The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans
by Lawrence N. Powell
The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square
by Ned Sublette
New Orleans sells its history as much as its food and music, so when I decided to make this move I knew I wanted to learn more about that rich and layered story. Defiantly enduring near the mouth of one of the world’s greatest meandering rivers, New Orleans‘s story is a long and winding . . . and twisted and contradictory . . . as the river itself. The two books reviewed today provide comprehensive, in-depth portraits of this complicated city’s first few centuries (neither makes it into the 20th) and this is both their strength and weakness.
You will find these books innocently beckoning from the shelves of local bookstores enticing casual tourists to part with their money, but beware: While well-written and skillful texts, these are slow and challenging reads. Both would be better suited for upper classman history courses than curling up in a coffee shop, though they certainly appropriate for the latter if you are an avid amateur history buff. I am lumping them together because they tell the same story in the same painstaking detail from slightly different perspectives. Sublette is the more lyrical and engaging of the two writers, though neither has the brilliance for turning history into captivating adventure like Stephen Ambrose or David McCullough (but those two are legends of popular history for a reason!)
Both books deal a great deal with the effects of slavery and race relations–if you attempt to tell this city’s history without such emphasis you’re writing fiction–but in The World That Made New Orleans Sublette maintains a heavy emphasis on the story of slaves and free people of color throughout. I could easily see this as a companion piece to the course on African-American Literature I took in grad school. He also leaves New Orleans for long stretches, emphasizing the city’s early dependence on Havana and detailing the slave revolt that led to an independent Haiti, thus forever changing New Orleans and race relations in the American south. Although at times I was frustrated for how long Sublette would wander the Caribbean with little reference to the book’s namesake, ultimately the picture he paints of New Orleans being as much an Afro-Caribbean city as a European transplant (no one argues it’s an American city!) is the book’s most compelling aspect.
In The Accidental City Powell by no means glosses over the effects of race policy and politics, but goes into deeper detail regarding the Creole families, their ties to French and Spanish aristocracy, and how that affected the evolution of the city. At times his detailed accounts of intermarriage and alliance is as confusing and monotonous as reading Old Testament passages of ‘he begat who begat who begat.’ I found myself skimming sections in both books because I didn’t have the background to digest all that was thrown at me. As I understand more about the city, revisiting these books will likely pay greater dividends. Rather than glittering introductions, they are deep and tangled treasure chests rewarding the persistent intellectual buccaneer who has spent years digging into this city’s complex past.
I said in earlier reviews that there is nothing linear about New Orleans and thus linear histories seem to leave something lacking. This is in no way a criticism of either text. They are skillfully written and impressively researched. Just know going in that they are very dense and intended for an audience with a skeletal understanding of the city’s history. The books fill in the meat and organs. For a more light-hearted overview of history you can try Frenchmen, Desire, Good Children or to get a flavor (pun intended) for the city’s culture try Gumbo Tales. But if you have the time and interest to tackle The Accidental City or The World That Made New Orleans, then by all means dive in. It will take some effort, but there’s more buried treasure here than I can document for those willing to take the time to dig.