about New Orleans, rather than lesser-known work from smaller presses by native New Orleanians. Anti-Gravity Magazine ran a feature last year on New Orleans’ best small presses[xxxvii]. None are represented in the chapters in Johnson’s book covering recent New Orleans literature. Azzarello devotes several pages to Moira Crone’s 2012 novel, The Not Yet, published by the University of New Orleans Press. Since Johnson opens his final chapter by contemplating the existential dread faced by New Orleanians in the era of climate change, rising seas, and the attendant specter of the city’s extinction, Crone’s novel, which imagines New Orleans in a flooded, eco-dystopian future, is especially relevant[xxxviii].
The contemporary focus on the most nationally recognized works set in New Orleans contrasts with the scholarship on earlier periods, which are all about uncovering forgotten works that never had a wide readership, like the biggest sleeper hit in the history of New Orleans literature, Ludwig von Reizenstein’s Mysteries of New Orleans. It appears in more than one chapter in Johnson’s collection, and Azzarello also devotes several pages to it, but it was only read by a handful of German-speaking New Orleans residents when it first appeared in a local German language newspaper in the 1850s. Azzarello also spotlights a story that was never published at all during its author’s lifetime, Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s “The Stones of the Village.”
The critical attention Adams and Sakakeeny give to the question of local identity and local authenticity could be brought more forcefully into literary study. Only one of the essays on recent New Orleans in Johnson’s book broaches the topic. Holly Hobbs, in her essay on rap and bounce, writes, “I’m white and female, and I wasn’t in New Orleans for Katrina, a fact so often used to determine insider/outsider status by contemporary New Orleanians. Thus, I undertook my research as an outsider in a city that highly values racial and geographical legitimacy” [xxxix]. I’m sure she would be relieved to note how Adolph Reed, Jr. also a native, thinks the authenticity obsession is misplaced, but it’s also something scholars of contemporary literary culture should at least consider, especially when there’s a sense that outsiders are displacing natives, in publishing no less than housing.
The Utopian and Revolutionary Potentialities of New Orleans Mythology
On the other hand, Adams’ and Sakakeeny’s reductive dismissal of New Orleans mythology could also learn a thing or two from Johnson’s collection. Their introduction portrays New Orleans exceptionalism, in whatever era it appears, as an affirmation of existing power structures, rather than as a possibility for opposition to the broader American cultural hegemony.
Adams, Sakakeeny, and Mobley are especially interested in showing that myths of interracial harmony in New Orleans are misplaced, but their insistence relies on a strawman argument that someone actually believed such a utopian harmony ever existed in New Orleans. Certainly, Southern white supremacist apologists always insisted that the races “got along,” though no serious student of the South or of New Orleans has claimed that anything like racial equality existed, and white transplants like Tennessee Williams or Kate Chopin are more likely to minimize the issue of race in their writing than Alfred Mercier, George Washington Cable, John Kennedy Toole, or even openly racist writers like Grace King. Perhaps the perception that someone thought racism was not a problem in New Orleans might stem from passages like this, from Streetcar Named Desire, “New Orleans is a cosmopolitan city where there is a relatively warm and easy intermingling of races in the old part of town”[xl]. The problem is that there are not enough such sentiments expressed in imaginative literature to make the case that the mythology of New Orleans, on the whole, portrays a world of racial harmony. Madame LaLaurie is a towering figure in New Orleans mythology, for example, and her sadistic torture of enslaved people under her roof is no apologia for white supremacy. The heavy attention to tourist-industry branding practices, the language of consumer advertising, unfortunately obscures for Adams and Sakakeeny the much richer and more complex interrogation of “New Orleansness” encountered in the corpus of the city’s imaginative literature.
Adams’ and Sakakeeny’s intent to portray New Orleans mythology as mere propaganda for existing power relations is especially on view in their analysis of the role of race in representations of New Orleans. Interracial relationships in the city were a subject of fascination to Americans in the 19th Century, and Adams, Sakakeeny, and Mobley offer this typical contemporary judgment on the mythology of such relationships in their introduction: “The romanticization of interracial sex and specifically plaçage has worked to obscure the economically and structurally coercive aspects of these arrangements, by focusing instead on the illicit allure and legendary beauty of the women involved” [xli]. Certain sources contribute to the romanticization they speak of, such as travel accounts and popular histories like Herbert Asbury’s 1936 French Quarter: An Informal History of the New Orleans Underworld. But George Washington Cable certainly does not romanticize the practice, and neither do 19th Century Afro-Creole writers. Jarrod Hayes’ chapter in Literary History on Afro-Creole writing in 19th Century New Orleans shows the degree to which Afro-Creole writers were cognizant of “coercive aspects” of plaçage-type relationships. More surprisingly, Hayes examines a story by Adolphe Duhart in which “cross-racial desire does not only in no way become tragic, but it also results in manumission for a man of color who satisfied his desires with a white woman in an act that often incurred the death penalty in the Anglo South, a bold deviation from the racist norms of the rest of the United States”[xlii].
