The Great Southern Babylon: Sex, Race, and Respectability in New Orleans, 1865-1920.
Alecia Long set out to understand the history and culture of Storyville, New Orleans's notorious, and legal, vice district between 1897 and 1917. It was, she argues, at the center of common perceptions that New Orleans was the "great southern Babylon," a place in which Americans tolerated and even celebrated erotic pleasures and excess. In the process, however, Long discovered that Storyville was only the last and the smallest of a series of vice districts, and itself represents only one aspect of commercialized sexuality in the Crescent City after the Civil War. Unsurprisingly, she argues, commercialized sexuality was intimately tied to ideas of race and racial identity that were, in some ways, unique to New Orleans. Nevertheless, how racialized ideas about sexuality and respectability evolved over the period she studies reveals the close connection between sexuality and segregation, tying New Orleans to the larger South. New Orleans acted as a "regional safety valve" allowing white southern men to temporarily indulge in sin and pleasure in ways they could not in the rest of the South. While the tolerance of vice set New Orleans apart, it was simultaneously clearly southern in its pursuit of clear racial categories and its efforts to create definite boundaries between black and white and between morality and vice.
Loosely chronological, each chapter is organized around a legal case that illuminates aspects of the city's ambivalent relationship with a variety of forms of commercial sexual exchange, most obviously prostitution, but concert halls (with their scantily clad beer jerkers) and concubinage as well. For example, she explores the dwindling acceptance of cross-racial relationships through an inheritance dispute concerning the brother of Joseph Mathis, a white man, and Adeline Stringer, a colored woman. Mathis and Stringer's relationship, revealed through a collection of letters included in the case papers, lasted for several decades, ending with Mathis's death in 1887. The course of their relationships maps the demise of concubinage relationships, especially between non-white women and white men that had long been common and accepted. By the late 1880s, loving relationships across racial lines suggested social equality to whites who were ever more intent on racial hierarchy. Racial attitudes existed parallel to hardening attitudes towards immorality and vice, which required the same segregation that racial separation would soon require as well. Legal challenges to the operation of concert halls reveal that respectable whites increasingly desired physical separation from immorality, even while they continued to profit from or participate in vice in other ways. Business owners, for example, encouraged seedy entertainments to be confined to certain locations to protect the sensibilities of respectable women, though they might nonetheless frequent such places themselves. The creation of Storyville, a district in which prostitutes were required to live and practice their trade, was only the most overt means of keeping immorality away from virtuous white women. Yet the segregation of prostitutes within Storyville reflected common ideas of race as well. It was carved out of an African American neighborhood under the assumption that blacks, already innately immoral, would not be harmed by sharing streets and sidewalks with commercialized sexuality in its most explicit form. The relationship between prostitution and respectability was complex, however. While prostitution was the province of women "abandoned to lewdness," the profits it generated, in the hands of a shrewd woman, could buy at least the facade of middle-class respectability for herself or her family members. Finally, by the early twentieth century, New Orleans's long history of fluid racial categories, and its celebration of the erotic type of the octoroon, collided with hardening racial attitudes in debates over the segregation of black and white prostitutes and their clients in separate vice districts. One of the chief attractions of Storyville for white southern men had been the opportunity to sample exotic sexual experiences, especially with mixed-race women who supposedly exhibited the eroticism of African American women and the refined nature of white women. Open toleration of such attitudes became problematic as Jim Crow became more rigid. While a legal challenge brought by prostitutes of color forced the city to abandon its efforts to end interracial sexuality by segregating prostitution by race, requiring prostitutes to identify themselves as black or white signaled the end of the octoroon as a separate racial category. In the process, white southern men demonstrated their willingness to sacrifice sexual privileges in the name of consistent racial ideology. By doing so, New Orleans cemented itself as part of the South.
The Great Southern Babylon is an enjoyable and lively book. One cannnot help but smile upon reading, "New Orleans city officials, acknowledging their belief that sins of the flesh were inevitable, looked Satan in the eye, cut a deal, and gave him his own address." (106). Much of the evidence for Long's arguments come from legal cases, in which citizens grappling with issues of gender, respectability, race and commercial sexuality openly expressed their views, and, in some cases, movingly recounted their experiences and relationships. Focusing each chapter around individual cases, however, raises the inevitable question of typicality. It is clear, for example, that Josie Arlington was able to use the proceeds of her brothel to provide an elite, respectable lifestyle for her family members, but were her experiences unique? How did other madams and prostitutes negotiate the boundaries, both physical and ideological, between Storyville and the wider city? And while Joseph Mathis and Adeline Stringer clearly struggled to find a way to maintain their relationship, was the disapproval they faced from the wider community or did it reside primarily in the unforgiving racial attitudes of Mathis's brother Louis? Buttressing her arguments with information from other cases would strengthen her conclusions without diluting the power of the narrative. These quibbles aside, Long has presented a compelling picture of shifting ideas about race, gender, respectability, and sexuality in that Great Southern Babylon.
Lisa Lindquist Dorr
University of Alabama
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|Author:||Dorr, Lisa Lindquist|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2005|
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