Southern Queen: New Orleans in the Nineteenth Century

September 1, 2011

In 1998, after organising an international conference on New Orleans, I offered an essay collection to publishers, who declined on the grounds that there was limited specialist interest in the subject. But as Thomas Ruys Smith points out in this important new study, the 2005 tragedies wrought by hurricanes Katrina and Rita led to revitalised popular and scholarly interest in the city and its distinctive, extraordinary cultures. He notes the parallel with the post-Civil War period, when international visitors engaged enthusiastically with the city's racial and sexual particularities, and artists found audiences hungry for their exploration of its traumatic recent past.

New Orleans is one of the oldest American settlements, founded in 1718 by the French on inhospitable swampland between the Gulf of Mexico, Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi river. Its topographical importance as an international port, particularly before the arrival of the railway, coupled with its perilous position, have seen a dramatic trail of natural and man-made disasters followed by rebuilding (post-Katrina it was dubbed "ReNew Orleans"). It has survived despite extreme challenges: hurricane, flood, fire, disease and plague, violence and racial segregation, economic ruin, wartime occupation, and corruption and mismanagement on a grand scale.

New Orleanians' famed attitude of "Laissez les bons temps rouler" derives partly from the awareness that one day the city may simply collapse under elemental or socio-economic battering. Yet, not least by its inhabitants, this Catholic city is one of the world's most loved, admired for its architectural and botanical beauty, famed as the birthplace of jazz where music plays on the streets 24/7, novels by William Faulkner, Anne Rice and James Lee Burke, and film and TV productions such as A Streetcar Named Desire, King Creole, When the Levees Broke and Treme. Its development as a tourist destination began in earnest in the 19th century with travellers' accounts and visits by Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, boosted by its reputation for decadence and sexual pleasure unmatched elsewhere in the Puritan US.

Although New Orleans' early colonial and more recent years are well documented, Ruys Smith's book is one of only a handful of 19th-century chronicles. It covers the key events and phenomena that gave the city such resonance in the global imagination: the Battle of New Orleans; the quadroon ball; pirate Jean Lafitte; voodoo greats Marie Laveau and Dr John (after whom the contemporary musician named himself); the 1896 Plessy v Ferguson "separate but equal" Supreme Court case relating to racial segregation; the prostitution district Storyville; and, of course, its unique hybrid forms of music. Ruys Smith records the multiple racial groups who contributed to, and fought for dominance within, the city that was sold by Napoleon as part of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase to become "American" - and of their key roles in the development of the "Queen of Cities".

Indeed, this book's title, Southern Queen, acknowledges the extent to which New Orleans has been represented in feminine terms - as glamorous diva, romantic and mysterious beauty, wayward mistress or whore. Appropriately, it is a city of renowned women characters: the murderous slave-owner Madame Lalaurie, Kate Chopin's adulterous feminist Edna Pontellier, Bette Davis' Grand Guignol temptress in Jezebel and the child prostitute of Louis Malle's 1978 film Pretty Baby. When so much hagiographic and melodramatic cultural production ("literary treacle", in the geographer Peirce F. Lewis' words) has been poured over New Orleans, Ruys Smith deserves credit for this clear-sighted and judicious survey of its most complex and fascinating century.

Southern Queen: New Orleans in the Nineteenth Century

By Thomas Ruys Smith. Continuum. 248pp, £65.00 and £20.00. ISBN 9781441148254 and 9781847251930. Published 2 June 2011.

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