Sunday, August 22, 2010

"True stories are not often good art": Some comments on Strange True Stories of Louisiana

An undated photo of the Delphine Lalaurie House, on the corner of Royal and Governor Nichols streets in New Orleans. Image found here. This house is the setting for Cable's story, "The 'Haunted House' in Royal Street" (which you can read online here.

Recently, I posted some comments on literary regionalism's potential for indulging in a cultural provincialism that, as nostalgia, is basically harmless but can help feed the social anxieties of some to the point of heightening their resistance or outright hostility toward the nation's political institutions. As I noted in that post, a fair amount of Southern fiction from the Jim Crow era participated in that feeding. But a Southern writer I could/should have mentioned in that post who kind of passively-aggressively resists that impulse is George Washington Cable. Here, I'll briefly seek to make amends by saying a few words about his story collection, Strange True Stories of Louisiana.

More below the fold.

Back in December of 2008, I posted here on Cable's best-known novel, The Grandissimes; if reading that interests you, you may enjoy this post over at Domestic Issue. As you'll see in that first post, I was initially skeptical of those people who see in Cable a precursor of Faulkner, but I've since come around to their way of thinking: Both writers deeply loved their regions and its people, but that love didn't blind either to those regions' flaws--most particularly to the fact that both regions' codes (legal, social, economic . . . take your pick) were predicated upon maintaining the moral outrage of slavery and, afterward, segregation. Cable's writing leans stylistically toward a stilted sentimentality in his narratives, but I and others suspect that that is a marketing decision rather than a direction in which he was naturally inclined. It's just such a style that pervaded the local colorist writing of the time. But Cable's readers--especially his Southern ones--could tell he was no moonlight-and-magnolias apologist. Indeed, as the Castillo piece I just linked to relates, Cable, whose family was so staunchly Southern that they left New Orleans when General Benjamin Butler's Union army took control in the spring of 1862 (more about Butler's rule in New Orleans here), would fall out of favor with his fellow Southerners for his (for the time) direct criticisms of slavery and segregation.

Lots of background, I know, but it's to purpose. When I started reading "How I Got Them," Strange True Stories' lengthy introduction, in which Cable relates to his reader how these stories--diary entries, letters, rough drafts of memoirs, etc.--came to be in his possession, I confess to thinking, Sure these are actual stories. His rendering, via large gaps in the text on the page, of the original documents' missing corners and his inclusion of lithographs of actual letters and diaries only heightened my skepticism. How very proto-postmodern, I thought. His tone in "How I Got Them" kept reminding me of Hawthorne's tone in "The Custom-House," his preface to The Scarlet Letter, to the point that I felt sorry that ol' Nate hadn't thought to work up a lithograph of Hester's "A" to include. More reading, though, assures me that actual people did indeed send these to Cable or, just as he describes, he and his agent would hear of these pieces and track them down through surviving relatives of their authors.

But I'm not telling you about this book because of its stories' origins in actual events in New Orleans and southern Louisiana for the hundred or so years from its early days as a French colony to the Civil War. Rather, what is of interest is how Cable has given these stories a sense of unity that causes this collection to be more than a simple assemblage of vignettes. In fact, it reminded me a little of Faulkner's Go Down, Moses: each has stand-alone sections linked, mostly, by recurring characters (some recur in the sense that they're referred to indirectly); and the sections don't appear in chronological order. (Cable's book is more strictly chronological, but "Alix de Morainville" is the story of the titular character's past in France during the Reign of Terror, a past she alludes to in the preceding story, "The Adventures of François and Suzanne"; meanwhile, the last narrative, "War Diary of a Union Woman in the South," follows after a couple of stories set during Reconstruction.) More subtly, though, whereas with Faulkner's novel it is the House of McCaslin that is haunted by slavery's legacy, the (almost literal) and thematic center of Strange True Stories is a literal house--the one in the image at the beginning of this post--which is haunted by slavery and segregation, certainly thematically and, perhaps, literally as well (note my source for the image).

"The 'Haunted House' in Royal Street" is actually two stories. The first concerns Madame Delphine LaLaurie, quite the socialite in her day, and the city's outrage when it was revealed that her rumored brutal treatment of her slaves was indeed true; the second is about the house's second life during Reconstruction as an unsegregated school for girls that, with the change in government, is forced to send away its black students . . . if only there were a way to determine who is indeed black that isn't more than a little socially and politically awkward. By themselves, they really wouldn't amount to much. But Cable, I think it's safe to say, sees in these stories something more, as the following passage from early in the story suggests, in which Cable describes the view from the second-story belvedere over the street:

