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  • The Story of French New Orleans: History of a Creole City by Dianne Guenin-Lelle
  • Pieter Emmer
The Story of French New Orleans: History of a Creole City. By Dianne Guenin-Lelle. ( Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2016. Pp. xvi, 200. $65.00, ISBN 978-1-4968-0486-0.)

New Orleans has been coined the least American city in the United States, and that is why each year it attracts more than 10 million tourists who want to visit this French créole oddity in a country otherwise dominated by an Anglo-Saxon heritage. How is it possible that New Orleans has remained so stubbornly different from other originally French cities in the United States like Detroit or St. Louis, as well as from those that had other foreign roots such as New York, San Antonio, San Francisco, or Tucson? [End Page 395]

In order to explain the unique heritage of New Orleans, Dianne Guenin-Lelle points to several factors that precluded the city's assimilation into the general urban culture of the United States. Some of these factors are discussed in the first chapter describing the beginnings of the town in the French colony of Louisiana; in the second chapter discussing the process of urbanization of New Orleans; in the third chapter devoted to the créole culture of the city; in the fourth chapter outlining the changes during the Spanish intermezzo; and in the fifth chapter devoted to the transition of New Orleans from French to U.S. rule. As proof of the city's refusal to assimilate, the author points to the production of French créole literature during most of the nineteenth century, discussed in the last chapter.

Despite the many interesting contemporary descriptions of early settlers—cited at length in the first chapter—it remains unclear how much the demographic makeup of New Orleans deviated from that of other cities in North America. Migration from France was notoriously low, and it stands to reason that the city's population showed less growth and was culturally more homogeneous, and thus more créole, but none of these suppositions are supported by statistical evidence.

After an interesting analysis of the urban layout of what was to become the French Quarter of New Orleans, Guenin-Lelle discusses the concept of creolization, a term central to her thesis regarding the unique character of New Orleans. Did the culture of the city have more in common with the créole French plantation societies in the Caribbean, notably Saint-Domingue, than with the other cities in North America, like in Quebec, as the author wants us to believe? The figures about the relative size of the African-born population seem to contradict this idea, as between 1700 and 1770 only about five thousand slaves were imported into Louisiana, while during that same period the French Caribbean received almost half a million Africans. That demographic difference must have resulted in dramatically different societies.

The period of Spanish colonial rule between 1762 and 1800 was characterized by the status quo ante in spite of the arrival of the Acadians expelled from the seaboard provinces of former French Canada by the British. Though rarely mentioned in the text, Acadians numbered 1,500 and therefore must have made a considerable impact on the city and the colony at large. That was even truer for the arrival of about ten thousand refugees from Saint-Domingue around 1800 that almost doubled the population of New Orleans and reinforced its French créole culture right at the moment when the city had become part of the United States.

One of the unique aspects of the créole society of New Orleans was the inclusion of people of mixed parentage and of free people of color in the citizenry, something unheard of in the strictly binary race relations in the Anglo world. The author points to the black codes of France and Spain to explain this difference. However, it is also possible to argue that without the constant large-scale population shifts from Europe and Africa, race relations in New Orleans were bound to be different even without specific legislation. [End Page 396]

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