Category Archives: New Orleans

“Death Becomes Her” and Other October Musings

Anyone who knows me in any capacity should recognise the amount of envious glee I feel at the announcement of the Met’s latest special exhibit: “Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire“.

I adore 19th century mourning.  The material history associated with it, the impact on social mores and customs, the preoccupation with death it engendered, and the sheer visual impact of it sets my little gothy heart all a-flutter.  I doubt I’ll have the funds to make it up to New York in time — the exhibit opens the day before my wedding and closes right as spring semester kicks up — but it is a thing of glory.

I mean, look at these clothes:

Mourning ensemble, 1870-72; The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Mourning dress, cira 1903; The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Mourning dress, 1867; The Metropolitan Museum of Art

American mourning dress, circa 1845; the Metropolitan Museum of Art

American mourning dress, circa 1848; the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Just look at the quality of that silk and the delicate mesh mitts!

Mourning parasol, 1895-1900; the Metropolitan Museum of Art

In a related vein of all things somewhat macabre, I was alerted to a fascinating article about Cross Bones Graveyard in London.  Originally an unconsecrated burying yard for the prostitutes that characterised London’s South Bank in 16th century, it has taken on a social dimension as a place amidst its gleaming upscale surroundings to remember the forgotten, outcast dead.

In death, the liminal sex workers of London have come to occupy a larger space than they ever did in life.  It’s absolutely worth a read as we move into the Halloween season.

Halloween, and its associated liturgical holidays of All Saints Day and All Souls, have historically been about affirming the place of the dead in community — both as members of the heavenly church and as remembered former members of the church militant here on earth.  New Orleans has a vibrant tradition surrounding All Saints Day — La Toussaint as it was brought over from France — and much of it reflects the collision between cultures that happened in the Crescent City.  White-washing family tombs, cleaning away debris and dirt, lighting candles, decorating the tombs, and sharing a meal amongst them all characterise the day.

The dead loom large in New Orleans, but never so much as in October.  It’s impossible to ignore the cemeteries of New Orleans, which is the thing I’ve liked most about them.  Unlike the manicured memorial parks that are increasingly popular around the country, the cemeteries of New Orleans remain visible and retain their dignity, etched into the landscape and staking the claims of the dead among the still living.

David Grunfeld; The Times-Picayune archive

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9 Years Out: Hurricane Katrina

It was 9 years ago today that Hurricane Katrina made landfall, going on to kill at least 1833 people in Gulf South and cause $108 billion in damage.  She proved to be one of the deadliest natural disasters in American history and changed New Orleans forever.

You cannot be a person invested in New Orleans and not pause on this day, on this stretch of days, and think back to that August 2005.  I am not a New Orleans native; I was outside the city that summer, ensconced in my parents’ house in Maryland, safely watching horror unfold on the television, sitting numbly next to my father, a sailor who knew New Orleans well, unable to look away.  I was lucky, phenomenally lucky.  I didn’t realise that day what the storm would mean to me years later.  I just remember listening to my father argue with Brian Williams, I remember bristling when people suggested that New Orleans should be abandoned, that it was too expensive to rebuild, too expensive to protect, why did we need a city in a flood plain, anyway?  (Newsflash: nearly every major port city in the US is in a flood plain, and 60% of the cargo leaving or entering the US goes through the New Orleans-Baton Rouge ports.  That’s why we need it.  Ignoring history, ignoring people, focusing solely on dollars, that’s why we need New Orleans and her flood plain.)

As a rule, I avoid disaster tourism.  I think it shows the worst of human nature: our vulture-like tendency to stare at others’ personal horrors and feel relief that it is not us, all the while consuming their sorrow and loss and reducing it to a curiosity instead of a call to moral action.  The HBO show Treme caught the tone of it rightly: As a group of Mardi Gras Indians gather in the rubble of the devastated Lower Ninth Ward to mourn one of their own, who perished in the storm.  And in the middle of a spiritual, rousing moment as they sing Mardi Gras Indian songs in celebration and lament, a tour bus full of Wisconsin tourists pulls up, snapping pictures in clueless, viscerally awful fascination.  The objectification and voyeurism cannot be made more clear.

