I have been back from New Orleans for two weeks now and have been musing, pretty much nonstop, about what to say about the place and our trip. Off the top, let me say the trip was great. Our readings gave a broad sweep of New Orleans society and the interplay and often hidden overlap between its many strata.
“Désirée’s Baby” is a short story by Kate Chopin, published in 1893, about miscegenation in Creole Louisiana during the antebellum period.
A Streetcar Named Desire is perhaps Tennessee Williams’ best-known play, written in 1947 and set in a poor neighbourhood of New Orleans that “unlike corresponding sections in other American cities, has a raffish charm.”
A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines was published in 1993 but takes place in the late 1940s. Set in a small Cajun community, the novel is a profound examination of racial, gender, and religious matters and how the human soul can achieve dignity even in the smallest spaces.
“Loot” is a short story by Julie Smith, published in 2007, about the longtime friendship between a civil rights lawyer and her maid who is stranded Uptown after Hurricane Katrina.
Lisa Pasold, a Canadian poet and novelist, guided us through the texts and streets of the place she has chosen to live and come to love. We. too, came to appreciate the rich racial, cultural, and religious ingredients that go into strongly flavoured gumbo that is Louisiana — the Creoles, the early Catholic settlers in Louisiana, especially those of French, Spanish, and African descent (both free people of color and slaves); the Cajuns, descendants of the 17th-century French colonists expelled from Canada’s Maritime provinces, many of whom were Métis, who generally settled in the bayous and rural villages; the native peoples; and, latterly, the white, largely Protestant, Americans (called “barbarians” by the earlier settlers) and the slaves they brought or acquired .
Others came—Jews, Germans, Italians, Poles. And while groups kept their cultural identities, all boundaries have blurred, so much so that within a single extended family there will be those who identify as black and those who identify as white; all the while they are all a mix. And those with dark skin trace their direct lineage from white masters of grand plantations.
Some combination of peoples, history, and climate has created a distinctive and enticing culture, much like its cuisine. New Orleanians are proudly rooted to the place in the same way Newfoundlanders are to their piece of the rock. And like Newfoundlanders, they know that life is precarious, which only causes them to cherish it more and to celebrate at any opportunity. And that is always. Since I’ve been home, the streets seem sadly absent of music. On Saturday, I stumbled on a little Dixieland band outside the constituency office of a candidate for local office. It was great. But in New Orleans, you can’t walk more than a block or two before you hear a lone sax or a large ensemble. Or a wedding, funeral, or second line strutting down the middle of the street. And the spirit is infectious.
One of the things that makes New Orleans feel foreign is that the Anglo puritanical sensibility that prizes efficiency, moderation, cleanliness, prudence, restraint, practicality, modesty, and so on is in short supply. Instead, there is exuberance, excess, spontaneity, extravagance, and lavish friendliness. People in New Orleans hold doors for you. They call you “baby,” or “shug,” or “darling,” or “Miss Ann” because that’s the way they were taught.
People in New Orleans are seldom in a hurry. The checker at drug store seemed far more interested in shooting the breeze with her co-worker than in ringing up the orders of the long line of people. Meals can take a very long time. We gradually learned not to expect the smaller aspects of life to move any faster. We got into the groove, sort of.
I am going out on a limb, but I think there is a suspicion in New Orleans of being over-civilized and over-intellectual, as if it represses vitality, health, and sanity. Blanche Dubois in Streetcar represents a society that has become detached from elemental passions. Stanley Kowalski may be a brute, but I think New Orleans (although I am not sure about Williams) is rather sympathetic to his primal urges.
See what I mean: view our New Orleans slide show.
If you were along on this trip or have your own reflections on New Orleans, please share them. Feel free to disagree with me.