Adams’, Sakakeeny’s, and Mobley’s approach to interracial sex in early New Orleans is typical of the “yes, but” rhetoric they employ in relation to other topics. Yes, New Orleans had a comparatively large proportion of free people of color, but it was still a slave society, and the free people of color did not enjoy the equality promised by the last article of the Code Noir [xliii]. In the interest of their de-othering project, they downplay the paradigm of Americanization, common to historians of twenty years ago, that once contextualized the erosion of rights for free blacks and the conversion of slavery into a more racialized, permanent, and hereditary condition[xliv]. Their effort to re-Americanize the public memory and image of New Orleans also results in the loss of narratives of resistance, of pushback, of disenchantment in the context of American power. And their “buts” fail to fully negate the “yeses.” While sex between free persons of course reflects the power imbalances of the society—racial and gendered—it’s still not the same as sex between a master and his property. Prostitution and traditional patriarchal marriage also reflect “economically and structurally coercive aspects” of the society. One could argue that the American discomfort with interracial sex is what makes plaçage relationships seem somehow more coercive than similarly unequal relationships in patriarchal societies.
In our time, myths of sex are more likely to lean toward stories of coercion than sexual liberation or mutual bliss. This means that the pendulum of New Orleans mythology will swing away from the underworld of sensual exploration and back to the structural legal world of repression. Thus Alecia P. Long’s chapter in Adams’ and Sakakeeny’s book is not about the thriving of, say, gay carnival krewes, as we see in Howard Philip Smith’s Unveiling the Muse: The Lost History of Gay Carnival in New Orleans (2017). She focuses instead on the efforts of city government in the mid-20th Century to “clean up” the French Quarter of its “degenerate” gay denizens (an effort satirized by John Kennedy Toole in A Confederacy of Dunces). The sub-title of Long’s essay is “Re-Thinking the Notion of a Sexually Liberal New Orleans,” but the question is whether the term “New Orleans” represents the city government, or the substantial number of citizens who defied that government. Indeed, common popular disregard for a government viewed as capricious and corrupt is its own mythical trope of the city, dating back to the founding era[xlv].
In fact, New Orleans exceptionalist mythology focuses on an imagined demi-monde more often than not. Reizenstein’s Mysteries of New Orleans is a great example. His account of 1850s New Orleans features, in Azzarello’s words, “cross-dressers and homosexuals, thieves and murderers, prostitutes and madams, all represented unsentimentally as a matter of fact”[xlvi]. Interracial lovers, too, which was of course not legally sanctioned (not marriage, anyway). New Orleans is not only mythologized as a place with an “underworld,” but as the “underworld,” as in “unconscious,” of the American imagination, where the libido is freed from repression to pursue its drives.
In the epilogue to his volume, T.R. Johnson brings up several texts that take a deep dive into the New Orleans underworld a century after Reizenstein. These texts give a great sense of the role of New Orleans as symbol in the broader national imagination, and are worth examining rather than simply dismissing as mystification or false consciousness. In a survey of the culture and literature of 20th Century hip in New Orleans (my term, not his), Johnson looks at several works that revel in the alterity of the city’s demi-monde. Many, by Nelson Algren, Robert Stone, and Paula Fox, exemplify an understanding of New Orleans decadence as “reveling in inadequacy, debility, failure and weakness” (to recall Azzarello’s definition). A couple of works cited by Johnson, however, succeed in re-valuing some of the terms of decadence by re-casting sensual indulgence as revolutionary. Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume (1985) and Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972) re-value New Orleans decadence in a way that Nietzsche surely would have appreciated: by invoking pre-Christian pagan value systems. Both books locate New Orleans in an international geography of overcoming European monotheistic puritanical constraints on libido, and view the liberation of libido as foundational for a more liberated society generally.