And yet, two things come out of this: one, New Orleans is a city that runs on tourism and knows it, commodifying her food, heritage, history, and oddities in order to bring those tourists in; two, Katrina looms so large on the landscape that people who know nothing else about New Orleans save jazz, Bourbon Street, and Cajun food not only know about it but want to see what it meant.

When I first went down to New Orleans as an adult, it was December 2008, three years AK — after Katrina.  I was working on the research for my first MA, a decision prompted in many ways by the storm.  I knew my health didn’t permit me to do rescue work or rebuilding, and my financial situation didn’t leave me much room for charity.  But I knew I could do a thing that was critical: preserving the history and culture of New Orleans, documenting it, and sharing it through my academic work as a topic worthy of serious study and engagement.  So I set to work on my first love, the cemeteries of New Orleans.  Yet whenever I mentioned my topic, everyone asked, “What about Katrina?”

So I got in touch with a contact, trying to avoid the Disaster Tourism angle, and asked if they knew some places out on Lake Ponchartrain where the levees had broke.  And I tried not to feel like scum as I snapped pictures, trying to communicate something incommunicable to my audience back up on the East Coast: that the X of the search and rescue teams was a symbol, a monument, a marker of trauma so intense as to be nearly ineffable, an inbreaking of the sacred rendered mundane in spray paint.  It was, in its way, the crucifix of the storm, marking sites of loss, death, martyrdom, and destruction so senseless, so needless that it has taken on proportions unimagined.

A search and rescue mark left on an abandoned house on the shores of Lake Ponchartrain.  Taken December 2008 by author.

A search and rescue mark left on an abandoned house on the shores of Lake Ponchartrain. Taken December 2008 by author.

I don’t flatter myself by imagining my experiences in AK New Orleans are important.  But for me, the storm marks a moment where I made the conscious choice to do academic work that had real world value and meaning.  It marks the moment where academics had to be more than just feasible and fundable.  It made me look at what I was doing and ask, how can I do more than just follow my own bliss?  How can I reflect my values into the world and have a moral response to unimaginable tragedy?  It marked the beginning of my nearly decade-long love affair with a city that’s easy to love and difficult to know.  Katrina changed me, at a distance.  Perhaps that’s what disaster and loss and suffering should do.  It should change us, make us consider how to make our actions reflect the world that needs to be, rather than the world around us.

Nine years out, it’s easy to think this way, especially sitting comfortably in a climate-controlled student union in DC, far and away from the realities of recovery.  It’s easy to trot out data and numbers (78% of the population returned, poverty level of nearly 25%, childhood poverty rate of 41%, increased disparity between rich and poor, lack of affordable housing in the city, etc).  It’s easy to think of this as a continuum of disaster, disease, and death that has plagued New Orleans from her founding to today.  It’s easy to ignore Katrina and her legacy up here.  It’s easy to let it go.  But I can’t.  And as a society, as a country, we cannot. August 29th demands that we stop and think and remember all the human failure that created such unimaginable human loss, and remember how easy it is to let it happen again.  All it takes is apathy.

Remember that all of this happened nine years ago, in the United States of America, the wealthiest country in the history of the world.  Remember that we, as a country, watched this happen to our own people.  Remember that this happened, that these 1800+ lives were lost.  And remember that this, too, is New Orleans.

Victorians and the Medieval World

As I’ve done my work in New Orleans and read about the 19th century, I keep running into the Medieval past.  This was surprising to me initially.  With all the emphasis on progress and industrialization going on in 19th century America, why would the Medieval world, with its connotations of darkness and backwardness, have resonance?

