PAST Journal

Volume 32, 2009

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Book Review

Louisiana Sojourns: Travelers’ Tales and Literary Journeys

edited by Frank de Caro, with Rosan Augusta Jordan, associate editor

Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005

second printing – originally published 1998

581 pages

$47.95 (cloth), ISBN 0807122394

“Picture to yourself this great inland sea, mile upon mile of muddy water, with never a bit of dry land anywhere; houses askew, roofs fallen in, and the water filled with dead animals. ... Abandoned dogs bark[ing] pitifully from housetops –-.” Lyle Saxon wrote this passage about the flood of 1927, of the stranded refugees waiting, sometimes surrounded by “their meager household treasures,” for rescue (38-45). Saxon’s words sound familiar today, for he could have been describing New Orleans in September, 2005. During that time, hurricanes Katrina and Rita blew through the Gulf Coast and into the Bayou State and neighboring Mississippi with devastating effects, and scenes such as those portrayed by Saxon became common news talk. Silent, yet equally poignant, were the accompanying photographs of desperate people left in the disaster’s wake and hoping for help, of the rubble left in lieu of neighborhoods, and of the grim realities slowing determined efforts to build communities anew. The second printing of Louisiana Sojourns, therefore, comes at an opportune time.

The editor of Louisiana Sojourns, Frank de Caro, paused in May 2004 to reflect on what it meant to live in a place whose economic livelihood depended on tourism, wherein the tourists zip in and out on airplanes, on cruise ships, and to a lesser extent, in automobiles. One goal, he said of Louisiana Sojourns, was to offer a point of entry into Louisiana for such modern-day travelers. To afford his intended audience a glimpse into Louisiana, he compiled what some of their predecessors thought about the place, to give them an historic reference or two to consider before, during, and after their visits in hopes of connecting them “intellectually and emotionally with what has been here in the Bayou State and what, in ways, still is here” (xiv-xv). In that, Louisiana Sojourns is singularly successful. Moreover, the images of Louisiana conjured up by the traveler-writers’ prose are supplemented by a sampling of historic photographs or drawings sprinkled evenly throughout the text. The illustrations are drawn from books as well as collections, such as Harper’s Weekly, Scribiner’s Monthly, and those at the Library of Congress including images from Dorothea Lange and Marion Post Wolcott.

As Louisiana Sojourns conveys through text and illustrations, the vibrancy of Louisiana’s diverse culture as well as the racial divide persists, and has for centuries. The damage inflicted by the hurricanes of 2005 caused many to mourn the loss of the former and shocked them with the revelation of the continued presence of the latter. The social and economic divisions fed Louisiana’s religiosity from Catholicism (and the corresponding carnival season from Epiphany to Ash Wednesday) to voodoo to the more staid Protestantism in the north, as well as encouraged the jazz, zydeco, soulful songs, and legendary cuisine attributed to, and attracting visitors to, the place. These traditions reflect a social structure with understood cultural lines arbitrarily dividing degrees of black from white, Cajun from Creole from Anglo, and free from slave. Louisiana Sojourns reminds its readers that such distinctions have always colored Louisiana, however inequitable or unjust. It also concentrates on the water, a force tamed for commerce and transportation, and yet still unpredictable. The Mississippi River shaped the lives and livelihood of black and white, rich and poor, explorer and settler alike with its levees, steamboats, urban ports and plantation docks, and by its sheer power.

Beginning with the traveler-writers’ encounters with the Mississippi, Louisiana Sojourns is divided into eleven thematic sections. The first, which addresses the river, includes entries from a sixteenth-century explorer as well as Eddy L. Harris’s canoe trip in the 1980s, and many literary snapshots in-between. The section on the Mississippi concludes with an early 1990s road-trip down River Road, or the “chemical corridor,” by B. C. Hall and C. T. Wood wherein the water was obscured from view by levees, but the impact of industry on the landscape was clearly evident. Following the entries about the Mississippi are those describing New Orleans, a tourist destination for architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe in 1819 and William Faulkner among others attracted by its urbanity, architectural character, hints of decadence, and cultural diversity then as now. Subsequent sections are also place-driven, and so appealing to the cultural geographer. Topics discussed include the Louisiana plantations between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries or, as de Caro suggests, the whole agricultural enterprise with its haunting legacy of the slave system that had sustained it. Also addressed are the Cajun country or Acadia; the lesser-known central and northern parts of Louisiana characterized by hills and piney woods; and finally the bayous, marshes, and wetlands that are often thought of as Louisiana’s only ecosystem. Complementing the swampland of popular imagination are the book’s entries about wildlife and the natural environment, aspects of Louisiana that give it the moniker “a sportsmen’s paradise” today. African Americans from John James Audubon’s runaways to John Steinbeck’s story of school desegregation receive attention, as does the Civil War. So do festivals, most notably Lyle Saxon’s description of Mardi Gras, and “the world of spirits” touching on Louisiana’s varied religious practices.

In each of the eleven sections about Louisiana places, people, and customs are a range of travel stories and personal diaries, written by those traveling to or through the state or by those writing about Louisiana and the impression it left on their fictional characters. The editor expands the book’s audience from the tourist trade by drawing on passages written by notable figures such as John James Audubon, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, and Frederick Law Olmsted; the authors Kate Chopin, William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston, Henry Miller, Walker Percy, John Steinbeck, and Mark Twain; and Native-American poet Joy Harjo. Dates of the traveler-writers’ narratives vary from sixteenth-century explorers to the end of the twentieth-century providing different perspectives on the everyday occurrences and everyday life in Louisiana. The breadth of the accounts presented by the traveler-writers make the volume collectively valuable to social and cultural historians as well as to the causal tourist or to those with a literary bent. Especially useful for the students of material culture are the “travel updates” that conclude each section, providing additional bibliographic references and noting what is extant of the things the travelers’ saw and about which they commented. And for those who merely watch, read or listen to the news, Louisiana Sojourns captures the essence of the diverse, culturally rich place so ravaged by the hurricanes, and gives hope that the communities will come back again.


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