I was much above any neighboring roof. Far to the south and south-west the newer New Orleans spread away over the flat land. North-eastward, but near at hand, were the masts of ships and steamers, with glimpses here and there of the water, and farther away the open breadth of the great yellow river sweeping around Slaughterhouse Point under an air heavy with the falling black smoke and white steam of hurrying tugs. Closer by, there was a strange confusion of roofs, trees, walls, vines, tiled roofs, brown and pink, and stuccoed walls, pink, white, yellow, red, and every sort of gray. The old convent of the Ursulines stood in the midst, and against it the old chapel of St. Mary with a great sycamore on one side and a willow on the other. Almost under me I noticed some of the semicircular arches of rotten red brick that were once a part of the Spanish barracks. In the north the "Old Third" (third city district) lay, as though I looked down upon it from a cliff--a tempestuous gray sea of slate roofs dotted with tossing green tree-tops. Beyond it, not far away, the deep green, ragged line of cypress swamp half encircled it and gleamed weirdly under a sky packed with dark clouds that flashed and growled and boomed and growled again. You could see rain falling from one cloud over Lake Pontchartrain; the strong gale brought the sweet smell of it. Westward, yonder, you may still descry the old calaboose just peeping over the tops of some lofty trees; and that bunch a little at the left is Congo Square; but the old, old calaboose--the one to which this house was once strangely related--is hiding behind the cathedral here on the south. The street that crosses Royal here and makes the corner on which the house stands is Hospital street; and yonder, westward, where it bends a little to the right and runs away so bright, clean, and empty between two long lines of groves and flower gardens, it is the old Bayou Road to the lake. It was down that road that the mistress of this house fled in her carriage from its door with the howling mob at her heels. Before you descend from the belvedere turn and note how the roof drops away in eight different slopes; and think--from whichever one of these slopes it was--of the little fluttering, befrocked lump of terrified childhood that leaped from there and fell clean to the paved yard below.

As you can see, Cable isn't engaged here in straight objective description as he provides some foreshadowing of events in the first act of the story. But I'd also argue that there's something even more literary at work here. The house is at once a vantage point from which to survey the "strange confusion" of New Orleans and, as we'll see via the two acts, something like the apotheosis (or perhaps a vortex?) of that confusion. But this house, as a space whose stories seem to be about more than the particulars of the physical space within which those stories occur, also appears to be not just the center for Strange True Stories but also a gathering of images and narratives for Cable as a writer. I don't yet know enough to say more, but I do know that Cable borrows the name Delphine for a character in his story collection, Old Creole Days, and another story in that same collection appears to be an expansion on an incident briefly alluded to in "Haunted-House"'s second act.

The other stories in Strange True Stories vary in their quality; with one exception, I won't be writing about them for the book project. As glimpses into the lives of women (the central characters in all these stories are women) of the better-off classes, though, they make for engaging reading; and "War Diary of a Union Woman in the South," disappoints because I wish it were longer: it begins with the woman and her husband feeling compelled to leave New Orleans and ending up in a place where they thought they would be safe from the war: Vicksburg; her descriptions of life in that city during Grant's siege are gripping. But they don't become that something more that lets them signify something larger and more complex. "Haunted-House," though, becomes more than a true story, to the point that it just may haunt you, too.


R. Sherman said...

Thanks for pointing this out. Great Monday morning read, as I'm trying to get back in the swing.


John B. said...

You're most welcome, Randall. Cable has really grown on me. He's a pretty awkward stylist, as I said, but he's so interesting that he transcends that particular limitation. He's well worth making his acquaintance.

Sheila Ryan said...

Last weekend over on clusterflock some of us told stories, so I found this of special interest.

John B. said...

Thanks, Sheila. As I kind of alluded to in the post proper, Cable's great strength as a storyteller of his world is that he is fully immersed in it yet can still really think about what he sees. Thus, for him the LaLaurie house throws a shadow curiouser than itself, and he makes sure that we see that as well.

I actually popped over to Clusterflock this weekend and saw/heard some of those posts; I was especially taken with yours. Good art, I'd say.

Shane K. Bernard said...

I see you think someone actually gave Cable the two letters documenting the voyage to the Attakapas/Bayou Teche region. But do you believe the two letters are non-fiction (and thus authentic first-person eyewitness accounts) or fiction (and thus arguably a hoax)? Sincerely, Shane K. Bernard, New Iberia LA

John B. said...


Welcome and thanks for the comment.

I'm working from memory here, but Cable's stance in "How I Got Them" is that the seeds of the stories are genuine, and the source documents are genuine, too. But he also leaves himself plenty of wiggle-room; he is, after all retelling these stories and not merely serving as a copyist, so it's more than a little possible that Cable has invented things (though, at least in "How I Got Them," he claims to have added no facts to the narratives that served as his starting points).

So, then, regarding your question I think it's safest to have it both ways: Cable didn't come up with these narratives himself, so they are, in that sense, genuine; that said, though, what we read in Strange True Tales are not the actual documents that came into Cable's possession. You might say, then, that Cable's stories are dramatizations of actual events.