Vernacular kinship, the Creole City, and Faulkner's "New Orleans".
--New Orleans reporter (1)
I thought I lived in America until shortly after Katrina.
--Karen Carter, Interview (2)
[T]here is a kind of knowledge that can be held while being ignored, a kind of vision that looks but does not see. Such knowledge does not disappear into the depths of its repression--the prevailing model for the work of Faulknerian evasion or deferral. Instead, such knowledge goes into open hiding on the surface of the Faulknerian text, where, like Edgar Allan Poe's purloined letter, it is perhaps too obvious to be seen.
--John T. Matthews, "Recalling the West Indies" (239)
I will start with a disclaimer and a deferral: this scholarly search to find what might be "hiding on the surface of the Faulknerian text" from and about New Orleans began as a personal quest for kinship within the Vieux Carre. A friend from graduate school forwarded me a call for papers for the 2010 American Comparative Literature Association Conference, to be held in New Orleans. Here was an opportunity not only to investigate the conference theme of "Creoles, Diasporas, Cosmopolitanisms," but also to congregate with friends for conversation, culinary delights, and the cultural intersections found only in New Orleans. The conference seminar my colleagues and I ultimately organized focused on "The Creole City," a topic defined not exclusively within the scope of New Orleans, but more broadly as an inquiry into literary representations of cosmopolitan and "creolized" ports and portals of all kinds. The papers forming the basis of the seminar discussion were studies of literary production situated in a range of "creole cities" at different specific historical junctures: Paris, Port-au-Prince, Brooklyn, Fort-de-France, Marseilles, New Orleans, and Rio de Janeiro; and in time frames ranging from the nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries. As a critic long interested in Faulkner and as a citizen drawn (like so many others) to the compelling story of New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, I decided to focus on Faulkner's early writings from the city alongside more contemporary journalistic, cinematic, and historical representations of New Orleans and its environs, especially Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. (3) What emerged for the conference paper was a critical hodgepodge (perhaps a methodological disaster?); as one seminar participant provocatively asked, "What does it mean to make Spike Lee and William Faulkner kin?"
The issue of kinship is indeed a central concern of this essay. I hope to establish a useful working concept of "vernacular kinship": improvisational acts of affiliation, across difference, between persons dedicated to the local, the regional, and the vernacular. (4) In this essay, I show how Lee and Faulkner emerge as surprising authorial "kin" in their attempts to represent the Creole City through the voices of its racialized and displaced citizens. My reading of the New Orleans Sketches, particularly the sketch titled "New Orleans," will reveal Faulkner emerging in 1925 not only as a forceful modernist prose stylist, but also as a cultural critic whose discernment about the paradoxes of racialized identity within the urban space of New Orleans would in important ways prefigure Lee's monumental When the Levees Broke. Both Faulkner and Lee attempt to create in art a "vernacular kinship" that, in life, remains continually threatened by social divisions. My critical framing here is informed by postcolonial theory, whiteness studies, critical race studies, new historicism, and old-fashioned formalism--an amalgam of perspectives employed to uncover what racialized histories might have been previously overlooked in Faulkner's writings from and about the Creole City, New Orleans.
The contested place of blackness within the term "creole" itself is a useful starting point for considering Faulkner's representations of race and kinship within the New Orleans he encountered in 1925. The Oxford English Dictionary defines "creole" as:
n. In the West Indies and other parts of America, Mauritius, etc.: orig. A person born and naturalized in the country, but of European (usually Spanish or French) or of African Negro race: the name having no connotation of colour, and in its reference to origin being distinguished on the one hand from born in Europe (or Africa), and on the other hand from aboriginal.
a. But now, usually, = creole white, a descendant of European settlers, born and naturalized in those colonies or regions, and more or less modified in type by the climate and surroundings ...
b. Now less usually = creole negro: A negro born in the West Indies or America, as distinguished from one freshly imported from Africa. ("Creole")
The OED's etymology of "creole" reveals the extraordinarily complex negotiations of certain kinds of racial difference over time in Louisiana and Mississippi as these territories intersected with the West Indies. The definitions themselves are also illustrative of a tangled (even tortured) relationship to blackness from a European perspective. A "creole negro" person is distinguished from one "freshly imported from Africa" (emphasis mine). And in the definition of "creole white," the question of interracial sex/racial mixing is at least subtly suggested by the cryptic phrase "and more or less modified in type by the climate and surroundings." Might interracial sex be a key part of the "surroundings" that "modify" the "type" of creole white?
In the specific context of New Orleans, Creole refers to particular populations at various points in history: first, the gens de couleur libres (free people of color); then, after 1803, the French settlers of the area trying to distinguish themselves from the new American immigrants; finally, the light-skinned blacks descended from the original French and Spanish settlers of the city as they intermarried with Haitians and Dominicans (both free blacks and slaves). (5) Creole has also come to stand in for a culture (culinary, linguistic, ethnic) defined precisely by its hybridity. At the same time, the term encodes a profoundly uneasy relationship among the differently racialized inhabitants of the city Faulkner encountered in the early and mid-1920s, a relationship that simultaneously embraces racial and ethnic hybridity and obscures blackness as part of that hybridity. It is this simultaneous embracing and eschewing of racial difference that both Faulkner and Lee so brilliantly render in their narratives of this compelling city. In these earliest prose writings from Faulkner, we see an artist working out the space and place (and placelessness) of local voices within a cosmopolitan modernist aesthetic. Simultaneously, we see in Faulkner a cultural critic striving to represent the singular place of New Orleans as a creole city: a site of differences at once defended, irreconcilable, repressed, expressed, consumed, and excessive--in short, a city imaginatively illuminated in Absalom, Absalom! by Quentin and Shreve as "foreign and paradoxical" (86). If Faulkner depicts the Creole City as a site for the possibility of kinship, he also reveals the metropolis of New Orleans struggling to get around the Other in its midst, an Other whose blackness resounds (like Jim Bond's cries) in insistent, troubling ways.
