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Louisiana Creole LiteratureA Historical Study$

Catharine Savage Brosman

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9781617039102

Published to University Press of Mississippi: May 2014

DOI: 10.14325/mississippi/9781617039102.001.0001

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(p.vii) Preface

(p.vii) Preface

Louisiana Creole Literature
University Press of Mississippi

This study is based on reading and research carried out principally in the Howard-Tilton Memorial Library of Tulane University and the Louisiana Research Collection. I consulted materials also at the Amistad Center of Tulane University, the Middleton Library of Louisiana State University, and the Fondren Library of Rice University. For Twentieth- and twenty-first century literature, reading and research were supplemented by conversations and written exchanges with authors, editors, and publishers, including the late Donald Demarest (who communicated to me unpublished papers that he graciously allowed me to cite), Shirley Ann Grau, Maurice duQuesnay, Sheryl St. Germain, and Mona Lisa Saloy. I am grateful for these communications.

I was led to this general topic by my chief scholarly interest—French literature—and my violon d’Ingres, which is contemporary American poetry. I was drawn to the topic likewise by my acquaintance with the authors and editors just mentioned and others, plus long residence in New orleans and familiarity with its literary landscape. I was thus able to appreciate how, in the words of one historian, “poets, novelists, songwriters, artists, historians, and essayists have found in [Louisiana’s] past a wealth of material.” An examination of Louisiana writing would allow me, I hoped, to extend readers’ knowledge and share what Roland Barthes called “the pleasure of the text.”1

The present work deals with writing in both French and English connected to the distinctive Louisiana Creole tradition and peoples (chiefly in the southeastern part of the state), whether Creole is defined broadly as in the past or in the more restricted manner frequent today. The study is directed to an audience of literary scholars, historians, and aficionados in America, Great Britain, and elsewhere in Europe. It consists in part of literary history and biography, following roughly the principles established in the Dictionary of Literary Biography series. Pertinent personal information on authors is furnished, as well as publishing facts; generic and other aesthetic matters are treated. Readers will find also summaries and descriptions of texts. In addition, judgments are made and opinions expressed, especially in order to challenge (p.viii) certain views. Emphasis is placed on poetry and fiction, reaching from early nineteenth-century writing through the twentieth century to selected works from the early twenty-first century. Works that appeared in Paris will be considered as well as those published locally, since much of nineteenth-century Louisiana literature was transnational.

The study is intended as broad and broadening. Social questions are treated principally in the contexts in which the works were produced and the terms set forth at the time, rather than through what Richard M. Weaver called presentism, or a filtering ideological vision of today. Postcolonial theory, the concept of créolité, feminist doctrine, cultural studies, and other critical theory thus have only a peripheral place here; I eschew the sort of approach that, in Norman Fruman’s words, has metamorphosed “into a morally compromised and degraded branch of politics and the social sciences.” Postcolonial theory is generally inappropriate, since it was developed in the context of twentieth-century colonial consciousness, whereas Louisiana was no longer French after 1803. Moreover, Louisiana literature in French was not minoritaire; French was the dominant language for many decades. Even the gens de couleur libres or Free People of color—that caste composed of mixed-race people—were not an ordinary minority, and their literary aspirations and skills were close to those of the upper-class whites. While the racial and social axes were not unimportant—not at all—the linguistic axis, long shared with the majority, was even more significant for them.2

This is, in short, not an interdisciplinary undertaking, but a literary survey, shedding light on a corpus of writing, emphasizing its characteristics and insights, and employing what Terry Eagleton called “a venerable mode of discourse,” that is, the language of literary criticism as established in France, especially—what Adolphe Jullien wished for, “praise and criticism [that] shall speak a language accessible to all.” The thesis according to which “authenticity and ‘truth’—if they exist at all—resist comprehension, expression, and definition” cannot be honored. I acknowledge some inevitable biases in the approach, as well as inevitable lacunae. But I do not practice the criticism of free association, and I endeavor to present others’ views, as well as representative facts and quotations. If, as the postmodernists assert, there is no such thing as objectivity, all statements being subjective, partial, charged with secret messages and codes, then my own can be no more biased than those of certain critics with whom I differ.3