Seeing New Orleans decadence as a means to liberation requires a very different understanding than the one described by Azzarello, which associates decadence with self-absorption, irresponsibility, and lack of concern for community interests. Azzarello sees the resignation people have adopted regarding the existential threats of climate change as also a mark of decadence, for example, and one that fuses decadence with progress. His paradoxical definition of decadence negates the possibility of decadence as revolution, though Nietzsche understood decadence as a step in a process toward overcoming moralistic illusions in order to re-value all values. In the three stages of human spiritual development laid out in the “Three Transformations” in Also Sprach Zarathustra, the decadent would perhaps come in the late life of the lion. The camel is the stage where the inherited verities of the past are maintained and revered, the lion attacks them directly–though it is “unable to create new values”[xlvii]–and then the child builds a new value system on the ruins of the rubble left by the lion. The decadent rejects received moral values as hypocritical and arbitrary, but is too self-absorbed to build anew, and too disengaged from hegemonic relationships to put up much of a fight to tear down, either (like the classic New Orleans bohemian transplant who comes to drop out and hide from American society, not engage with it)[xlviii]. The decadent revolts against the dragon of “thou shalt,” but also cannot imagine an ontology beyond “thou shalt” (and shalt not). The child, on the other hand, is “innocence” and “play,” but, most importantly, a “holy Yes,”[xlix] which is what the emotionally uncomplicated, two-dimensional heroes of Reed’s and Robbins’ romances are all about. It’s clear, too, that Nietzche’s higher human will find a way to embrace the limitations of finite, corporeal existence rather than deploring or denying them. Ishmael Reed’s and Tom Robbins’ New Orleans-associated characters seek to bring on a new humanity by embracing and liberating the sensual, but, though they emphasize sensual “indulgence,” they avoid categories of decadence like “inadequacy, debility, failure and weakness.” Those attributes of decadence may inhere in the fading Christian worldview, the “slave morality” that 19th Century decadents were perhaps unable to shake. The very concept of “demi-monde,” so dear to Baudelaire and his aesthetic descendants, requires its “thou shalt” other to define itself. An embrace of paganism (from outside the European cultural framework) liberates Reed’s and Robbins’ characters from that burden and imbues them with confidence and ethical innocence—freedom from resentment—which allows for the forging of new values, rather than simply dismissal of received values.
Ishmael Reed makes the case for quasi-Nietzschean, sensual materialist re-valuation of values fairly explicitly in Mumbo Jumbo: “Jes Grew was an anti-plague. Some plagues caused the body to waste away; Jes Grew enlivened the host”[l] (6). This liberating “disease” that promises to destroy “Civilization As We Know It” (4)–e.g. Western, white supremacist, patriarchal civilization–enters the national American body through New Orleans, and shows itself through symptoms like funky street dancing, enhanced sensory perception, and social revolution. Moreover, Reed fuses the interests of monotheism, capitalism, and white supremacy in the imagined ideology of “Atonism,” a puritanical value-system that alienates people from the body and nature, and emphasizes a role for the mythical New Orleans—as gateway to mythical Africa–in a global re-valuation of values.
Mumbo Jumbo also taps into New Orleans mythology as a reservoir of possibility for black liberation, an aspect of the New Orleans exceptionalist imagination that Adams and Sakakeeny also neglect. Bryan Wagner is the third author (with Rien Fertel and Marguerite Nguyen) to grace both Johnson’s and Adams’ and Sakaneeny’s collections. In Adams and Sakakeeny, he writes about the pro-wrestling scene in 1970s New Orleans, a fascinating story that earns inclusion in their anthology because it does “not conform to caricatures of (New Orleans) cultural authenticity”[lii]. On the other hand, his chapter in Johnson’s book is on one of the towering mythic figures of 19th Century New Orleans, Bras Coupé, the maroon rebel who struck fear into the hearts of white slaveholders as much as he inspired black New Orleanians as a model of resistance. Wagner’s exhaustive work on the facts and myths of Bras Coupé show that New Orleans mythology is a sign-system that cannot be written off as simply mystification, diversion from, or affirmation of existing power structures. Myths include seeds of social critique, too.
