12/05/2014 04:12 PM
BATON ROUGE – In the early years of the 19th century, the burgeoning cultural pride
of white Creoles in New Orleans intersected with America’s golden age of print, to
explosive effect. “Imagining the Creole City: The Rise of Literary Culture in Nineteenth-Century New
Orleans,” published by LSU Press, reveals the profusion of literary output – histories and
novels, poetry and plays – that white Creoles used to imagine themselves as a unified
community of writers and readers.
Author Rien Fertel argues that Charles Gayarré’s English-language histories of Louisiana,
which emphasized the state’s dual connection to America and to France, provided the
foundation of a white Creole print culture predicated on Louisiana’s exceptionalism.
The writings of authors like Grace King, Adrien Rouquette, and Alfred Mercier consciously
fostered an image of Louisiana as a particular social space, and of themselves as
the true inheritors of its history and culture. In turn, the forging of this white
Creole identity created a close-knit community of cosmopolitan Creole elites, who
reviewed each other’s books, attended the same salons, crusaded against the popular
fiction of George Washington Cable, and worked together to preserve the French language
in local and state governmental institutions. Together they reimagined the definition
of “Creole” and used it as a marker of status and power.
By the end of this group’s era of cultural prominence, Creole exceptionalism had become
a cornerstone in the myth of Louisiana in general and of New Orleans in particular.
In defining themselves, the authors in the white Creole print community also fashioned
a literary identity that resonates even today.
Fertel is a visiting professor of history at Tulane University.
Posted on Friday, December 5, 2014