A Heart’s Love For New Orleans

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Writers have been good to New Orleans, or maybe it’s the other way around. Quite a few of the giants at least passed through and scribbled something down (Whitman, Twain, and Faulkner fall into this category); there are a few really major New Orleans works, like A Streetcar Named Desire and The Moviegoer; and there is a long list of local mid-lit, quasi-genre authors, like Frances Parkinson Keyes, Grace King, and Lyle Saxon, not to mention several fine works of journalism, history, anthropology, and musicology. But I think the distinction of being the one essential New Orleans writer rightfully belongs to George Washington Cable, a man whose fame was far greater a hundred years ago, when he was Mark Twain’s lecturing partner and the most prominent white Southern liberal on the race issue, than it is today.

 

In Cable’s work is codified the basic mythology of New Orleans, which has to do with the way the city was in the period between the Louisiana Purchase and the Civil War. What was going on then, in general, was a rivalry between the sophisticated Creoles, who had run the city in its French and Spanish colonial days, and the raw, innocent Americans, who streamed in after New Orleans became a part of the United States. But even this colorful fact is much too dry to convey the essence of New Orleans. To get a feeling for that, read Cable’s The Grandissimes or, especially, Old Creole Days, and let the ambience wash over you like a wave: plantation houses lining the river… masked balls… endless, rich meals… slaves playing protojazz in Congo Square… coffee… sugarcane… family feuds… haunted houses… dashing young men challenging each other to duels… voodoo… quadroons, octoroons, and every other possible variation on mixed blood… legends passed down through the generations.… trackless, Spanish moss-draped swamps… in short, Romance. The second sentence of The Grandissimes gets the feeling across about as well as any short passage: “Under the twinkle of numberless candles, and in a perfumed air thrilled with the wailing ecstasy of violins, the little Creole capital’s proudest and best were offering up the first cool night of the languidly departing summer to the divine Terpsichore.”

The rest of the country isn’t, and never was, this moony. Most of the standard American obsessions simply aren’t applicable to New Orleans—the New Orleans that exists in my Cable-besotted mind anyway. Success, for instance, isn’t much of a preoccupation in a city that peaked in national importance more than 150 years ago; status in New Orleans depends less on worldly position than it does in any other city I know. Foreigners are often struck by how willing Americans are to move on to another town, but New Orleanians aren’t; having to live elsewhere is regarded as a tragic fate. And New Orleans is too Latin to concern itself much with sin and guilt. The Southern lament for the Lost Cause doesn’t run very deep there.

The constellation of social events is absolutely fixed in Uptown New Orleans. Fathers take their sons duck hunting; girls make their debuts.

Nature is different in New Orleans too: more sensual and luxuriant in its pristine state and, even today, ultimately unconquerable. On nature, Cable must yield his title as the great New Orleans mythologizer to his contemporary Lafcadio Hearn, who after some years in New Orleans became one of the first English-language chroniclers of Japanese society. In Hearn’s New Orleans novel, Chita, there is a wonderful scene in which, in a typically New Orleanian plot twist, the Creole hero comes upon the gravestones that friends have mistakenly erected for him and (not mistakenly) for his wife. It stands not just as the best description of the mood of New Orleans’s cemeteries but also as a pure distillation of the feeling that all works of man in New Orleans represent only temporary victories over the all-engorging vines: “Under our Southern sun, the vegetation of cemeteries seems to spring into being spontaneously—to leap all suddenly into luxuriant life! Microscopic mossy growths had begun to mottle the slab that closed her in;—over its face some singular creeper was crawling, planting tiny reptile-feet into the chiselled letters of the inscription; and from the moist soil below speckled euphorbias were growing up to her, —and morning-glories,—and beautiful green tangled things of which he did not know the name.”