19th and early 20th century
- The Grandissimes, by George Washington Cable
- The Awakening, by Kate Chopin
- Balcony Stories, Grace King
- Goodness of St. Rocque, Alice Dunbar Nelson
- The Mysteries of New Orleans, Baron von Reizenstein
TranscriptSusan Larson: The 19th century in New Orleans literature is a different kind of animal. Tell us what kind of the books were coming along then. I think one of your favorites is The Grandissimes by George Washington Cable.
Nancy Dixon: Indeed and it is my favorite. It's my favorite New Orleans book. My dissertation was on a woman writer of this century, so I had to seriously look at a lot of 19th century writers. That really captures the turn from the French to American rule in the city like no other novel that I've read; fighting about French and refusing to speak French and customs. The 19th century, and I know we've talked about this before, I find it to be the golden age of literature in New Orleans. Perhaps now because I know you think that it might become later, but maybe this is the first golden age.
Susan: The first? There's always a golden age, Nancy, right?
Nancy: [laughter] I think this might be the first golden age or one of the earliest golden ages. It started perhaps with Lacy and Louis we've talked about with the poets, but we had The Grandissimes by George Washington Cable and Baron Von Reizenstein Mysteries of New Orleans that crazy book.
Susan: That's an odd book. New Orleans produces books like that every now and then.
Nancy: We have some odd people.
Susan: Yes. [laughs]
Nancy: Some odd writers. If you look in the 20th century, I can think a lot of books that hark back to Von Reizenstein Mysteries of New Orleans.
Susan: Tell us a little bit more about that book.
Nancy: It is a saga of voodoo, malaria, sex, and New Orleans all built into one. It's not necessarily realistic, and so it is hundreds and hundreds of pages long. I remember at UNO one of my colleagues said, "You read the whole thing?" Because it's a really long book, but it's gripping I think.
Susan: It is. I read it when it was reissued and I thought, "Lord," [laughter] I know, this took a commitment.
Susan: [music] Then of course, The Awakening. The Awakening, how I love that book.
Nancy: Still, love that book. And so do my students still. They still do.
Susan: I secretly imagine her swimming. You know that, I met her eternally swimming out in the gulf, I do.
Nancy: You and Awakening expert, Emily Toth. I, on the other hand, see her death.
Susan: I know.
Nancy: I like the optimism [crosstalk] She is sort of swimming because we're still-- We returned to her all the time. We read, reread, we know her story, we know how it ends, and so in a way it doesn't end.
Susan: Much of her stories about a woman walking in the city, and she writes about how much she pities women who don't walk because they see so little of life.
Nancy: I think that had a lot to do with her own life.
Susan: Those are the highlights of the 19th century, I'd say.
Nancy: I'd say so too.
Susan: Then you have one more on your list. The Goodness of Saint Rocque.
Nancy: That straddles the 19th into the 20th century. Even the title story in that is so beautiful. I want to render it to a dramatic play version of that story, but again, she addresses racism, colorism, religion versus voodoo, the Creoles versus the Africans and African Americans. The whole mess that is this city with all the different beliefs, races, superstitions, also the beauty of the city, and the importance of family in this city.
Susan: I seem to remember her journals being published during that period of rebirth when feminism was rescuing all these lost works from the past. I remember thinking they were quite revelatory.
Nancy: They were quite revelatory. She was definitely a Me Too survivor of her time with her very famous husband.
Susan: Just incredible. [music]
Susan: This is the Tricentennial Reading List. We've been talking with Nancy Dixon. The reading live Tricentennial Reading List is sponsored by the Helis Foundation, the John Burton Harter Trust, and the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. For the ever growing Tricentennial Reading List and other episodes, check out wwno.org.