In my career prior to Goddard, I was a religious studies scholar, and I primarily worked on American Catholicism.  I was keenly interested in how religion gave immigrants and other minority groups a sense of identity and the psychological bulwark to resist forces of oppression and assimilation.  (These are admittedly still interests of mine, but I’ve come to realise that religion as boundary maintenance is a universal phenomenon, not one limited to the modern period.)  One of the things Catholicism had working for it as an immigrant faith was its emphasis on the continuity of authority and tradition.  The 19th century saw a vast shift in social, political, and economic realities with the emergence of industrialisation, nationalism, and the ongoing development of imperialism in the West.  As these shifts came, the Roman Catholic Church responded in a variety of ways, some better than others, and two features became prominent: ultramontanism and revitalized devotionalism.

The devotional revolution of the 19th century is usually spoken of in terms of Irish response to the Famine of the mid 1840s and the re-emergence of the Catholic Church as a source of identity and stability as Ireland re-formed itself culturally and socially.  However, given the prominence of Irish priests and religious in the Church in English-speaking territories, especially the United States, including priests of other nationalities trained at All Hollow’s in Ireland, it is fair to say that the Irish devotional revolution applies to vast swaths of the Church in the West.  The devotional revolution saw a rise in Marian devotions, as well as novenas and other acts of personal piety.  Many of these echoed in some way the envisioned medieval past, the moment of the Church ascendant, when the whole West was united under one Latin Church.  The Marian devotions in particular harkened back to the emergence of the Marian cult in the High Middle Ages, just after the First Crusade.  As social and cultural factors were in the midst of fast-paced shifts (consider how much happened in the long 12th century), the cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary offered stability and comfort.  It is no wonder it was revitalized in the 19th century and became a highly visible part of the Church.

Ultramontanism is the other factor at play here.  As the Church responded to the challenges of the 19th century, there was an increasing emphasis on the Pope’s authority.  Ultramontanists were those who saw the Church as supreme, rather than moderate lay Catholics who were willing to eschew Catholic traditions in order for Catholics to be able to function in modern, nationalist societies.  (Ultramontanism coming from the phrase “beyond the mountains,” being a reference to the Pope’s position in Rome — beyond the Alps, as far as the rest of Europe was concerned.)  This position put an emphasis on the Church as the only true arbiter of matters of faith and appealed to its long traditions as proof.  This is the movement that gave us the First Vatican Council in the late 1860s with its doctrine of papal infallibility, the height of ultramontanist achievements.  This two-pronged emphasis on tradition and authority saw the revival of neo-Thomistic thought — that is to say, the revival of Thomas Aquinas as the ultimate theologian of the Church.  This theology began to ask questions like, “What would Thomas Aquinas have thought about railroads?  What would Thomas Aquinas have thought about factories?”  These questions were intended to interpret the modern world according to timeless theological principles: those of the Middle Ages.

In this appeal to neo-Thomistic thought and traditional authority, the 19th century Church appealed, essentially, to its medieval past.  It placed itself squarely in the tradition of the medieval Church, and utilised elements like neo-Gothic architecture and a revitalization of the university movements of the High Middle Ages to create Catholic universities.  (I should know, I attended one that was founded, neo-Gothic buildings and all, in 1887.)  It created Catholic churches across the United States that drew from the great cathedrals of Europe.  It appealed to the medieval past, to a vision of order and spiritual authority that trickled down from God to the Pope to anointed kings, all in proper order, as if the Protestant Reformation and the push towards nationalism and democracy had never occurred.  The medieval past to which the Church appealed was largely a fabricated one, but it was an orderly fabrication — the same one to which the emergent Antiquarian movement appealed.  Just like the Church, the Antiquarians saw value in the orderly medieval past where the social bonds between lord and vassal, between Church and faithful were intact and governed by a spiritual awareness of duty and obligation, a sharp contrast to the mercenary, alienating industrial present of the 19th century.  It pitted green country and Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest against the black smoke of factories and the squalor of urban slums.  It appealed to the satisfying ideas of chivalry and nobility against capitalism and greed.  Hand-in-hand, the Catholic Church and the Antiquarians created a Victorian vision of the medieval world that said more about the 19th century than it did about the 12th.