New Orleans has long served as a singular site for American writers--particularly writers of the US American South--to reflect on questions of identity, democracy, and culture. The city is the Catholicism-infused Other to New England Puritanism, a port city whose major "product" for centuries was slaves, home to a bohemian artist district (the French Quarter) and a culture famous for its culinary, linguistic, ethnic, racial, and religious border-crossings and mixtures. (6) Edward Larocque Tinker's 1953 history of New Orleans, Creole City: Its Past and Its People, opens with a suggestive depiction of the metropolis as a feminized, exotic, erotic Other to the masculinized, homogeneous greater United States of America. The preface, titled "The Marriage of Marianne and Uncle Sam," frames the history that follows as a tale of "that strange shotgun marriage between an utterly foreign population and our American people, which took place in 1803," a relationship "in which each has modified the thoughts and habits of the other, of the new manner of life they have evolved," and "a fascinating tale by reason of its uncontrolled passion, its quaint foreign flavor, its tropic tang, its unlikeness to the grim saga of the settlement of New England" (xiii). As early as 1817, William Darby characterized the "exotic" and strikingly cosmopolitan nature of the city: "Here in half an hour you can see, and speak to, French-men, Spaniards, Dane, Swedes, Germans, Englishmen, Portuguese, Hollanders, Mexicans, Kentuckians, Tennesseans ... and a motley group of Indians, Quadroons, Africans, etc" (qtd. in Searight 82-83). The racial hierarchy is clear in Darby's description, with New Orleanians of African descent, alongside First Americans, designated as part of "the motley crew" on the barely visible margins of the cosmopolitan scene. What is striking is that even as late as 1973, historian Sarah Searight characterizes the "Negroes" of the Ninth Ward, distinct from the "old colored Creole families" comprising the "established middle-class Negro society in New Orleans," as inhabitants of "another country" altogether: "Black and white in New Orleans still lead such segregated lives that the Negro world seems strikingly foreign--and probably always will" (118).
More recent historical work on race and ethnicity in New Orleans illustrates that the distinction between Creole citizens of the city and (to use the parlance of the 1920s period in question here) the "Negroes" was a strategic one on the part of lighter-skinned Creoles-of-color, whose proximity to the privileges of whiteness and whose historical cultural links to Europe were strongly defended by many. And yet, at the same time, Jim Crow laws were only the most overt societal manifestation of the "blackening" of the Creole population by a post-Reconstruction Southern white population desperate to hold on to its sociopolitical and economic advantages. As Thomas Brothers's excellent 2006 urban biography, Louis Armstrong's New Orleans, points out, the uncomfortable (socially disadvantageous) place of blackness and links to Africa in the term "creole" resulted in a meticulous monitoring of color in this multiracial cosmopolitan city. Brothers paints a vivid picture of the obstacles for Armstrong, a dark-skinned, economically poor "uptown Negro," trying to enter a burgeoning jazz scene in the 1920s that was dominated by the "downtown Creole[s]" living mostly in the French Quarter and the Seventh Ward (24):
On the other side of Canal Street [from the French Quarter], the uptown "American" side, the last decades of the nineteenth century brought continual social flux. Yankee immigrants had been arriving in huge numbers since the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and they continued to come; so did the Germans and the Irish. As the turn of the century approached, these groups were joined by alarming [to the Creole population in power] numbers of Italians and Jews. Even more alarming was the massive influx of freedmen and their descendants arriving from the rural plantations of Louisiana and Mississippi. This was Armstrong's group. Creoles were wary of these plantation immigrants. As they watched them arrive in imposing numbers, the Creoles asserted a multidimensional sense of cultural difference. They produced a package of social barriers that Armstrong was forced to deal with if he wanted to advance musically. (25)
How did Faulkner and his writings negotiate the Other country of New Orleans depicted by Brothers here? How did Faulkner represent this place in 1925, where ethnic, racial, gender, linguistic, and religious division and difference moved alongside shared pleasure and possibility?
For Faulkner critics tackling the question of how his work represents the metropolis of New Orleans, it seems essential to situate our inquiry within notions of a postcolonial or global South. Much rich scholarship has been done on Faulkner's narrative negotiations of race for decades, with particular focus on what Toni Morrison in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination theorized as "American Africanism" (6): "the [inevitably failed] process of organizing [white] American coherence through a distancing Africanism" (8). Increasingly, that scholarship has placed the inquiry into Morrison's "American Africanism" within the context of a global South. Of particular note in this context are Edouard Glissant's brilliant postcolonial study Faulkner, Mississippi, Vera M. Kutzinski's "Borders and Bodies: The United States, America, and the Caribbean," and John T. Matthews's "Recalling the West Indies: From Yoknapatawpha to Haiti and Back." These scholars forcefully demonstrate that the culture and commerce of slavery were never only a "peculiar institution" of the American South but were instead always already deeply entangled with plantation systems in the West Indies and beyond. Glissant poetically and productively interprets Faulkner as author "of the Plantation ... concerned with the relentless question of race and the stormy connection of one race to the other you have dominated for so long.... [He is] trying to get around the Other, to sound its depths, and ... return with mysteries, visions, and things of great beauty" (3). Considering Faulkner in terms of "the Plantation" means connecting the particularized local plantations that have become emblematic of an antebellum American South to an international plantation economy that links a range of American Souths to Africa.
