New Orleans in Literature
New Orleans has been the subject of literature from the colonial period to the present day.
New Orleans has long fascinated both readers and writers. In the popular imagination, images of the city as an exotic place full of sin, temptation, Voudou, and decadence merge to form what might be called the “New Orleans myth.” Part fact—New Orleans has traditionally been home to an eclectic mix of cultures and characters—and part fantasy, the myth appears in literature written by outsiders as well as by natives. Each writer, of course, presents a unique vision of the city, thereby both shaping and reflecting the New Orleans myth. The variety and eclecticism of writing about New Orleans mirrors that of the city itself.
The city’s appeal to writers can be explained in part by its unique history. Often called the most European of American cities, New Orleans is, in fact, pre-American—it was founded by the French in 1718, fell under Spanish control in 1762, and finally became part of the United States after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. People of many different nations and cultures came together in the port city. African, Irish, Italian, German, Greek, Haitian, Cuban, and other Caribbean immigrants—some of whom arrived involuntarily—joined French, Spanish, and Native Americans to create a unique cultural blend. In fact, the culture most commonly invoked with regard to New Orleans—Creole—is a synthesis of various cultures, and tends to mean different things in different contexts. In its culture and traditions, the city is both eminently southern and dramatically different from other southern cities. The writers who have represented and explored New Orleans are among the most notable and intriguing in southern, and indeed American, literature.
Before the Civil War, much of the literature of New Orleans was written in French, often by poets and writers of color. Poets such as Armand Lanusse, Camille Thierry, and Joanni Questy wrote French verse ranging in subject from race and place to politics. Antebellum New Orleans also had a vital theatrical community, with theater companies performing plays in the Southwest humor tradition alongside much more political plays, such as the stridently secessionist dramas of Louis Placide Canonge. Other notable antebellum writers in New Orleans include Dominique and Adrien Rouquette, brothers and poets who wrote primarily in the Romantic tradition. Adrien eventually became a priest, ministering to the local Choctaw, and wrote a novel titled La Nouvelle Atala in celebration of their lifestyle.
Post-Civil War Era
The first wave of writers grappling with, and contributing to, the New Orleans myth appeared the post-Civil War years. George Washington Cable’s work, for example, explores the complexities of race and identity in New Orleans culture. The short stories in Old Creole Days examine the rich mosaic of cultures and personalities in the city, sometimes from a critical perspective. Similarly, his most famous novel, The Grandissimes, explores racial politics and relationships in the city where they were arguably the most byzantine and complicated in America, with an eye toward calling attention to racial injustice.
Though a non-native, Lafcadio Hearn helped create an exoticized image of New Orleans with his descriptive pieces about Creole life and culture for magazines such as Harper’s Weekly. A primary force in creating the symbolic or mythic resonance of New Orleans for a national audience, Hearn emphasized the differences between native-born Creoles and the “Americans” migrating to New Orleans from other parts of the United States.
New Orleans native Alice Dunbar-Nelson focused on the city’s color line from an African American woman’s perspective in her short stories and poems, collected in Violets and Other Tales and The Goodness of St. Rocque and Other Stories. Kate Chopin wrote famously of her life among the Creoles in her collections Bayou Folk and A Night in Acadie. Her most notable treatment of the city of New Orleans is, however, her 1899 novel The Awakening, in which Edna Pontellier attempts to break with convention and live independently in the city. Grace King captured New Orleans life in stories that combined local color with social commentary, as they explored the lives of women. Though their goals and methods were very different, all these writers contributed to the myth of New Orleans as a fascinating place unlike any other in America.
As literary modernism, an international movement in cultural and the arts, developed and evolved in the early twentieth century, New Orleans became a literary center. Great modernist writers such as Sherwood Anderson and William Faulkner spent time in New Orleans, wrote about the city, and attested to its inspiration for their future works. Faulkner began his career as a writer in New Orleans, writing his first novel, Soldier’s Pay, while living in Pirate’s Alley. He also published a series of brief pieces about the city in the famous New Orleans literary magazine The Double Dealer and in the New Orleans Times-Picayune; these have since been collected inNew Orleans Sketches.
One of the most famous and enduring representations of New Orleans comes in Tennessee Williams’s play A Streetcar Named Desire, which captures the disparate elements of the city’s identity. Aging southern belle Blanche DuBois, representing the fading, decadent beauty of the old South, battles the vital but brutal Stanley Kowalski, who represents the growing working-class immigrant culture. It is a play that could only be set in New Orleans and, while Williams’s stark realism contrasts with the romantic New Orleans myth, it has strongly influenced the popular vision of the city.
Walker Percy explored existential issues of isolation and faith in six novels set in and around New Orleans, and in the process rendered memorable portraits of New Orleans’s eccentricities. Perhaps the most famous of his novels, The Moviegoer, won the National Book Award for Fiction. Percy’s New Orleans is an in-between place, traditional yet modern, southern yet international, and serves not only as a backdrop for his protagonists’ self-searching, but as a setting that crystallizes the forces of social and cultural change surrounding them.
Another famed and popular representation of New Orleans comes in the raucous comic novel A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Toole’s story of the larger-than-life, overeducated man-child Ignatius Reilly’s efforts to get a job amid the colorful and bizarre characters of the French Quarter has become a classic New Orleans novel. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1981, after the author’s death. The bronze statue of Ignatius Reilly still standing on Canal Street attests to the book’s impact.
Contemporary New Orleans writers are many and varied. Anne Rice, one of America’s preeminent writers of gothic fiction, made her home in New Orleans for many years. She exploits the city’s singular atmosphere and reputation for decadence in many of her works, including her famous vampire chronicles. Valerie Martin, too, draws on the unique New Orleans atmosphere and blend of cultures in her gothic novels. Representing the city as a place profoundly disconnected from the mainstream United States, Martin uses that isolation as a source of her characters’ paranoia and terror. Her novel The Great Divorce weaves three narratives of life in New Orleans, including a murderous antebellum “cat woman” [and two other women who work at the zoo and are struggling with their own lethal fantasies.]
In relatively recent years, writers have embraced New Orleans as a locale for detective fiction. The unfortunate and well-documented history of institutional corruption that has plagued New Orleans and Louisiana make the region a natural fit for the noir-ish sensibilities of many detective writers. Writers such as Julie Smith and James Lee Burke put their own distinctive stamp on the city, highlighting its vices as well as its charms. As a result, the state and particularly the city of New Orleans have significance in the detective genre that rivals more established locales such as Los Angeles and Chicago.
New Orleans has also long been a center for African American literature and poetry, and contemporary poets such as Sybil Kein, Brenda Marie Osbey, Quo Vadis Gex-Breaux, and Mona Lisa Saloy interrogate, celebrate, and explore New Orleans culture in their work. Still another dimension of contemporary New Orleans society, the city’s Vietnamese community, is explored in Robert Olen Butler’s short story collection A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, which won the Pulitzer Prize.
The disaster of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 impacted New Orleans literature—and outsiders’ perception of the city—profoundly and irrevocably. Treatments of the hurricane and its aftermath in fiction and nonfiction have been plentiful across various genres. James Lee Burke’s detective novel Tin Roof Blowdown explores the breakdown of the social order in the storm’s aftermath. Chris Rose’s essay collection One Dead in Attic and historian Douglas Brinkley’s The Great Deluge (2006) are only a few examples of post-Katrina meditations on the city and its people.