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Interculturalité : la Louisiane au carrefour des cultures

Aurélie Godet

Dessens, Nathalie and Le Glaunec, Jean-Pierre (ed.). Interculturalité: la Louisiane au carrefour des cultures. Presses de l’Université Laval, Montréal, 2016. 360 p.

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1Since the 1970s, renovated scholarship of encounter and exchange across the world has grown to include such landmarks as Alfred Crosby’s The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (1972), Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993), Joseph Roach’s Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (1996), Patrick Manning’s Navigating World History (2003), Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s Explorations in Connected History (2004), Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History (2014), Jürgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the 19th Century (2014), and Peter Frankopan’s Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2015). Though on a smaller scale (the focus of the volume is solely on Louisiana) and targeting a French-speaking audience only, the collection of essays edited by Nathalie Dessens (Toulouse University) and Jean-Pierre Le Glaunec (Sherbrooke University) displays a similar taste for interdisciplinary work that encompasses the longue durée and foregrounds the various facets of cultural interconnections (conflict, negotiation, métissage, bricolage, etc.).

2In their introduction, Dessens and Le Glaunec contextualize their endeavor by highlighting three moments in the historiography of Louisiana as written since the 1990s: a “paradigmatic moment” (exemplified by the works of Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Daniel Usner, and Thomas Ingersoll) from which Louisiana emerged as either a permeable “frontier society” or a colony shaped by rigid exclusionary processes; an “Atlantic moment,” which inaugurated a change in scale (from the local to the global), or rather a combination of scales, as biography and micro-history remained methods of choice; and, currently, a moment of “renewed narration,” in which scholars are exploring “new concepts and new objects, in particular from an interdisciplinary perspective” (p. 6) in order to produce a “true novel” (Paul Veyne) of the Gulf region. This three-pronged categorization serves to highlight the main purpose of the collection, which Dessens and Le Glaunec identify as challenging stereotypes about Louisiana history and encouraging cooperation between historians, linguists and American studies scholars.

3Chronologically organized, the volume starts with the colonial period (Frey, White, and Dubé), then moves on to the 19th century, “Americanized” phase of Louisiana history (Polfliet, Dessens, Fertel, Piché, and Cabanac), before exploring issues of cultural métissage and conflict through studies of contemporary Louisiana French (Boudreau, Thibault, Baronian), music (Chastagner), and gardens (Langlois).

4Sylvia Frey’s inaugural essay successfully places Louisiana at the crossroads of Europe, African and the Caribbean by focusing on the the life stories of two men: Jean Charles de Pradel, a French officer of the Marine regiment who joined the Atlantic community of indigo merchants in 1755, and one of his slaves, Saint Louis La Nuit. Born in Africa in 1728, La Nuit was freed by Pradel for extraordinary service in 1763. He then embraced Catholicism, fought during the American Revolution under governor Bernardo de Galvez, and purchased land in the area that would become known as Tremé. Both men helped shape the social architecture and cultural texture of the city in ways that are still noticeable today. Their intersecting stories lend credence to the frequent characterization of New Orleans as a “cultural blender.”

5Sophie White’s essay analyzes the rigidification of racial boundaries that occurred in 18th-century Louisiana through the biography of Mary Turpin, a French-Indian girl who was worn in the Illinois Country but later moved to New Orleans to join the Ursuline order. Although a woman of status in Upper Louisiana, a place where identity was fluid and many native people had achieved “Frenchification,” Mary was never able to rise beyond the rank of converse nun in the convent of Lower Louisiana, a “space of racial constraints” (p. 59). Examination of material items (garments, lists of tasks) shows the limits of the Ursulines’ policy of inclusion when faced with the case of this wealthy, yet mixed-race, Catholic young woman.