In the 2005 preface to The Location of Culture, Homi Bhabha pushes critics interested in how the local and the global intersect to think about how the relationship goes well beyond a mere situating of one within the other. Bhabha argues that to think about racial politics within the context of twenty-first-century globalization is to reconsider the very idea of a local racial politics that is somehow distinguishable from global movements; it is to think anew about where the lines of demarcation between citizen and non-citizen, kin and non-kin, self and other, margin and center, might reside--and to what extent such borders might productively be porous. When we think about location and culture, Bhabha argues, we are already in what he calls a "quasi-colonial" ontological space, "a condition at once old and new, a dynamic, even dialectical relation that goes beyond the polarizations of the local and the global, the center and the periphery, or, indeed, the 'citizen' and the 'stranger'" (xxi). We recognize the stranger in ourselves, ourselves in the stranger: "In another's country that is also your own, your person divides, and in following the forked path you encounter yourself in a double movement ... once as stranger, and then as friend" (xxv). This double movement of the divided self, stranger and friend, will strike readers of Faulkner as familiar. But what might be less obvious is the tension that Faulkner's New Orleans writings--and, later, Lee's When the Levees Broke--reveal between a locally rooted "vernacular cosmopolitanism" and a more suspect "global cosmopolitanism" (xiv). For Bhabha, the vernacular cosmopolitan is defined by his or her "moving in-between cultural traditions, and revealing hybrid forms of life and art that do not have a prior existence within the discrete world of any single culture or language" (xiii). In contrast, "global cosmopolitanism ... readily celebrates a world of plural cultures and peoples located at the periphery, so long as they produce healthy profit margins within metropolitan societies" (xiv). The New Orleans Sketches establish Faulkner as a vernacular cosmopolitan. At the same time, the sketches are self-conscious attempts to capture lyrically the particularities of the vernacular cosmopolitans Faulkner encountered--an imagistic lyricism in paradoxical tension with the ways in which these aestheticized figures might become consumable stereotypes of a global cosmopolitanism. (7)
Whether or not the collected fiction and nonfiction pieces that comprise Faulkner's earliest writing from New Orleans even represent the Creole City--the particular place and its people--remains an open critical question. The excellent biographical, historical, and critical studies by such critics as Andre Bleikasten, Joseph Blotner, Carvel Collins, W. Kenneth Holditch, Martin Kreiswirth, Michael Millgate, David Minter, Daniel J. Singal, and James G. Watson uniformly argue that the New Orleans Sketches are important more for the ways in which they illuminate Faulkner's development as a prose stylist than for what they reveal about the city of New Orleans itself. The standard critical line, established early by Cleanth Brooks and taken forward relatively uncontested by subsequent critics of Faulkner's work, is that Faulkner's vignettes set in the city were less reflections of the metropolis of New Orleans than they "were obviously meant, like James Joyce's epiphanies, to illuminate the essence of the character's life or personality" (Blotner 132). These critics characterize the New Orleans Sketches as a turning point in Faulkner's development as a modernist. As Singal summarizes it,
Although clearly apprentice work ... [the sketches] contain his initial attempts to transcribe consciousness by means of interior monologues, to relate the same event through multiple perspectives, and to juxtapose the realistic and symbolic, the prosaic and poetic--all Modernist literary techniques that would become staples of his mature fiction. (59) (8)
Kreiswirth similarly reads the eleven monologues that comprise "New Orleans" "essentially as vehicles for linguistic exploration" (25). Watson notes that "New Orleans" in particular, despite its title, is "topographically undifferentiated," with "no named street or restaurant or park, no historical monument or person or event, that is specifically associated with the city or that might call the city specifically to mind." In a move that characteristically places Faulkner in the context of Anglo-American modernism, Watson concludes: "Like Eliot in city poems before The Waste Land--'Preludes,' for example, or 'Rhapsody on a Windy Night'--Faulkner was apparently more concerned with states of being than with an actual place" (217). Curiously, Watson makes no mention of Jean Toomer's 1923 Cane here, a text that, like Faulkner's, depicts with self-conscious aestheticism what W. E. B. DuBois famously theorized in 1903 as the "problem of the color line" (3). Like Faulkner, Toomer blended regionalist attention to Southern dialect and mores (including racism) with a formal modernist experimentation and an unabashedly lyrical style. Cane would become a classic of the Harlem Renaissance, but would also make figures such as Richard Wright uncomfortable with its focus on aesthetic experimentation and its seemingly cryptic critiques of Southern racism. In short, the book struck some as both too lovely and too difficult to function as effective, historically grounded social protest. Part of my argument here is that, like Toomer and, in his own way, Spike Lee, Faulkner demonstrates powerfully the ways in which lyricism can contribute to a sense of historically grounded social critique, rather than undermining it. (9)
I do not at all disagree that the primary literary-historical significance of New Orleans Sketches is in its tracing of a budding modernist-novelist-in-the-making, whose modernism would have as its greatest theme the repercussions of ideologies of white male supremacy in the American South. My argument here is that the influence of the metropolitan context of New Orleans on "New Orleans" in particular and the New Orleans Sketches as a whole has been and should not be overlooked in our critical evaluation of the collection. In fact, Faulkner draws upon the historical, material urban space of New Orleans to reveal the ways in which "states of being" exist only within and are profoundly shaped by geographically situated cultural ideas about racialized and gendered identities. Furthermore, in many of the other writings in the New Orleans Sketches, Faulkner emphasizes specific sites in the city: the "railed balcony" of Chartres Street in "Mirrors of Chartres Street" (16); the Cabildo museum, the Royal St. Charles hotel, and Antoine's restaurant in "Damon and Pythias Unlimited"; and Canal Street in "Sunset," to name a few. More importantly, the distinctive history of shifting demographics in New Orleans and the attendant negotiations of difference and racialized identity profoundly shaped Faulkner's imagination and representation of his characters' lives, even in "New Orleans," seemingly the most allegorical of the sketches. "New Orleans" reveals the promise of a democratic "vernacular kinship" made especially possible through the unavoidable proximity of difference in the multicultural, multiracial metropolis of New Orleans. Faulkner also records here the faltering of that promise, as one particular form of difference--blackness--becomes the external and internal Other that (for some) cannot be negotiated.
