Wednesday, July 20, 2011

History Today: The Big Uneasy

History Today, August 2011
My article on New Orleans and its historic relationship with disasters of one kind and another is up now on the History Today website, and out in print next week. It was a pleasure to write, and they've done a lovely job with the illustrations. I think it pinpoints a lot of things in miniature that I touch on in depth in Southern Queen. So enjoy! Below, further information about some of the figures that I mention, and links to some of the sources that I used.

Theodore Clapp
1. Theodore Clapp. In many ways, this article, and much of the history of New Orleans, can be summed up in the quotation that appears near the beginning:
"The alternations of health and sickness, joy and sorrow, commercial prosperity and misfortune, sweep over the Crescent City with the suddenness and fury of those autumnal hurricanes which occasionally visit it."
They are the words of Rev. Theodore Clapp, who appears later in the article as an eyewitness to some of the city's worst experiences with Yellow Fever. Clapp was a true original, and one of the most distinctive figures of antebellum New Orleans. He arrived in the (predominately Catholic) city in the early 1820s and, after a number of doctrinal shifts, established what has been described as the first and only Unitarian church in the antebellum South. His comments are taken from his Autobiographical Sketches and Recollections During Thirty Five Years' Residence in New Orleans (1857), available here.

Abraham Oakey Hall
2. Yellow Fever. For anyone who's interested, the Report of the Sanitary Commission of New Orleans on the Epidemic Yellow Fever of 1853 that I quote from is available here. But much more entertaining are the descriptions of the city to be found in The Manhattaner in New Orleans (1851). The eponymous Manhattaner is responsible for the description of Yellow Fever that, perhaps a little flippantly, likens the effects of the disease to a champagne hangover. His other sketches of city life are equally enjoyable. Though published anonymously, the Manhattaner was actually Abraham Oakey Hall, who spent time in New Orleans as a legal apprentice. Rather remarkably, he later moved back to New York, became Mayor, and was embroiled in the Tweed Ring scandal. The more harrowing descriptions of Yellow Fever taken from Harper's New Monthly Magazine come from an article entitled “History and Incidents of the Plague in New Orleans,” available here.

George Washington Cable
3. War and Reconstruction. Though George Washington Cable is largely forgotten and unread today, in the late nineteenth century he was as famous as Mark Twain. His remarkable autobiographical description of life in New Orleans from the beginning of the war to its fall - "The crowds on the levee howled and screamed with rage" - was published in The Century magazine in 1885, as part of its "Battles and Leaders of the Civil War" series. It's available here. And in the same issue, you can read the other side of the story. Union Admiral David Dixon Porter narrates his experiences of the capture of New Orleans here. For an extended account of the massacre at the Mechanics' Institute - "The floor ... was covered with the blood, limbs, hair and brains of human beings" - see Emily Hazen Reed's Life of A. P. Dostie; or, The Conflict in New Orleans (1868).

Belle Hunt
4. Tourism. Belle Hunt's account of New Orleans, published in Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly in 1891, provides a great summary of the reasons why New Orleans became a tourist hub in the late 1890s. Made famous by the writings of George Washington Cable and, latterly, Grace King, the city seemed to offer a picturesque, romantic decrepitude that Gilded Age Americans (and, indeed, millions of tourists today) found particularly appealing. You can access a PDF of Hunt's piece here, and, for good measure, you can read her 1890 collection of Texas poetry - Lone-Star Lights - here. A good companion to Hunt's account of New Orleans is Julian Ralph's “New Orleans, Our Southern Capital,” published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1893.

Enjoy the article! And if you do, you'll probably enjoy the book that inspired it.

UPDATE: Full-text PDF available here.

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