6Alexandre Dubé also foregrounds material culture in the history of Louisiana by investigating the mysteries of limbourg, a type of cloth produced in France (under the supervision of the Royal Marine after 1732) and traded exclusively with the Choctaw Indians. Studying the behavior of the participants in the trade and the circuitous route of the product allows him to explore how “institutions think and operate” (p. 87) but also to challenge the traditional representation of Europeans as dictating the course of diplomatic relations with indigenous tribes in colonial Louisiana. At every stage of the commodity chain, uncertainty and ignorance ruled, Dubé insists.

7The second part of the book deals with the complex interactions between some of the groups that made up nineteenth-century Louisianan society. Marieke Polfliet’s stimulating essay examines the political socialization of the francophone population of Louisiana after the fall of the Napoleonic empire, distinguishing between exiles from France, immigrants from Canada, and refugees from Saint-Domingue. She especially describes the way these groups negotiated their identities in the wake of the American purchase of Louisiana and how a peculiar “Louisiana political culture” that combined “American citizenship with colonial traditions” (p. 130) came to be. The last part of her essay, which focuses on celebrations as sites within which French and American political cultures met and blended, acts as an excellent transition to Nathalie Dessens’s essay, which develops a similar analysis.

8Challenging a long-standing paradigm that emphasizes conflict between Creole and American political and socio-economic interests in 19th-century New Orleans, Dessens argues that Creole-American relations were characterized by convergence right from the start, and uses various festivals of the 1803-1843 period (such as George Washington’s birthday and the anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans) as evidence of this creolization process. Carnival, especially, emerges as a locus of accommodation and “mutual acculturation” (p. 159), contrary to the widespread belief that it was a Creole ritual “appropriated by Anglos” in the 1850s.

9Rien Fertel and Geneviève Piché’s essays both examine the role of Catholicism in forging a distinctive Louisianan identity. Analyzing speeches delivered in Saint Louis Cathedral by Charles Gayarré (1830) and Adrien Rouquette (1846) to commemorate the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, Fertel shows how these two French Creole scholars called for patriotic unity under God between white Creoles and Americans. For her part, Piché uses the Archdiocese of New Orleans correspondence held at Notre Dame University to shed light on the relationship between priests and slaves in the 1812-1842 period. Reading through the silences in religious documents, she provides evidence for the voluntary participation of enslaved Africans in Catholic rites such as marriage and godparenthood. She also concludes that the racial attitudes of the Louisiana Catholic clergy (which were similar to those of the white majority of the time) allowed Protestantism to make headway among the slave community and transformed Louisiana into a unique religious area, at the crossroads of the Protestant and Catholic worlds.

10Correspondence also serves as a basis for Olivier Cabanac’s essay, which charts the development of an antebellum Creole-American identity among individuals like Victor Grima, who studied in Paris between 1856 and 1861. On the one hand, the young bilingual Creole appears as a “foreign French returning home” (p. 208), while on the other his letters betray a growing appreciation for the “folks at home” (p. 222) and, more largely, for the United States.

11Moving on to the present period, three chapters offer perspectives of Louisiana as a linguistic crossroads, each questioning how influential Acadian immigrants really were on Louisiana French. Drawing mostly from Bourdieu’s Ce que parler veut dire (1982), Annette Boudreau argues for the importance of symbolic representations in shaping cultural identities. Indeed, it was only after the Cajun language was identified as a linguistic variation of French that Cajuns were able to develop a feeling of “distinction,” leading to the current commodification of Cajun identity in Louisiana for touristic purposes.

12Based on a lexical analysis of francophone stories collected by Barry Ancelet during the 1990s, André Thibaut debunks the myth of Louisiana French as an Acadian import by showing that the vast majority of its lexical features exist in other forms of North American or Caribbean French. Among the few, truly local, lexical innovations he identifies, words like “avant-jour” (dawn), “chaudière” (pan),” “cypre” (bald cypress) and “tout quelqu’un” (everybody) stand out.

13Luc Baronian reaches a similar conclusion on the basis of a comparative study of lexical, morpho-syntactical, and phonological features of Acadian and Louisiana French conducted in 2003. To him, Louisiana French is a “linguistic “gumbo” (p. 316) that shares at least as much with the French spoken in “les Antilles” as with the French spoken in “Acadie,” the homeland of French-speaking 18th-century deportees.