Before diving into a close reading of the sketch, let me place "New Orleans" in the context of the collection as a whole. The New Orleans Sketches includes a Whitmanesque (and Andersonian) (10) range of ethnically and racially marked first-person and third-person narrators living in the city, as well as one Conradian (and Melvillean) tale of colonialists-at-sea gone murderous, "Yo Ho and Two Bottles of Rum." (11) Characters in New Orleans Sketches are marked by Faulkner as Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, destitute, working class, middle class, wealthy, white, black, Italian, British, Welsh, and French. Periodically, these figures are described by other characters (or their titles) as "nigger," "Wop," "Chinee," "native," "Wealthy Jew"; Faulkner thus never shies away from representing an ugly American racism (78, 87, 7, 127, 3). Interestingly, in this creole collection full of the vernacular voices of immigrants from Southern Europe and rural plantations, Faulkner does not give substantive voice to the oldest insiders (and insider-outsiders) of the city: the middle-class Creoles or descendants of the gens de couleur libres. Instead, Faulkner seems to foreground the differences, external and internal, that many from this same population would deny. Furthermore, Faulkner focuses primarily on the working- and underclass in the city, as the sketches employ a litany of laborers mixing in the streets and cafes of New Orleans: waiters, longshoremen, street musicians, policemen, artists, cobblers, bootleggers, prostitutes, gamblers, beggars. Just as Whitman captured the diversity of New York, Faulkner brings to light the multicultural metropolis of New Orleans.
Faulkner arrived in New Orleans in January of 1925, intending just a two-day stop before joining the burgeoning colony of American expatriate artists in Europe. He was instead quickly folded into a bohemian colony of writers and painters in the French Quarter, whose claiming of the Vieux Carre as a cosmopolitan site for aesthetic work may have made the desire to go to Paris less urgent. Faulkner stayed first in an apartment overlooking Jackson Square that Sherwood Anderson shared with his new wife, Elizabeth Prall Anderson, for whom Faulkner had briefly worked in a New York bookstore. He then resided for four months in a small apartment on Pirate's Alley abutting St. Louis Cathedral on Jackson Square (downstairs from the painter William Spratling), where he worked steadily on his short fiction, prose poetry, and the novel that would become Soldiers' Pay. Faulkner sold "New Orleans" to the little modernist magazine The Double Dealer in February of 1925. (12)
Anticipating the multivocal structure of As I Lay Dying, "New Orleans" is composed of eleven brief monologues from the following characters/types, whose titles and names (though, significantly, mostly titles/roles) comprise the subsections of the piece: "Wealthy Jew," "The Priest," "Frankie and Johnny," "The Sailor," "The Cobbler"' "The Longshoreman," "The Cop"' "The Beggar," "The Artist," "Magdalen," and "The Tourist." Faulkner creates connectivity among the disparate voices and viewpoints of "New Orleans" aesthetically through symbols of color and thematically with a common thread of longing and disappointment. Characters long for (among other things) a space of belonging and home, but are continually thwarted. Most of the vignettes never rise above the conventional or baroque sentimentality: "The Sailor" tells a standard tale of a woman in every port; "Franky and Johnny" gives a vernacular voice to two street-tough youth in love; "The Artist" sentimentally bemoans his inability to "give to the world that which is crying in me to be freed" (12). A few of the vignettes are, however, more forceful aesthetically and are especially interesting for the ways in which they engage questions of what it means to be a (non)citizen of the Creole City. When Faulkner turns to the voices of those residents at the center of the New Orleans economy but at its social periphery--the African American longshoreman, the prostitute, the tourist, and the Wealthy Jew--the text provocatively opens up questions of what it means to "belong" to a city that is and is not one's home.
The first-person voice of the Wealthy Jew opens "New Orleans." His vignette begins with a quotation from Theophile Gautier's 1835 novel Mademoiselle de Maupin (whose theme of "art for art's sake" would play out in Mosquitoes) and then moves into a meditation on racial(ized) history, colonial conquest, diaspora, the kinship of war, and blood as a signifier of ethnic purity and survival. "Wealthy Jew" draws upon stereotypes of Semitic greed and decadence, but Faulkner complicates this type in startling ways:
"I love three things: gold; marble and purple; splendor, solidity, color." The waves of Destiny, foaming out of the East where was cradled the infancy of the race of man, roaring over the face of the world.... Upon the tides of history has my race ever put forth, bravely, mayhap foolhardily, as my ancient Phoenician ancestors breasted the uncharted fabulous seas with trading barques, seeking those things which I, too, love.... But from these bitter ashes which are I, heirs to my pleasures and pains will rise phoenix-like, for the blood is old, but strong. O ye mixed races, with your blood mingled and thinned and lost; with your dream grown tarnished and pointless, knowing not what ye desire! My people offered you a dream of peace that passeth understanding, and arid Syrian sands drank the blood of your young men; I flung you a golden coin, and you purchased martyrdom of Death in Ahenobarbus' gardens; ye took Destiny from the hands of my people, and your sons and my sons lay together in the mud at Passchendaele and sleep side by side beneath foreign soil. Foreign? What soil is foreign to me? Your Alexanders and Caesers and Napoleans rise in blood and gold, shrieking briefly of home, and then are gone as waves hiss curling on the beach, and die. No soil is foreign to my people, for have we not conquered all lands with the story of your Nativity? The seas of Destiny foam by. Let them! My people will crest them, mayhap to be swept like blown trumpets among the cold stars. "I love three things: gold; marble and purple; splendor, solidity, color." (3-4)
As Watson and others have noted, "Wealthy Jew" and the closing vignette "The Tourist" create a frame for the disparate voices within "New Orleans." "Wealthy Jew" establishes a symbolic vocabulary of color (particularly gold), blood, and the "cold stars" of destiny that Faulkner weaves throughout otherwise seemingly disconnected first-person vignettes. This opening sketch is noteworthy not only for its aesthetic complexity and its self-conscious importation of the classic and the global into this urban Southern scene, but also for its depiction of a particularly defiant diasporic consciousness. The Wealthy Jew uses the very symbols of ethnic subjugation (purity of blood-lines, the cultural triumph of the Christian narrative) to claim a global "home": "No soil is foreign to my people, for have we not conquered all lands with the story of your Nativity?" On the one hand, the speaker denigrates the mixing of blood as a sign of cultural and racial enervation; on the other, he envisions an inevitable mixing of blood (and tacit resulting formulation of kinship) in the act of war. For, the monologue begins with a story of religous (Christian vs. Jewish) division but ironically ends with a kinship forged in the violence of World War I: "your sons and my sons lay together in the mud at Passchendaele and sleep side by side beneath foreign soil." The Wealthy Jew thus transmutes a diasporic defeat into a vision of cultural (partial) conquest that transcends place, space, and time itself. Note that the vision of triumph is a mitigated one, the final phrase returning us to a chilling vision of diaspora as alienation/annihilation: "The seas of Destiny foam by. Let them! My people will crest them, mayhap to be swept like blown trumpets among the cold stars."
