Images of the Month
July 1997

Although the materials held in the City Archives account for the bulk of the Louisiana Division Special Collections, the Division also houses a number of smaller manuscript collections, some of which contain originial material documenting the 19th- and 20th-century New Orleans literary scene. The Division's Rare Book Collection also includes early editions and autographed copies of books by New Orleans (and Louisiana) authors, and portraits of some of the Crescent City's authors can be found in the Louisiana and New Orleans Photograph Collection.

The lazy, high-summer month of July, when it sometimes seems too hot to move, is the perfect time to stretch out inside the air-conditioning with a good book. This month we bring you images of some of New Orleans' authors and their work. Most of the writers represented here gained fame in their own day as "local colorists." Some of them achieved an international reputation; others have been neglected of late. All of them drew upon their lives in New Orleans to create enduring portraits of the city and its people.

All are good reads. Visit your library this month and give them a try!

Part I - The Nineteenth Century

Charles Gayarre (1805-1895) was a lawyer, judge, politician, historian, essayist, dramatist, and novelist. Born on the Bore Plantation (now the site of Audubon Park), the grandson of Etienne de Bore, New Orleans' first mayor, Gayarre studied law in Philadelphia and returned to New Orleans to begin his legal practice in 1829. His political career began when he was elected to the state legislature in 1830; he would also hold elected office in the U.S. Senate (although ill health prevented him from taking his seat) and serve as the state's attorney general and as presiding judge of the New Orleans city courts. Gayarre's masterwork was the four volume Histoire de la Louisianne, published between 1854 and 1866.

Shown below at right is Gayarre's inscription of The School for Politics: A Dramatic Novel (1855) to the library of the Mechanics Institute, one of two libraries that eventually merged in 1896 to become the New Orleans Public Library.

George Washington Cable (1844-1925) was born in New Orleans and began his writing career as a reporter for the Daily Picayune. In the 1870s, his local color sketches of Creole New Orleans were published in Scribner's and Appleton's. The novels he published in the next two decades--Old Creole Days (1879), The Grandissimes (1880), Madame Delphine (1881), Dr. Sevier (1881), Bonaventure (1888), The Cavalier (1901), Bylow Hill (1902)--earned him national fame and the wrath of some New Orleanians who were offended by his not uncritical depiction of southern life, including the treatment of African Americans. Cable moved to Massachusetts in 1885 and spent most of his remaining years exiled from his native city.

Cable inscribed this copy of his novel The Flower of the Chapdelaine's in 1918, the year of its publication.

The Poets of Les Cenelles (1845). In 1845, a volume of 85 poems was published by a group of seventeen New Orleanians, all of them free men of color--Les Cenelles: Choix de Poesies Indigenes. The poets of Les Cenelles were men of culture and learning (a number of them educated in France) and members of another Creole society set apart from the white Creole society of Gayarre and Grace King. "The authors," one scholar has written, "were not great poets, but they must have been cultivated men who took delight in writing and who hoped that some day one of their number would achieve in verse the fame that Dumas was then winning in novel and drama." They did not, for the greater part, write about their native state but chose their themes from the French Romanticists and the classics.

In 1945, in honor of the 100th anniversary of its publication, Les Cenelles was reprinted as Creole Voices, the title page of which is shown here. The poets of Les Cenelles are Armand Lanusse (the general editor), Jean Boise, Louis Boise, Pierre Dalcour, Desormes Dauphin, Nelson Desbrosses, Numa Lanusse, M.F. Liotau, Auguste Populus, Joanni Questy, Nicol Riquet, Victor Sejour, Michel St. Pierre, Manuel Sylva, Camille Thierry, B. Valcour, and a poet identified simply as "Bo...ers."

Grace King (1851-1932) was one of the writers offended by Cable's version of New Orleans' Creole society, and her first published story, "Monsieur Motte" (1886), was in part an answer to Cable's "slander." King was an intimate of Charles Gayarre and, like the older writer, championed the city's people, customs, heritage, and idiosyncracies. Often described as a "romanticist" and an apologist for the old Southern way of life, King herself once wrote, "I am a realist a la mode de Nouvelle Orleans." King was also the first woman to write histories of the South--Jean-Baptiste Le Moine, Sieur de Bienville (1892), History of Louisiana (1894), New Orleans: the Place and the People (1913), Creole Families of New Orleans (1921)--and she was an early advocate of women's suffrage. King's fiction includes Tales of a Time and Place (1892), Balcony Stories (1893), and The Pleasant Ways of St. Menard (1916). During her lifetime, she was the grande dame of the New Orleans literary scene and held court at her home at 1749 Coliseum Street.

In this undated letter to Charles Lelong, the Chairman of the Board of the New Orleans Public Library (then still known as the "Fisk Library"), King asks for what we call today a "special loan." She asked Mr. Lelong to arrange for her to borrow a copy of the journal Revue des Deux Mondes, which was not part of the circulating collection. The fact that she went straight to the top with her request tells us something about Miss King's position in the city--and her self-confidence. She probably got her special loan!

Kate Chopin (1851-1904) was born in St. Louis but married a French Creole from Natchitoches Parish and lived for nearly ten years in the Crescent City. When her husband's cotton brokerage failed, the family moved to the Chopin family estate on the Cane River. After her husband's death in 1882, Chopin returned to St. Louis and began to support herself and her children by writing short stories that drew upon her familiarity with the Creole and Acadian people she knew in Louisiana. Her 1899 she published The Awakening, a novel, set on Grand Isle and in New Orleans, that caused a scandal in its time for its depiction of the unorthodox choices made by Edna Pontellier, a young woman who becomes dissatisfied with her role as wife and mother. Chopin was appalled by the social ostracism that followed the appearance of the novel and gave up writing. In the 1970s, interested in Chopin's long neglected works was revived by the burgeoning interest in feminist literature.

We aren't certain that this is a first edition of The Awakening, but we know that it was published in 1899, the year of the novel's first appearance.

Go to Part II of the July Gallery