It will be obvious what debt I owe to predecessors. The earliest Louisiana literary historians include Charles Gayarré, Charles Testut, and Edward J. Fortier; two are treated below as novelists. Rodolphe-Lucien Desdunes, who (p.ix) published in 1911 Nos hommes et notre histoire, an assessment of achievements by the gens de couleur libres, deserves particular credit. His study was followed by Ruby Van Allen Caulfeild’s French Literature in Louisiana (1929) and Edward Larocque Tinker’s Les Ecrits de langue française en Louisiane au XIXe siècle (1932), which build on previous work. While having enduring historical value as indications of the interest and approaches of their time, these studies are inadequate now. Fortunately, later literary historians and critics have turned their attention to the field, and anthologies, bibliographies, monographs, translations of French texts, and numerous reprintings of nineteenth-century works have expanded the public’s acquaintance.4

It remains true that, whereas certain authors to be examined here are well known to American literary historians, others have been nearly ignored or have been treated by local critics only. Few have been the subject of critical biographies; George Washington Cable and Kate Chopin are two exceptions. In 2011, poet Julie Kane noted that the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics still had no entry on Francophone American poetry. A literary tour d’horizon and additional investigation (though not an exhaustive catalogue) seem justified, taking into consideration both literary qualities and the historical context. Certain older works seem young still, as if their authors self-consciously directed their writings some fifty years ahead, as Stendhal did his; others, while appearing dated, deserve nonetheless an audience today; new authors of importance have appeared. Old or new, these writings offer much for our appreciation; some acquire additional aspects or can be read differently in the light of changed circumstances and tastes. Little-known authors may reveal much about attitudes and conditions.5

The study is organized in part by chronology; as William M. Chase argued, it remains important, although it is never the whole picture. Two introductory chapters provide historical and cultural background and set forth the uses of Creole. The matter of changing reader reception, which does not entail rejection of earlier reception in different contexts, is addressed in due course. Language and literary genre are likewise principles of organization, though as such they inevitably entail awkwardness. In addition, authors are sometimes classified as “conservative” or “liberal” (occasionally “radical” or “socialist”)—though these terms are fraught with difficulty, ill-defined, often misleading. Racial categories and labels as they prevailed in the past or present must be considered: however loath one may be to use such tags and thus appear to overemphasize their importance or stigmatize and essentialize those so labeled, ethnic terms do correspond to historical realities. The terms are not, certainly, to be viewed as prescriptive, normative, or judgmental, although (p.x) in the case of “Creoles of Color” the label was and remains applied by authors to themselves, along with past or current terms (in which they take pride) such as gens de couleur libres, Free People of Color, black Creoles, and plain Creoles. These terms will often be used synonymously in the present work, as fitting the period.6

This study has been facilitated by the recent reprints mentioned and anthologies providing material that previously could be consulted in only a few libraries or scattered among collections. Les Editions Tintamarre (Shreveport) have republished numerous old, out-of-print materials in French; numerous texts have been put on line by La Bibliothèque Tintamarre. The Center for Louisiana Studies (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press) and the Flora Levy Series have published useful material. From nineteenth-century newspapers, M. Lynn Weiss collected and annotated many poems, especially by Creoles of Color, that had simply been lost to literary historians and critics. Among other researchers, editors, and annotators whose work deserves commendation are Frans Amelinckx, Réginald Hamel, Christian Hommel, and Chris Michaelides. Mention should be made also of the volume edited by Mathé Allain, Louisiana Literature and Literary Figures, which includes new essays written for the bicentennial celebration of the Louisiana Purchase and reprints from quarterlies and books. In the last thirty years Louisiana State University Press, the University Press of Mississippi, and others have issued numerous pertinent volumes. Likewise, the accompanying interest in French-language writing of Louisiana for its own sake and as a source of documentation on earlier generations has expanded the field of investigation. Credit should be given to the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, a state organism created in 1968, for its support of French in schools of the Acadian areas and elsewhere. With increased competence and awareness, the audience has grown for Francophone writing; courses in the field have multiplied at the university level.7

French is not quoted here extensively, however; where excerpts are given, English versions are provided also. With exceptions indicated, all translations are mine; the verse quotations are intended as aids to reading, not artistic renderings. What is chiefly folklore and oral tradition is not the concern of this study. Writing that concerns the experience of southern blacks in general is not examined. To limit the corpus, and for aesthetic reasons, contemporary Louisiana crime and detective novels (of varying quality) by authors such as James Lee Burke, John William Corrington and Joyce Corrington, James Sallis, Robert Skinner, and Julie Smith that draw on the history and ambiance of the New Orleans Creole communities will not be treated.

