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2017

Creole City by Nathalie Dessens

Kenneth Aslakson
Référence(s) :

Nathalie Dessens (2015). Creole City: A Chronicle of Early American New Orleans. University Press of Florida; Reprint edition (2016). 288 pages

Texte intégral

1Some valuable works of history are more source driven than thesis driven, such as published diaries or edited collections of primary sources. At first glance, Nathalie Dessens’s Creole City: A Chronicle of Early American New Orleans, the story of early antebellum New Orleans as told in the letters of Jean Boze to Jean Francois Henri de Sainte-Geme, appears to be such a book. Boze and St. Geme were both refugees of the Haitian Revolution who, likely, befriended each other in Cuba, their first refuge, before Spanish retaliation against the francophone refugees drove both men to New Orleans in 1809. St. Geme returned to France in 1818, but Boze remained in New Orleans until his death in 1839 and kept his friend abreast of events in the Crescent City in 158 letters he wrote between April 20, 1818 and August 6, 1839. These letters serve as the narrative foundation of Dessens’s work. Yet, permeating this story is the book’s central thesis, that in the third and fourth decades of the nineteenth century New Orleanians built a “totally new culture, no longer African, or French, or Anglo-Saxon, or specific to any other place, but a New Orleans culture.” (217) Dessens skillfully develops this argument while, at the same time, providing “an entry into [the] mental universe” of Jean Boze. (4)

2Dessens primary source research in writing Creole City is impressive. Boze’s correspondence to St. Geme alone, which is part of the St. Geme Family papers housed in the Historic New Orleans Collection, is over “twelve hundred pages of incredibly rich correspondence” (218) written in French. Boze’s letters offer “diverse points of view, through testimonies he reports, newspaper articles he paraphrases or quotes, and hearsay he transmits.” (4) Nevertheless, Dessens uses a variety of sources, in both French and English, to contextualize and fact check information presented in the correspondence. She visited public archives in New Orleans, Aix en Provence, and Paris where she examined private letters, notarial records, sacramental records, and personal inventories. In addition, she makes use private archival sources and printed primary and literary sources. All of this allows her to open a window to the “variegated, complex society” (218) of New Orleans in the 1820s and 1830s

3“Creole City” is organized thematically as it builds to a crescendo in the final chapter. After a short but effective introduction, chapter one reconstructs the lives of the two protagonists using outside sources while the remaining five chapters are shaped by the Boze letters themselves. Chapter 2 details the dangers and difficult conditions New Orleanians faced in the early nineteenth century while chapter 3 reflects on the growth of New Orleans and its “march to progress.” In these two chapters Dessens develops her argument that the two decades covered in the correspondence were one of the most transformational periods in the city’s history. Chapters 4-6 examine the interrelated themes of New Orleans at an Atlantic World crossroads, racial and ethnic diversity in the city, and the creolization of culture. In chapter 4, Dessens claims that New Orleans was able to strengthen its connections with both the Union it had recently joined and the Caribbean while at the same time maintaining its strong ties to France. In chapter 5, she takes issue with interpretations of New Orleans history that focus and racial and ethnic divisions in the city, such as the so-called three tiered society of slaves, whites, and free people of color or the Creole/American feud. According to Dessens, while these distinctions mattered, they were not determining. The diversity of cultures and rapidly developing economy in early Antebellum New Orleans created a “complex web of social relationships,” that sparked shifting alliances and cooperation as well as conflict. The thesis is fully laid out in the final chapter, where Dessens argues that New Orleans culture was “different from anything found in the rest of the United States, making New Orleans the Creole capital of the young nation.” (217). Therefore, each chapter builds on the previous ones until coming together for the Dessens’s “Creole City” thesis.

4The book has many qualities. First of all, Dessens, a superb writer, has masterfully translated the Frenchman’s letters into English prose. In addition, the depth of Dessens’ analysis of the letters is complemented by the breadth of her archival research. While Creole City teeters on the line between a monograph and an edited collection of primary sources, Dessens is well equipped to take on this balancing act. She presses her claims and deftly places them within the historiography of New Orleans while, at the same time, providing and entry into Boze’s “mental universe.” In so doing, she has created a valuable resource for anyone interested in early American New Orleans.

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Référence électronique

Kenneth Aslakson, « Creole City by Nathalie Dessens », L'Ordinaire des Amériques [En ligne], Comptes rendus, mis en ligne le 08 décembre 2017, consulté le 23 juin 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/orda/3626

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Auteur

Kenneth Aslakson

Union College, earleyj[@]union.edu

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Licence Creative Commons
L’Ordinaire des Amériques est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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