Though the Native Americans of the Lower Mississippi Valley had sophisticated cultures, with associated narrative traditions, the loss of those languages left few traces of their literature. Instead, the earliest written accounts of the state were the many official and semiofficial descriptions in Spanish and French, written during the two nations’ 300-year struggle to control the colony. Among them are Cabeza de Vaca’s Relation, written in 1542, and Le Page du Pratz’s Histoire de la Louisiane, written in 1758. An early female perspective is provided in Marie St. Agustin de Tranchepain’s 1859 account of the arrival of the Ursuline nuns in 1727, Relation du voyages des premieres Ursulines a la Nouvelle Orleans.
The Earliest Louisiana Fiction
The honor of producing the colony’s first published work of poetry goes to Julien Poydras de Lallande, a native of Brittany, who found his way to Pointe Coupee Parish and wrote a 1779 poem celebrating the capture of Baton Rouge, “La Prise du Morne du Baton Rouge.” In 1814, Louisiana’s first extant drama, La Fete du Petit-Ble, ou L’Heroism de Poucha-houmma (The Festival of the Young Corn, or the Heroism of Poucha-Houmma) appeared. Written by French army officer Paul Louis Le Blanc de Villeneufve, this stiffly neoclassic tragedy reflects the author’s admiration for the Choctaw people and includes lively details of native life.
Oral traditions were another early source of the state’s literary heritage. Louisiana’s ethnic diversity is evident in Creole folk songs and tales, which combine elements of African folklore with French, Acadian, German, Indian, and Caribbean folk tales. Local songs and stories appeared in anthologies, such as Slave Songs of the United States, published in 1867, as well in periodicals such as Le Moniteur de la Louisiane, the colony’s first newspaper, begun in 1794, and the popular bilingual paper, L’Abeille (The Bee), which lasted from 1827 to 1923.
Though effectively doomed by the widespread arrival ofAnglo-Americans in 1803, French language and culture continued to flourish in the decades after the Louisiana Purchase. Edward LaRoque Tinker’s bio-bibliography, Les Ecrits de langue francaise en Louisiane au XIXe siecle (The Writings of French Language in Nineteenth-Century Louisiana), for example, notes more than 250 French-language newspapers and journals in the state and several hundred French authors.
Perhaps the most noteworthy of these texts was L’Album Litteraire, Journal des Jeunes Gens, Amateure de la Litterature, the first literary publication by Free People of Color in Louisiana. Founded in 1843 by Armand Lanusse and J. L. Marciacq just as their free status was being threatened, L’Album was followed in 1845 by Les Cenelles, a landmark anthology of poems. The seventeen writers included Camille Thierry and Victor Sejour, who later achieved considerable fame as a playwright in Paris. Perhaps the most famous poets of the era were Dominque Rouquette and his brother, Adrien.
Two important French novelists were Albert Mercier and Sidonie de la Houssaye. Mercier wrote six novels, including L’habitation Saint-Ybars ou Maitres et Esclaves en Louisiane (St.-Ybars Plantation or Masters and Slaves in Louisiana), published in 1881, a detailed account of slave society from his youth. Dr. Mercier also helped found the literary club, L’Athenee Louisianais, and was editor of Comptes rendus de l’Athenee Louisianais, both major supporters of Louisiana’s dying Francophile literature and language. Perhaps best known for providing George Washington Cable with materials for his Strange and True Stories of Louisiana, published in 1889, Sidonie de la Houssaye (who published under the name Louise Raymond) wrote a four-part serial novel, Les Quarteronnes de la Nouvelle-Orleans (The Quadroons of New Orleans), together with Pouponne et Balthazar, which retells the story of Legend of Evangeline, a Louisiana odyssey most famously recounted by Longfellow. Elisee Reclus’ “Fragments du voyage a la Nouvelle-Orleans,” published in Paris in 1860, remains the most compelling of the many nineteenth-century travel narratives about the state.
Early Louisiana Literature in English
Antebellum English-speaking writers were also making contributions in more distinctly American genres. Henry Clay Lewis, who published under the name Madison Tensas, wrote two accounts of frontier Louisiana in the southwestern humor tradition: Odd Leaves from the Life of a Louisiana Swamp Doctor in 1843 and The Swamp Doctor’s Adventures in the Southwest in 1858. Several slave narratives were also set in Louisiana, notably Solomon Northrup’s shocking 1853 account, Twelve Years a Slave. Northup describes how he was kidnapped in New York and sold “down the river” to a plantation on the Red River.
