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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.
Recent research by climate scientists suggest that New Orleans, much of which is below sea level and protected from the sea only by a rapidly eroding marshland, may someday become uninhabitable. The city’s literature of the last few decades has been preoccupied with the theme of fatalism and apocalypse, and the deadly epidemics of the nineteenth century have provided rich symbolic terrain for figuring the troubles that “plague” the city and that will someday mean its end. Some recent work by women of color – notably Erna Brodber and Brenda Marie Osbey – delineates a different literary project, one appropriate to a post-apocalyptic diaspora, namely the work of remembering. Both the traditional fatalism and this emerging interest in memory will likely be central themes to watch for in the major literature associated with the New Orleans in coming decades.
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