Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Twain, Olmsted & Roach, on New Orleans

--Twain uses his post-Civil War visit to New Orleans to meditate on qualities of the southern character: what does he value and complain about the "southrons" (as he ironically calls them)?

--Olmsted's visit came before the Civil War and offers a meditation on the distinctive racial categories and social institutions of New Orleans. What did you find notable or interesting about his observations? What is his critique of New Orleans' unique institutions?

--Roach's text considers the practices of the Mardi Gras Indians, a distinctive group ritual practice of New Orleans working-class African-Americans that emerged in the late 19th century. Why do African-Americans identify with Native Americans and what symbolic significance does Roach find in their incredibly elaborate costumes and marking out of territory in their annual parades?


  1. I want to comment on Olmsted's story on The Cotton Kingdom. Perhaps what I found most notible comes from the passages on page 233 in describing the slaves, or free-labour communities brought to New Orleans and how they made the white working men act different than those in smaller towns. I'm not exactly sure how to specify what I'm saying without just using quotes, so here are the two passages I thought were most notbale from the findings about New Orleans.

    "... because New Orleans is more extensively engaged in commerce than they are, and because there is, by the passing and sojourning immigration from Europe, constantly in the city a sufficient number of free labourers to sustain, by competition and association with each other, the habits of free-labour communities. It is plainly perceptible that the white working men in New Orleans have more business-like manners, and more assured self-respect, than those of smaller towns."

    I feel that passage touches on the social class aspect of the white man, and how he says "business-like manners" touches on the thought in New Orleans of slaves as property. Then he furthers that idea by saying,

    "As Commerce, or any high form of industry requires intelligence in its labourers, slaves can never be brought together in dense communities, but their intelligence will increase to a degree danger to those who enjoy the benefit of their labour."

    This passage I thought was very interesting in thinking about my past knowledge on slavery and what I've learned in high school, etc. The thought that slave owners couldn't teach their slaves too much in fear that they will declare independence.

  2. 1. Twain's story of his travels through post war New Orleans reveals a lot about the character of the average Southerner in comparison with I suppose the dominant Northern ideology of the time. I appreciate and respect the fact that Twain viewed the Southerner from a largely objective point of view and let their behaviors and customs inform his opinions about the Southerners. He values certain aspects of their culture and their attitudes about life. He thinks that their language is a charming, confident, self-sustained way of talking and communicating that instantly portrays something about the attitude and culture of the Southerner. He also appreciates the good-natured concept of the lagniappe, which is when someone gives you something extra just for the sake of being hospitable. He also seemed to appreciate the forthrightness of the undertaker in describing his somewhat immoral business practices. However, Twain commented that some of the architecture in New Orleans was disappointing for how cultured and advanced a city it really was. Also, the main thing he complained about in concerning the character of the Southerner was their tendency to engage in the "Southern Hospitality" culture quite pretentiously, especially the reporters and journalists, who it seems cannot write a paragraph about Southern women without engaging in the outdated, archaic, pretentious flowery language of Southern chastity and chivalry.

  3. I was more interested in Twain's tangent about death and cremation in XLII and XLIII. New Orleans is known as the City of the Dead, but Twain takes this and uses it to critique funerals. He first begins by attacking the hygiene of burials. It is not something that often crosses my mind while walking through a graveyard. Although it did not surprise me given Twain's abhorrence of romantic notions. He describes burials as "grotesques, ghastly, horrible" (230). Twain's first pretense for hating funerals, is because of his hatred for sentimentality. He then proceeds to back p his argument, perhaps because the sentimentality argument is not enough. He turns the argument from sentimental to issues of hygiene, and then finally to issues of class. Twain says, "while for the poor, cremation would be better than burial, because so cheap- so cheap until the poor got to imitating the rich, which they would do by and by" (232). He then turns it into a general argument about money, and how because death is inevitable, those in the business will always have money. He makes links between sentimentality and economics, through his story about the conversation with the undertaker. People will spare no amount of money in order to honor someone who is not there to enjoy this honor. Their sentiments automatically blind them to the amount of money they must spend on funerals. The undertaker says, "All it wants is physical immortality for the deceased, and they're willing to pay for it" (235). Twain reveals his feelings about burials, and the absurdity for them in the middle of his narrative about New Orleans. It leads the reader to question whether it is the romantic idea he hates, or if something underlies even that.

  4. Twain defines a distinct Southern character throughout his visits to New Orleans. He says they have a distinct way of speaking that is very melodic and charming to the ear. For example, they drop r's and add y's, and use words like "reckon" and "don't." He also notices that they frequently talk about the war, and measure time of events by it. Everyone of them have been affected by it, and any little thing can remind them of a story about it. He doesn't like their sport of cockfighting, though, calling it inhumane to say the least. He also doesn't like the influence of Sir Walter Scott that still lingers in the South, and that he caused the war. He says he encouraged a notion of romanticism and sentimentality represented in literature. There weren't many famous Southern writers because they still wrote in this outdated style.

  5. Twain almost appears to have this rather satirical view of the southern population in New Orleans. These perceptions on the folk down in Cajun country does seem to play with and humor the minds of what Northerners may stereotype as commonly Southern. That being said however, I do not think that it is wise to discredit Twain’s observations. Twain shows that there is a common thread between those in the south and those in the north, and even though he seems to toy with the ‘typical’ southerner, this allows the reader to further delve into the bigger points that Twain is making, and that is about the working people of the south. Furthermore, getting back to this portrait of the New Orleans folk, Twain does a wonderful job of acknowledging a sort of gratitude for their style of living and character. Rachel’s post brought up a very good point, this idea of romanticism plays very strongly in the south, and I would even go as far to say that it still does to this day. Twain does a good job leaving this idea of how the war has shaped this once proud and prosperous area into how it is post war. There is an identity shift that is shaking the foundation what was once a very prominent city and he is seemingly trying to give us a view of how these people are cooping.

