Review of “The Accidental City” by Dr. Lawrence N. Powell. (ISBN: 978-0-674-05987-0) by Jon G. Laiche

Mine’s a scholarly book that tries to reach a general audience that doesn’t cotton to being staggered with the heavy breath of academic theory.” Dr. Powell in a personal e-mail to me. (5/6/12)

Until I received this note, I was wondering where this “new standard history of New Orleans’ first century” was going. It certainly was not an academic history – at least not what I was used to reading as a history geek, a history teacher, and a scholar in my own right. Dr. Powell’s conversational tone is a welcome change from some of those stuffy and reference laden books that most historians are used to consuming in order to get the “good stuff” buried in there (as Andy Griffith once said to Opy) “amongst the history”. Dare I say that this work could reflect the same style as Herodotus, Gibbon, and Boorstin. In any event it makes for a pleasant read. As far as Dr. Powell’s research is considered, the work is thorough and complete. I was thrown off by the lack of a bibliography, but, perhaps in the “popular” style, the bibliography is contained in the Notes, rather than as a separate section of the end matter. This is hard to follow sometime, but with only minor effort, it all falls into place.

The first four chapters deal with French colonial New Orleans. This period was, in itself, an exercise in adventure. Except for a few notable occasions, Louisiana was virtually ignored by the French crown and administration from 1699 to 1763. This led to a colony run “by the seat of one’s pants”, luckily by a few very talented people, Bienville being the foremost of the lot (and the most influential). The history, therefore, is made up of yarns about adventurers like Bienville, le Page du Pratz, and the Chauvin brothers in the lush jungle/swamp and beaches of the central Gulf Coast. A good deal of print is also expended upon the various options put forth by the locals, the Gulf Coasters, and the metropole back in Paris as to where locate Louisiana’s capital. This “controversy” described the intimately connected yet distinct careers of Bienville and the city. Even today, New Orleans revels in its saucy (food metaphor included), tumultuous, and “disorderly” past (and present). Growing up in the city, this attitude permeated my Creole soul through the very atmosphere of social and physical maturation as a New Orleanian. I will never forget the Mardi Gras of ’79. the police went on strike and the city fathers cancelled (LOL) Mardi Gras. As my wife and I made our way down St. Charles Ave. that morning in costume, the natives listened to the police and city authorities about as well as Bienville and his cronies listened to the precepts handed down from Paris. Since, nobody even thought of going to work that day, the streetcars up and down the avenue became the floats du jour. Beads and trinkets flew from the windows tossed by the riders and the walkers returned the favor, tossing the beads back to keep the cycle flowing. When we got to the Vieux Carré, the National Guardsmen, with dumbfounded looks upon their faces, gazed at a sixteen block square block party. Here was an “Accidental Mardi Gras” for “The Accidental City”. And this pretty much sums up the entire theme of Dr. Powell’s work.

Meanwhile, back in 1720, Paris sent some of its most enlightened engineers, architects, and artisans to create the model of an Enlightened city scape. Unfortunately, most of the other people transported to the city were about as unenlightened as you can get. Thus, never having gained much control over what these outlandish Frenchmen were doing, France finally gave up and gave the place to Spain.

I found the treatment of the Spanish colonial years enlightening my own research into the food culture of colonial and Creole New Orleans. While the French settlers, forced labor, and Indians were busy inventing some of the original Creole cuisine, they were mostly concerned with sheer survival. France did little to support Louisiana and New Orleans during its tenure as the metropole. The first two Creole generations were creating a food culture based largely on native foods and what could be smuggled in (which was quite a lot, actually). Under the Spanish administration, and for a variety of reasons, the second and third Creole generations were often lifted to the level of very prosperous consumers of American and European goods and foodstuffs. Dr. Powell’s book traces the interesting transition of New Orleans into a city of high culture and its attendant consumption. Indeed, smuggling never ceased, the wines of France and Spain were readily available, as were the culinary resources of the Caribbean world. The newly organized and regulated ”French” Market was a boon to consumers seeking exotic and Native foods for the kitchen and table. And perhaps for the first time (although there is evidence of possible earlier use), tomatoes and peppers made their entry into the Creole pantry. While Dr. Powell does not specifically detail this situation (except pp. 97-8), he paints a picture of a prosperous Creole society with leisure and the means to put their Creole cuisine on the map.

In this second – Spanish – half of the work, Dr. Powell weaves a subtle change over his history. What had been a fast paced, almost superficial story of the French settlement of Louisiana becomes a more traditional, detailed, and academic history of the Spanish period. Nevertheless, the story-telling remains of the highest caliber. This may be due to the fact that the existing historical sources are richer in detail for the Spanish period as compared to the French. Or simply because, more stuff happened under the Spanish regime. In contrast to the French, the Spanish metropole was much more generous in its support of its Caribbean colonies, of which Louisiana and Florida were the North American components. After the disastrous fires of 1788 and 1794, Spain literally poured millions of silver pesos into the colony to rebuild the capital. The plantation economy and the slave trade underwent phenomenal growth at the end of the 18th Century. Most significantly, in this reviewer’s opinion, the creolization of New Orleans was amplified and brought to fuller actualization during this period. This is perhaps where The Accidental City makes its greatest impact and contribution to the historical literature of New Orleans. Heretofore, creolization was a common assumption as a cultural phenomenon that defined New Orleans’ unique nature, Dr. Powell has documented and presented a cohesive and thorough study of the process of creolization that formed the accidental culture of this Accidental City, and gives New Orleans the flavor, the style, and the character that makes it the “most interesting” and the “most European” of American cities.


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