The Writer’s City

What happens in New Orleans has never stayed in New Orleans. Instead, it travels throughout the world, dispersing the city’s unique cultural flavors everywhere. The literature of New Orleans has shaken the world, whether it’s Tennessee Williams or Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Walker Percy or Anne Rice, Truman Capote or Charles Bukowski. The low-lying town at the tip of the Mississippi River has a reputation that attracts writers like moths to flame. T.R. Johnson’s masterpiece, New Orleans: A Writer’s City, shows how that flame was ignited and nurtured over hundreds of years.

Cambridge University Press laid out a challenge to map the life of the world’s great literary capitals starting with New York, London, Dublin and New Orleans. It’s a daunting task to document the interactions between a city’s literary luminaries and the environments around them. “[S]imply because something is impossible is no good reason not to go ahead and give it a whirl,” says Johnson in his introduction. How to keep it from turning into long paragraphs of names and places?

Turn it into a murder mystery! And not just murder; there’s deception and intrigue around every latticed corner of the French Quarter. Wave after wave of immigrants wash over the city – the French and Spanish, Kentucks and Haitians, Sicilians and Irish, Americans, slaves and “free people of color,” all briefly occupying the high ground on the bank of the Mississippi River. It’s a place of suicide and despair, floods and disease, prostitution and revenge – living with “the persistent, creeping sense that one must always be ready to run.” And still New Orleans holds a flame that attracts writers who cannot resist her decadent charms and debauched malaise.

Johnson finds the eternal flame of the displaced African diaspora still burning in Congo Square 300 years after Africans arrived in New Orleans. Before Thomas Jefferson purchased Louisiana from France in 1803, New Orleans had many generations of mixed race “free people of color” who had rights and were not slaves. Their slaves also had rights, among them the right to not work on Sunday and to gather at Congo Square to dance, mingle, and sell home goods. These activities at Congo Square inspired some of the earliest writers in America, including O. Henry and Mark Twain, Lafcadio Hearn and Zora Neale Hurston. New Orleans’ complex history of racial mixology has made this city a forbidden fruit that writers can’t resist.

Johnson goes out of his way to be inclusive and to tell the whole intricate story. He cites as many female writers – such as Kate Chopin and Katherine Anne Porter – as male writers – such as William Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson. He surfaces early queer fiction, science fiction and fantasy. He takes a refreshingly broad stance on what is a writer and includes songwriters, filmmakers, photographers, choreographers, playwrights, comics – even architecture and pottery. We truly see how the city’s literary culture bubbles up from these diverse ingredients. The book shows how New Orleans and its literature both grow together, feeding off each other.

Johnson is best at mining the nuggets that drive a narrative that peels back the mystery of New Orleans’ allure. A favorite surprise is when he travels to Princeton University’s library to inspect the charred remnant of Toni Morrison’s unpublished musical about New Orleans. Another surprise was Johnson’s thoughtful review of Tyler Perry’s impressive written output: 22 films, 24 stage plays, 1200 television episodes. He pulls in Krazy Kat’s creator, George Harriman, and bestselling author Michael Lewis, who both have deep ties to New Orleans. Blockbuster and fringe writers all get a fair hearing from Johnson.

Every chapter ends with a “Coda” that packs a punch. These are some of the most gut-wrenching, enlightening portions of the New Orleans saga where Johnson highlights new talent such as Valerie Martin’s Property and Albert Woodfox’s biography, Solitary, based on his 43 years in solitary confinement at Angola State Penitentiary. Johnson challenges the fiction of Southern manners with an all-encompassing embrace of marginalized authors in a wide variety of genres who might otherwise be left out of literary history. In this he has done a great service.

Cambridge University Press could not have asked for a better author to tackle this difficult assignment. Johnson has been a professor in the English Department at Tulane University since the start of the century. He is expected to know the literature of New Orleans by heart. He’s also a mentor to dozens of students who have researched scores of local writers and discovered important connections. They are well-thanked in the author’s acknowledgements. And he’s a much-loved jazz show host on New Orleans’ listener-supported radio station, WWOZ, with a great ear for emerging talent.

New Orleans: A Writer’s City is a masterpiece in its architecture and its scope, in its edge-of-the-seat writing style and in its “struggle to hold onto treasured cultural history while hemmed in on all sides by extraordinary devastation and loss.” It’s a handsome, hardcover with glossy paper and full-bleed color photos that will be a welcome addition to any serious library. I can’t wait to see the rest of this series putting writers in their places.

Steve O’Keefe is the author of several books, most recently Set the Page on Fire: Secrets of Successful Writers, from New World Library, based on over 250 interviews. He is the former editorial director for Loompanics Unlimited.