Becoming Cajun, Becoming American: The Acadian in American Literature from Longfellow to James Lee Burke.
MARIA HEBERT-LEITER, ORIGINALLY FROM THIBODAUX, LOUISIANA, HAS written the first book-length study of the Acadian (Cajun) character in American letters. This introductory study has its origins in her dissertation at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Her focus is on the evolution of the "path Cajuns took from their Acadian identifications to an all-American, yet different, notion of self" (3) in work by writers within this ethnic group and beyond it. Hebert-Leiter begins with an examination of linguistic concerns surrounding the terms "Acadian" and "Cajun." She then addresses Longfellow's Evangeline (1847) as the text that introduced the Acadian character to the wider American literary culture. She examines characters in George Washington Cable's late nineteenth century novel Bonaventure: A Prose Pastoral of Acadian Louisiana (1888), in which he discerns the particulars of Acadians and the necessity of their gaining power and assimilation through their acquisition of English. Hebert-Leiter's use of Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899) and several of Chopin's short stories emphasizes the ambiguous social status of Cajuns in a color-based society as well as the opportunity such status afforded Chopin to explore female characters more fully. In addressing the twentieth century and beyond, Hebert-Leiter achieves greater coherence as she examines writing by Ada Jack Carver, Elma Godchaux, Shirley Ann Grau and, notably, Ernest Gaines; the emphasis here is on the Americanization of Cajuns and "the consequences of such changes" (87). The Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux, created by James Lee Burke for his series of detective novels, gives Hebert-Leiter the opportunity for a sustained and intriguing explication of his character within the Cajun community and within the tradition of hard-boiled detective fiction. In moving into the new century, she sees Cajun characters in fiction by Chris Segura, Ken Wells, and especially Tim Gautreaux as embracing their cultural differences as part of being American. This study charts the Cajun character from an idyllic creation by Longfellow through various developmental and distinguishing stages until what makes the character separate actually makes him or her an organic part of the whole, subject to the forces of commodification and abuse that threaten every American character.
Hebert-Leiter's study is in a tradition that brings minority characters and writing into a national focus. The most obvious precedent for her efforts lies in the African American critical revival led by Benjamin Brawley's and William Stanley Braithwaite's studies in 1923 and 1925, respectively, as well as James A. Emanuel's Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America (1968). Hebert-Leiter acknowledges the similarity of her mission to that of those who are currently examining the African American literary tradition, including Philip Auger, Houston Baker, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Trudier Harris. As this is the first book on the subject of the Acadian in American literature, Hebert-Leiter makes effective use of essays on this topic by Mathe Allain, Barry Jean Ancelet, Carl Brasseaux, Tiffany Duet, and Marcia Gaudet. While this study stands alone, it also serves as a complement to Charles Stivale's Disenchanting Les Bon Temps: Identity and Authenticity in Cajun Music and Dance (2003).
Because of nation-wide interests in Cajun cuisine and music, the impact of which Hebert-Leiter discusses at various points in her study, she is quite correct to address linguistic implications of ethnic terms. For years there have been major disagreements about the term "Creole" and confusions of "Creole" with "Cajun." She offers accurate and clear distinctions about Creoles as well as Creoles of color, distinctions important for considering "Acadian" and its corruptions "'Cadian," "'Cadien," and "Cajun." Hebert-Leiter argues successfully that the term "Cajun" has evolved into a term in its own right, a word beyond a linguistic corruption and beyond limitations of race that reflects the evolution of a group extending in presence and reach well beyond the confines of coastal southern and southwestern Louisiana. Furthermore, the role of languages, both French and English, has both a rich and tortured existence among the Cajuns, who during the pre-WWII years were prevented from speaking French at school under threat of punishment. The Cajun linguistic situation was not unlike that of the Irish, dramatized in Brian Friel's play Translations (1980), in which Friel addresses the role of language and the effects of cultural imperialism. Hebert-Leiter follows this issue effectively in her examination of Cable's Bonaventure, in which the community has a "distrust of English-only public education" (50).
Aside from charting the evolution of Cajun characters, Hebert-Leiter recognizes Cable's and Chopin's late nineteenth-century depictions of sincere, communally oriented, rural Cajuns with less status than the Creoles in education and power. These characters are drawn to the pleasures of food, music, and dance. Early twentieth-century writers like Carver continue this image and the impositions of the dominant culture on their lives. After mid century Gaines's sense of a Cajun is simply a white person who speaks French (89), a view in some ways similar to the expansive use of "Creole," not necessarily linked to a specific line of descent. Burke's Robicheaux, a Cajun with a university degree, reads Gaines's Of Love and Dust (1967) and pursues criminals in a pastoral environment amid intrusions of the oil industry. Near the turn of the century, Gautreaux places a Cajun couple in Los Angeles who continue to speak French as a way of marking their dual identity. Hebert-Leiter's analysis of Cajun characters in earlier and current literature suggests they possess a common thread: the intersection of the past folkways with the pragmatism of American progress, which results in varying degrees of cultural assimilation.
This study with its discursive notes and references to a wide range of Cajun writers is a clear call for a comprehensive history of Cajun literature. For example, there are many writers like Thad St. Martin and E. P. O'Donnell, of the 1930s, whose Cajun characters are little known today. The revival of interest in the Cajun experience in literature goes beyond Louisiana and into Canada with Hans R. Runte's 1997 study Writing Acadia: The Emergence of Acadian Literature: 1970-1990. Ironically, it was Longfellow's interests in European culture that led him by way of Nathaniel Hawthorne's suggestion to imagine the Acadian Louisiana of Evangeline. Hebert-Leiter has taken a solid step to move this area of American literary study into transnational contexts.
Thomas Bonner, Jr.
Xavier University of Louisiana
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|Author:||Bonner, Thomas, Jr.|
|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2011|
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