The medieval world for the Victorians represented something orderly.  It represented a more spiritual, more pure age in which authority was God-given and unquestioned — as if the Anarchy never happened — and everyone knew their social duty and performed it. It represented a sort of pastoralism, as well as a world in which faith was unquestioned and piety an unqualified good.  For the Church, it was a time of imagined unlimited, unchallenged authority, and a time in which heads of state were loyal subjects to God’s will.  For immigrants, strangers in a strange land, this vision of the Church’s medieval grandeur placed them safely within a tradition that had greater meaning an authority than the strange country with odd laws and untrustworthy institutions in which they found themselves.  The Church was rock solid, enduring, and safe.  It would come to their rescue like knights in shining armour.  Or so the images seem to suggest.

I saw a great many of these images in New Orleans, which should come as no surprise, given how Catholic of a city New Orleans is, and its named association with one of the great medieval cities of France, Orléans.  In the windows of St Louis Cathedral, I saw beautiful 19th century stained glass depicting not, as is most common, a plethora of saints chosen by donors, but rather, the complete visual history of the life of St Louis IX, complete with scenes of him on the Eighth Crusade.

The stained glass depiction of knights carrying the coffin of St Louis IX of France, draped with a cloth bearing the red Crusader’s cross.

The medieval past sits out in the open in New Orleans, and all through 19th century America.  It is fascinating, and speaks to not only the 19th century vision of the Middle Ages, but as well, the vision of the Middle Ages that the period itself left us to interpret and find meaningful.  I’m still teasing out this idea, but I suspect it will keep taking me backwards, into the foundational places in which the medieval world gave birth to the modern one.

Travel!

I’ve just come back from a week in Louisiana, and it has been a fantastic trip.  I’m always completely in love with Louisiana, and with New Orleans in particular (though the heat, not so much — I think I’ve been infected with Midwestern preferences for climate), but this trip was really special.  Not only did I present at the Louisiana Studies Conference this past weekend at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, LA (pronounced NACK-uh-tish, honestly), I got the phenomenal opportunity to spend a morning in the Louisiana State Museum‘s textile archives in New Orleans.  The curator, Wayne Phillips, showed me their extensive collection of hair and mourning jewellery, as well as an early 1850s gown that may have been mourning.

Hair jewellery is not really my speciality, and honestly, I had forgotten about it until Wayne brought it out to show me.  The museum’s collection is extensive, largely because unlike other jewellery, hair pieces went out of fashion abruptly and were retired into people’s attics and cupboards rather than being thrown away.  (I suspect people felt rather bad about the idea of throwing out a literal piece of Great Aunt Marie!)  The museum started collecting the hair jewellery pieces from its early days in the opening decades of the twentieth century, and they vary from simple brooches without much provenance to elaborate pieces tied to important people in Louisiana history.  Some are very plain or small, and some, like a French piece worked with gold, hair, and garnets, are incredibly elaborate.  But all have the same purpose: to at once remember (if not mourn) one’s loved ones, and to carry a piece of them on your person.  While some pieces were not mourning, many were, including sometimes dates of death, or images of mourning worked in hair, most commonly urns, weeping willows, acorns, or forget-me-nots.  They were all stunning, if some of them struck me as a little creepy, most particularly a ring made of woven hair that would have been worn directly next to the skin.  That’s a level of commitment I can’t really imagine, personally.

However, the dress was a highlight.  The gown lacked a good provenance, but it was useful for me in looking at construction details and the complexity of the dress.  It’s a silk taffeta piece, very light-weight (as I suspected would be common in Louisiana), but in poor, poor condition.  It does show some period repairs, suggesting that this gown was worn and re-worn rather than being thrown away, and it hints to me that perhaps this was a more bourgeois garment than one belonging to the Louisiana social aristocracy.  The skirt is slim, suggesting early 1850s, and rather than pleating at the waist, the skirt is made of shaped panels.  The hem shows wear and re-lining, and the cuffs are hand-stitched.  But let’s face it, you want pictures, don’t you?

Here’s the dress in its entirety. Notice the subtle floral pattern woven into the taffeta. Really stunning in the light. And yes, it is as small as it looks.

