Review of N.O. Lit: 200 Years of New Orleans Literature by
Nancy Dixon, ed. Lavender Ink, 2013.
Nancy Dixon’s new book, N.O. Lit: 200 Years of New Orleans Literature, is in large part the result of necessity—the absence of a suitable text for classes she and her colleagues at Dillard University and The University of New Orleans taught on the literature of their city—and the result is spectacular. Over five hundred pages of drama, poetry, essays, and short fiction provide students, teachers, scholars, and anyone else interested in the rich tapestry of New Orleans literature with a comprehensive collection, from Paul Louis LeBlanc De Villeneufve’s 1809 play The Festival of the Young Corn, or the Heroism of Poucha-Houmma to Fatima Shaik’s 1987 story “Climbing Monkey Hill.” Many of the canonical names are there: Walt Whitman, George Washington Cable, Kate Chopin, O. Henry, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Truman Capote, and Shirley Ann Grau, though some are represented by texts less familiar to their readers, such as Vieux Carré by Tennessee Williams. Other inclusions broaden and deepen the collection: the Isleños décimas, poems written by Canary Islander immigrants in a verse form originating in 16th century Spain, or selections from the poets of Les Cenelles, the first anthology of African-American literature, for instance. I would expect N.O. Lit: 200 Years of New Orleans Literature to become the standard text for undergraduate courses in New Orleans literature.
Dixon has chosen only complete works—no excerpts—so a number of people who wrote at some point in New Orleans, and who readers might expect to find here, are not included, such as John Kennedy Toole, Zora Neal Hurston, Walker Percy, or Tom Piazza. She also leaves off at the 20th century (perhaps saving the 21st for Volume II). As she has noted, her task was similar to that of a curator putting together a coherent art show; it is inevitable that many great works will not make the cut. But Dixon’s organizing principles provide a lucid and nuanced introduction to the wide range of voices and concerns informing New Orleans literature. Issues and themes that define much of the New Orleans experience (or its popular image) resurface across the selections—racism, corruption, violence, drink, sexuality, and, of course, the humid, sticky, hurricane-punctuated weather—making intertextual comparisons irresistible. For instance, the issue of violence and its social disruption but also the way it is embedded in social patterns and practice is central to two plays written in the city 158 years apart—LeBlanc’s The Festival of the Young Corn (1809) and Tom Dent’s 1967 Ritual Murder. Dixon intends to show readers the history of her city and her choices, together with her clear, detailed introductions, allow readers to follow French encounters with Native Americans, regime change, and the complex variegations of race and ethnicity before and after the Civil War as expressed by the many writers giving voice to the seductive story of New Orleans.
As Nancy Dixon notes in her acknowledgements, she learned much about the literature of New Orleans, its allure and its song, from George Reinecke. A Harvard-trained Chaucerian, member of UNO’s faculty from the university’s very beginning, and NOLA native son with an encyclopedic knowledge of its dialects, Carnival lore, literature, and history, Reinecke might say of N.O. Lit: 200 Years of New Orleans Literature that readers “may fynde Goddes foyson [plenty] there,” as Chaucer’s Miller observes. I imagine he would also be quite proud of his student for her excellent book.
Reviewed by John R. Holmes
John R. Holmes received his master's degree from The University of Louisiana, Lafayette and taught at The University of New Orleans for several years before returning to school to complete the PH.D. He currently teaches at Virginia State University.