- The Story of French New Orleans: History of a Creole city by Dianne Guenin-Lelle
By Dianne Guenin-Lelle. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2016.
In The Story of French New Orleans: History of a Creole city, scholar of French literature Dianne Guenin-Lelle explores the French identity of the US city. “New Orleans,” Guenin-Lelle writes in the first line of the preface, “is a city like no other in North America” (xiii). This is the prompting for her book. In the chapters that follow she offers an interrogation of the city’s French and Creole identities, through the use of historical novels, travel memoirs, historical proclamations and similar writings, and letters, complete with a heavy reliance upon secondary sources from historians. She argues that “‘French’ New Orleans might be understood as a trope for [these] unscripted ‘original’ Creole social and cultural constructs found in New Orleans” (7). Despite the statement’s hedging language, it’s an intriguing argument. Historians have traced the city’s intertwined French and Creole identities for decades, as Arnold Hirsch and Joseph Logsdon’s pivotal edited 1992 volume Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization unleashed a wellspring of scholarship.1 Guenin-Lelle’s book adds an interesting addition. Though the city’s French identity is unlike that of any other French colonial outpost or France itself, the main thread connecting every iteration or interpretation of the city’s Creole identity is a combination of its real and imagined French heritage.
Chapter One reveals how the French identity of New Orleans was mediated by circumstance from the start. The French colonists had an unusual amount of local autonomy, in part because France was far less interested in Louisiana than in their more lucrative colonies, like Saint-Domingue. Using the work of Homi Bhabha, Guenin-Lelle concludes that these “conflicted affective connections to France contributed to the sense that New Orleans occupied an in-between space” (12). This idea weaves throughout the rest of the book. A result of this in-between-ness was the city’s being more French-Canadian than a proper, French city. In this way, the city from the beginning was already Creole. Chapter Two examines a reaction to these conflicted connections and analyzes the French Quarter as an attempt to transpose a “French space” in the wilderness. She considers urban design, the placement of original colonial structures, and the names of city streets. All three of these factors play a vital role the city’s continued French identity, long after the end of French colonial rule.
Chapter Three considers theoretical terms like creolization, Creole and la créolité. Though she distills a lot of previous scholarship on these terms in the Louisiana and Caribbean contexts, Guenin-Lelle does not always make it clear how she is using these terms through the text. (The creolization process during the colonial period must be distinct from the late-nineteenth century version referenced a few chapters later, but clear definitions are sometimes difficult to find in her text.) She builds on the important work of Creole studies scholar Edouard Glissant, who considered creolization as a process in which cultures and societies are being made and re-made. This allows us to see how Creole identity meant different things to different historical actors; for some of Guenin-Lelle’s interlocutors it allowed African influence and for others Creole was an exclusively white identity.
Guenin-Lelle then moves on to the Spanish period and the region’s early American period. During the Spanish rule of the city, the French Creoles continued to have some local autonomy. In response, they emphasized their “(imagined) spatial and cultural ties to France” and this allowed them to remain “staunchly French” (97–98). The influx of more African slaves during the Spanish period, followed by Acadians from French Canada and then the refugees from Saint-Domingue, heightened the Creole identity of the city, the fuzziness of social boundaries and the re-entrenchment of other boundaries. The tripartite racial system of Creole New Orleans clashed with the simpler, binary system of the US South.
Perhaps the most...