Few other movements in the American literary scene evoke exotic images rivaling those conjured by Louisiana's Creole writers.
Few other movements in the American literary scene evoke exotic images rivaling those conjured by Louisiana’s Creole writers. Yet few scholars have a clear understanding of the literary accomplishments of the group, and most American readers probably could not name a single Creole author from Louisiana. Unfortunately, the best-known story about Louisiana remains Evangeline, a poem published in 1847 by the Maine poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Though neither the subject nor the author is from Louisiana, let alone Creole, the legend of Evangeline and her doomed lover dominates many people’s perceptions of the state’s literature.
Defining Creole Literature
An appreciation of Creole literature, of course, requires an understanding of the history of the term Creole, particularly as it applies to Louisiana. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the term referred to a person, black or white, born in the New World to parents who were born in the Latin countries of Europe. Thus, the earliest examples of colonial Louisiana literature are, for the most part, not products of Creole writers. Works such as the poem, “La Prise du morne de Bâton Rouge (1779),” by Julien de Lallande Poydras or the play, Poucha-Houma: La Fête du petit blé (1814),” by Paul Leblanc de Villeneufve, were penned by French nationals. Although the subject matter of these works is American, the intended public was decidedly French.
Creole literature also differs from so-called Cajun literature. Tracing their origins to the influx of Acadian settlers who arrived in Louisiana after le grand dérangement (the Great Expulsion) in 1755, Cajuns brought their own customs, folklore, and oral literature to the state. Their point of reference was not France or Europe, but their ancestral homelands in Canada. French-speaking writers such as Désirée Martin in the nineteenth century and the contemporary writers Barry Ancelet, Zachary Richard, and Kirby Jambon are considered to be Cadiens, not Creole authors.
Creoles wrote primarily in standard French, although examples can be also found in Spanish, Louisiana Creole (an amalgam of French, Spanish and various African languages), and even German. English, the language of the Américains, held little importance to the Creole writers of Louisiana. The most notable exceptions were Kate Chopin and George Washington Cable, two Louisiana Creole authors who published in English. Although both writers owe a great debt to their Creole heritage, their primary public was found among American readers outside Louisiana. Indeed, the major works by Cable and Chopin were published in New York, Boston, and Chicago rather than New Orleans, the capital of Creole culture. These two authors’ contributions are thus best understood within the context of the American Regionalist tradition in literature.
Early Creole Writing
The first authentic Creole writings in Louisiana were produced by the generation born between 1800 and 1820. These authors, often the wealthy descendants of the colony’s founders, enjoyed a quasi-aristocratic status in American Louisiana. Frequently educated in the best European schools, their writings were influenced by continental literary, social, and philosophical thought. In fact, it has often been said that during the years before the Civil War (1861–65), New Orleans lived on Paris time. This was especially true with regard to the literature read and printed in antebellum Louisiana. In such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that Creole writers—who were educated in Europe and wished to have a literary career—were not innovators but rather imitators of the literary currents that regularly swept through the French capital. In the context of American literature, these writers’ contributions often anticipated movements that would later dominate the American literary scene. However, sometimes their efforts were little more than translations, such as the collection of poetry Les Épaves, a series of clever if overly erudite neoclassical imitations of Martial’s Epigrams, published by Louis Allard in 1847.
More often, Louisiana authors worked within the framework of various literary movements. For instance, Creole writers who wrote entire volumes of poetry heavily indebted to French Romanticism include Tullius Saint-Céran, who was born in Jamaica but relocated in New Orleans at an early age; Adrien Rouquette; Dominique Rouquette; and Charles-Oscar Dugué. Although much of their work is commendable, few of these poets rose to the nearly mythological stature of the well-born Alexandre Latil, whose tragic life—as a young man, he was stricken with a particularly virulent strain of leprosy—finds a powerful echo within his work, Les Éphémères (1841). Indeed, Latil raised Creole romanticism to a quality and expressive power that rivaled that of his French counterparts Alfred Musset, Alphonse de Lamartine, and Victor Hugo. Latil was widely known and read throughout Louisiana, where his poetry was regularly featured in the newspapers of the period.
