Autumn in New Orleans always seems impossibly slow to arrive, and I never trust that it’s here til nearly Halloween, even after. Each year, the wait makes me more anxious, and I find myself wondering, on especially sweltering nights in September, if the city and I will live long enough to feel that first cool breeze. What happened to the Bahamas on Labor Day will surely happen someday to New Orleans, and when it does, no matter how long I’ve been trying to steel myself, that day will still come way too soon, as if I’ve only begun to fall in love with this place, despite having already been here twenty years. My love, to borrow from an old blues song, is a graveyard love, and like a lot of blues, the most important literary work associated with this place—which has surely shaped how I think about it—warns me against hope.
Consider what Joan Didion wrote in 1970 about the city’s fatalism: “Bananas would rot, and harbor tarantulas; weather would come in on the radar and be bad; children would take fever and die.” She adds, “As it happens, I was taught to cook by someone from Louisiana, and I think we most fully understood each other when once I tried to kill him with a kitchen knife.” Much the same tone turns up in the novel A Recent Martyr (1987), by New Orleans native Valerie Martin. Writing about the passions that can flare amidst these pressures, when the present moment is the only one we’re guaranteed, she closes her book by noting the “vicious florid natural cycles that roll over the senses with their lushness,” the swamp surging with life in the midst of death and vice-versa, concluding: “The future holds a simple promise. We are well below sea-level, and inundation is inevitable. We are content for now to have our heads above water.”
Where does this sense of future-lessness come from? In the generations before the Civil War, the slave-owning class that controlled the city had little incentive to think about the future, for, at least since the Haitian Revolution of the 1790s, the blood-soaked upending of the city’s slave-based society was likely the inevitable future they hoped to defer as long as possible. Maybe the fatalism of New Orleans derives too from the yellow fever epidemics that, in the nineteenth century, swept through the population like a scythe. From 1820 to 1910, the number of New Orleans inhabitants jumped from roughly 20,000 to 330,000, but in that same period, over 40,000 New Orleanians died of yellow fever, with the worst years being in the early 1850s. In that decade, right before the Civil War, the fever claimed some 20,000 lives—in a time when the population was no more than a 130,000, and often fewer in the summer months when, as now, everyone who could afford to leave surely did.
Of course, New Orleans wasn’t the only city hit by yellow fever, but its warm swampy environment proved an especially deadly incubator, particularly during those years when—as the financial hub of the old southwest, a paradoxical sort of frontier capital, one of the most populous cities in the U. S.—it also functioned as the epicenter of the slave-trade; as such, it began to serve in the larger imagination of the country as the wellspring of all that would soon tear the country apart in the Civil War, the scene of the innermost wound that, even today, most threatens the nation’s realization of its highest ideals. New Orleans, where America’s can-do optimism has always gone to die.
Fatalistic: that’s the word William Faulkner seems always to attach throughout Absalom, Absalom (1936) to that quintessential, nineteenth-century New Orleanian, Charles Bon. In contrast to the novel’s other major male characters, the Sutpens of Mississippi, whose identities are defined and organized entirely against people of African descent (to say nothing of women), Bon shines as a princely, urbane, creole dandy who incarnates, first and foremost, knowledge— knowledge, in particular, of love; love not as an airy, abstract moral imperative, but as explicitly rooted in the body, both as eroticism and the blood-ties of family, both of which take on supreme value given the body’s fleeting temporality.
This vision defines, too, Nelson Algren’s explicitly apocalyptic A Walk on the Wild Side (1956). Near the end of Part I, as the protagonist, Dove Linkhorn, first arrives in New Orleans, Algren writes, “The city fathers, Do-Right Daddies and all of that, Shriners, Kiwanians, Legionaires, Knights of this and Knights of that, would admit with a laugh that New Orleans was hell.” After walking past a cemetery and ruminating on the common end and futility of all human striving for distinction, Dove encounters a man butchering turtles to make soup and is mesmerized by the spectacle of the headless bodies of the turtles still trying to climb over each other to get to the top of the pile. The protagonist soon makes a tentative home in the downtown bohemia, where artists and musicians rub shoulders with the working poor, sex workers, and those destroyed by addiction, and among whom the distinctions can blur into an indiscriminate haze, the same New Orleans milieu captured in Jim Jarmusch’s classic New Orleans film, Down by Law (1986) and the popular song, “The House of the Rising Sun.” When, toward the end of Part II, Dove learns to read, the book that holds his attention the most and becomes a point of protracted conversation between him and a girlfriend turns out to be about Pompeii. The implication for New Orleans is obvious and made explicit in the novel’s penultimate sentence: “That was all long ago in some brief lost spring, in a place that is no more.”