14Leaving the linguistic field, the last two chapters of the book continue to address issues of creolization and exchange via the study of music and landscaping, respectively. Building on the writings of Barry Ancelet, Carl Brasseaux, Joseph Dormon, and Marcia Gaudet, Claude Chastagner’s essay on the origins of zydeco music reminds us that musical identities often intersect with racial identities in the United States and that musical métissage (zydeco is a popular musical idiom that assembles French, Amerindian, and African influences) does not necessarily lead to lasting social métissage, despite marketers’ claims to the contrary.

15Gilles-Antoine Langlois, for his part, describes post-Katrina efforts to restore Saint Anthony’s garden, an oft-overlooked plot located right behind Saint Louis Cathedral, and explains that the project leaders’ inability to isolate a “period of significance” for the garden led them to create a “transcultural” (p. 357) space instead, i.e. one that blended European and Louisiana plants in order to reflect the complex history of the site.

16Taken individually, all of the essays collected here make significant contributions to the study of Louisiana. The fact that they echo (and build on) one another only adds to the pleasure of the reading experience. More importantly, the book delivers on the promise of its editors to cross-disciplinary boundaries and to challenge enduring myths, such as the lack of Native American agency in indigenous-European relations, the insurmountable antagonism between Creoles and Americans in mid-nineteenth-century Louisiana, and the Acadian origin of contemporary Louisiana French.

17The volume is, of course, not without flaws. One may regret, for instance, the absence of an index and of authors’ bios in the 360-page text. One may also find the “crossroads” metaphor (also utilized by Cécile Vidal in her 2013 edited collection, Louisiana: Crossroads of the Atlantic World) to be slightly overworked at times. Could not most places on earth be described this way? Is not culture essentially “a porous array of intersections” (Renato Rosaldo)? Perhaps the concepts of creolization and métissage (though problematic in their own ways) would have characterized Louisiana more aptly, as they mostly apply to (post-) colonial contexts.

18Three other points warrant discussion, I believe. Firstly, even though the editors clearly work within the framework of global history and try to look “beyond borders”, their focus is almost exclusively on the French Atlantic, with very little being said about indigenous cultures of the Gulf South, Spanish colonization, 20th-century immigrant contributions to Louisiana history, or even African American participation in Louisiana’s historical and cultural development (Claude Chastagner and Sylvia Frey’s articles are notable exceptions in this respect). While this is a perfectly reasonable choice to make, given the spatial constraints of the book form and the series in which it was published (“Les Voies du français”), I think this should have been made clear from the start.

19Secondly, the collection pays far more attention to New Orleans than it does to rural Louisiana (except in the last, linguistics-driven section of the book). This reader would have loved to learn more about the history of areas outside Orleans Parish, be it the neighboring Jefferson Parish or the more distant Caddo Parish.

20Thirdly and lastly, the collection largely eschews questions of memorialization and representation, though the “intercultural” nature of Louisiana history has made them particularly acute since the colonial era. An essay about Louisiana’s public monuments, including the Congo Square sculptures that grace the cover of the book and the controversial Confederate statues whose removal was voted in 2015, would have been a nice counterpart to Gilles-Antoine Langlois’s article about the restoration (or rather recreation) of St. Anthony’s garden.

21This being said, Nathalie Dessens and Jean-Pierre Le Glaunec’s volume stands as a model of what interdisciplinary scholarship and dialogue should look like. It is also a valuable addition to the scholarship on cultural exchanges between Europe and the Americas, making it required reading for historians of the Gulf South, the United States, and the Atlantic alike.

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Aurélie Godet, « Interculturalité : la Louisiane au carrefour des cultures », L'Ordinaire des Amériques [Online], Comptes rendus, posto online no dia 20 dezembro 2018, consultado o 09 maio 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Aurélie Godet

Paris Diderot University

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