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  • Through a Purple (Green and Gold) HazeNew Orleans Mardi Gras in the American Imagination
  • Anthony J. Stanonis (bio)

Long before I visited New Orleans I would visit it in my imagination.

—Tom Piazza, Why New Orleans Matters (2005)

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Despite Katrina's carnage, the imagined New Orleans, a symbol of hedonistic celebration, remained high and dry. The personification of absinthe, Mardi Gras 2007. Photographed by "Infrogmation," courtesy of Wikimedia Commons under the GNU Free Documentation License.

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There was not much color in Aggieland—at least not other than the maroon proudly flaunted by students at Texas A&M University. A month had passed since Hurricane Katrina devastated my hometown of New Orleans. Eager for a distraction from the daily news reports that told of more destruction and death, I decided to attend a concert in a very big country dance hall called the Texas Hall of Fame. The music was twang, the beer was Lone Star, the walls were purely Aggie. Or so I thought at first glance. As I wandered around the large hall absorbing Central Texas culture, I noticed a much more familiar color scheme. The back wall bore no signs declaring "Gig 'em," paintings of spurred Corps of Cadets boots, or even photographs of the Texas A&M football team. Not even maroon graced the wall. Instead a mural depicting purple, green, and gold confetti, Carnival masks, a Bourbon Street sign, and the words "New Orleans" stretched across the room. I had discovered, in a most unexpected place, a little bit of home.

As a New Orleanian faced with tales of catastrophe and the question of what the new New Orleans might become, I suddenly confronted a piece of cultural flotsam carried deep into the heart of Texas not by tropical gusts or a massive storm surge but rather by the American love of the Big Easy. The contradiction was striking. College Station, Texas, was a place that reveled in political and religious conservatism. Bead-bedecked flashers and costumed drag queens were unlikely to frequent the Texas Hall of Fame or anywhere else in Aggieland, for that matter. Judging by the walls of the Hall, however, drinking, dancing, cowboy finery, and good music somehow created an atmosphere three-parts Texas, one-part New Orleans. Despite Katrina's carnage, the imagined New Orleans, a symbol of hedonistic celebration, remained high and dry.

This imagined New Orleans cherished by many Americans is integral to understanding the future of post-Katrina New Orleans. Tourism demands the satisfying of tourists' desires and expectations: buck the tourists and lose the tourists' bucks. What, therefore, is the history of the city's popular association with Mardi Gras, and in what corners of American culture have little bits of this imagined New Orleans come to life outside the city proper?

Certainly, word of a growing Carnival celebration in antebellum New Orleans spread the lore of the city as a place of revelry. The French tradition of celebrating Mardi Gras with feasts, costumes, and balls blossomed into impromptu street processions and organized parades during the antebellum period. The boom in cotton and river traffic swelled the city with people and wealth, bringing large numbers of Americans into contact with the metropolis and making New Orleans a significant cultural and economic center within the young United States. New Orleans Mardi Gras thus became big news throughout the nation. Even the Berkshire County Whig of distant Pittsfield, Massachusetts, informed readers in 1846 of [End Page 110]


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Intent on maximizing travel, railway companies offered discounted fares, special trains, and tantalizing tales of Mardi Gras extravagance. According to an 1892 article in the Dallas Morning News, the enthusiasm was infectious: "All the traveling passenger agents are out on the road whooping up the carnival and they say more people are going that New Orleans can well take care of." Hotel lit for Mardi Gras and with platform seats installed for the celebrations, New Orleans, ca. 1890s, courtesy of the Collections of the Library of Congress.

the "music car," "grotesque and laughter provoking figures," and "long cavalcade of horsemen" journeying in a "grand...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 109-131
Launched on MUSE
2008-05-10
Open Access
No
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