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This webpage reproduces part of
New Orleans:
The Place and the People

Grace King

published by The Macmillan Company
New York, 1926

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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please let me know!


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Chapter 1

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

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 p. xv  Introduction

We personify cities by ascribing to them the feminine gender, yet this is a poor rule for general use; there are so many cities which we can call women only by a dislocation of the imagination. But there are also many women whom we call women only by grammatical courtesy. Indeed, it must be confessed that, as the world moves, personification, like many other amiable ancestral liberties of speech, is becoming more and more a mere conventionality, significant, only, according to a standard of the sexes no longer ours.

New Orleans, — before attempting to describe it, one pauses again to reflect on the value of impressions. Which is the better guarantee of truth, the eye or the heart? Perhaps, when one speaks of one's native place, neither is trustworthy. Is either ever trustworthy when directed by love? Does not the birthplace, like the mother, or with the mother, implicate both eye and  p. xvi heart into partiality, even from birth? And this in despite of intelligence, nay, of common sense itself? May only, those, therefore, who have no mother and no birthplace misapprehend the impressions of one fast in the thralls of the love of both.

New Orleans is, among cities, the most feminine of women, always using the old standard of feminine distinction.

Were she in reality the woman she is figuratively, should we not say that she is neither tall nor short, fair nor brown, grave nor gay? But is she not in truth more gay than grave? Has she not been called frivolous? It is so easy nowadays to call a woman frivolous. In consequence, the wholesome gayety of the past seems almost in danger of being reproached out of sight, if not out of existence. It is true, New Orleans laughs a great deal. And although every household prefers at its head a woman who can laugh, every household, ruled by a woman who cannot laugh, asperses the laugh as frivolous.

Cities and women are forgetting how to laugh. Laughter shows a mind in momentary return to paradisiacal carelessness: what woman of the present is careless enough to laugh? Unless she be an actress on the stage and well paid for it! (One never supposes them to laugh off the stage and for nothing.) Women can smile, and they do smile much nowadays. When they are prosperous, the constant sight of a well-gilded home and a well-filled pocketbook produces a smile, which, in the United States, the land of gilded home and well-filled pocketbooks, has become stereotyped on their faces, and American babies may even be said to be born, at present, with that smile on their mouths.  p. xvii But the laugh, that "sudden glory" which in a flash eclipses in the heart sorrow, stress, even disgrace, it has become obsolete among them. Smiling people can never become laughing people; their development forbids it.

New Orleans is not a Puritan mother, nor a hardy Western pioneeress, if the term be permitted. She is, on the contrary, simply a Parisian, who came two centuries ago to the banks of the Mississippi, — partly out of curiosity for New World, partly out of ennui for the Old — and who, "Ma foi!" as she would say with a shrug of her shoulders, has never cared to return to her mother country. She has had her detractors, indeed calumniators, with their whispers and sneers about houses of correction, — deportation, — but, it may be said, those who know her care too little for such gossip to resent it; those who know her not, know as little of the class to which they attribute her origin.

There is no subtler appreciator of emotions than the Parisian woman, — emotions they were in the colonial days, now they are sensations. And there are no amateurs of emotional novelty to compare to Parisian novelty. The France of Louis XIV was domed over with a royalty as vast and limitless as the heaven of to‑day. The court, with its sun-king and titled zodiac, was practically the upward limit of sight and hope for a whole people. In what a noonday glare from this artificial heaven, did Paris, so nigh to the empyrean, lie! Its tinsel splendours, even more generously than the veritable sunlight itself, fell upon the crowded streets and teeming lodgings. Nay, there was not a nook nor a cranny of poverty, crime, disease, suffering, vice, filth, that could not, if it wished, enjoy a ray of  p. xviii the illumination that formed the atmosphere in which their celestial upper classes lived and loved, with the immemorial manners and language which contemporary poets, without anachronism, fitted so well to the gods and goddesses of classic Greece. The dainty filigree of delicacies and refinements, the sensuous luxuries, the sumptuous furnitures of body and mind, the silks, satins, velvets, brocades, ormolu, tapestry; the drama, poetry, music, painting, sculpture, dancing (for, in the reign of the Grand Monarque dancing also must be added to the fine arts); and that constant May-day, as it may be called, on a Field of Cloth of Gold, for pleasure and entertainment — all this became, to the commonest Parisian and the general Frenchman, as commonplace and as unsatisfactorily inaccessible, as our own Celestial sphere has become to the average citizen of to‑day.