Perhaps the best literary argument against disposing of New Orleans mythology, out of the misguided hope that greater assimilation into generalized American identity would mitigate our social disparities, is the poetry of Brenda Marie Osbey. Both Johnson and Azzarello devote attention to her work. Johnson points out how she “invokes the spiritual practices of the African diaspora most commonly associated with voodoo to carry out what becomes the cosmic imperative to honor the dead”[liii]. Her project to “re-member,” a la Toni Morrison, the hastily buried ancestors of New Orleans’ black past re-values not so much the history as the mythology of the city, according privileged places to the Seven Sisters of New Orleans (early 20th Century hoodoo practitioners), and the great spiritualist prophet Mother Catherine[liv]. These are not “caricatures of cultural authenticity,” they are powerful myths of local identity that can enrich our understanding of the broader world as much as instill in us a deep sense of belonging to a culture with its own distinctive semiology. For example, she uses the paradigmatic figures of Luis Congo, a free man of color employed as executioner by the French colonial regime, and Juan San Malo, an iconic maroon rebel in the Spanish period, to explore universal themes of resistance, collaboration, and betrayal[lv]. She also, like Ishmael Reed, enlivens the myth of New Orleans as gateway to Africa and to diasporic négritude, a role for the city also envisioned by African-American New Orleans author Tom Dent[lvi]. Also like Reed, her resuscitation of West African pagan spirituality helps to escape the monotheistic Western dualities of good and evil (in the historical sense meant by Nietzsche), the same dualities that consign “indulgence in polymorphous vice,” to recall Azzarello’s wording, as “decadent” and “debilitating.” Such a spiritual re-orientation allows for the kind of overcoming, re-valuation that Nietzsche could vaguely discern but not envision. The role of women and non-white people in the re-valuations he sought was certainly also something he did not envision.
Let’s end with one more common myth of New Orleans, dating back to the classical Creole era: the quasi-Taoist ideal of living for the moment, of cherishing the preciousness of daily experience in lieu of hard work and sacrifice in the service of careerist ambition[lvii]. The HBO television series that Adams and Sakakeeny love to hate, Tremé, was guilty of promoting this sense of an alternative lifestyle in arguably ham-fisted ways, but the attitude has a history, of course[lviii]. Both Azzarello and Kevin Rabalais, in his contribution to Literary History, quote Walker Percy’s rendering of the common trope: “The peculiar virtue of New Orleans, like St. Theresa, may be that of the Little Way, a talent for everyday life rather than the heroic deed”[lix]. Azzarello adds more of Percy’s words, to show that this preference for savoring the texture of everyday experience might explain the absence of literary or political “giants” emerging from New Orleans. Rabalais follows Percy’s quote by noting that Dan Baum adds New Orleans’ “storytelling nature” to Percy’s “everyday category.” These interpretations of Percy’s meaning both seek to explain the relative dearth of nationally recognized print culture produced by New Orleanians. One post-Katrina pundit put it a nastier way in the Wall Street Journal: “New Orleans is no place for a writer…if you stick around, you’ll become one of them, an unofficial mayor of a local watering hole, yammering tales to ball-capped stragglers instead of writing them down, a character in your own re-write”[lx]. Another of the fine New Orleans writers who goes unnoticed in 2019’s scholarly overviews is Fatima Shaik, who wrote a great novella about a barstool raconteur who spins a fabulous yarn for a “ball-capped straggler,” though her intent was to celebrate the titular “Mayor of New Orleans” rather than demean him[lxi].
I think Adams and Sakakeeny would encourage us to attribute an alleged dearth of local writers to market forces beyond their control (financial, literary, academic), rather than to some alleged personality trait shared by people in the 504 area code. On the other hand, we could see in Percy’s characterization of the peculiar genius of New Orleans’ approach to daily life as a challenge to a pervasive capitalist American myth. What Americans call the “American Dream”—social mobility achieved through hard work and sacrifice—is itself a mythical re-packaging of petit-bourgeois ideology. Pierre Bourdieu writes that the person seeking to rise in social class has only “asceticism” to rely on, and must pay in “sacrifices, privations, renunciations”[lxii]. The driving focus of the American striver’s life must be “financial prudence, seriousness and hard work”[lxiii] (337). The New Orleans-hating Wall Street Journal columnist quoted above opined that New Orleans was “a city lacking in discipline, or drive”[lxiv]. He called it “apathy,” but there are many other less derogatory ways we could describe the prioritization of experiencing daily life fully rather than devoting our waking moments to a careerist rat race. If we understand the “Little Way” and other New Orleans myths correctly—as utopian rather than ontological—it could help us to see a more productive role for New Orleans mythology and literature in the national cultural context.
