There will be fireworks! There will be celebrations! And there will be books! In the city’s ongoing Tricentennial celebration, it’s time to reflect as well as look forward. Two new anthologies offer thoughtful ways to do just that.
“Occasions like this offer historians opportunities to ruminate,” said Lawrence N. Powell, emeritus professor of history at Tulane University and long the go-to guy for New Orleans history. “We hope to engage the attention of a wider public, and historians love a classroom without walls. In post-Katrina New Orleans, this anniversary is more poignant than most because there’s a greater interest in history now.
“Historians feel a sense of responsibility to instruct the public. You see who you've been, you learn from the past, and you hope you might have some impact on those who’ve sworn their lives to public service,” said Powell. His writing appears in both new Tricentennial anthologies.
“New Orleans and the World, 1718-2018, Tricentennial Anthology,” was put together by Brian Boyles, executive publisher, and Nancy Dixon, executive editor, (Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, $60). It is the big, beautiful coffee table book you’ve been looking for, lavishly illustrated with Louisiana art and beautifully produced in every way. The editorial board for this book is composed of some of our best and brightest scholars — Richard Campanella, Robert L. Dupont, Freddi Williams Evans, Alecia P. Long, Kara Tucina Olidge, and Lawrence N. Powell. The book also includes charming forewords by Leah Chase and Walter Isaacson among essays by 36 contributors.
“New Orleans and the World” is divided into six thoughtfully chosen sections — "People, Space & Place," "Conflict and Freedom," "Spirits and Sin," "Cuisine and Culture," "Sounds" and "Renewal."
“As the essays rolled in, it just took an organic shape,” said executive editor Nancy Dixon, a professor of English at Dillard University.
“Of course, we should celebrate this wonderful city,” she said. “But we should keep our eyes open too. There are some cautionary tales here. We still have a way to go.”
Such a book seemed a natural for the Louisiana Endowment of the Humanities, according to Boyles, who is vice president of LEH.
“Through our work with Louisiana Cultural Vistas magazine and through the projects we've supported with LEH grants, we've always put a premium on scholarship that's accurate and authentic to this place. Looking back over three hundred years, but also at contemporary New Orleans, I think the humanities provide much needed critical analyses on who we are as a city, and where we're heading,” he said.
The LEH partnered with the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp., and the 2018 NOLA Foundation to produce the book.
Topics range from the poets of Les Cenelles (the first book of poems published by African-Americans in the U.S.), to essays about German, Irish, Vietnamese immigrants, Mardi Gras queens and Indians. The two Jacksons — Andrew and Mahalia — and the two World’s Fairs — 1884 and 1984 — are represented.
This book gives a fine cross section of our population and our history, right up to the present moment. It is bright and witty and thoughtful, focusing on the way New Orleans has presented itself to the world in all its diversity and distinctiveness. Dr. Michael White’s beautifully written essay about secondlines, a standout, takes us home at the end of this book.
“New Orleans: The First 300 Years,” edited by Errol Laborde and Peggy Scott Laborde, foreword by Lawrence N. Powell, (Pelican Publishing, $35), is a collection of 21 topical essays, on topics including art, covered by John Kemp, to women, by Patricia Brady.
Laborde, that Mardi Gras veteran, saves a chapter on celebrations for himself. Dr. Brobson Lutz contributes a fascinating essay about public health, The Advocate's own R. Stephanie Bruno writes about flora, WWNO’s Peter Ricchiuti contributes a chapter on business, Angus Lind gives us great New Orleans characters, and the late Marty Mulé writes about sports, to name only a few. (Full disclosure: I contributed an essay about literature.)
There is so much to write about that there is little overlap between these two volumes, with the exception of work by Lawrence N. Powell and Richard Campanella, Sally Asher, and Robert L. Dupont, and even those essays cover different subjects. Contributors to both of these anthologies will be appearing at public forums over the coming year.
Powell may sum up the tricentennial spirit best in his forward to “New Orleans: The First 300 Years”: “New Orleans is a town where identity inheres in a sense of place over time. There’s the attitude: We’re somebody. We come from somewhere. Look at our history, which, by the way, is impossible to escape. You stumble on it every time you step over a sidewalk, buckled by the roots of ancient live oaks. It’s in the ambience of a place that can’t decide whether it’s a city or a sound stage.”
Susan Larson hosts The Reading Life on WWNO.