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Given that outskirts of the city, which were mostly developed after swamplands were drained in the early twentieth century, suffered the lion’s share of the damage from the cataclysmic hurricane and levee failure of 2005, much of the writing of these areas is focused on loss and the power of writing to help one bear it. The first classic of the outskirts of the city is Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, which is focused on trauma and the struggle to recover from it, and thereby sets the stage for the great flowering of Black-themed writing from the suburbs in recent decades by Sara Broom, Maurice Carlos Ruffin, Karisma Price, Rickey Laurentiis, Zachary Lazar, and Niyi Osundare, among many others. Many of these works, shaped by Katrina, voice anxiety about the natural environment, a theme first set forth for wide audiences in the graphic series, The Saga of the Swamp Thing, and other dystopian visions, from William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch to Moira Crane’s The Not Yet to Beyoncé’s “Formation.”
The literary history of the St. Claude corridor, an historically hardscrabble, working-class neighborhood downriver from the French Quarter, reflects its distance from the relatively elite and glamorous Quarter. After sketching the history of the built environment and its major cultural and political flashpoints, from Fats Domino and Ruby Bridges to the Black Panthers and Hurricane Katrina, the chapter considers first the major writing to have originated in the Lower 9th Ward (Marcus B. Christian, Kalamu Ya Salaam), then the Desire neighborhood (Cheekie Nero, Jed Horne), St. Roch (Alice Dunbar-Nelson), and Bywater (Tennessee Williams, Nelson Algren, Seth Morgan, Valerie Martin). Much of this writing can be read through the motif of children, particularly faith in their innocence as a key to a more prosperous future.
This chapter begins by discussing a lost Toni Morrison manuscript about two different parts of this neighborhood that surrounds Basin Street, Storyville, and Congo Square, and from there it sketches the early history of both of these as well as of nearby Tremé. In each of these sections, after outlining their histories, there then follows a literature-based delineation of the major themes associated with the areas. Given that African-American music is understood to have begun in Congo Square, and that Jazz itself came to widespread attention through Storyville, the function of music is a key theme through all of this literature, and, more to the point, the particular function of music to encode and preserve memory. Congo Square itself will be discussed through the travel-writing by which visitors reported on what they saw there. Next, the chapter takes up the lore around the idea of the mixed-race “seductress,” as propagated in popular fiction, that drove the rise of the red-light district in what became Storyville. This latter territory forms the basis of Michael Ondaatje’s Coming through Slaughter and Natasha Trethewey’s Bellocq’s Ophelia. From there, it discusses the major writing of Tremé through Tom Dent, Brenda Marie Osbey, and Albert Woodfox.
The early history of the Esplanade corridor, running from the river through the Marigny and the 7th Ward to Bayou St. John and Mid-City is sketched first, and then the dynamics of the major writing to emerge from this area is explored, with Solomon Northup and the lore around Bras Coupé, to Kate Chopin and the lore around Marie Laveau; from there it takes up the memoirs of major musicians, Jelly Roll Morton, Barnery Birgard, and Sidney Bechet, and, in more recent years, Allan Toussaint, Frank Ocean, and a host of others. The area’s role in manufacturing the Higgins Boat, and in turn that work’s role in World War II, is discussed, as well as the important Civil Rights history of the area. Numerous contemporary writers are discussed, such as Ladee Hubbard, Tom Piazza, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, Mona Lisa Saloy, Fatima Sheik and Tyler Perry, as well as important contemporary musical figures. Much of the work of this part of the city shares an interest in the dream of escape and flight to a better world, which in turn is reflected in the tradition of political activism, especially among women, in the area.
This chapter begins by charting the way the area upriver from the French Quarter became a part of the city, and then takes up each of its major neighborhoods – the Garden District, the Irish Channel, the University District, and Central City – through the major writing associated with them. As major family fortunes began to develop in this area toward the middle of the nineteenth century, a literature about the forms of violence by which such fortunes are made and held inevitably followed. Anne Rice, Sister Helen Prejean, and John Kennedy Toole, but Shirley Anne Grau, Ellen Gilchrest and Dean Paschal share them too. These themes turn up in the writing of the University District through poets interested in extremes of religious devotion (Peter Cooley), alcoholic self-destruction (Everette Maddox), and political paranoia (Brad Richard). They arise in Central City through the Hip-Hop and Bounce empires known as No Limit and Cash Money, and also in the legacies of racial violence associated with Robert Charles in the early twentieth century and Mark Essex in the 1970s, and the database created by Gwendolyn Midlo Hall that potentially overturns the erasure and alienation that is the long-term consequence of white supremacist violence.
The background on how the book came to be is delineated with reference to its general structure and key themes, following five key thoroughfares that anchor distinct parts of New Orleans – Royal Street, St. Claude Avenue, Esplanade Avenue, Basin Street, and St.Charles Avenue – with a final chapter on the outskirts of the city.
The literary history of Royal Street in New Orleans begins with the folktales of the flatboatmen, the songs of the enslaved trafficked through the city, and the Afro-Creole poets of the 1840s–1860s. It then continues in the late nineteenth century with major, national voices on the subject of the city (Cable, Hearn, King, Davis), and the arrival of O. Henry at the turn of the century. It then flowered again in the 1920s with the bohemian circle around Sherwood Anderson and William Faulkner, with the emergence of Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams in the 1940s, and then yet again with the various 1960s undergrounds of John Rechy, Robert Stone, The Outsider Magazine, and organized crime figures implicated in the Kennedy assassination. There then followed in the 1970s and 80s a series of important books rooted in a mythological vision of the area by Ishmael Reed, Tom Robbins, Anne Rice, Harry Crews, Dalt Wonk, and Paula Fox. The neighborhood’s most recent literary masterpiece appeared in 2003 in Valerie Martin’s Property. Much of the major writing of this neighborhood shares an interest in masks – identities concealed, divided, fabricated, transformed, or sustained against the odds in both stories and story-telling.
The neighborhoods of New Orleans have given rise to an extraordinary outpouring of important writing. Over the last century and a half or so, these stories and songs have given the city its singular place in the human imagination. This book leads the reader along five thoroughfares that define these different parts of town – Royal, St. Claude, Esplanade, Basin, and St. Charles – to explore how the writers who have lived around them have responded in closely related ways to the environments they share. On the outskirts of New Orleans today, the city's precarious relation to its watery surroundings and the vexed legacies of race loom especially large. But the city's literature shows us that these themes have been near to hand for New Orleans writers for several generations, whether reflected through questions of masquerade, dreams of escape, the innocence of children, or the power of money or of violence or of memory.