Although certain publications group together the Cajun (or Acadian) and (p.xi) Creole traditions, and there is overlap (just as there are connections between black Creole folklore and some literary writing), the present investigation does not take into account Cajun materials. Linguistic and cultural factors are involved in this decision. As David Barry observed in 1989, French-language literature in the nineteenth century “was produced mainly by the aristocratic Creole society and those other social groups near the apex of this neo-colonial social structure.” It was noted in 1945 that few Cajuns could read and write in French; there was still almost no written literary material, even of folk origin, among the Cajuns. Cajun speech was itself a barrier to literary development, since it was alienated from the literary language and tradition that would have supported it. “One looks in vain among the Cajuns for a written literary tradition,” wrote May G. Waggoner. In a 1991 collection of essays called Cajun Country, there is no chapter devoted to written literary or quasi-literary work. Zachary Richard observed in his cover comment on David Cheramie’s Julie Choufleur ou les preuves d’amour that “the young Acadians began to affirm their identity through poetry in the 1970s.” James L. Cowan had a similar view, writing that a littérature acadienne dated only from 1977 or so, with Barry Jean Ancelet’s anthology of Cajun poems and similar works.8

It is true that in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, new tales and verses have been made up on the traditional subjects, and contemporary poets of Cajun descent, such as Cheramie, Darrell Bourque, and Kirby Jambon have drawn on the tradition, writing sometimes in English with a liberal sprinkling of Cajun words. New fiction in French has appeared also, such as Baron Rouge 19-59 by Freddy de Pues, called by the publishers “the first French-language novel written in Louisiana for more than a century.” Though it deals in part with New Orleans post-Katrina, it will not be treated here. Its author is Belgian; it has no clear connection to Creole matters; and, in aesthetic terms, it is unworthy of consideration.9

I should like to express appreciation to the staff of the Louisiana Research Collection of the Howard-Tilton Library, especially Leon Miller, and to the following friends and colleagues, who invited me to lecture at their respective institutions on topics treated here: Drs. Jamie Cockfield, Mercer University; Jean Duffy, University of Edinburgh; Alastair Duncan, University of Stirling; Patrick Henry and Mary Anne O’Neil, Whitman College; Raymond Mahieu, University of Antwerp; Walter Putnam, University of New Mexico; David Walker, University of Sheffield. Thanks go also to friends who assisted me in obtaining materials: Drs. Frank A. Anselmo of Louisiana State University; Jeannine Hayat of Paris; and Anne Schnoebelen of Rice University. I appreciate also the interest of Dr. Roger Jones of Ranger College, who invited (p.xii) me to read papers at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association meetings in 2010 and 2011. Several authors included below were the subject of studies or interviews I published in Arkansas Review, Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, Explorations: The Twentieth Century, and Louisiana English Journal; pertinent observations are found also in my preface to the translation (by Paul de Laup and Brosman) of Adolphe du Quesnay’s Un Été à la Grand’Isle (Lafayette, Louisiana: Flora Levy Humanities Series, 1997). Although these studies have not been incorporated directly into the text below, they constituted initial steps, and I wish to acknowledge my debt to Drs. Janelle Collins, Maurice duQuesnay, Thomas Fleming, and Oliva M. Pass for publishing them. To my husband, Patric Savage, I owe a tremendous debt for his support and patience during the writing of this book; I want to thank him here.


(1) . Bennett H. Wall, ed., Louisiana: A History (Arlington Heights, IL: Forum Press, 1984), vii; Barthes, Le Plaisir du texte (Paris: Editions du seuil, 1973), trans. by Richard Milleras The Pleasure of the Text (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975).

(2) . Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 67.

