WHEN IT TAKES A CARTOONIST TO PAINT A FAITHFUL PORTRAIT
Frenchmen, Desire, Good Children
New Orleans is a patchwork city woven together over centuries from former plantations and villages, resulting in a system of roads that were haphazardly designed and named over varying historical epochs. This can make for frustrated driving but great storytelling. In Frenchmen, Desire, Good Children, cartoonist John Chase reveals the city’s history through the odd, hilarious, and often sordid history of its streets. This book was first published in 1949 and is based upon lectures he began delivering while World War II still raged; thus, the language can be slightly dated, neighborhoods have sometimes grown and changed, and his racial bias (moreso regarding Native Americans) can at times make you cringe. Yet the very fact that this book remains a favorite history of the city and is in its eighth decade of print attests to the virtues that far outweigh its faults.
I re-read this book for this review and it definitely made more sense once I’d had time to navigate the city and become familiar with its layout. Still, there are plenty of humorous and colorful anticdotes to keep even the casual visitor entertained. Chase starts with the original city, the French Quarter, and follows the expansion outward, so the stories lose some of their charm as he moves to more modern sectors. There is much more history in the French Quarter and Garden District than across the river in Algiers or Westwego (the only town in the U.S. that is a complete sentence!)
The fact that a cartoonist and not historian guides this tour gives the book a jovial tone that has delighted readers for generations. For example, after explaining that children usually learn in 5th grade that LaSalle claimed the territory of Louisiana for the French crown in 1682, Chase addresses the king’s subsequent neglect of his new territory as thus: “Louis XIV wasn’t much intrested in this new land. He was more interested in Madame de Montespan. (You don’t learn that in fifth grade.)” He uses a similar humorous tone in detailing the mishaps of the city’s founding, frequently coming back to the French ineptitude with fire.
Before the city was founded, expedition leader Iberville founded Biloxi and used it as a base to search for the mouth of the Mississippi. With dark and wry humor, Chase relates how the French were unable to chase down any natives to hoist their good will upon and thus engage them as guides. After some effort, they finally caught an elderly brave on the beach who was too feeble to flee. While his tribe watched on from the forest, the explorers built him a grass hut, filled it with food and gifts, built a fire to warm him, and withdrew. The hut promptly caught fire, charring the poor feeble fellow as his tribe watched on in horror. The natives weren’t impressed. Later, the French met a hunting expedition that agreed to help them on their way back. The French built a fire at the appointed time to signal their location and promptly set the entire forest ablaze. The natives took a different route home. Later Chase tells of how that once the mouth was discovered and New Orleans founded, the capital of Louisiana was only moved to New Orleans when the French accidentally burnt Biloxi to the ground, prompting him to comment: “Iberville’s organiztion appears to have been expert in every department of the business of exporing, except the matter of fires.”
Chase has equal fun pointing out how the names of Louis XIV’s bastards, thorns in the side of the Duke of Orleans who served as Regent to infant king-in-waiting Louis XV after his father’s death, were incorporated into the city named for the Duke and regent and placed on either side of the street named in his honor. Later, he shows particular relish for Bernard Marigny who playfully names streets like Love, a lane inhabitted by the legal mistresses of the time, and, to the back of it, Good Children where that love resulted in . . . well, you can make the connection. The city made Love an extention of Rampart and changed Good Children to St. Bernard, though Bernard Marigny sounds hardly like a saint. Desire, ironcially, was named not after lust but is a misprint of the female name Desiree’. Frenchmen was named after a massacre during Spanish rule, and the ony relation between these streets is the juxtoposition in the title that reflects the author’s playful take on history.
Chase’s ironic, dark humor works well in modern times, though his antiquated bias does not. This is most apparent in his description of local Choctaws:
Small pox and plagues frequently wiped out whole villages; their astounding immorality and promiscuity, their negelect of children that amounted to wholesale infanticide, and never ending brawls between villages–called wars–all characteristized a peole who were well on their way to what is commonly referred to as the bow-wows.
It hardly seems an accurate rendering (and certainly not one that would prompt Tim McGraw to declare himself and ‘Indian outlaw!), as the author never questions the Europeans who made these observations, for it was the Europeans who brought the small pox and plagues. STDs were rampant because the European men eagerly ‘engaged’ with native cultures that had more relaxed sexual mores than they encountered back home (though the moral lapse was always the fault of the natives and never their own) and, well, Europeans calling anyone uncivil for a history of warring is just preposterous, especially considering the decades of genocide they would engage in, wiping out these ‘uncivil’ natives.
Nevertheless, although such bias can be cringe-worthy, such incidents are few and far between. And although the book drags near the end as it moves away from the heart of the city, it is the type of book you can not finish and still feel like you got your money’s worth. I picked up this book based on mulitple recommendations and found it a light-hearted and thoroughly enjoyable glimspe of a unique and peculiar history. This books remains a local favorite, full of humorous and astonishing stories, and is an informative and entertaining place to start if you have any interest in the city’s history. Just keep a map handy.