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  • Three Hundred Years of Decadence: New Orleans Literature and the Transatlantic World by Robert Azzarello
  • Jennie Lightweis-Goff
Three Hundred Years of Decadence: New Orleans Literature and the Transatlantic World. By Robert Azzarello. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2019. Pp. x, 212. $45.00, ISBN 978-0-8071-7045-8.)

With New Orleanians in exile, the United States would take up smoking again. This was Andrei Codrescu's forlorn promise in New Orleans, Mon Amour: Twenty Years of Writings from the City (Chapel Hill, 2006), his reflection on the city in the decades between urban neglect and man-made floods. Distributed among the national population after Hurricane Katrina—taking cover in Houston, Portland, Atlanta, and Milwaukee—New Orleanians would persuade Americans to dance in the streets and, to paraphrase the Soul Rebels brass band, drink a little poison before they die. Something about Codrescu's mournful prediction felt true even if it was not. Louisiana had long been in diaspora, thanks to migrations that brought jazz musicians to Chicago and oilmen to Galveston. But it has long seemed unfair to concentrate pleasure in such a small place, in New Orleans—a city that has never contained more than a million people.

The threat and promise of decadence animate Robert Azzarello's monograph on the literature of New Orleans. The book is structured chronologically, like a brisk and enlightening literature survey, but its relationship to time nonetheless rivets readers' attention, since the city is considered, in the course of a single chapter, as a site of déjà vu, undead stasis, and eternal return. With space dedicated to the literatures of each period after colonization, the study powerfully contests the tendency in Louisiana studies to center pre-U.S. centuries in order to find avenues out of predictable narratives about race in the United States. Neither is Azzarello content with the presentism of climate-panicked American studies, whose practitioners tend to circle around Hurricane Katrina. It is to the book's credit that, when the title promises three centuries, it meets that benchmark. For readers from New Orleans, it is also a pleasure to see a study that ends with consideration of the future. Though Azzarello does not deny that disaster is coming, he notes that "the future's simple promise may not be so simple after all" (p. 177). New Orleans provides the United States with a vision of what is to come, but this is to say that the city's and the nation's futures are imbricated. Climate disaster cannot be quarantined at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

For readers who study regional and natural literatures, Azzarello's close readings will be useful for building scholarly and pedagogical archives. For broader audiences, I consider his first chapter required reading. He adjudicates definitions of decadence in relationship to pleasure, progress, capitalism, and time, beginning with the metonym of New Orleans's decaying foot trapped inside a boot-shaped state, with a geography that changes daily thanks to land loss. He ends the chapter with a "transvaluation of value" that frames "[i]ndustrial progress and technological advance," not revelry, as inimical to human life (p. 29). While I admire this chapter and, indeed, the broader study, [End Page 679] I find myself wishing that descriptions of writers' "bipolar … relation to modernity" or criticism of language that sounds like its author is "on crack" had been omitted (pp. 9, 25). A writer sympathetic to the status of nonnormative bodies should avoid pejorative descriptions of bodies pained by addiction and mental illness.

Jennie Lightweis-Goff
University of Mississippi