May/June 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 3
Which city’s most intrinsic interest has been most exaggerated? The obvious choice is Washington, D.C.—whose reputation is inflated by its denizens, of course, but even more by its detractors. In fact you might say that belittlement of Washington for being too powerful is American history’s most overrated opinion. So let’s say Orlando.
Muscle Shoals, Alabama. If you wonder why, that proves my point. But the main reason I say that is because I enjoy making gnomic pronouncements. Another place, a former national publishing and cultural center that is perhaps too readily, if understandably, disregarded as boring, is Hartford, Connecticut, cradle of America’s insurance and arms industries and home at various times to Mark Twain (if I had to recommend a visit to one historic house in this country, it would be his), Noah Webster, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Wallace Stevens, and one of the nation’s oldest newspapers.
But the city in America where history persists most manifestly is one that is perhaps primarily regarded as a party town: New Orleans. Jazz began there and is still actively celebrated there. So did and so are the careers of America’s two greatest artists, Louis Armstrong and William Faulkner. The greatest American play, A Streetcar Named Desire , was set in New Orleans, and you can still ride streetcars there. Venerable rituals—Mardi Gras parades, jazz funerals—still flourish. Richly distinctive varieties of New Orleans food, New Orleans music, and New Orleans accents are still part of inhabitants’ daily lives. Fats Domino, who was born there, still lives there. Not only the architecture but the funk of the French Quarter survives, and traces of voodoo still crop up. The Mississippi River is right there staring you in the face, and another great hurricane is liable to blow up and remind people of previous great ones at any minute. We whipped the British for good there, and if any American city richly transcends Anglo-Saxon attitudes, it is New Orleans. The ghosts of Huey and Earl Long hover over New Orleans politics, and it is easy to believe, after spending some time in the Big Easy, that New Orleanians played a role (though hardly the definitive one imagined by Oliver Stone) in a Kennedy-assassination conspiracy. It was to get New Orleans that Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase. The settlement dates back some 280 years, and to any town that is older, New Orleans could say what a musician once said to an older man, “You may have been living longer than 1 have, but I’ve been up more hours.” I could go on and on and still be shortchanging New Orleans.