It is a story always waiting to be written, an ever-changing work in progress. From the ragged sidewalks of the old city to the gleaming mirrored high rise office towers reaching for the clouds, New Orleans has all the makings of great literature.
With ever-colorful Louisiana politicians as antagonists, and drama playing itself out daily in the French Quarter, the city never stops inventing and producing itself. With the mighty Mississippi River and centuries-old Spanish architecture as backdrops, the plot never wears thin.
Each time someone makes the mistake of trying to wrap the city up in a neat literary package, the colorful characters and the living theatre that are New Orleans reassert themselves in print or film.
The results have become a body of work created by some of the most renowned writers of the past two centuries. Their tales are often thematically universal, globally cross-cultural and fine examples of literary “staying power.”
With New Orleans and its singularly human drama as a setting or plot enhancer, stories that were written as long ago as the 1800’s still seem more like chronicles of today. “New Orleans has become one of the cities of the mind, and is therefore immortal,” said author Cleanth Brooks in 1977. Indeed.
In fact, some writers have observed of New Orleans that even though situated in the deep South, it seems to be a place all its own, somewhere to indulge in deep imaginings and let the city be a muse for ageless stories. Eudora Welty described place as a magical element of fiction, one of the “lesser angles” that watch over the writer, southern or northern.
In Southern cities, including New Orleans, place becomes a steamy or strategic plot device. In New Orleans’ case that may be simply because the place itself is so much a part of its people. When someone says he or she is from New Orleans, there’s a rich heritage and distinctive history that comes with that status.
Perhaps no writer ever capitalized on New Orleanians’ sense of place in a fashion richer or more colorful than Tennessee Williams.
From the time Williams came to New Orleans from Mississippi at the end of the 1930s, he often said he found a type of freedom in the city he had never experienced anywhere else. The sense of liberation Williams felt often made its way into his work, whether in the dialogue or the raw emotion it inspired in its characters.
Few people are unfamiliar with Stanley Kowalski’s primal, desperate scream in Williams’ classic “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Kowalski, perspiring from the summer humidity, on his knees in a French Quarter courtyard, beseeching his wife to listen to him: “STELLLLaaaa” still resounds in the streets of New Orleans, even if only annually at the Tennessee Williams Festival, an event that features a Stella Yelling Contest.
Attendees come from all over the world to enjoy such festive events as readings from Night of the Iguana, or the New Orleans Opera Association’s production of Streetcar. The festival is clear evidence of New Orleans’ unwavering respect for its literary image.
It is a heritage that includes names such as Walt Whitman, Truman Capote, John Kennedy Toole, Lillian Hellman, Walker Percy, and William Faulkner, to name but a few.
Faulkner, who became arguably the foremost Southern writer of the 20th Century, took up serious fiction writing while living in New Orleans in 1925. To this day, Faulkner is a figure New Orleans reveres, perhaps because of the elegant words the author committed to describe the Crescent City.
“The violet dusk held in soft suspension lights slow as bell strokes. Jackson Square was not a green and quiet lake in
which abode lights round as jellyfish featuring with silver mimosa and pomegranate and hibiscus beneath which lantana and cannas bled. Pontalba and cathedral were cut from blackpaper and pasted flat on a green sky; above them taller palms were fixed in black and soundless explosions.”
Finally, an author who truly sees New Orleans as we see it, thought countless New Orleans natives. Every year Faulkner’s life and his work are celebrated with “Words and Music: A Literary Feast in New Orleans.” Part musical extravaganza, part writers’ conference and part celebration of the author’s contributions, the event draws hundreds of participants.
Agents, editors, established authors and aspiring writers converge in a city that truly appreciates and nurtures the art of writing. Decades change and the culture shifts, but somehow the art of writing has been able to thrive in New Orleans.
Just across Lake Pontchartrain, in Covington, La., Walker Percy often found himself just far enough removed from the city to see it with a clear vision. He used that vision to bring New Orleans to the attention of literature lovers throughout the world, culminating with a National Book Award for his novel, The Moviegoer. Inside the city, in the elegant Garden District, another author finds her inspiration again and again from the people and mystic ambience of the City that Care Forgot.
She is Anne Rice, and by now her musings and imaginative take on what is, and what could be in Louisiana is legendary. She is as beloved by Hollywood as she is by New Orleanians. Anne Rice is a figure of global prominence, but New Orleans will always be her inspiration.
New Orleans, it seems, is in fact the source of endless inspiration for the world’s greatest writers.
From the irreverent curbside manner of Paradise hot dog vendor Ignatius J. Reilly in John Kennedy Toole’s classic, A Confederacy of Dunces, to author Andrei Codrescu’s account of seeking his muse while drinking coffee in a local cemetery in his short story,“The Muse is Always Half-Dressed in New Orleans,” the stories arerich with the sultry texture of a city that courts creativity.
Early in the twentieth century, a Greek writer, Lafcadio Hearn, who settled in Louisiana to write his “Creole Sketches” for an afternoon New Orleans daily, most likely spoke for generations of writers who would let the literary spirit move them in New Orleans, when he wrote:
“For in this season is the glamour of New Orleans strongest upon those whom she attracts to her from less hospitable climates, and fascinates by her nights of magical moonlight, and her days of dreamy languors and perfumes. There are few who can visit her for the first time without delight, and few who can ever leave her without regret; and none who can forget her strange charm when they have once felt its influence.”
The power of what Hearn calls New Orleans’ “strange charm” is surpassed only by the power of the words writers have used for centuries to paint the singular elegance of a city that continually reinvents itself, to the delight of wordsmiths from all corners of the world. New Orleans remains a great lady in waiting for her close-up; and none have more sweetly and accurately captured her essence than those who wrap her in words that last through the centuries.
This material may be reproduced for editorial purposes of promoting New Orleans. Please attribute stories toNew Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. 2020 St. Charles Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70130 504-566-5019. www.neworleanscvb.com. Revised 2009.