Friday, August 17, 2012

Just what was handed down

The following is excerpted from Lawrence N. Powell's recently published history of early New Orleans titled The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans.  Upon describing the death of Bienville in 1767, Powell takes a paragraph to discuss the legacy he left to the city he founded.

Whether the site he selected for a capital was the best choice, given other possibilities, will remain eternally debatable. The Bayou Manchac alternative still seems viable from the vantage point of three centuries, though part of that area collapsed into the river in the early 1800s. But with proper engineering, it offered continuous waterway access to the Gulf of Mexico. It was higher and drier too. There would have been physical space for inhabitants to move north and east, away from the river and the diseased swamps taht would make New Orleans the great necropolis of North America. Of course, the Bayou Manchac site got passed over; and maybe in light of what the city became, it is a good thing Bienville's guile won out in the end.  New Orleans developed into something greater than a mere entrepot for a continent. It became a state of mind, built on the edge of disaster, where  the lineages of three continents and countless races and ethnicities were forced to crowd together on slopes of the natural levee and somehow learn to improvise a coexistence whose legacy may be America's only original contribution to world culture. For that legacy alone, we owe Bienville some measure of gratitude.
That sounds nice and romantic and everything.  But I'm becoming a bit weary of all the academic talk about New Orleans' "original contribution to world culture"  Is there even such a thing?  "World culture" is an ongoing conversation where everyone  borrows ideas from everybody else, repackaging them, and selling them back to one another.  The New Orleans and really the entire American experience with those interminable "melting pot" and "gumbo" metaphors speaks to this quite plainly.  Isn't the quick and dirty definition of the word Creole jumbled up bullcrap from the Old World, recycled and "repurposed" over in the New? That's what we've been up to for 300 years.  From a "world culture" perspective, it's probably been several thousand years since anything truly original was ever contributed.

As to the question of whether we'd have been better off 300 years later having put the city 40 or 50 miles to the west, I think the answer is becoming more and more obvious every day.  Whether we sit here and worry about our sinking firmament and the encroaching, petroleum spoiled Gulf or we sit there worrying about our proximity to an expanding toxic, possibly radioactive, hellmouth, it's pretty much pick your poison in any case.

Aside: Lawrence N. Powell will be speaking at an upcoming event on the campus of Xavier University September 22. 


jeffrey said...

I may not have been clear about this since I went off on a tangent but I am very much enjoying Powell's book. Doesn't exactly cover too much new ground for anyone who's grown up here and had the ordinary amount of Louisiana History in school. But what Powell does that's so great is he gives the familiar material a fresh relevance. He's not too obvious about it but he's inviting the reader to compare past political figures and scenarios to present day events or to consider ways in which they still resonate (as in the passage quoted above).

Clay said...

Dr. Powell taught me at Tulane. I remember when the book was just a "oh, hey, by the way, I just signed this contract to write a book about New Orleans."

Dr. Powell, unlike your nemesis David Simon, actually IS an academic. In fact, his thesis adviser was C. Vann Woodward at Yale. Complaining he sounds academic is a, well, DUH! On the flip side, his books are actually, you know, accurate, unlike a certain Rice professor...