The hem shows wear and repair, as can be seen here, and was obviously hand-basted. The lining is cotton, and was once dyed black, but has faded to this coffee colour, as all natural dyes on cotton are prone to do.

This shows a repair to the skirt of the dress. The colour has been lightened to show detail. The cotton thread has faded to that familiar brown colour as well.

The bodice closes up to the neck with tiny hook-and-eye closures, and shows beautiful decorative pleating. The fan shape is lovely, but very simple, and the sloping, dropped shoulders are bang-on for the early 1850s.

 

Here is the hand-turned cuff, showing more faded thread. I found it interesting that the sleeves were so fitted and so simple, another suggestion of mourning.

 

A self-fabric belt meant to go over the waist of the dress, really simple, and it shows just how small the waist was!

I can’t express how exciting it was to work with this garment and to really have the chance to examine it.  The dress isn’t in the Museum’s permanent collection — quite frankly, with its sketchy provenance and in such a terrible condition, it’s unlikely to become an acquisition.  The cost of restoring the gown would be astronomical.  However, it is one of the only antebellum gowns they have, aside from some early 1800s pieces, and it might very well be mourning, another point in its favour.  I suspect it was indeed mourning, given its simplicity and the evidence of re-wear, but it’s a theory, not a concrete fact.  Still, isn’t it a lovely old thing?

I’ll probably be talking a lot more about my trip and some of the things I saw while there — especially the 1850 House Museum and the woman who built the structure in which it resides, the Baroness de Pontalba — but I had to share the most exciting bits first.

Why the South?

I get asked this question a great deal — it’s pretty much standard in any discussion of my career, such as it is.  Why the South, people ask me, be it in admissions or advising discussions, or in more informal situations.

(People rarely ask why I study women, or why I study mourning culture.  I’m obviously feminine and my goth days still hang on with my preference for a darker colour palette, so I suppose both of those speak for themselves!)

It is a hard question.  Not because it’s particularly difficult to answer, but rather, because the answer is longer than a soundbite.  And also, because there are so many assumed bad answers hanging in the air around the question that to proceed is to tred very, very lightly, indeed.  There is a lot of racism and longing for the Old South that goes on in some corners of Southern studies, especially when undertaken by people with agendas.  I remember seeing much of it in Confederate reenactors I knew.  Most of them were lovely human beings with an appreciation for and an interest in the experience and suffering of the average soldier in a conflict much bigger than he could have ever imagined.  But there was a thread of Unreconstructed Confederates who seemed to think they could change the outcome of the war this time around, at this reenactment, rewrite history so that their guys win.  There’s a great deal of Confederate apologia out there as well, still being written, determined to show the Southern Cause as just, slave masters as kind and benevolent Christians, and Federal forces as unjustified aggressors who engaged in terrorism against their own citizens.  It’s scary stuff, and the so-called “heritage groups” that engage in it are loud and intimidating.  (The Southern Poverty Law Center pointed out the problem of “heritage groups” and neo-Confederate ideology in the Sons of Confederate Veterans in 2002, an intelligence report worth reading.)

That’s the stuff floating out there — racist, ugly answers about why study the South.  And those aren’t my answers.  Those answers horrify me.  I’m not here to glorify the Old South or re-envision Gone With the Wind (there will never be another Vivien Leigh, anyway) or argue about the nobility of Southern gentlemen and ladies.  Mary Chestnut spoke truly about the underpinnings of all those white fantasies: “ours is a monstrous system.”  So how to reconcile the clear knowledge that beyond the petticoats and dashing gentlemen was genocidal violations of human rights based on pure, virulent racism, misogyny of the first water, and a host of other sins made all the more hypocritical by the profession of Southern elites to believe in the American vision of liberty and freedom?

I begin where my work captured me: with a city.

New Orleans.

I’d always been interested in the 19th century, especially in the Civil War, but after Hurricane Katrina, my interest in Louisiana became marked.  What was the city that so many pundits and talking heads on television said we should let go to rot?  What was it like?  Was it like Anne Rice made it seem, thick with elegance and mystery and gothic sensibilities?  And where did the party time reputation come from?