  6. Olmsted's account of The Lower Mississippi provides a view of the south during that time that I was not aware of. Unlike some of the articles that we've read that focus on the concerns of black vs. white, Olmsted describes all the shades of gray and other colors that inhabited the city at the time. From his description it seems it was a melting pot of different ethnicities, and in result had a much more complicated cultural structure.

    One passage that interested me as I was reading occurred on page 235;
    "There is one among the multitudinous classifications of society in New Orleans, which is very peculiar and characteristic result of prejudice, vices, and customs of various elements of colour, class, and nation, which have been there brought together. I refer to a class composed of illegitimate offspring of white men and colored women."

    Though at first these women are characterized as just a result of something that shouldn’t have happened, they are further described as well educated, beautiful and having a great power over men because of their beauty. They use their powers to obtain financial security in arrangements made for marriage. It is extremely interesting to me that multi-racial women could be so desirable there in a time period where racism was prevalent (beautiful or not). I think Olmsted uses this information to further emphasize the unique cultural situation of New Orleans.

  7. One thing that struck me was Mark Twain's description and shock about the New Orlean's burial custom. What I found most shocking about his description and sort of disgust at this practice is that decades later, people still hold the same regards toward it.

  8. Roach says that African-Americans identify with Native Americans because they can identify with one another as "bitter exiles"-the African Americans as exiles from a "home they would never know" and the Native Americans as "exiles in their own land".

    Roach also says that on Mardi Gras, "Indian gangs claim the space through which the move" and "perform a rite of territory repossessed to assert... collective entitlement to fair use. It seems they find solitude in the fact that during this one time, they are free to create their own routes and move about the city however they please.

    The costumes are also extremely important, acting as a substitute for the "excess expenditure" that is "available in the access of money" or blood. Everything about the parades seems to be sacred to the Indians, because "parades alter truth" by allowing the participants to say and do whatever they wish. The Indian parades reenact African-American memory through Native American identities and is the "infinitude of Anglo-American entitlement."

  9. There were many things that Mark Twain described about New Orleans that I thought were extremely interesting. I liked the way Mark Twain captured every characteristic of the people of New Orleans; the way they talked, they were they interacted with their community. For anyone whose ever been to New Orleans in modern time, you can understand that it is kind of the same way now. I feel like they have a different kind of culture that people in the midwest can relate too. Also, another thing that interest me was how weird they thought the burial practices were. I've been there a couple times and I thought it was beautiful. I think that it is something that is so different and so unique that is tied to New Orleans culture

  10. One thing that I guess surprised me when reading about Twain's description of New Orleans is how unique the people and the city were. In recent years after hurricane katrina and the saints superbowl win, there has been a ton of publicity about how unique a place it is. When I picture the time that Twain lived, though, I have never thought of New Orleans as a place that would have stood out from any other place along the Mississippi in the south. Obviously from Twain's account, I was wrong. It was very a interesting thing to learn.

  11. In Roach's "City of the Dead" he lays out a couple reasons why African Americans may identify with Native Americans. One, is that both have been treated deplorably and were seen as "savages" and "bitter exiles". Another reason is some similiar rituals in their culture such as the call and response songs with the adding of drums.

    The costuming and the taking of space during the parades were also very important. The costumes were extremely elaborate and gave the allusion of wealth, especially since the costumes could only be used for one Mardi Gras and then must be destroyed. I also found it to be an important point that no costumes ever covered one's face completely. It seems to me that African Americans wanted the freedom during the parade to be whoever they wanted to be, but wanted it to be noticed that they were still themselves. It was also a chance to "recreate and repossess Africa" (Mr. Jelly Roll).

    The taking of the space in the parade I think was significant because it showed a sense of freedom. I also thought the quote from Hobsbawm and Ranger's was important, "With the Mardi Gras Indians, the working class black people of New Oreleans too 'invented a tradition'". I think that the practice of playing the parts of Native Americans in Mardi Gras gave a release to frustrations and provided an outlet for feeling as well as allowed them to take some pieces of freedom in New Orleans.

  12. Olmstead's narrative of New Orleans and the different race groups that interact on a day to day basis in the pre-Civil War era was extremely interesting. I was most interested in the relationships between the white men and mulatto women. The fact that these men would have to be approved by the woman's mother was amusing to me, for her mother is consenting to having her daughter becoming a mistress for a rich white man. I do realize, however, that this is the best life that this mother can give to her daughter during this time, as a white man marrying a mixed woman was not acceptable in society. I like that the man is required to financially help the woman in the event of his breaking up with her, which is totally unique in the South. Anywhere else in the South, these women would be cast aside without a second thought, but in New Orleans, these women would be secure for the rest of her and her children's lives.

  13. Twain finds the people of New Orleans charming, but I think he might be sarcastic on that front. While I was reading, I couldn't help but think that Twain was writing in his typical style: tongue and cheek. It's hard not to think that way when Twain is pointing out "flaws" (my word) in southern speech and criticizing their burial practices.

    I am fairly certain that Twain, as an abolitionist, might have been lampooning the people of the south as they adapted to life post war. As if to say "look at these poor losers, with their funny speech, weird practices and their inability to let go of something they lost."


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