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SARAH KLOTZ University of California - Davis Black, White, and Yellow Fever: Contagious Race in The Mysteries of New Orleans When I consider the revival of the slave trade in the American republic . . . I must confess to this conclusion . . . that it is to the body politic what the yellow fever is to an individual. —Thomas Branagan, 1807 ON JANUARY 1, 1854, A NOVEL TITLED DIE GEHEIMNISSE VON NEWOrleans , or The Mysteries of New Orleans, began to appear in daily installments in a New Orleans German-language periodical, the Louisiana Staatszeitung. Loosely based on a true history, this fivehundred -page gothic tome traces the demise of aristocratic German immigrants during the yellow fever epidemic of 1853. Reizenstein capitalized on the very real epidemic that had ended only two months prior to his novel’s first installments, adding scandalous and sensational elements to make sure his contract would continue throughout the year. The novel not only tells the story of the epidemic from an insider’s perspective, but also delves into the crime, vice, and mythology of the Crescent City. The aspiring writer’s ploy was a success and the novel continued to be published through its conclusion on March 4, 1855. Because it emerged almost coterminously with an unprecedented health crisis, The Mysteries of New Orleans provides unique insight into the social and spatial conditions of New Orleans in the summer of 1853. What materializes from this often convoluted and outlandish text is the tale of a city in crisis as bodies and social categories fall apart under the shade of disease. Within its historical context, the novel’s take on yellow fever reveals how slave revolt became an ever present fear in the minds of white New Orleanians. Yellow fever epidemics in Philadelphia since the late seventeenth century had already brought the rhetorics of revolution and disease together, but when race entered the picture in a Southern, slaveholding context, an entire social and economic system hung in the balance. Due to the additional threat that the proximity between New Orleans and the black republic of Haiti presented, a slave revolution 232 Sarah Klotz seemed inevitable in 1853. Medical and political discourses attempted to draw out and manage the threats of race, revolution, and disease, but Reizenstein’s novel extends these efforts to discursively solve the problems of black/white proximity in the South. To maintain white purity and power, Reizenstein imagines lesbian reproductive forms that quarantine German Americans from the destructive power of blackness. While the entire metropolis experienced extraordinary social upheaval during the epidemic, the German immigrant community1 lost more members than did almost any other segment of the population. Because long-term residents of Louisiana seemed to have a level of immunity that recent immigrants lacked, “most of [the] victims [of yellow fever] were recent Northern European arrivals, primarily Irish and German, of whom almost 3000 died that year. Statistically speaking, one out of every five Irish and one out of every eight Germans in the city succumbed to the disease” (Herminghouse 2). As a member of the disproportionatelyvulnerablecommunity,Reizensteinrepresentedboth the general panic that wracked New Orleans and also the more specific experiences of German New Orleanians. Reizenstein’s biography begins to be of interest long before the epidemic, however, with his forced immigration to the United States and his involvement in radical German politics. Born in Marktsteft am Main, Bavaria on July 14, 1826, the eldest son of Baron Alexander von Reizenstein-Hartungs was forced to leave Bavaria for America at the age of twenty-two (Rowan 297). Unlike the thousands of Germans who left Europe that year to escape revolutionary upheaval, Reizenstein emigrated to the United States to escape rumors of sexual impropriety and homosexuality. His mother had been committed to an asylum for homosexual behavior as well, hence the queer elements of his text may emerge partly from family history. Reizenstein was recruited to run a farm by a Herr Steinberger, but during the passage over the Atlantic, Steinberger died, leaving the young aristocrat jobless (298). Reizenstein would eventually become a journalist, and after his publication, 1 During the writing of The Mysteries, the German Confederation consisted of thirtynine independent states. The Revolution of 1848 in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2689-517X
Print ISSN
0026-637X
Pages
pp. 231-260
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-27
Open Access
No
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