The Civil War and the state’s readmission to the Union marked the demise of French as a primary literary language. But if English ultimately prevailed, Louisiana’s unique cultural differences remained central to its appeal. And if George Washington Cable was the first major American writer to explore and exploit these distinctive tensions in his work, he was hardly the last. Cable’s collection of short stories, Old Creole Days, and his 1880 novel, The Grandissimes, generated national interest in Creoles culture, despite Cable’s critical views of slavery and its consequences. Along with Bonaventure, an engaging portrait of Cajuns life, Cable’s fiction established Louisiana as a fashionable source of Local Color Fiction, a popular genre in the 1880s and 1890s.
Local Color Fiction
A number of important Louisiana writers capitalized on the fascination with regional difference, including Cable’s friend, Greek-born Lafcadio Hearn. In addition to numerous newspaper sketches, collected in 1884 as Stray Leaves from Strange Literature, Hearn is best known for his hauntingly beautiful meditation on the devastating hurricane of 1856, Chita: A Memory of Last Island, published in 1889. Like Cable and de la Houssaye, Hearn was a serious student of folk culture; his Gumbo Zherbes: Little Dictionary of Creole Proverbs, was published in 1885. This volume, along with Alcée Fortier’s Louisiana Folk-Tales, in French Dialect and English Translation published a decade later, remain important ethnological resources.
Also influenced by Cable, Grace King was critical of what she and other New Orleanians regarded as his “one-sided” view of Creole culture. Despite her conservative views on race, King exhibits a deft prose style in collections like Balcony Stories and her 1916 novella, The Pleasant Ways of St. Medard. King also wrote several lively volumes of Louisiana history, including New Orleans: The Place and the People, and an autobiography, Memories of a Southern Woman of Letters, published in 1932.
Though Kate Chopin was not a Louisiana native, her fiction has become closely identified with the state. Her first novel, At Fault, reflects her experience in central Louisiana in the 1880s, while her stunning short fiction, gathered in two published volumes, Bayou Folk and A Night in Acadie, provides unmatched portraits of Louisiana, especially among the rural ‘Cadians (or Cajuns). The critical rediscovery of her 1899 novel The Awakening in the 1970s established her as a major realist and a provocative explicator of women’s experience.
More famous in her own time was Ruth McEnery Stuart. Her humor, realistic dialect, and “authentic” portraits of African American life, such as Napoleon Jackson in 1902, made her popular with readers. More accurate, if more ambiguous, reflections of black Creole experience were provided by her younger contemporary, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, whose poetry and stories were collected in Violets and Other Tales, published in 1895, and in The Goodness of St. Rocque and Other Stories, published in 1899. Born in New Orleans, Dunbar-Nelson later moved to Delaware, and her remarkable diaries reflect her active engagement on behalf of civil rights for African Americans and women.
Other talented writers in late nineteenth-century Louisiana include poets Mary Ashley Townsend (“Xariffa”), Martha Field (“Catherine Cole”), and Mollie Moore Davis; poet and publisher Eliza Jane Nicholson; novelists Jeannette Walworth and Elizabeth Bisland Wetmore; and Elizabeth Gilmer, who as Dorothy Dix wrote the first and longest-running newspaper advice column in America.
Early Twentieth-Century Louisiana Literature
In the years after World War I, a number of writers and artists, including Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, and Thomas Wolfe, found a temporary home and a lasting source of inspiration in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Several of them also contributed to a progressive new magazine, Double Dealer, founded in 1921 to refute the notion that the South was a literary backwater. Together, these writers played an important role in what is often called the Southern Renaissance, an outpouring of southern literature between the two world wars.
Though African American writers were not much encouraged anywhere in the Jim Crow South, including Louisiana, the energy of the “New Negro Movement,” based in New York City’s Harlem, did support several white interpretations of black culture. Tennessee transplant Roark Bradford, for example, based much of his fiction on black folklore, including Old Man Adam an’ His Chillun’, which became the 1930 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Green Pastures, while in 1928 Edward Laroque Tinker published Toucoutou, a fictionalization of a nineteenth-century incident of “passing” for white.