[ii] “Subaltern” is a contested term that I use here in the general sense of people who are native to a place but who play a relatively marginal role in the literary and academic construction of that place, due to structural inequalities of access that privilege representation of the place by non-natives.
[iii] Ibid., 132. He also asserts his native authenticity in his dedication, wherein he acknowledges the influence of his two grandmothers’ “uniquely New Orleanian sense of comedy and tragedy” (viii).
[iv] Ibid., 4
[v] Ibid., 5
[vi] Ibid., 6
[vii] Ibid., 7
[viii] Ibid., 8
[ix] Ibid., 9. I will admit that reading these words struck a particular emotional chord in myself, since they seem to describe perfectly my own first novel, French Quarter Beautification Project (written in the 1990s but not published until 2017). That a New Orleans writer unversed at the time in literary theory or New Orleans literary history would produce a work so indicative of these ideas would seem to be evidence that “decadence,” in the developed sense put forth by Azzarello, must be in the cultural water of the city. To put it in less metaphorical terms, it seems to validate Raymond Williams’ understanding of “collective” or “trans-individual” subjects, and therefore authors. Authors give voice not so much to their own idiosyncratic visions of the world as they confirm widely shared aesthetic and social attitudes germane to their time and social milieu. See Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford University Press, 1977). 195-196.
T.R. Johnson, ed. New Orleans: A Literary History (Cambridge University Press, 2019). 60. Those of us who teach New Orleans literature have appreciated open access to texts at the online Bibliotheque Tintamarre as well as their new editions of key works, in the original French and in English translation.
[xi] Azzarello, 14.
[xii] Johnson, 138.
[xiii] Ibid., xviii.
[xiv] Ibid., xix
[xv] Charles Gayarré, History of Louisiana, vol. I (New Orleans: F.F. Hansell, 1903), 11.
[xvi] The Les Cenelles poets are discussed in Jarrod Hayes’ chapter on 19th Century Afro-Creole writers, and Adrien Rouquette is discussed in Rien Fertel’s chapter on white Creole writers of the same period. Natasha Trethewey’s Bellocq’s Ophelia plays a large role in Milena Marinkova’s chapter on depictions of Storyville, and Johnson also includes a paragraph on Brenda Marie Osbey in his closing chapter.
[xvii] Azzarello, 89.
[xviii] Ibid., 144.
[xix] Ibid., 148.
[xx] In Ralph Adamo, ed., “I hope it’s not over, and good-by:” Selected Poems of Everette Maddox (New Orleans: University of New Orleans Press, 2009).
[xxi] Thomas Jessen Adams and Matt Sakakeeny, Remaking New Orleans: Beyond Exceptionalism and Authenticity (Duke University Press: 2019), 313.
[xxii] See Nancy Fraser and Axel Honneth, Redistribution or Recognition?: A Political-Philosophical Exchange (Verso, 2003).
[xxiii] Adams and Sakakeeny, 320, emphasis mine.
[xxiv] Ibid., 319.
[xxv] Ibid., 23
[xxvi] Ibid., 156
[xxvii] Richard Campanella, “Gentrification and Its Discontents: Notes from New Orleans.” New Geography, March 1, 2013. http://www.newgeography.com/content/003526 -gentrification-and-its-discontents-notes-new-orleans.
C.W.Cannon, “Anxiety and Authenticity: Are ‘Supernatives’ Loving New Orleans to Death?” The Lens, June 1, 2018. https://thelensnola.org/2018/06/01/are-new-orleans-super-natives-destroying-the-authentic-culture-they-profess-to-cherish/
[xxviii] Adams and Sakakeeny, 141
[xxix] C.W.Cannon, “I Miss My Schwegmann’s—and I Got a Right to.” The Lens, August 20, 2014 https://thelensnola.org/2014/08/20/call-me-a-sentimental-old-fool-but-i-miss-my-schwegmanns-and-i-got-a-right-to/
[xxx] Kevin Fox Gotham, Authentic New Orleans: Tourism, Culture, and Race in the Big Easy (New York University Press, 2007), 20, 120-121
[xxxi] Adams and Sakakeeny, 7.
[xxxii] Johnson, 296.
