Thinking about New Orleans: Books (Part I)

Happy Friday, ARLISians!

OK, you are getting ready to take that trip to New Orleans in February to join your colleagues for the ARLIS-NA annual conference — you need some reading material!

Maybe you need something to get yourself in the NOLA mood when you have more time over the upcoming holidays?

No matter if you prefer to read in hardback, paperback, or ebook, there is much available to inspire and delight you. Let’s talk today about “classic” New Orleans-related literature. The following are just a few suggestions.

If you are interested in late nineteenth century New Orleans-related fiction and you have not read Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899, republished many times), I highly recommend it. It is set in the city of New Orleans, as well as at a summer resort called Grande Isle, near New Orleans. This book is not only one of the earliest American novels to focus on women’s issues, but it is considered a masterpiece and precursor to what the Southern novel would become.

If you like e-books, The Awakening, and Selected Short Stories by Kate Chopin can be read online, or downloaded in many formats via Project Gutenberg or obtained via Kindle or iBooks for less than a dollar.

If you are looking for nineteenth-century fiction and nonfiction, you will want to read some Lafcadio Hearn. Hearn spent only ten years in New Orleans, arriving by 1877, but he wrote quite a lot during that decade. In 2001, the University Press of Mississippi published Inventing New Orleans: Writings of Lafcadio Hearn, compiled by S. Frederick Starr.

In addition to his stories and essays, Hearn was also an artist, although his partial blindness forced him to give up making woodcuts. In The New Orleans of Lafcadio Hearn, Delia LaBarre (2007) discusses the woodcut drawings he made to accompany his writing. See more about Lafcadio Hearn, and his woodcuts, here.

View of the Belasco Theater in NYC.  Photo courtesy E. Lee Elzroth.
View of the Belasco Theater in NYC. Photo courtesy E. Lee Elzroth.

The twentieth-century writer, Tennessee Williams is certainly connected to the Crescent City. He moved to New Orleans right after college, and the city was the inspiration for his well-known 1940s plays The Glass Menagerie, and A Streetcar Named Desire (which earned a Pulitzer Prize). Both plays, as well as several of his others, were later made into films (see my Friday post on Movies for the famous Stella! scene).

Every March the Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival is held in New Orleans. Williams lived for awhile in the New Orleans French Quarter in a building which is now part of The Historic New Orleans Collection. The Quarter was the setting for his 1977 play, Vieux Carré. And guess what? A walking tour of the Quarter will be among those tours offered to conference attendees!

In addition to collections of his plays and short stories, there are several biographies available. Williams was an artist, too: see “Painter and muse” here.

"A Confederacy of Dunces," by John Kennedy Toole.
“A Confederacy of Dunces,” by John Kennedy Toole.

Two must reads of New Orleans-related fiction are The Moviegoer (1961) by Walker Percy, a winner of the National Book Award, and Confederacy of Dunces (1980) by John Kennedy Toole, a 1981 Pulitzer Prize winner.

The two authors are related. Percy was contacted many times by the deceased author’s mother before he finally read the manuscript of Confederacy in order to be rid of her. Instead, Percy loved it and made sure that it was published, but it took him three years. Upon its publication, Percy wrote that Toole’s book was “a major achievement, a huge one-of-kind rendering of life in New Orleans.” There is an extensive Toole archive at Tulane University (where there is an ARLIS/NA 2017 tour planned!).

Time magazine said of The Moviegoer, whose main character is a New Orleans lawyer, that it is “easy to read and hard to forget.” Confederacy of Dunces has sold over 1.5 million copies in 18 languages. I never see a hot dog vendor without thinking of Ignatius Reilly, Confederacy’s main character.

If you are looking for some serious nonfiction, you can do no better than Dr. Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital (Crown, 2013) which recounts life, death, and choices made in a New Orleans hospital immediately following Hurricane Katrina. This book was the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction, the Ridenhour Book Prize, the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

With Literary New Orleans, An Anthology of Fiction and Nonfiction About New Orleans you can have it all! The book covers history, fiction, essays, memoir, and poetry, and includes pieces by Audubon, Twain, Chopin, Anderson, Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Walker Percy, Zora Neale Hurston, Truman Capote, Arna Bontemps, Ishmael Reed, Andrei Codrescu, and others.

Andrei Codrescu is the author of New Orleans, Mon Amour: Twenty Years of Writings from the City (Algonquin Books, 2006; available in ebook or paperback). Essayist, novelist, and poet Codrescu says of his adopted city that “the official language is dreams.” Don’t you love that?

So dream on — about your February visit to The Big Easy, The Crescent City, The City That Care Forgot, New Orleans!

E. Lee Eltzroth, ARLIS-NA 2017 publicity coordinator

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