In the 1930s, the Cane River region, near Natchitoches, became a site of increased literary activity when plantation mistress Cammie Henry established an artists’ colony on Melrose Plantation. Its residents included Ada Jack Carver, author of numerous short stories and plays about Cajuns life; nature writer and activist Caroline Dormon; popular historian Harnett Kane; and Gwen Bristow, who published many well-regarded novels with Louisiana settings, including her plantation trilogy: Deep Summer, The Handsome Road, and This Side of Glory.
Baton Rouge native Lyle Saxon wrote his only novel, Children of Strangers, while in residence at Melrose. Published in 1937, it examines racial tensions in Isle de Brevelle, a unique community of free people of color living along the Cane River in central Louisiana. Like Grace King, Saxon wrote popular history as well as fiction, including Father Mississippi and Fabulous New Orleans. As state director of the Federal Writers Project, he produced other important works, such as Gumbo Ya-Ya: A Collection of Louisiana Folk Tales, published in 1945. An unacknowledged collaborator in these landmark volumes was the supervisor of the Negro Writers Project in Louisiana, Marcus Christian. Though Christian was an accomplished folklorist and poet, most of his nearly twelve hundred poems remain unpublished.
Mid Twentieth-Century Louisiana Literature
In the mid-twentieth century, two major American dramatists found inspiration in Louisiana’s culture and history. Tennessee Williams visited New Orleans in 1938 and made the city famous in a series of prize-winning plays, including A Streetcar Named Desire; Suddenly, Last Summer; and Vieux Carré. Lillian Hellman offered a somewhat less romantic view of New Orleans in her best-known play, The Little Foxes, published in 1939. Her remarkable three-volume memoir, An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento, and Scoundrel Time, published later in her life, provide equally powerful images of the state.
After World War II, Louisiana fiction began to assume more modernist contours. Robert Penn Warren based his gripping 1947 political novel All the King’s Men on the career of Huey Long. Serving on the English faculty of Louisiana State University, Warren, along with his colleague Cleanth Brooks, founded one of the nation’s premier literary journals, The Southern Review. Together, they also helped establish New Criticism, a method of literary analysis emphasizing close readings of texts, as the dominant paradigm among mid-twentieth-century scholars.
Louisiana’s colorful past also remained serviceable to writers of historical romance, most notably Frances Parkinson Keyes, who wrote more than fifty religious biographies, travel narratives, and novels. As in her most famous work, Dinner at Antoine’s, published in 1948, Keyes’s fiction typically centers on social life and cultural conventions. Her home, the historic Beauregard House in the French Quarter, served as a center of literary activity in 1950s New Orleans.
Perhaps the best-known Louisiana writer of this period was Walker Percy. Though he was from a prominent Mississippi family, Percy lived much of his life in Covington, on the northern shore of Lake Pontchartrain. His first novel, The Moviegoer, published in 1965, is a quintessential evocation of contemporary ennui and suburban New Orleans. Percy’s other novels, including The Last Gentleman, Love in the Ruins, and Lancelot, are equally dark and funny. Percy was also responsible for the posthumous publication of John Kennedy Toole’s riotously sardonic novel about New Orleans, A Confederacy of Dunces, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1980.
In Louisiana as elsewhere, race relations and aesthetics were profoundly reconfigured during the 1960s. The state provided critical energy to the emerging Black Arts Movement. Writers such as Tom Dent, Kalamu ya Salaam, and others founded the Free Southern Theater in 1968 (succeeded by BLKARTSOUTH and the Congo Square Writers Workshop), along with publications like Nkombo, Bamboula, and The Black River Journal, which showcased the experimental work of many young black writers.
Late Twentieth-Century Louisiana Literature
In the late twentieth century, Louisiana writers continued to struggle with issues of race. In the 1970s, for example, African American writer Ernest Gaines explored rural black life within its broader context. The setting for much of Gaines’s fiction is Pointe Coupée, a rural parish near Baton Rouge, where he grew up. In his many short stories and novels, including The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Gathering of Old Men, and A Lesson Before Dying, Gaines creates a rich tapestry of Louisiana life. The Free Southern Theater and its successors helped to redefine a more inclusive Louisiana literature in the final decades of the century. Writers like Sybil Kein, for example, have worked thoughtfully to preserve and recreate Creole, Afro-French language and folklore in such pointedly bilingual collections as Gombo People, Delta Dancer, and Creole Journal.
