THE NEW ORLEANS INQUIRER
The French Quarter: An Informal History of the New Orleans Underworld
by Herbert Asbury
I knew going in that highly recommended local history The French Quarter: An Informal History of the New Orleans Underworld was written by the same author who wrote The Gangs of New York of movie fame. I didn’t realize, though, that Herbert Asbury wrote this historic sequel to its more famous predecessor in 1936! Much like Frenchmen, Desire, Good Children, though, it has stood the test of time and remains a local favorite.
This is the third comprehensive history of New Orleans I’ve reviewed, and this would have been a better place to start. Asbury is a more conversational writer and engaging storyteller so the book is much more accessible than the two more academic (though still appropriate for casual readers) histories. The Accidental City does a thorough job documenting the political maneuvering and alliances that went into forming the city, with a strong emphasis on race relations, while The World That Made New Orleans uses race as one of its major motifs, along with documenting how New Orleans was influence by Caribbean culture.
With its pre-civil rights publication, The French Quarter doesn’t dwell a great deal on race, though there is a chapter on Congo Square. When it does delve into this territory, the obvious prejudices of the day can be a little discomforting. Overall, though, the book focuses more on the colorful characters that inhabited the city through the ages. Make no mistake, Asbury is a skilled journalist and historian, but this is muck-raking of the highest order. The pages are filled with stories of famous gamblers, prostitutes, pimps, madams, thieves, whisky house owners, riverboat bullies (fighters), outlaws, rebels, and every other type of rapscallion Asbury could dig up.
I particularly enjoyed the references to early piracy on the Mississippi. His debt to Mark Twain is so apparent that I checked the bibliography and confirmed my suspicion that he used Life on the Mississippi as a source. Because he doesn’t have the disdain for Jean Lafitte that modern historians justifiably do, he also paints a more full and less dismissive portrait of this local legend. Although it’s despicable that he made most of his fortune smuggling slaves, this pirate’s name and legend are imprinted all over the city’s geography and history, so I enjoyed gaining a better understanding of why an outlaw was so beloved by the city’s white upper class. Although deplorable by modern standards, he was a shrewd businessman, skilled leader, and charming entertainer which allowed him to traverse both sides of the law so freely.
Weighing in at 455 pages, this is another thick history, though. While some of the pirate and riverboat racing and fighting stories were captivating, the endless tales of prostitutes, gamblers, and crooked barrelhouse owners got tedious after a while. Yet, although Asbury relishes the salacious, he provides a thorough portrait of the city’s history. In retrospect, I would have enjoyed The French Quarter more and understood the other two histories better if I would have started here.