Garnette ...New Orleans is both a place and idea. Moreover, as place and idea, people like to think of it as difference. You, however, insist that it’s both a peculiar and representative American spot.
Ned Not merely a peculiar spot, but the logical outcome of competing international forces.
GC Your argument, then, is that New Orleans is at the crux of America’s…
NS At the absolute crossroads of American history! Over and over again. Including now.
GC New Orleans—distinctly American and singularly un-American!
NS I use the word “American” in its larger sense, always, so I think it’s extremely American. It’s the most American city in a lot of ways.
GC Other cities can justifiably make that claim. Your fellow New Yorkers, among others, will surely take you to task. How is New Orleans the most American?
NS The most fully realized, in that it participated in all of the waves of culture that rolled across the hemisphere, practically. The French, the Spanish, the Anglo-American, each of which was associated with a different black wave: the Bambara, the Bakongo, the Baptists. From 1769 to 1803—that was a transcendental moment in history, the last third of the 18th century—Spain held Louisiana during the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions, three events of maximum impact on world history, and each of which affected Louisiana vitally. During the Spanish period, New Orleans became a city. It became a port of importance. I think that there are a variety of reasons, which I discuss in the book, why the Spanish years in New Orleans have been so consistently underplayed in importance, but I see them as absolutely crucial to understanding the town.
GC And New Orleans itself is crucial to understanding America. After all, its history is replete with the perennial American themes and struggles: self-making, liberty, equality, immigration, pluralism, religion, the tension between Europe and America, the influence of the South, and so on. And, of course: frontier.
NS New Orleans was the Wild West! In many ways, it never stopped being the Wild West. A place where you might see a gunfight on a main street. You still might see that. It had that image from very early on. When Thomas Jefferson annexed it, it went from being El Norte, the northernmost edge of the Saints and Festivals Belt, to being the West. We often think of it as the South, but you have to think of the Civil War in terms of both the South and the West, because a primary determinant in forcing the issue of civil was whether or not slave traders could expand their markets into the new western territories, the ones beyond New Orleans. DeBow’s Review, the Fortune magazine of the slaveowning South, published in New Orleans, was DeBow’s Review of the South and the West. New Orleans was the South and West.
Garnette: Picking up on your idea of perception…there are few ideas as central to the American character as renewal and transformation—as Ted Widmer brilliantly shows in Ark of the Liberties: America and the World, “[W]hat idea has been more powerful in [America’s] history than the hope that something wonderful…waits over the next horizon?”—and what is New Orleans if not a place of renewal and transformation? (Though I can already hear a host of people objecting that this Babylon of a place is anything but!) In your book you emphasize how music is crucial to the city’s formation and renewal; for you, music is a skeleton key that unlocks New Orleans’s history and reveals its character.
Ned: Absolutely. I look at music as a key to understanding history. In my books I use music as a tool for reading history, and vice versa...
Read the whole interview here.
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