Among the state’s white writers influenced by the racial turmoil of the 1960s was Shirley Ann Grau. Beginning with her 1965 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Keepers of the House and continuing through her 1985 short-story collection Nine Women, Grau examines the connections between racism and political power, while adding the inflection of gender. Though working in a very different vein, novelist Anne Rice exhibited a heightened racial awareness in her 1979 novel The Feast of All Saints about free people of color in 1840s New Orleans. Beginning with her 1976 novel Interview with the Vampire, Rice’s vampire chronicles have given readers around the globe a unique gothic view of the Pelican State.
Contemporary Louisiana Literature
Like their predecessors, recent Louisiana writers continue to explore the state’s history and culture, but often with a new twist. Robert Olen Butler memorably details the lives of modern Vietnamese immigrants, for example, in his 1994 collection of short stories, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. The impressive range of Valerie Martin continues to unfold, from futuristic fables such as A Recent Martyr to Property, a 2003 novel that applies a contemporary lens to Louisiana’s slave-holding past. While Tim Gautreaux examines contemporary Cajun life and its recent past in his novels, The Next Step in the Dance, The Clearing, and Missing, Rebecca Wells memorably recounts growing up in central Louisiana in her best-selling comic novels, Little Altars Everywhere and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.
Beginning in the late 1980s, writers of detective fiction often utilized Louisiana, and especially New Orleans, as a setting. James Lee Burke, for example, makes provocative use of Louisiana culture with popular novels such as The Neon Rain and his moving post-Katrina novel, The Tin Roof Blowdown. Other Louisiana writers, including Elmore Leonard, Chris Wiltz, Toni Causey, and Julie Smith, also produce mystery and crime fiction with a strong sense of place and culture.
Other writers whose fiction continues to refine our view of this eclectic state include Jason Berry, Andre Dubus, Poppy Z. Brite, Sheila Bosworth, Andrei Codrescu, John Dufresne, Richard Ford, Patti Friedmann, Nancy Lehmann, Dave Madden, Tim Parrish, Martin Pousson, Fatima Shaik, and Lalita Tademy, among many others.
Prominent contemporary Louisiana poets include Bogalusa native Yusef Komunyakaa, who uses the motifs of jazz to shape the powerful images in his award-winning poetry. Former Louisiana Poet LaureateBrenda Marie Osbey intricately weaves an array of voices and experiences, mirroring Louisiana’s multiethnic culture, into her work. Other important contemporary Louisiana poets include Ralph Adamo, Alvin Aubert, Dave Brinks, Catherine Brosman, Maxine Cassin, Debbie Clifton, Alice Claudel, Peter Cooley, Moira Crone, Quo Vadis Gex-Breaux, Lee Meitzen Grue, Cleopatra Mathis, Sue Owen, and Mona Lisa Saloy.
Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding of New Orleans reconfigured the literary as well as the physical and social landscape of the state. The storms of August 2005 unleashed an incredible torrent of literature—poems, novels, collections, journals, blogs, performance art, plays, memoirs, and films. Among the most visible were John Biguenet’s acclaimed plays, Rising Water and Shotgun; Tom Piazza’s novel, City of Refuge; Jerry Ward’s The Katrina Papers: A Journal of Trauma and Recovery; and Chris Rose’s moving newspaper columns, collected as One Dead in Attic. Several powerful collections of fiction, memoir, and poetry were also inspired by the storm: Jarrett Lofstead and Joe Longo’s Life in the Wake: Fiction from Post-Katrina New Orleans, Philip C. Kolin and Susan Swartwout’s Hurricane Blues: Poems about Katrina and Rita, and David Rutledge’s eclectic volume Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans? As these and many others writers demonstrate, the meaning of living at the margins—of the gulf, of the river, of the nation—continues to fascinate and inspire the writers of this remarkably diverse state.
Written by Barbara C. Ewell