Other poets who published their work in the newspapers and reviews of the period include the Louisiana Lafontaine, Charles Délery, whose fables often appeared in the Renaissance Louisianaise and Le Méchacébé, two of the most important periodicals of the century; Alfred Mercier, a minor poet and major naturalist novelist whose verse often appeared in the Comptes-rendus de l’Athénée louisianais; and George Dessommes, a Parnassian poet whose verse is among the best ever penned in Louisiana and whose work appeared in Le Carillon during the 1870s. Another prominent Creole writer was Léona Queyrouze, a symbolist poet whose brilliant verse often eclipses that of even the best French symbolist poetry. Queyrouze was a frequent contributor to L’Abeille de la Nouvelle-Orléans, a French newspaper in New Orleans.
Creole Short Fiction and Serialized Novels
Given the importance of the newspaper in nineteenth-century New Orleans, it is not surprising that, along with poetry, short fiction and serialized novels were regular features in the periodic press. The single most popular author of the period was Alexandre Dumas, a Creole (though not from Louisiana). Louisiana Creoles whose fiction was often read in the newspapers include such authors as Cyprien Dufour, Louis Placide Canonge, Cyrille-Charles Théard, George Dessommes, Sidonie de La Houssaye, and Alfred Mercier.
Among the group, Alfred Mercier and Sidonie de La Houssaye are especially important. Mercier’s career followed the path of many young Louisiana Creoles born in the opening years of the century. Educated in France as a doctor, he nourished a passion for writing. Before returning to Louisiana in 1868, he served as editor-in-chief of Alexandre’s Dumas’ literary journal Le Dartagnan. His novels range from the gothic mystery Hénoch Jédésias (1869) to the first naturalist novels in American literature: La Fille du Prêtre (1877); his masterpiece, L’Habitation Saint-Ybars (1881); and Johnelle (1891). Unfortunately, de La Houssaye’s work has never received the attention it deserves. One of the most prolific writers in Creole Louisiana, her novels have an authenticity that often surpasses that of the better-known Kate Chopin, whose work most closely resembles her own.
Throughout the nineteenth century, the theater played a central role in the cultural life of Creole New Orleans. Much of this activity drew glittering crowds to the French Opera House from its construction in 1859 until it was destroyed by fire in 1919, but a great deal of theater took place in the home, as described in George Dessommes’ novel Tante Cydette. Comedies and vaudevilles dominated the stage, although the repertoire included history plays and tragedies alongside regular productions of major French authors such as Racine and Musset. The most important Creole dramatists include Louis Placide Canonge, Charles-Oscar Dugué, Auguste Lussan, and Victor Séjour. Séjour enjoyed a brilliant career in France, writing more than twenty dramas that received broad acclaim on the Parisian boulevards. He was the favorite dramatist of Napoleon III and yet remained largely unknown in his native Louisiana.
The student of Louisiana’s Creole literature will frequently encounter other names that often dominated the literary sections of the newspapers of the period. For instance, the writers Stephen Bernard, Émilie Evershed, and Alexandre Barde were immigrants, heavily influenced by romanticism and realism. Authors who arrived after 1840, sometimes as political exiles, were often inspired by socialist idealism. Such was the case for Charles Testut, Joseph Déjacque, François Tujague, and Joseph Maltrait, who brought more radical notions of social equity with them to the New World and attacked racial injustice in their poetry, stories, and novels. Yet even though their ideas greatly influenced Creole letters in the second half of the century, none of these writers can be considered Creole.
