|The City of New Orleans, Currier & Ives, 1885|
It's easy to get lost in New Orleans. Even a native, such as myself, can become confused not only by the condition and direction of the streets but also by their names – names that recall the diverse cultures that have made the Southern Queen so unique among American cities. A walk or drive or streetcar ride quickly becomes a trek through history.
The city contorts with the bend of the Mississippi River. The result is that some streets run for a few short blocks, usually perpendicular to the river, while other avenues parallel the river's levee for miles. These roads reflect the economic importance of the river to New Orleans during the nineteenth century – the hundred years when the city emerged as one of the most populous and prosperous in the country. Those same roads show the effect of the swampland upon which the city rests. Nicknamed the "Wet Grave" during the antebellum period, New Orleans no longer endures regular epidemics of yellow fever, malaria, and other diseases. The antebellum years certainly brought riches to the Crescent City, but the costs were paid in lives – the city claimed the highest mortality rate in the United States before the Civil War. Although the swamps have long been drained and the mosquitoes now held at bay with pesticides, the damp, compacting soil still opens gapping potholes for many an automobile. New Orleanians have even come to adopt these craters as emblematic of a place that, in the twenty-first century, resists modernization.
Scholarship on New Orleans has long reflected those contorting and battered streets. Popular historians such as Lyle Saxon and Herbert Asbury in the early twentieth century to Phil Johnson and Buddy Stall in the late twentieth century wrote invaluable accounts yet lacked the rigor of the trained academic. That has changed in recent decades as professional historians and literary scholars have interrogated the city's rich culture and past. Such works, however, have often focused on select periods, such as Reconstruction, or persons, such as Marie Laveau.
A sweeping history of nineteenth century New Orleans, as provided now by Thomas Ruys Smith's Southern Queen, has been sorely lacking. Smith's work navigates the rise and decline of New Orleans as a major American port. In doing so, Smith shows himself to be a well-versed guide through the latest scholarship about the city. He skillfully blends the secondary literature with insights drawn from contemporary travel accounts, novels, and diaries. The result is a vivid description of life in the nineteenth century New Orleans – and, just as important, of its popular image as one of the most unique cities in the world.
Smith shows how the city negotiated conflicting ethnic and national identities as possession passed from Spain to France to the United States in the few years leading to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Tensions remained well into the mid-nineteenth century. However, the successful defense of New Orleans against a major slave uprising in 1811 followed by the defeat of the British at nearby Chalmette in 1815 served to unite elites within the city. The emergence of cotton literally poured wealth onto the levees in the decades leading to the Civil War. Dreams of continued prosperity disappeared behind the smoke of combat. Emancipation stripped the slave markets and masters of their profitable trade in flesh. And the rise of the railroads diverted the flow of produce away from the docks. Through the 1870s, racial violence created political turmoil. Even hopes for a better day among freedmen dissipated as Jim Crow laws restored a racial caste system. The declining economic fortunes of New Orleans bred nostalgia for the antebellum days and, with the World's Cotton Exposition in 1884-5, tourism increasingly emerged as a lifeline for the city. Smith closely traces this tale of rise and decline – and his eye for telling quotations enlivens the story.
Smith is certainly correct in asserting that nineteenth century New Orleans continues to influence life in post-Katrina New Orleans, especially in shaping tourism and race relations. Southern Queen provides a thoughtful map through the historic landscape that shaped the Crescent City of today. Scholars and general readers will find Smith's book a valuable and highly accessible addition to studies of this alluring city. Those new to the city's past, moreover, would do well to take Smith as a guide; those grave-deep potholes are no fun.