(3) . Fruman, quoted by David J. Rothman, “Rescuing Literature,” Academic Questions, 24, 1 (Spring 2011), 116; Eagleton, “Moll’s Footwear,” London Review of Books, 33, 21 (3 November 2011), 24; Jullien, Richard Wagner, trans. Florence Percival Hall (Neptune, NJ.: Paganiniana Publications, c. 1981), xxviii; Arturo Arias, Taking Their Word (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 86, 106; Debra L. Anderson, De-colonizing the Text: Glissantian Readings in Caribbean and African-American Literatures (New York: Peter Lang, 1995). Anderson illustrates the approach eschewed here; she does not, in fact, treat Louisiana Creoles of Color.

(4) . Caulfeild’s autograph shows that the name is not Caulfeild, as printed sometimes.

(5) . Kane, Keynote Address, Louisiana Fictions: Proceedings of the Third Annual Louisiana Studies Conference (Natchitoches: Northwestern State University/Cane River National Heritage Area, © 2011), 7. Auguste Viatte’s two-volume Histoire littéraire de l’Amérique française (1954) is a useful survey but obviously leaves out English-language writers.

(6) . Chase, “The Decline of the English Department,” The American Scholar, 78, 4 (Autumn 2009).

(7) . www.centenary.edu/french/louisiana/html; Creole Echoes: The Francophone Poetry of Nineteenth-Century Louisiana, trans. Norman Shapiro, introduction and notes by Weiss (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004); Mathé Allain, ed., Louisiana Literature and Literary Figures (Lafayette: Center for Louisiana Studies, University of Louisiana at Lafayette, 2004). Where reprints exist, references will generally be (p.190) made to them, for readers’ convenience. Some have typographical or scribal errors, and not all the Tintamarre reprints are critical editions.

(8) . Among those who group Cajun and Creole writing are Gérard Labarre St. Martin and Jacqueline Voorhies, Ecrits louisianais du dix-neuvième siècle: nouvelles, contes, fables (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1979). Their volume includes Acadian folk tales and fables in French that ranges from almost standard to Creole patois. The author of the “Breaux manuscript” (1901) called all Louisianans of French (or other “Latin” origin) Creoles; the word Acadien was still viewed as pejorative. See Jay K. Ditchy, Les Acadiens louisianais et leur parler (Paris: Droz, 1932); trans. in part by George Reinecke in Louisiana Folklore Miscellany, II (1966). See also Lyle Saxon, Edward Dreyer, and Robert Tallant, Gumbo Ya-Ya (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1945), 182; Waggoner, “Sidonie de la Houssaye’s Pouponne et Balthazar: The other side of the Escalin,” Louisiana Literature, 5 (1988), 61–70, republished in Allain, 97–103 (the quotation is on p. 97); Barry, “A French Literary Renaissance in Louisiana: Cultural Reflections,” Journal of Popular Culture 23 (1989), 47–63; rpt. in Allain, 145–60 (the quotation is on p. 145); James L. Cowan, ed., La Marseillaise noire et autres poèmes français des Créoles de couleur de la Nouvelle-Orléans (1862–1869) (Lyons: Eds. du Cosmogone, 2001); Barry Jean Ancelet, Jay D. Edwards, and Glen Pitre, eds., Cajun Country (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991); Cheramie, Julie Choufleur ou les preuves d’amour (Shreveport: Editions Tintamarre, 2008); James L. Cowan, ed., La Marseillaise noire et autres poèmes français des Créoles de couleur de la Nouvelle-Orléans (1862–1869) (Lyons: Editions du Cosmogone, 2001), 41; Ancelet, ed., Cris sur le bayou: Naissance d’une poésie acadienne en Louisiane (Montreal: Editions Intermède, 1980). See also Ancelet, Cajun and Creole Folk Tales: The French Oral Tradition of South Louisiana (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994; New York: Garland, 1994).

(9) . Jambon, L’Ecole Gombo (Shreveport: Editions Tintamarre, 2006); de Pues, Baron Rouge 19–59 (Shreveport: Editions Tintamarre, 2006). Jambon’s writing is a dreadful mixture of English and French. See, e.g., “Chiac attack, Jack (un peuple en deux actes),” a text which, in addition to being linguistically appalling, is extremely coarse. Bourque, who was poet laureate of Louisiana, is a serious, learned poet; his work is in an entirely different category. See Allain for essays on Cajun writing in the 1980s and thereafter.