A work of genuine scholarship tells us what we did not know before and does so felicitously—it is a contribution to the world’s body of knowledge.  Discouragingly, a majority of academic books that have bounced across my desk in recent years either regurgitate what was told better long ago, or are the distorted remnants of real knowledge pounded into an ill-fitting feminist or multicultural frame.  I am made happy in the encounter with this work of genuine scholarship.

But that is not all.  Here is a scholar who is also a poet.  The combination of a first-rate scholar and a good poet is rare enough to be a delight.  The only other examples I can think of are the classicist A.E. Housman and the seminal Simms scholar James Kibler, whose works have been reviewed in Chronicles.  The catalog of my satisfactions does not end even there.  In this age of “diversity,” which means enforced conformity, here is the real thing—the culture of the American state that is not only the most “different” from all the others but the most diverse within.

A Creole was originally a Frenchman born in Louisiana or the West Indies.  John J. Audubon, for instance, born in Haiti of French parents, was a Creole.  Creoles, we learn, are culturally distinguishable from Cajuns, Frenchmen who ended up in Louisiana after being ethnically cleansed from Canada by the British.  Over time, as Dr. Brosman points out, Creole came to have a broader descriptive meaning, including in general the French heritage of Louisiana, which persisted in speech and customs well past the “American” occupation and into the 20th century.

And what diversity: the French, and to a lesser degree the Spanish, settled the lower Mississippi in the same era as the Anglo settlements on the Atlantic.  They were slow to merge with each other and even slower to cut ties with Europe.  Then came the suspiciously received Southern Anglo-Celts, long held at a distance; and later the same immigrants that came to the North: German, Irish, and Italian.  From the beginning there was a dense population of African slaves.  And Louisiana had the largest number of free blacks in America—the “Creoles of Color,” people of mixed blood who sometimes owned plantations and sent sons to France for education.  They were recognized as a social caste between white and black, an arrangement unknown in the other united states.  Dr. Brosman includes these last in her account of the literature produced by Creole Louisiana.  Mix in the richest agricultural hinterland.  (Sugar was very profitable.)  Add New Orleans, which, as is generally not known, was in the antebellum period the second-largest city in the United States and ahead of New York in opera and other cultural manifestations.  Don’t forget customary sexual relations bound to send shivers down the spines of Protestant Americans.

The author treats several-dozen writers in both French and English, providing us with life, works, and the knowledgeable criticism of intimate acquaintance.  The great critic Taine (a Frenchman, of course) would salute Professor Brosman’s coverage of race, milieu, et moment.  Some of the writers are well known, like George W. Cable and Kate Chopin, who are definitively presented, along with occasional polite observations about the way they have been distorted by feminists and other “scholars” who want all the past to be mere prelude to themselves.  There are those who were once known but are no longer—Charles Gayarré, Grace King, Lafcadio Hearn, Ruth McEnery Stuart.  And still others hardly known at all but whose recognition enriches our knowledge of real American culture.

The reviewer’s obligatory criticism: What a shame that so readable a work is so extravagantly priced.  And let me suggest to the learned author to look into the literature produced in the surrounding Southern states, both antebellum and postwar.  She might find interesting contrasts and more convergence with the Creoles than expected.  Henry Clay Lewis’s Louisiana Swamp Doctor is not-so-distant kin to Simon Suggs of Alabama and Sut Lovingood of Tennessee.


[Louisiana Creole Literature: A Historical Study, by Catharine Savage Brosman (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi) 265 pp., $55.00]