Americans have long been fascinated with New Orleans. Its tropical climate, its racially and ethnically diverse population, its mixing of peoples and cultures, its distinctive architecture, cuisine, and music, and even the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina have distinguished it to many as the most “foreign” city in the United States. From its origins, New Orleans has been both praised and denigrated, but almost always, it’s been thought of as America’s “exotic other.”
In spring 2013, Professor Suzanne Jones’s seminar discussed how some of the country’s most interesting writers have engaged the city—its geography, culture, and myths. We compared the representations of New Orleans by natives such as George Washington Cable and Alice Dunbar-Nelson to the representations of newcomers such as Kate Chopin, William Faulkner, and Tennessee Williams as well as of frequent visitors, like Eudora Welty and Robert Olen Butler. Literary critic Lewis Simpson has argued that early on “the literary imagination isolated the Vieux Carré as the only interesting setting in the city thereby reducing the whole expanding city to one of its small parts,” but recent writers such as Walker Percy, John Gregory Brown, Christine Wiltz, and Brenda Marie Osbey, and filmmakers Spike Lee and J. Leo Chiang, have put other neighborhoods on the map: Gentilly, Uptown, the Garden District, Tremé, the lower Ninth Ward, and New Orleans East.
We are grateful to many people who have helped us along the way. In New Orleans, we would like to thank Professor Barbara Ewell at Loyola University for her suggestions about readings, Professor Thomas Bonner at Xavier University for his suggestions on mapping, and Professor Richard Campanella at Tulane University for his geographical insights. We owe a special thanks to my colleague Professor Nathan Snaza and to novelists John Gregory Brown, Robert Olen Butler, and Chris Wiltz.
With the help of the University of Richmond’s Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology and the Digital Scholarship Lab, the seminar created the map below, pinpointing where these writers set their works, and a timeline indicating when the writers lived in or visited New Orleans. Seminar participants researched each writer’s personal engagement with the city and analyzed how each writer used New Orleans in a literary work.
Click on either the map markers or the names on the timeline to display a name, image, street location, and the titles of short essays written by seminar participants. Within individual bubbles, click on the linked street address for a current view of that writer’s New Orleans literary setting. Click on linked essay titles for the full essay texts, which are hosted on the seminar's complementary Wordpress site.
Streetcar image courtesy of “NewOrleansOnline.com”