Exiles from Louisiana
Louisiana produced numerous exiles of her own, many seeking refuge in France. Indeed, brilliant careers in poetry and drama were enjoyed by Creole exiles such as Victor Séjour, Michel Séligny; Camille Thierry; and Pierre Dalcour. All were Louisiana descendants of St. Domingue immigrants who completed their education in Paris. In the French capital, they discovered an artistic and personal freedom that stood in stark contrast to the humiliating quasi-citizenship they experienced in Louisiana, where anyone not of pure Caucasian descent, including Creoles of mixed racial heritage, was branded as inferior. These voluntary exiles soon distanced themselves from the degradations of racial prejudice and seldom addressed these issues in their writings.
Their successful careers, however, offered a glaring reminder of what an individual could accomplish when unfettered by social injustice. Victor Séjour, for instance, was the first person of color to write a short story, “Le Mulâtre” (1836), in American literature. He went on to become a major playwright in Paris. Séligny contributed countless feuilletons (serialized short stories) to newspapers all across France, and Thierry published the first major collection of poetry, Les Vagabondes: Poesies Américaines (1874) by a single author of color in American literature.
The Fruition of Creole Literature
Encouraged by these successes abroad, French-speaking Creoles of color hardly reacted passively to the worsening conditions in Louisiana. Joined by numerous French political exiles who participated in their struggle, they carried on a valiant resistance. Indeed, over the course of the nineteenth century, Louisiana Creoles scored numerous firsts in the realm of American literature. Their accomplishments in poetry, the short story, the theater, and journalism—echoed by the creation of the first literary review in Louisiana, the first anthology of Afro-Creole poetry, and the first black daily newspaper in the United States—offer ample proof of the sophistication of these francophone writers. In 1843, for instance, the Album littéraire: Journal des jeunes gens, amateurs de littérature appeared, and offered essays, poetry, and short stories by French-speaking Creoles of color whose challenging tone was scarcely disguised. Many essays directly attacked Louisiana’s caste system that proscribed different treatment based on color, despite the censure laws in effect at the time.
Another example of this sophistication can be found in Les Cenelles, an anthology of poetry written by seventeen poets of color, edited by Armand Lanusse and published in 1845. Scholar Clint Bruce notes that the writers did not “directly address their precarious situation in a South that was ever increasingly hostile to the racial caste to which they belonged,” but their work often alluded to racial injustices. “Why would Valcour B… refer to himself as an ‘unrecognized son’ of New Orleans,” Bruce asks. “What ‘cruel fate’ might have forced P. Dalcour into exile? What is the source of the regret, the preoccupation with departure and the fear of betrayal that seeps from every line of these works?” Without understanding the “troubling context that underpins their creation,” Bruce argues, “the modern reader can never understand the depths of [these poems’] melancholy spirit.”
With the advent of the Civil War, newspapers quickly became the forum of preference for this group of socially engaged writers. In 1862, Louis Charles Roudanez established the radical Black newspaper L’Union, whose stance was both abolitionist and revolutionary. Renamed La Tribune de la Nouvelle-Orléans in 1864, this paper—the first black daily in the United States—included hundreds of poems, as well as serialized short fiction by Creole writers such as Joanni Questy and Adolphe Duhart. For the Creole community, literature was transformed into a political and socially engaged act.
These events helped shape a new generation of activist Creole writers such as Pierre-Aristide Desdunes and Victor Rillieux. Desdunes began what was to become one of the major literary accomplishments of Creole Louisiana in 1866, the same year that mobs attacked the Tribune. He would later play a major role in the Louisiana civil rights movement as a member of the Comité des Citoyens who took Plessy v. Ferguson to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896. The importance of his poetry, essays, and short fiction is just now beginning to be understood. Indeed, Creole writers of color founded a major American literary movement whose importance was analogous to the creation of jazz. As is noted in the Anthologie de poésie louisianaise du XIXe siècle, Armand Lanusse’s introduction to Les Cenelles stands as a sort of manifesto for this socially engaged literary movement that has been called the School of New-Orleans, and whose vision was shared by a large coterie of authors who worked to bring about social change in American society.