This apocalyptic vision of the city was given even greater emphasis a few years later in John Rechy’s City of Night (1963). A monument of the international gay underground of the 1960s, -70s, and -80s, the final hundred-page section of Rechy’s novel takes place during Mardi Gras, where Rechy describes, “An almost Biblical feeling of Doom—of the city about to be destroyed, razed, toppled.” He continues, “The odor of something stagnant permeates the winter-air of this summer city: not so much an odor that attacks the sense of smell as one that raids the mind . . .” adding that “The invitation to dissipate is everywhere. And you wonder how this city has withstood so long the ravenous vermin . . . and you wonder how one single match or cigarette has failed to create that holocaust that will consume it to its very gutters.”
The political dimensions of this apocalyptic vision became explicit a few years later in Robert Stone’s PEN-Faulkner award-winning debut, A Hall of Mirrors (1967), a novel that ends as a right-wing political rally morphs into a full-blown white riot. The novel foreshadows this final, apocalyptic revelation early-on when two lovers are picnicking on the banks of Lake Pontchartrain, gazing out over the body of water, and imagining a giant monster in the lake that will soon rise up and devour New Orleans. This fantasy leads one of them to a gesture of tenderness that the other rejects. What he recoils from—human connection—suggests that he is a kind of monster, the very apocalyptic beast, conjured in imagination from the lake, that in his pervasive self-disconnection, he failed to recognize was his own mirror image.
Stone’s novel, set in the shadowy, noir-ish French Quarter in the spring and summer of 1963, invokes the paranoia that continues to swirl around the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November of that year. Among the lost young people of Stone’s novel, puppet-mastered as they are by large, shadowy organizations of various sorts, one can readily imagine the twenty-four-year-old New Orleanian, Lee Harvey Oswald, a figure near the center of a vast literature on that event. Most notable are Norman Mailer’s Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery (1996), which follows him into a hall of mirrors as possible agent, double-agent or double-double agent of the CIA; Jean Stafford’s A Mother in History (1966), which approaches the subject through a book-length profile of his mother, sitting in her Ninth Ward living room amid piles of notes, tapes, and clippings, lost in a maze of paranoid and devastated conjecture; Don DeLillo’s Libra (1988), which follows Oswald through his teens into the Marine Corp, then to the Soviet Union, and finally to Dealy Plaza in Dallas, where, in Delillo’s vision, the scheme was intended to fail, the shooters were to miss Kennedy, and thereby provoke him to invade Cuba, but the planned failure itself failed, as—in the darkest possible comedy—the shooters mistakenly hit their mark.
The literature around the assassination, echoing the noir-ish New Orleans underworld of Stone, Rechy and Algren, often pursues the theme of the futility of the struggle to know. The most recent work on the subject of lasting literary value—Frenchy Brouillette’s memoir, Mr. New Orleans: The Life and Times of a Big Easy Underworld Legend (2014), details the role of the New Orleans mafia in orchestrating the assassination and framing the hapless Oswald for the crime, but after detailing what several of his friends have confessed to him about their role, Brouillette seems to throw up his hands, saying “But who knows? Maybe everyone was lying.” Perhaps in hindsight the assassination will eventually be understood as a symbolic microcosm of the literal apocalypse that climate change could bring, the same bitter arrival at the futility of the human quest to grasp and redress.
The politics of this vision are ultimately, however, the politics of race, where the notion of something deadly in the air—in a word, racism—is figured as epidemic. Plague-as-metaphor figures centrally in Valerie Martin’s great novel of New Orleans and its environs, Property (2003). Set in the late 1820s, the threat of a slave-uprising near her plantation drives the narrator into New Orleans for protection, but she finds in the city a harrowing hellscape, where yellow fever has left “half the town dead and the other half in hourly terror of dying.” The plague is a metaphor for the dishonesty that slavery requires, the first lie being that people of European descent can and should own people of African descent, an endless stream of other lies spreading from that one like virile contagion.
