- Franco-America in the Making: The Creole Nation Withinby Jonathan K. Gosnell
In 1943, Harper and Brothers published Holyoke, Massachusetts, native Jacques Ducharme's The Shadows of the Trees: The Story of French-Canadians in New England. Ducharme's work represented one of the first nonfiction portrayals of Franco-American communities scratching out a living in the shadows cast by the same mill towns that drove America's industrial revolution. More significant, The Shadows of the Treestook a first real step toward both revealing and translating New England's French-speaking enclaves hiding in plain sight. Exactly seventy-five years later, and from just north of Holyoke at Smith College, French studies professor Jonathan K. Gosnell has built on and expanded Ducharme's foundational work by examining what it means to be "French" south of the Canadian border.
Franco-America in the Making: The Creole Nation Withinis a comparative postcolonial history that examines the written, oral, and musical cultures of Franco New England and French Louisiana across the long twentieth century. However, the term French, as Gosnell rightly notes, does not translate well in North America because of its association with European French culture and history. Hence, Gosnell deploys the identifier Franco-American—a phrase first appearing in print in Fall River, Massachusetts, in reference to French Canadian expatriates living in New England—as an inclusive term for French-speaking peoples across the United States, regardless of ethnic particularities or cultural geographies. Gosnell elaborates that "Franco-Americans are Creole by virtue of their Old World cultures and hybrid experiences in the New World, although many Franco-Americans would probably not self-identify as Creole" (p. 10). Gosnell relies on a constellation of sources including French-language newspapers, novels, poetry, song lyrics, archival materials, and ethnographic observation—all framed by "postcolonial, transatlantic, and border theories"—to narrate an American story with a French accent (p. 6).
The book is organized in six chapters that situate the French presence in the United States. Gosnell examines how Francophones took control over their own linguistic and cultural education to counter Americanization efforts. He emphasizes the role that women's organizations played in cultural survival and plumbs the depths of self-definition in print culture through literature and the Franco-American press. His final chapter focuses on métissageand creolization, or how Louisiana Francophones synthesized French, African, and indigenous cultural forms. France and French Canada come in and out of frame to help contextualize the author's United States focus. And, like Ducharme before him, Gosnell astutely translates the Franco-American experience, in part, by elucidating pertinent themes framing (and sometimes plaguing) the Franco-phone experience in the United States: invisibility, perennial denigration and local uplift strategies to counter marginalization, dual sensibilities (being French and American), creolization, survivance(cultural survival), assimilation, and symbolic ethnicity. [End Page 718]
Franco-America in the Makingopens a conversation about Frenchness in Anglophone circles by raising fundamental questions that have not always translated beyond French-language historiographies, including, "What does it mean to be French, not simply inAmerica but ofAmerica?" (p. 2). Gosnell's analysis is strongest and most intuitive in his close reading of Franco-American literature. At times, however, the chronology within chapters is not linear. The final chapter on creolization, meanwhile, does not completely elucidate the intricate nuances of métissage. Despite these relative shortcomings, Gosnell has written an important book that will appeal to scholars interested in ethnicity, race, and (im)migration.
"Books in English by Franco-Americans about Franco-Americans," explained critic Henry Beston in a May 2, 1943, New York Timesreview of The Shadows of the Trees, "are extraordinary rarities." Perhaps the only things rarer are insightful books like Franco-America in the Makingthat accurately translate the Francophone experience in the United States.