A History of Terrebonne Parish, Inch by Inch
by Benjamin Morris
Editor’s Note: Hard Scrabble to Hallelujah will be honored for 2017 LEH Book of the Year on April 13, 2017 at the 2017 LEH Bright Lights Awards Dinner presented by Entergy Louisiana, hosted at Shaw Center for the Arts in Baton Rouge.
While working on his novel Ulysses in the 1910s, James Joyce famously claimed to his confidant Frank Budgen that he wanted “to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.” Shift forward a century, and shift westward to southern Louisiana, and Joyce’s words may as well have been spoken by Christopher Cenac.
Along with his collaborator Claire Domangue Joller, Cenac, an orthopedic surgeon by day and humanities researcher by night, has just published the first of four scheduled volumes exploring Terrebonne Parish, their native soil. Hard Scrabble to Hallelujah, Volume 1: Bayou Terrebonne, Legacies of Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana—winner of a 2017 LEH Humanities Book of the Year award—is an expansive, encyclopedic account of the historic waterway of Bayou Terrebonne and the many diverse communities that have called it home.
A magisterial production, Hard Scrabble to Hallelujah is published in large-scale, full-color format, with lavish spreads lovingly detailing the people, places, structures, and stories that have formed Terrebonne Parish over the centuries. Traveling point by point and plot by plot down the bayou, Cenac and Joller have scoured every inch of this famed “good land” for their accounts, which cover sites as iconic as the Ducros plantation, as significant as the city of Houma, and as modest as the coastal hamlet of FaLa. The authors’ deep roots in the community, bolstered by a wide variety of local, state, and federal sources, provide the foundation for their research, and their investigations yield carefully traced lineages of families, houses, and landmarks.
Cenac and Joller have suggested that one of the purposes of their volume is to collect in one place the known information about given properties or places in Terrebonne Parish, and in this they mightily succeed. In the main, most of the accounts follow a standard formula: for any given historic house, they begin with a discussion of its original owners, the family history and political context of the times, and the general development of the property. After detailing the agricultural production of the land and any significant geographic, architectural, or historic features, they conclude with deaths, marriages, successions, and present-day status of the site. While the history of sites involved in sugar cultivation and production is their main focus, they also include sites pertinent to animal, industrial, religious, and maritime history as well.
Hard Scrabble to Hallelujah, Volume 1: Bayou Terrebonne, Legacies of Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana
by Christopher E. Cenac, Sr.,
with Claire Domangue Joller
502 pp. University Press of Mississippi
As guides to the region, Cenac and Joller are careful to cover nearly every site of interest on the map, and familiar place-names such as St. George, Residence, and Pointe-aux-Chênes receive all the attention one would expect—as do surnames such as Belanger, Thibodaux, and Ellender. Their explanations of agricultural and mechanical processes are learned and engaging, as are their discussions of the history of innovation in these fields. Yet perhaps best of all are their accounts of local lore, those stories that tend not to travel past the parish line. They detail lost geographic features such as the Barataria Canal; the heritage of naval aviation in Terrebonne and its surprisingly rich history of blimps; the experience of German prisoners of war in the 1940s; the now-defunct Easter lily farms that once yielded a staggering six hundred thousand bulbs per year; and the strange and compelling tale of Jean-Baptiste Dugas, a nineteenth-century hermit whose only attire was a blanket clasped with a thorn.
Visually, the book is a feast: nearly every one of its five hundred pages enjoys a suite of images pertinent to the subject under discussion. Included here are photographs, maps, drawings, sketches, deeds, land grants, wills, letters, bills of sale, diagrams, surveys, aerial photographs, newspaper clippings, cartoons, advertisements, and reproductions of paintings by George Rodrigue—all printed with exceptional resolution and clarity. Indeed, with such a cornucopia, each new page feels like a treasure box to open, putting faces to names (Dugas included, thankfully), maps to land claims, or camera lens to historic sites and structures. In general, the images cradle their text gently, and while some spreads can feel overcrowded, these form the exception rather than the rule.
That said, the length and sheer ambition of the book do at times cause it to tremble under its own weight, and while the production values of Hardscrabble to Hallelujah are extremely high, future volumes will benefit from cleaner design. For starters, the structure is unclear: after two named chapters and notes on land terms and sources (which are admirably clear and succinct), the rest of the book consists of individual entries ordered roughly by their placement on the bayou, traveling from upstream to down. While serviceable, clearer section headings throughout the book would corral this overwhelming mass of material. Elsewhere, issues in typography lead to errant paragraphing, lineation, and orphan control, impeding readability, as do occasional instances of needless repetition in the text. Lastly, some entries remain unsourced or only partially sourced, and some citations lack key information regarding authorship, locations, publishers, or specific resources as opposed to general nods to ancestry.com.
Individually, these oversights are only annoying, but taken together, they do invite greater care in editing in future volumes in the series. And thankfully, they are correctible, giving readers keen for deeper exploration into the parish much to anticipate. With four total volumes envisioned in the series, the second book will detail Bayou Black and Bayou Buffalo and is currently scheduled for publication in 2018—certainly enough time to scrutinize the text and to remedy any minor issues of design. For all told, Hard Scrabble to Hallelujah succeeds beautifully in its aim and is a significant contribution to state and local history.
Too many comparisons to Ulysses would be a mistake, but one more is warranted. Though very much a work possessing a coherent plot and a clear beginning and end, Joyce’s novel is often celebrated for its distinct episodes, whose individual chapters provide as much pleasure and reward as the larger story of Leopold and Molly Bloom. So, too, does Hard Scrabble to Hallelujah—perhaps even more so. Grand, detailed, and exhaustive, this work is best read not cover-to-cover as a narrative account, but rather as a combination of guidebook, compendium, and companion volume to travel. Indeed, already looking forward to his next trip “down the bayou,” at least one reader plans to keep this remarkable book less closed on the coffee table than open on the front seat of his car.
A poet, writer, and researcher, Benjamin A. Morris, Ph.D., is the author most recently of Hattiesburg, Mississippi: A History of the Hub City (Arcadia/The History Press, 2014). http://benjaminalanmorris.com.