If the voice in "Wealthy Jew" forcefully describes a space for a (Jewish) diasporic consciousness both "unhomed" (in a Bhabhian sense ) and at home everywhere, Faulkner's "The Longshoreman" voices the struggle to find a vernacular place within the global cosmopolitanism of the Creole City. Despite critical claims that the monologues in "New Orleans" do little to reveal the particularities of the local geography of New Orleans, the proximity of Faulkner's apartment on Jackson Square to the docks on the Mississippi clearly informs his depiction of the Longshoreman. The centrality of those same docks to the role New Orleans played in the Atlantic slave trade would not be lost on Faulkner, whose aesthetic and moral grappling with slavery and ongoing racism in the American South became perhaps his greatest theme.
Faulkner's Longshoreman paints the scene of a global cosmopolitanism of which he is both victim and critic:
Jesus, look down: see dat barrel ro-o-o-ll! White folks says, and nigger does. Load dat steamboat, load her down; O steamboat, spread white wings and fly! Streaks of sunlight cutting the wall's shadow, slide up me, barring my overalls and my black hands with stripes of gold, like a jail suit. Sinners in jail, sinners in heaven, behind dem bars of gold! I got wings, you got wings, all God's chillen got wi-i-n-gs. (9)
The Longshoreman's declarative "White folks says, and nigger does" leaves no doubt about the racial politics of the lucrative (to some) commerce of the docks. Faulkner then provides the Longshoreman an aesthetic and religious vision that taps into the Wealthy Jew's aesthetic and moral vocabulary, while also invoking African American Christian spirituals, with their own codings of resistance and freedom. The whiteness of the powerful "White folks" shifts to the whiteness of imagined wings of flight, flight from the prison bars of racialized capitalist exploitation "barring my overalls and my black hands with stripes of gold, like a jail suit." At the same time, black and white are joined as "sinners" (whether in jail or in heaven) "behind dem bars of gold," all capable of redemption as "God's chillen." Again evoking the "cold ... ancient stars" and the common cold burial ground awaiting all humanity in the Wealthy Jew's vision of fate, Faulkner's Longshoreman shifts from the vernacular to the self-consciously literary in order to grapple with his existential and sociopolitical place:
But, ah God, the light on the river, and the sun; and the night, the black night, in this heart. Oh, the black night, and the thudding drums sultry among the stars. The stars are cold, O God, and the great trees sailing like ships up the rivers of darkness, brushing the ancient stars forever aside, in vain. The earth alone is warm, heated by the dead buried in it. But the dead are cold, O lord, in the warm and the dark. Sweet chariot, comin' fer t' cyah me home; sweet chariot! wash me whiter'n sno-o-w! (9)
With Faulkner perhaps echoing William Blake's "The Little Black Boy," the Longshoreman calls to the heavens to be washed "whiter'n sno-o-w" in a double-voiced register. As he has already established, to be "white" in 1925 New Orleans is to hold socioeconomic and political power, while to be washed clean of sin allows him a transhistorical Christian freedom. That Christian idea of a transcendent "white" state of salvation is quickly brought back to the contemporary earthly scene, however:
Quittin' time, whistles boomin' and moanin' like front row sinners at meetin' time. Ah God, the singing blood, the sultry blood, singing to the fierce fire in the veins of girls, singing the ancient embers into flame! White man gives me clo'se and shoes, but dat dont make no pavement love my feets. These cities are not my cities, but this dark is my dark, with all the old passions and fears and sorrows that my people have breathed into it. Let this blood sing: did I make this blood? I got wings, you got wings; all God's chillen got w-i-i-n-g-s-s! (9)
No matter how "kind" the white man holding his fate is, giving him clothes and shoes, the Longshoreman knows that the city of New Orleans in no real sense belongs to him. Profoundly "unhomed," the Longshoreman can lay no claim to the city and its light; instead, darkness defines him. And yet it is a darkness "with all the old passions and fears and sorrows that [his] people have breathed into it." Faulkner's rhetoric here links the Longshoreman's racialized pan-African "dark" to the Wealthy Jew's resistant, ultimately indominable diasporic vision of a blood that becomes its own territory: "No soil is foreign to my people." At the same time, the Longshoreman's "Let this blood sing: did I make this blood?" questions the very idea of race as a given fact of nature. Someone created the conditions of the Longshoreman's blues, and he ends with the double-voiced claim to the possibility of (spiritual and earthly) freedom: "all God's chillen got w-i-i-n-g-s-s!" Freedom beckons in his song, but Faulkner leaves us wondering if the weight of the "blood" of the Longshoreman in 1925 New Orleans will allow him either flight or destination.