They weren’t elegant questions.  They weren’t even particularly intelligent ones.  But they started me down this road, some seven years ago.  They got me into my first graduate programs, and sustained me in the effort to try again when those first attempts at a PhD didn’t work.  Because, you see, those questions took me to Louisiana as an adult, and when I stepped outside in New Orleans one chilly, humid morning in December 2008, I fell utterly in love.  I fell in love with the architecture, with the people, with the food, with the intertwined Atlantic histories that wove their ways through the city.  I loved the cemeteries, the street cars, the churches.  (And the coffee is sublime.  This is a fact that cannot be undersold, here.)  I fell in love.  And, like any girl with a new crush, I had to know everything.  I had to know the history, the way people made this city, the conflicting visions of the city, the tension between American expansion and European heritage, the conflict between Anglo ideas of race and Franco-Caribbean ones, the horrors and hardships and hellholes that made a swampy patch on a beautiful curve of the Mississippi become one of the most sublime and unique cities in the entire United States, if not the world.

You see, I am utterly enchanted with this city, and in some spiritual, emotional sense, I feel as if it is my city, mine to understand and study and evangelise.  To paraphrase Mr Darcy, it has bewitched me, body and soul.  So I look at it, at the 19th century, at the years before war changed everything and the idea of New Orleans as an American city was still just that — just an idea, not realised, not embraced — and I look for someone much like me.  Middle class, educated, female, in the phase of life where marriage and children and loss are visible parts of existence.  I look for French and Spanish Creole women, because I am profoundly aware of my own roots in Europe, not that many generations removed on my father’s side.  I look for white American women, because I am profoundly aware of my own identity as an American.  I look for Catholics, because I remember Mass and incense with my mother as a child.  I look for Jews, because I light candles every Shabbat as an adult.

In short, I look for reflections of myself, in order to understand how people like me, people who were educated and sensitive and moral could allow slavery and abuse and a host of other evils not only to flourish, but to support their daily lives, intimately and directly.  Northern white women in cities allowing slavery to go on is one question.  Southern planter’s wives who had no voice and few options to buck the system allowing slavery to go on without protest is another question, one scholars like Catherine Clinton and Elizabeth Fox-Genevese have begun to answer well.  But women in New Orleans did not lack for social connections or the support networks that allowed Northern women to form an anti-slavery identity.  So why did it go on, in the forms that it did?  What did the tripartite racial caste system in New Orleans mean for the women who participated in it and were victimised by it?  What did plaçage mean for the woman whose husband kept a mixed-race mistress and whose will would pay for her child when he died?  What did those wills look like, and how did white women react to them?  What did all these social problems and ills mean for an average middle class woman?  What was her life like?  And why, at times of greatest grief and pain, did middle class women enforce the social strictures around mourning, creating isolation, emotional burdens, and ultimately, a code of conduct that was oppressive?

The South is my home.  I was born below the Mason-Dixon line, and I live in the South currently.  But New Orleans is my obsession.  Let other scholars have planters and their wives, let other scholars have plantations and the struggle over the myth of happy slaves.  I want the urban world, the world where women’s connections and mobility and social roles should be the most evident.  I want New Orleans, and her conflicting French-Spanish-Caribbean-American identity.  I want the tensions and the horrors and the delightful surprises.  I want to present to the world the fact that the South had one of the most important port cities in the world when the Confederacy formed, and challenge the idea of Northern women being the only ones with the benefit of urban life in important cities to give them social power.

Why the South?  Because I love it here, even when it is ugly and brutal and monstrous.  Because I love my city, and I know what it means to miss New Orleans.  And because I take no satisfaction in understanding people who history has vindicated.  Give me the losers and the ones history has left behind in the dust bin, consigned to a way of life that was unsustainable and oppressive and ugly.  In it, there lies the tell-tale signs of progress for the future, when we can cast off all that we hold as normal and given despite it being unsustainable and ugly.  Give me the gritty past, and I will find hope for a better future.  And there is nowhere grittier, nowhere more fraught, than the South.