New Orleans Literary History

From the 2010 Writer’s Almanac::
On this day in 1718, the French Canadian Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville discovered the city that would come to be called Crescent City, the Big Easy, and the City That Care Forgot. But he called it La Nouvelle Orléans, New Orleans, named for Philippe d’Orléans, the Regent of France.

New Orleans is famous as the birthplace of jazz, and for producing many great musicians, including Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Mahalia Jackson, Harry Connick Jr., and Wynton Marsalis.

But New Orleans also has a rich literary history. It is sometimes called “the least American city” because it has such a distinctive feel, and for years writers have struggled to put New Orleans into words. David Simon, the writer and creator of the new HBO series set in New Orleans, “Treme,” described how impossible it was to explain the city to an outsider. He said that he and his co-writer, Eric Overmyer, “imagined the pitch meeting, and we imagined trying to explain New Orleans and being unable to. If I could explain it to you sitting here now, I wouldn’t have to do the show. That’s the problem: you literally have to drag whatever executive you’ve got to New Orleans, throw him into a second line, get him drunk, take him here, take him there. It would have to be a lost week: you’re not in America anymore — you’re in New Orleans! We couldn’t imagine being able to do that.”

John Kennedy Toole was a New Orleans writer, born in 1937. Most people don’t recognize his name, but the title of his only novel is famous: A Confederacy of Dunces (1980). (NB Wonderful book – highly recommended; Pulitzer Prize) He grew up an only child, with a domineering mother who was convinced that her son was a genius and controlled his life. Although his father worked as a car salesman and mechanic, they lived in a nice part of town and his mother had illusions of grandeur — she was from an old New Orleans family, her great-grandfather a hero in the Battle of New Orleans.

Truman Capote was born in New Orleans in 1924. His mother was 16 years old, a beauty queen, and his father was a nonpracticing lawyer, and his parents lived together in a hotel and soon sent the boy to Alabama to be raised by aunts and cousins. But he spent part of every summer in New Orleans while he was growing up. He dropped out of school as a teenager, went to New York, and made it his adopted home. He went back to New Orleans briefly to start his first book, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948). And he wrote about it in his essay “New Orleans,” which begins:
“In the courtyard there was an angel of black stone, and its angel head rose above giant elephant leaves; the stark glass angel eyes, bright as the bleached blue of sailor eyes, stared upward. One observed the angel from an intricate green balcony — mine, this balcony, for I lived beyond in three old white rooms, rooms with elaborate wedding-cake ceilings, wide sliding doors, tall French windows. On warm evenings, with these windows open, conversation was pleasant there, tuneful, for wind rustled the interior like fan-breeze made by ancient ladies. And on such warm evenings this town is quiet. Only voices: family talk weaving on an ivy-curtained porch; a barefoot woman humming as she rocks a sidewalk chair, lulling to sleep a baby she nurses quite publicly; the complaining foreign tongue of an irritated lady who, sitting on her balcony, plucks a fryer, the loosened feathers floating from her hands, slipping into air, sliding lazily downward.”

Anne Rice was born in New Orleans in 1941, and sets her popular novels there — she is particularly famous as the author The Vampire Chronicles, beginning with Interview with the Vampire (1976).

The playwright Tennessee Williams, born in Mississippi in 1911, made New Orleans his adopted home, and had such a profound effect on the community that the annual literary festival is known as the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche says, “Don’t you just love those long rainy afternoons in New Orleans when an hour isn’t just an hour — but a little piece of eternity dropped into your hands — and who knows what to do with it?”

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