In the vignette titled "Magdalen," Faulkner again uses the symbolic motifs of blood and gold to connect socially disparate characters, reveal social place, and uncover the complexities of race and American identity within the Creole City. Magdalen is (unlike the biblical figure) a prostitute. The arc of redemption that describes the biblical Mary Magdalen's narrative becomes, in Faulkner's sketch, a story of longing, shame, and disappointment within a frame of racialized and gendered citizenship:
I can remember when I found days gold, but now the gold of day hurts my head. 'Tis night only is gold now, and that not often. Men aint what they used to be, or money aint, or something. Or maybe its I that aint like I was once. God knows, I try to treat 'em like they'd want I should. I treat 'em white as any, and whiter than some--not calling no names. I'm an American girl with an American smile I am, and they know it. (12-13)
"Gold" appears here, but it is again quickly divorced from money, and "money aint" what it used to be--or the men aren't--or she isn't. An "American girl with an American smile" confers more than sexual gratification in exchange for money; she confers a certain American identity through treating her clients, whatever "color" or "race," as "white as any, and whiter than some--not calling no names." Magdalen's "whiteness" is marked by her declarative status as "an American girl." Additionally, she holds the power of knowledge of the racial ambiguity of some of her customers; she's "not calling no names" but, Faulkner implies, she could--potentially destroying a "passing" Creole's mobility. Here Faulkner gets as close as anywhere else in the New Orleans Sketches to marking the shifting color line of the Creole population in the Creole City, where to pass as white means both safety of movement and potential for prosperity. (13) Furthermore, Faulkner depicts this prostitute in many ways as a typical American citizen pursuing the American dream, measured in beautiful things and a leisure-filled entitlement: "I saw women who had the bright things I wanted--dresses and shoes and golden rings, lifting no finger to get them" (13). Here, as in so many other places in the New Orleans Sketches, the American dream disappoints: the "golden rings" that are the initial objects of Magdalen's desire become the "gold of day" that provides only exposure and pain.
There are only two vignettes of "New Orleans" that depict the city and its seductions and disappointments from a third-person "outsider" view: "The Sailor" and "The Tourist." "The Sailor" verges on cliche. The eponymous sailor expresses relief at being on solid ground again in New Orleans, muses that the only reason to go to sea is to change women occasionally, chronicles the lovers he has had across the world ("wide-hipped Spaniard among the mandolins in the smoky inn, your blonde Norse women," etc.), and then notes the inevitable desire to return to the sea after "the fighting's done and the wine is drunk and women's mouths dont taste as sweet as a man had thought" (7). The Sailor is not exactly at home in New Orleans, but unlike the Longshoreman, the Sailor is never "unhomed." Instead, he is voluntarily in motion, aboard the ships whose sails can offer the Longshoreman only imaginary flight, freely moving from one (international) sexual encounter to the next. In contrast to the Sailor, the Tourist's view of New Orleans is worth lingering over, as Faulkner uses imagery here that again evokes the complex space the Creole City occupies in the American imagination.
Faulkner begins "The Tourist" with a description of the city itself as a weary "courtesan, not old and yet no longer young, who shuns the sunlight that the illusion of her former glory be preserved" (13). The Tourist sees New Orleans as an eroticized, exotic, decadent (Creole-of-color?) prostitute, with echoes of the dubious history of placage and the quadroon and octoroon balls: "She reclines gracefully upon a dull brocaded chaise-lounge, there is the scent of incense about her, and her draperies are arranged in formal folds. She lives in an atmosphere of a bygone and more gracious age" (13-14). (14) The city Faulkner depicts here suggests all that is Other to an American cultural norm. The details are nostalgic, to be sure, but also uncomfortably decadent, European, Catholic, Carribean, even Oriental--that "scent of incense." Like Magdalen perhaps, the city itself functions, by antithesis, to "Americanize" (and whiten) all who visit her in the twilight. Interestingly, Faulkner describes this "courtesan" city not as one who welcomes all--no "send me your huddled masses" here--but rather as a deeply discriminating lover: "And those whom she receives are few in number, and they come to her through an eternal twilight.... And those who are not of the elect must stand forever without her portals." And then he more overtly, albeit by contrast, highlights the city's creole nature by differentiating it from those outside the "portals" of this port city: "And all who leave her, seeking the virgin's unbrown, ungold hair and her blanched and icy breast where no lover has died, return to her when she smiles across her languid fan" (14). If blackness is a part of the courtesan city's charms, it is a blackness subsumed, faint, cryptically coded. As if refusing to identify physical traits, Faulkner registers her hair as "unbrown, ungold"--an emphatic negation.
What are the stakes of this literary tracing of blackness through New Orleans and Faulkner's "New Orleans"? The rest of this essay returns us to the deferral that was also the origin of this discussion: the move to "make Faulkner and Spike Lee kin," both in their aesthetic attempts to capture the cosmos of New Orleans in their respective time periods and in their stylized negotiations of race in America. The New Orleans Sketches reveal Faulkner struggling, in the earliest days of his transition from poetry to prose (amid a seemingly global explosion of modernist aesthetics and cultural consciousness from Europe to New York to New Orleans) to advance his own aesthetic sensibilities as a modernist, while also capturing the particularities of place and people in an urban landscape that he would later largely ignore. In When the Levees Broke, Lee returned to his least-used genre, the documentary form, to make sense of the American tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and its attendant man-made disasters. (15)
When the Levees Broke is a clear indictment of the racism inherent in federal and local approaches to managing the vulnerable urban space of New Orleans. (16) For the documentary, Lee "casts" a prodigious line-up of citizens and scholars, many voicing trenchant critiques of the governmental failures in response to Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the levee system. The documentary tacks between sparely shot "talking head" interviews with the disaster's survivors and scholars and wrenching documentary footage of loss: floating, bloated, mostly black bodies; weeping, sweaty infants in dirty diapers; elderly women dying in their wheelchairs outside the Superdome; entire neighborhoods destroyed. At the same time, the film beautifully captures the toughness and talents of the diverse population of the Creole City. Through it all, Lee keeps the big narrative moving.