Sometimes, plague-as-metaphor is played for laughs, as in Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972), an afro-centric vision of the 1920s that begins in plague-stricken New Orleans. The opening scenes show the mayor summoned to Saint Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter to see firsthand the severity of this new outbreak of epidemic. This virus that originated in New Orleans is soon spreading in a northerly direction, causing those who catch it to enter into an ecstatic trance, a kind of spirit possession, their chief symptom being the uncontrollable urge to dance and sing in African-American style. The virus, for those who know the most about it, is actually a sacred spiritual force, a “psychic epidemic,” an “anti-plague”—the dawn of the Jazz.
Reed’s novel surely inspired Tom Robbins’s Jitterbug Perfume (1984), wherein an ancient, pagan king and his lover meet the god, Pan, and devise a special perfume to conceal the god’s highly sexualized stench so he can travel with them without detection. The bottle of perfume— which has become legendary as the most enchanting scent ever created, a supreme trigger to memory and desire, and, in turn, the mystic power of immortality—gets lost and ends up in New Orleans, with a family that runs a perfume shop in the French Quarter. The novel has a number of comic passages on the horrendous climate of New Orleans, and the parallel to the story of the pagan king is clear. Just as Pan is known paradoxically by the reek of sex and also by the perfume that conceals it, so “Louisiana in September was like an obscene phone call from nature . . . The air—moist, sultry, secretive, and far from fresh—felt as if it were exhaled into one’s face . . . It was aphrodisiac and repressive, soft and violent at the same time.”
What Robbins is getting at here would seem to echo what Ned Sublette reports about the word “funk”: it has most often meant a powerful stench and was used to refer to the death reek of the slave ships of the middle passage; as such, “funk” was a powerful repellant to slave-masters and therefore had a positive connotation to those most vulnerable to the sexual aggressions of that class. Consider, too, that Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan, who wrote “Mister Tambourine Man” while driving out of the city after a first visit in 1964 for Mardi Gras, has a particular, iron-clad requirement in his contracts for performances here: when Dylan is in New Orleans, he will only stay in “a hotel room with windows that open.” Most simply, Robbins, Sublette, and Dylan would all agree that, in New Orleans, there is something special in the air. Invoking a post-apocalyptic atmosphere, Dylan sings to Mister Tambourine Man, “Though I know that evening’s empire has returned into sand / vanished from my hand, left me blindly here to stand . . .” he seems to succumb to Reed’s funky epidemic when he continues, “Cast your dancing spell my way / I promise to go under it . . . in the jingle-jangle morning, I’ll come following you.”
Who else might we follow? As I begin to imagine a literature of a future New Orleans diaspora, I’m drawn to recent writing by people for whom the city has always been post-apocalyptic, always charged with the experience of diaspora, people for whom literature must serve as a sacred to tool for remembering. I’m thinking, obviously, of writing by Black people, especially women. Erna Brodber’s Louisiana (1994) tells the story of a young African-American woman of the 1930s who is hired as a writer by the WPA to record the oral histories of Blacks in southern Louisiana, but who disappears; decades later, a manuscript mysteriously arrives and suggests that she became overwhelmed by “psychic forces,” possessed by the spirit of one of the elderly women she interviewed; a carrier now of that woman’s soul, the main character moves to New Orleans about midway through the novel to live near Congo Square among the jazz clubs on Rampart Street, stops straightening her hair, renames herself “Louisiana” and begins to do the holy work of giving her people their history. She becomes a labor organizer and a disciple of Marcus Garvey (who, in fact, gave his final speech in the U. S. from the docks at New Orleans before boarding a ship to begin his deportation). Brodber’s novel is a masterpiece of postmodern narrative, as the boundaries between individuals become tricky and stories and identities begin to migrate across time to coalesce as new flows of provisional, tentative political power through the work of remembering.
Like Brodber’s novel, Brenda Marie Osbey’s volume of poetry entitled All Saints (1997) invokes the spiritual practices of the African diaspora known as voodoo to carry out what becomes the cosmic imperative to honor the dead. As she puts it, this is how survivors tend the blues that grow like garden plants in the spaces vacated by what the survivors have lost. Like Brodber’s novel, Osbey’s All Saints establishes a position beyond fatalism and even laughter, one that hinges on faith in the power of storytelling and verse to stage a miraculous resurrection and thereby give the dead a heavenly afterlife.
I expect we’ll be needing more of this, and sooner than we think.
Adapted and excerpted from New Orleans: A Literary History by T.R. Johnson. © 2019 by the author and reprinted with permission of Cambridge University Press. All rights reserved.