[xxxiii] Helen Regis recounts an example of an authoritative “visitor’s gaze” when a visiting author attending a neighborhood event in 2006 wanted to know, “Will there be hurricane survivors here?” Post-Katrina New Orleans was a clearly a gold mine for visiting journalists and scholars wishing to “capture” the New Orleanian subject for the national audience (and to advance their careers). Adams and Sakakeeny, 142.
[xxxiv] Johnson, 346.
[xxxv] Nolafugees did get some national attention, as when Michael Tisserand listed it as a site to watch in The Nation: Michael Tisserand, “Linking to New Orleans.” The Nation, September 18, 2006. The Guardian also noticed—see Jane Ciabattari, “After the Deluge: Post-Katrina Literature,” The Guardian, August 8, 2007.
[xxxvi] Johnson, 351
[xxxvii] Steven Melendez, “A Quick Guide to New Orleans’ Best Small Presses,” Antigravity Magazine, December 2018
[xxxviii] The existential threat to New Orleans’ future posed by climate change is acknowledged by both Azzarello and Johnson. It begins and ends Azzarello’s volume, and is a central focus of much of his analysis. Indeed, the signal achievement of Azzarello’s study is its timely intersection of eco-criticism and older, more established concerns of New Orleans literature. Adams and Sakakeeny, on the other hand, are oddly silent on this score.
[xxxix] Johnson, 337.
[xl] Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire (New Directions, 1947/2004), 3.
[xli] Adams and Sakakeeny, 11.
[xlii] Johnson, 64.
[xliii] Article 54 states “We grant to manumitted slaves the same rights, privileges, and immunities which are enjoyed by free-born persons…” (even though interracial marriage had been banned in an earlier article, thus contradicting this one at least for the “rights” of marriage) Gayarré, appendix.
[xliv] See Arnold R. Hirsch and Joseph Logsdon, Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization (LSU Press, 1992); Mary Gehman, The Free People of Color of New Orleans: An Introduction (Margaret Media, 1994).
[xlv] See Shannon Lee Dawdy, Building the Devil’s Empire: French Colonial New Orleans (University of Chicago Press, 2008), 25-31
[xlvi] Azzarello, 64.
[xlvii] Friedrich Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen, (Kindle Ebook), 34—translation mine.
[xlviii] We could see typically bohemian New Orleans exceptionalist rhetoric and myth in the sense of Raymond Williams “alternative cultural formations.” See Williams, Marxism and Literature, 123-124
[xlix] Nietzsche, 35
[l] Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo (Atheneum, 1972), 6.
[lii] Adams and Sakakeeny, 3.
[liii] Johnson, 368.
[liv] Brenda Marie Osbey, All Saints: New and Selected Poems (LSU Press, 1997), 39-53; 81-14
[lv] Osbey, 98-103; 108-114
[lvi] Kalamu ya Salaam’s chapter on Dent in Literary History doesn’t get into this side of Dent’s thought, but it appears in the Dent anthology Salaam edited, New Orleans Griot: The Tom Dent Reader (University of New Orleans Press, 2018). See especially “A Critical Look at Mardi Gras,” 191-204, and “New Orleans vs. Atlanta: Power to the Parade,” 205-216.
[lvii] One early manifestation of the myth can be found in Lafcadio Hearn’s sketch, “The Creole Character,” collected in S. Frederick Starr, ed. Inventing New Orleans: Writings of Lafcadio Hearn (University Press of Mississippi, 2001), 131-132. Starr contributes a chapter to Johnson’s Literary History on the outsized role of Hearn in shaping New Orleans mythology.
[lviii] The HBO series created by David Simon plays a major role in two of the essays in the collection, Aaron Nyerges’ “Phony City,” and “The Contradictions of the Film Welfare Economy, or, for the Love of Tremé,” by Vicki Mayer, Heidi Schmalbach, and Toby Miller. It comes up also in the introduction and final chapter.
[lix] Azzarello 26; Johnson, 343
[lx] Steve Garbarino, “Welcome to New Orleans: A Confederacy of Drunkards” Wall Street Journal, February 23, 2006
[lxi] Fatima Shaik, The Mayor of New Orleans: Just Talking Jazz (Creative Arts Books, 1989)
[lxii] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (Harvard University Press, 1984), 333.
[lxiii] Ibid., 337
[lxiv] Garbarino 2006
C.W.Cannon is a New Orleans native and author of four novels set in the city. Many of his dozens of essays about New Orleans can be found on his author page at The Lens (https://thelensnola.org/author/c-w-cannon/)