The sources of the film's success are multiple: the compelling first-person stories, rendered in a range of vernacular voices; the grainy footage of the effects of an undeniably strong hurricane from newscasts, personal camcorders, and smartphones; the equally undeniable tale of racism-inflected urban neglect that resulted in the collapse of the levees (badly) designed to protect the city's residents; and Lee's astute editorial shaping of all those pieces into a forceful four-act requiem. A focus on the documentary's final moments reveals the critical stakes of Lee's deft editorial decisions--decisions that connect to Faulkner's growing aesthetic sense in the New Orleans Sketches in illuminating ways.
The third-to-last scene of the fourth act of When the Levees Broke is a festive New Orleans-style jazz funeral, with a brass band dancing, singing, and generally celebrating the demise of the casket in its center, labeled "Katrina." The lead singer taps into the same rhetoric of the spirituals sung by Faulkner's Longshoreman: "When this life is over, I'll fly away. When I die, hallelujah by and by, I'll fly away." The film then shifts to a scene of a resident of New Orleans standing in front of a damaged hotel, wearing a t-shirt with the logo "Proud to be Black. Home." His monologue, delivered straight into the camera, establishes what it means to be a (displaced) citizen of the Creole City:
When you are born in this and the first breath when the doctor slaps you is tinted with magnolia blossoms, and when you drink Mississippi tap water in your first formula, it's a thing you won't find anywhere else. Folks who had to evacuate know: you might go somewhere else and you might have a good time, but it's nothing like home. And when you can call New Orleans, Louisiana home, then baby you know what it means to miss New Orleans. Trust me.
It's a moving sequence. The simultaneously loss-drenched and triumphant jazz response to a racism-infused disaster is followed by a "man of the street" eloquently claiming New Orleans as his home. His speech beautifully swings between the colloquial/vernacular ("then baby you know") and the emphatically lyrical ("tinted with magnolia blossoms") with the stylistic ease of a Faulkner or Toomer. Unlike Faulkner's unhomed Longshoreman, Lee's subject here is "Black" and "Home." We trust him to give voice to his city.
Lee does not, however, end with the voice from the street--the documentary genre's conventional assurance of authenticity through an unadulterated first-person narration. Cannily (even courageously), Lee instead ends what he calls his "film document" by highlighting his own aesthetic framing of the questions of race, class, and injustice: he literally frames the players/citizens from throughout the film within ornate, gilded frames. Some "players" hold the frames before their faces, standing in the street. Some sit as if for a portrait, passively made into art, the frame on invisible wires hanging before them. All state their name, their occupation, and, if they were born and live in New Orleans, the specific name of their neighborhood ("Gentilly," "Uptown," "St. Bernard Parish," etc.). Here Lee grounds When the Levees Broke in the powerful, particularized voices of the diverse individuals who survived Katrina and its man-made aftermath--the Gulf Coast's vernacular cosmopolitans. Simultaneously, he ironically comments on his own aesthetic shaping of those narratives into a story that is also not quite their own, that is somehow his. The people in When the Levees Broke are vernacular cosmopolitans creating hybrid forms of expression and survival, but they are also figures held in Lee's frame, actors in the filmic American tragedy his cinematic lens creates. (17) With this move, Lee seems (tongue-in-cheek) to dare us, as viewers of his grand film document, to transform these flesh-and-blood citizens into "art" that we, as global cosmopolitans, might consume. But, of course, he won't let us off so easily: Lee repeatedly drives his citizens' locations home, as it were. Unhomed by Katrina and governmental neglect, the film's citizens are, at least and only figuratively, re-homed by Lee.
Working in the French Quarter in 1925 and in an entirely different genre and medium, Faulkner obviously did not use the same aesthetic vocabulary that Lee employs in his 2006 film. Faulkner's rhetorical devices differ: instead of self-conscious pictorial frames, Faulkner mixes the vernacular and the classical, uses seeming types instead of characters, incorporates the outsider's view, and employs extended metaphor and shared symbolism to link disparate figures. Yet it seems to me that Faulkner and Lee are working in the same vein. Both attempt to capture the "real" of a particular, especially vibrant and often tragic, urban space, even as they acknowledge their own aesthetic shaping of that historic, material place. Both refuse to allow antiblack racism to hide--even on the surface of the seemingly inclusive term "creole." And it is in this latter sense--in their mutual (if also distinct), deep interest in the tangled history of racism in America and in their commitment to bringing to the surface the resistant specificities of personal and cultural survival--that Lee and Faulkner become "vernacular kin."
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Barry, John. Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America. New York: Simon, 1998.
Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 2005.
--. "Unsatisfied: Notes on Vernacular Cosmopolitanism." Postcolonial Discourses: An Anthology. Ed. Gregory Castle. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001. 38-52.
Bleikasten, Andre. The Most Splendid Failure: Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1976.
Blotner, Joseph. Faulkner: A Biography. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2005.
Brinkley, Douglas. The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. New York: Morrow, 2006.
Brothers, Thomas. Louis Armstrong's New Orleans. New York: Norton, 2006.
Carter, Karen. Interview. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. Dir. Spike Lee. HBO, 2006. Film.
