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Becoming Cajun, Becoming American

The Acadian in American Literature from Longfellow to James Lee Burke

Maria Hebert-Leiter

Publication Year: 2009

From antebellum times, Louisiana’s unique multipartite society included a legal and social space for intermediary racial groups such as Acadians, Creoles, and Creoles of Color. In Becoming Cajun, Becoming American, Maria Hebert-Leiter explores how American writers have portrayed Acadian culture over the past 150 years. Combining a study of Acadian literary history with an examination of Acadian ethnic history in light of recent social theories, she offers insight into the Americanization process experienced by Acadians—who over time came to be known as Cajuns—during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Hebert-Leiter examines the entire history of the Acadian, or Cajun, in American literature, beginning with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem Evangeline and the writings of George Washington Cable, including his novel Bonaventure. The cultural complexity of Acadian and Creole identities led many writers to rely on stereotypes in Acadian characters, but as Hebert-Leiter shows, the ambiguity of Louisiana’s class and racial divisions also allowed writers to address complex and controversial—and sometimes taboo—subjects. She emphasizes the fiction of Kate Chopin, whose short stories contain Acadian characters accepted as white Americans during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Representations of the Acadian in literature reflect the Acadians’ path towards assimilation, as they celebrated their differences while still adopting an all-American notion of self. In twentieth-century writing, Acadian figures came to be more often called Cajun, and increasingly outsiders perceived them not simply as exotic or mythic beings but as complex persons who fit into traditional American society while reflecting its cultural diversity. Hebert-Leiter explores this transition in Ernest Gaines’s novel A Gathering of Old Men and James Lee Burke’s detective novels featuring Dave Robicheaux. She also discusses the works of Ada Jack Carver, Elma Godchaux, Shirley Ann Grau, and other writers. From Longfellow through Tim Gautreaux, Acadian and Cajun literature captures the stages of this fascinating cultural dynamism, making it a pivotal part of any history of American ethnicity and of Cajun culture in particular. Concise and accessible, Becoming Cajun, Becoming American provides an excellent introduction to American Acadian and Cajun literature.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press

Series: Southern Literary Studies

Cover, Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii


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pp. ix-x

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Introduction: From Acadian to American: The Paradox of Cajun American Identity

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pp. 1-13

In The People Called Cajuns: An Introduction to an Ethnohistory, James Dormon describes Cajun literary representation as “America’s love for the exotic and unusual” producing “grotesque caricatures of the reality” (viii). For any study of Cajun...

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1. Longfellow's Evangeline: The Origins of American Myth and Cajun Memory

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pp. 14-34

In 1927, Huey P. Long visited St. Martinville, Louisiana, on his gubernatorial campaign tour. As he stood under the Evangeline Oak along the shore of Bayou Têche, he invoked the romanticism of the Evangeline myth to frame his campaign...

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2. How to Become American: The Irony of George Washington Cable's Bonaventure

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pp. 35-56

At a pivotal moment in George Washington Cable’s Bonaventure: A Prose Pastoral of Acadian Louisiana (1888), the title character claims, “[ I]n America you mus’ be American!” (114). Bonaventure clearly promotes English language usage...

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3. The Awakening Awakened: Cajun Identity and Female Sexuality in the Fiction of Kate Chopin

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pp. 57-78

Beginning in the late 1880s, Kate Chopin created a literary Louisiana abounding in class and race tensions. Focusing on the intersections of Creole, Acadian, and African American cultures, she wrote of a complex social structure...

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4. Our Cajun America: Twentieth-Century Revisions of Cajun Representation

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pp. 79-101

The representation of Cajuns in American literary works of the twentieth century reflects the ongoing Americanization of the people, leading to their identity as Cajun Americans. While assimilation assumes a move toward conformity...

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5. The Journey Home: James Lee Burke's Parable of Cajun Assimilation

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pp. 102-121

James Lee Burke has created a fictional character with international appeal who also reminds a regional people of a unique cultural past. Dave Robicheaux searches for resolution with his Cajun past in the corrupt world of south...

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6. Embracing Difference: Cajuns Take the Next Step In Cajun Representation

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pp. 122-142

In “Notes About Political Theater,” Tony Kushner claims that “[i]dentifying oneself . . . as Other . . . is an important political act. We take the right and the privilege of definition from the oppressor, we assume the power of naming...

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Conclusion: Local Pride, Global Connections: Twenty-First-Century Cajuns

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pp. 143-149

A Boulder, Colorado, restaurant advertises its Ragin’ Cajun burger; Southern Season, a Chapel Hill, North Carolina, shop, currently sells Ragin’ Cajun snack mix; and B21, a pub in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, offers a Rajun Cajun turkey sandwich...


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pp. 151-175


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pp. 177-190


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pp. 191-200

E-ISBN-13: 9780807136133
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807134351

Page Count: 216
Publication Year: 2009

Series Title: Southern Literary Studies