Editor's Introduction

Article excerpt

That avatar of nineteenth-century American optimism, Walt Whitman (1819-1892), opened his Leaves of Grass with the lines:

I CELEBRATE myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,

I lean and loafe at my ease . . . observing a spear of summer grass.1

Having lived for a season (January to May) in New Orleans in 1848, before decamping back to Brooklyn, and then later "staying" - as Southerners used to say, and in fact still do say here in the Deep South - in Washington D.C. long enough to "loafe" in those sweltering months of an Upper South summer, Whitman unwittingly evokes for us the old antebellum ideal of otium cum dignitate ("leisure with dignity").2 A century and a half later, in our hurried (if still sweltering) summer time one might well respond, "if only!"

In this, our Summer issue, we discern a theme not of Whitmanesque loafing but rather of a busy reinvention, a hurly-burly re-fashioning of individual and collective identity; a play of Tricksters in the shimmer of summer heat, the threat of thunderstorms on the horizon offering the promise of redemptive rain.

We offer here a combination of scholarly and belles-lettrestic work, from Clarence Mohr's suggestive study of the dual invention of "the southern university" and "the idea of the South" in the decades after the Civil War, and Wendy Kurant's consideration of how Mary Boykin Chesnut revised her depiction of a key character in her Diary as southern women became the locus of the Lost Cause ideology; to Lawrence Jackson's effort to untangle the brambles of his family's history of newfound freedom and what it means through the generations; to the briarpatch itself, or rather, to the zéronce of Creole Louisiana and its trickster tales of Compair Lapin (Rabbit), Compair Bouki, and the others including, notably, Compair Tortie (Tortoise), as collected and translated by another restless and prodigious nineteenth-century man of letters, Alcée Fortier (1856-1914). Born into great wealth and privilege - he was the grandson of the antebellum sugar-planter and grandee Valcour Aimé (1798-1867), now largely forgotten - just as the chiaroscuro of the ancien régime faced the bright lights of a dawning (and daunting) new age, Fortier is an historical example for French-Creole Louisiana of what Professor Mohr considers more generally for the South.3

Today, however, Fortier seems increasingly antiquarian, increasingly a musty relic of a bygone era, and yet his work such as Louisiana Folk-Tales (1895) deserves a re-reading.4 A leisurely drive up and down the so-called "German Coast" upriver from New Orleans, the region of the most intensive settlement of the biggest French-Creole antebellum sugar plantations (i.e., St. Charles, St. John, and St. James parishes), that is, up LA 18 on the "West Bank" and past plantations such as Evergreen, Laura, and Oak Alley, and then back down LA 44 along the "East Bank" (today noticeably whiter and self-consciously "Cajun") through places like Convent, La Place, and Destrehan, though certainly worth a lazy summer's afternoon, yields only a single public historical reference to Aimé, and not one to Fortier.

Because of Fortier's purblindness to the centrality of African influences in these tales and in the local worlds they evoke, and his residual racism, we are particularly happy to have two modern scholars respond to this selection of Louisiana trickster tales: one, Ibrahima Seek, a Senegalese historian who also works in Afro-Louisiana history; and the other, J. …