"Creole." The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989.
Dobbs, Cynthia. "Diasporic Designs of House, Home, and Haven in Toni Morrison's Paradise." MELUS 36.2 (2011): 109-26.
Dominguez, Virginia. White by Definition: Social Classification in Creole Louisiana. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1986.
DuBois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. New York: Pocket, 2005.
Dyson, Michael Eric. Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster. New York: Civitas-Basic, 2006.
Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! 1936. The Corrected Text. New York: Vintage International, 1990.
--. New Orleans Sketches. Ed. Carvel Collins. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2010.
Glissant, Edouard. Faulkner, Mississippi. 1996. Trans. Barbara Lewis and Thomas C. Spear. New York: Farrar, 1999.
Holditch, W. Kenneth. "William Spratling, William Faulkner and Other Famous Creoles." Missisippi Quarterly 51.3 (1998): 423-35.
Kreiswirth, Martin. William Faulkner: The Making of a Novelist. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1983.
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Minter, David. William Faulkner: His Life and Work. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987.
Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992.
Saxon, Lyle. "What's Doing." Times-Picayune [New Orleans] 25 Oct. 1925, Sunday Magazine sec.: 2.
Searight, Sarah. New Orleans. New York: Stein, 1973.
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(1) This quotation is drawn from W. Kenneth Holditch's "William Spratling, William Faulkner and Other Famour Creoles" (424). Many of the quotations Holditch used were unattributed and undated: "Much of the material and many of the quotations in this essay are taken from the Natalie Scott files at the Tulane University library and from the William Spratling files at the Historic New Orleans Collection. Unfortunately, many newspaper clippings and letters in these sources are undated and in many instances unattributed" (423).
(2) Carter, a Lousiana state representative from New Orleans, is quoted in Spike Lee's documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.
(3) My thinking about the urban space of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina was informed too by Michael Eric Dyson's Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster, Douglas Brinkley's The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and John Barry's excellent book on an earlier catastrophic flooding of the area, Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America.
(4) My critical term "vernacular kinship" springs from Homi Bhabha's important theoretical concept of "vernacular cosmopolitanism," an anticolonialist yoking of local concerns with international political struggles. See Bhabha's "Unsatisfied: Notes on Vernacular Cosmopolitanism" (38).
(5) For a deft overview of this complex history, see Thomas Brothers's Louis Armstrong's New Orleans. For an in-depth history, see Virginia Dominguez's White by Definition: Social Classification in Creole Louisiana.
(6) In the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Saxon described the French Quarter as a magnetic, truly cosmopolitan site for artists: "Artists in the Vieux Carre are like homing pigeons. They come sailing back from the far corners of the earth when the leaves begin to fall in Jackson Square" (2).
(7) See my related discussion of negotiations of the local and the global in "Diasporic Designs of House, Home, and Haven in Toni Morrison's Paradise."
(8) Singal also notes, importantly, that "one finds in these sketches Faulkner's first experiments with what would soon be a dominant feature of his novels--the dramatic reversal of social and racial stereotypes" (59). Singal does not, however, situate these reversals/unmasking of stereotypes within the particular urban space of New Orleans--an aim of this essay.
(9) My thanks to Daphne Lamothe for initially making this important connection to Jean Toomer and to Peter Lurie for helping me more productively link the lyrical and the historical here.
(10) Bleikasten notes the stamp of Sherwood Anderson on Faulkner's choices here: "Anderson's pervasive influence is felt in the choice of familiar subjects, mostly borrowed from the street life of New Orleans" (15).
(11) In this curious and derivative tale, it seems that Faulkner reset Melville's "Benito Cereno" and Conrad's Heart of Darkness in the Pacific. The plot begins with a British colonial murdering a Chinese mess boy because he can: "ain't I a white man? Can't I kill a native if I want to?" (124). The rest of the story involves his tragic-comic attempt to bury the body. Racial foreboding runs throughout.
(12) The biographical information about Faulkner in New Orleans here comes primarily from Collins's introduction to the New Orleans Sketches, Minter's William Faulkner: His Life and Work, Holditch's "William Spratling, William Faulkner and Other Famous Creoles" and Watson's "New Orleans, The Double Dealer, and 'New Orleans'"
(13) In this way, Magdalen's ability to pass and to travel serves as an ironic contrast to the plight of Louis Armstrong mentioned early; the dark-skinned Armstrong was free to move across ethnic and racial borderlines within the Creole City only when he was traveling with and under the cover of the brass bands.
(14) Faulkner will return to this view of New Orleans as a space of dangerous sexual seduction and miscegenation in Absalom, Absalom! as Charles Bon uses New Orleans quite intentionally to corrupt Henry Sutpen.
(15) From his 1986 She's Gotta Have It to the game-changing Do the Right Thing (1989) through 1992's Malcolm X and other films, Lee's work has focused on the (mostly urban) histories of African Americans in their ongoing struggle for civil rights and full citizenship. In 1997, Lee chose the documentary form to chronicle the Birmingham Church bombings in 4 Little Girls, a documentary that, like When the Levees Broke a decade later, exposes the tangled history of American racism with arguably more force and subtlety than his fictional or biopic cinema.
(16) For an account of governmental neglect of the (mostly non-white) poor in New Orleans that predated but was also placed in particular relief by Hurricane Katrina, see especially the chapters "Unnatural Disasters: Race and Poverty" and "Levees and Lies" in Dyson's Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster and Brinkley's The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. For a history of a similar combination of natural disaster and human-made societal failure in response to that disaster in the region, see Barry's Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America.
(17) My thanks to Theresa Tensuan for the idea of bringing Lee's "framing" move into this discussion.
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|Title Annotation:||William Faulkner|
|Publication:||The Faulkner Journal|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2012|
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