Tuesday, December 09, 2008

"This newly found book, the Community of New Orleans": The Grandissimes

Two illustrations by Albert Herter from an 1899 edition of The Grandissimes (found here). Top: a scene from the masked ball that opens the novel; bottom, the mysterious mulatta and practitioner of voodoo, Palmyre Philosophe.

The jacket copy for the Penguin Classics edition of George Washington Cable's The Grandissimes promises much: "With The Grandissimes, George Washington Cable broke literary traditions and opened the way for novelists such as Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner." Hmph. But now that I'm approaching its end, I must say that I'm very impressed by it. It wears its (anti-segregation) racial politics on its sleeve, which can be a bit grating to modern ears not accustomed to or appreciative of blatant polemic in our fiction; as a closely-observed study of the dynamics of Creole society in turn-of-the-19th-century New Orleans, however, its wry, even sneaky subtlety requires close, thoughtful reading. Here's a particularly fine example of what I mean:

That same morning Clotilde had given a music-scholar her appointed lesson, and at its conclusion had borrowed of her patroness (how pleasant it must have been to have such things to lend!) a little yellow maid, in order that, with more propriety, she might make a business call. (205)
Here, Cable hopes we are less naïve than Clotilde (about whom more later), the better to muse to ourselves that one person's pleasantness may be another household's source (or incarnation) of just-barely-unspoken tension, if not anger or out-and-out violence. On its surface, then, The Grandissimes is a "local color" novel of the sort from the latter decades of the 19th century under whose considerable numbers and weight now groan the shelves of bookshelves in antique malls across our great land. But if you don't rush through it, you just may find that in places, those colors are pretty saturated. Cable is not the equal of either Jane Austen or Faulkner, but there are moments when he is something like a fusion of the two. Here and there, indeed, I found myself hearing not just echoes of Faulknerian scenes and plots but even little Faulknerian turns of phrase. I would not be at all surprised if I were to learn that Faulkner had read this; on the other hand, though, Cable is writing about a place Faulkner already knew well as both an amateur historian of the South and as a resident of the French Quarter during his bohemian days in the early to mid-'20s--when, by the way, Cable was still alive (he died in 1925). Cable's world was still very much in Faulkner's air.

More below the fold.

The novel's narrator makes clear again and again that the New Orleans he is describing has now (that is, in the 1870s-1880s) all but disappeared. That New Orleans is the Crescent City of the first decade of the 19th century--a city literally, as well as figuratively, another country. In those uncertain years when, having just been returned to the French by the Spanish, the city, and all of the land drained by the Mississippi River, have just been sold to that upstart foreign nation, the United States. But though Cable's Creoles most often speak either French or a patois among themselves, neither do they think of themselves as French. One character speaks in passing of another person's having been "ruined" as a result of having been educated in Paris. The old Creole families, long used to running their own political and economic affairs pretty much as they had seen fit, realize that to keep any of their power they will have to acquiesce to with this new order and even ally themselves with it--and yet, to save face among their fellow citizens, they will have to create the illusion that they have done no such thing.

What causes even more consternation among the Creoles, however, is the anxiety surrounding what the "Americains" will do about the practice of slavery in Louisiana. That anxiety, the deeper knowledge, not to mention guilt, among the more thoughtful Creoles that slavery is profoundly unjust (not just for obvious reasons but for the further complication that many of these white men have blood relatives forbidden by law to inherit family property because they are of mixed race), combined with a profound resistance to criticism from outsiders, all combine to form the thematic gumbo at this novel's core. The family from whom the novel takes its name, as the most prominent of the Creole families, are Exhibit A for all these tensions: two of its members, in fact, share the name Honoré . . . but one cannot share in the family's wealth. Oh, the tangled roots of those plantation-family trees.

Helping to stir up this gumbo for the reader's benefit is Joseph Frowenfeld, the one surviving member of his family, the rest of whom died from yellow fever shortly after their arrival in New Orleans when he was a boy. Joseph stays on and trains as an apothecary, but he is still seen as an outsider: the Creoles think of him as an American but respect his learning; the mulattoes and slaves think he is a voodoo priest (this serves to make Frowenfeld something of a counterweight to Palmyre); you get the idea. He is something like a re-writing of James Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumppo, a man with feet firmly planted in two worlds, sympathetic and even loyal toward both, yet able to see the faults of each, not afraid to point out those faults. It is his "perusal of this newly found book, the Community of New Orleans" that forms The Grandissimes' central plot:
True, he knew he should find [that perusal] a difficult task--not only that much of it was in a strange tongue, but that it was a volume whose displaced leaves would have to be lifted tenderly, blown free of much dust, re-arranged, some torn fragments laid together again with much painstaking, and even the purport of some pages guessed out. Obviously, the place to commence at was that brightly illuminated title-page, the ladies Nancanou. (103)
Those ladies are Aurora and Clotilde, a well-born mother and her young daughter who no longer have a financial means of support and, when the novel opens, are about to lose their house for non-payment of the rent. Clotilde and Joseph will become rather awkwardly attracted to each other, and that story forms the novel's marriage plot. It gives nothing away to tell you All's well that ends well; this genre doesn't lend itself well to tragic endings.

Fans of American literature as a field of study will like this novel: not initially knowing what to expect as I began reading, I enjoyed spotting the Faulknerian portents. Those of you with a soft spot for N'awlins will enjoy its sepia-toned treatment of the city. But this novel is no mere nostalgia trip. What is most impressive about The Grandissimes is Cable's clear-eyed portrayal of Creole New Orleans. He is clearly fond of its people and the land they inhabit, but he also makes sure that we admire their stubborn adherence to tradition even as we see that that same stubbornness will doom them to a genteel irrelevance as the world around them changes whether or not they like it. Even though the Creoles of the novel would not think of themselves as Americans in a political or cultural sense, they certainly will strike contemporary readers as a people and culture this continent produced. It is probably for that reason that the novel still feels fairly contemporary. Its characters' preoccupations are still our own, for better or for worse.

If you're interested, I have some further, wonkier comments on Cable's novel over at Domestic Issue.

1 comment:

John B. said...
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