Over in America, it was vast forests before them, fabulous streams, new peoples, with new languages, religions, customs, manners, beauty, living in naked freedom, in skin-covered wigwams, palmetto-thatched huts, with all the range of human thrills of sensation, in all the range of physical adventure. This was heaven enough to stir the Gallic blood still flowing in some hardy veins of France.

Women, however, like not these things, but they love the men who do. And, when the Parisian women followed their hearts, that they did not leave behind in France their ideals nor their realities of brocades, snuff-boxes, high-heeled slippers, euphemisms, minuets, and gavottes; that they refused to eat corn-bread, and demanded slaves in their rough-hewn cabins, — all of this, from the genial backward glance of to‑day, adds a  p. xix piquant, rather than a hostile, flavouring to the colonial situation.

In Canada, the Frenchwomen were forced by the rigorous necessities of climate and savage war, to burst with sudden eclosion from fine dames into intrepid border heroines and inspired martyrs. In Louisiana climate and circumstances were kinder, and so, evolution was substituted for cataclysm.

Our city brought her entire character from France, her qualities, as in French good qualities are politely called, and her defects. But who thinks of her defects, without extenuations? Not the Canadian and French pioneers who installed her upon the banks of the Mississippi, imagining thereby to install her upon the commercial throne of America; not the descendants of these pioneers, and most assuredly not those whom she has since housed and loved.

Critical sister cities note, that for a city of the United States, New Orleans is not enterprising enough, that she has not competition enough in her, that she is un‑American, in fact, too Creole. This is a criticism that can be classed in two ways; either among her qualities or her defects. It is palpably certain that she is careless in regard to opportunities for financial profit, and that she is an indifferent contestant with other cities for trade development and population extension. Schemes do not come to her in search of millionaire patrons; millionaires are not fond of coming to her in search of schemes; noble suitors, even, do not come to her for heiresses. It is extremely doubtful if she will ever be rich, as riches are counted in the New World, this transplanted Parisian city. So many efforts have been expended to make her rich! In vain! She does  p. xx not respond to the process. It seems to bore her. She is too impatient, indiscreet, too frank with her tongue, too free with her hand, and — this is confidential talk in New Orleans — the American millionaire is an impossible type to her. She certainly has been admonished enough by political economists: "Any one," say they, "who can forgo a certain amount of pleasure can become rich." She retorts (retorts are quicker with her than reasons): "And any one who can forgo a certain amount of riches can have pleasure."

And what, if she be a money-spender, rather than a money-saver; and if in addition she be arbitrary in her dislikes, tyrannical in her loves, high-tempered, luxurious, pleasure loving, if she be an enigma to prudes and a paradox to puritans, if, in short, she be possessed of all the defects of the over-blooded rather than those of the under-blooded, is she not, all in all, charming? Is she not (that rarest of all qualities in American cities) individual, interesting? Her tempers, her furies, if you will, past, is she not gentle, sympathetic, tender? Can any city or women be more delicately frank, sincere, unegotistic? Is there a grain of malice in her composition? Have even her worst detractors ever suspected her of that mongrel vice, — meanness?

And finally, in misfortune and sorrow — and it does seem at times that she has known both beyond her deserts — has she ever known them beyond her strength? Nay, does she not belong to that full-hearted race of women, who, when cast by fate upon misfortune, rebound from the contact, fresher, stronger, more vigorous than ever? And in putting sorrows and misfortunes behind her, to fulfill her rôle in civic functions, does she not appear what she is essentially, a city of  p. xxi blood and distinction, "grande dame," and, when occasions demand, grande dame en grande tenue? And, outranked hopelessly as she is now in wealth and population, is there a city in the Union that can take precedence of her as graciously, and as gracefully, as she can yield it?

The world foreign to France was amazed at the heroism displayed by the delicate ladies of the Court of Louis XVI, stepping from the gateway of the Conciergerie to the tumbrels of the guillotine; passing from their erring mortality of earth to the bar of heaven's immortal justice, with a firmness and composure that unnerved their executioners. All the world was astonished, except themselves; for they at least knew the qualities of their defects.

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Page updated: 25 Sep 05