Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Through a Purple (Green and Gold) Haze: New Orleans Mardi Gras in the American Imagination

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Through a Purple (Green and Gold) Haze: New Orleans Mardi Gras in the American Imagination

Article excerpt

Long before I visited New Orleans I would visit it in my imagination.--Tom Piazza, Why New Orleans Matters (2005)

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There was not much color in Aggieland--at least not other than the maroon proudly flaunted by students at Texas A&M University. A month had passed since Hurricane Katrina devastated my hometown of New Orleans. Eager for a distraction from the daily news reports that told of more destruction and death, I decided to attend a concert in a very big country dance hall called the Texas Hall of Fame. The music was twang, the beer was Lone Star, the walls were purely Aggie. Or so I thought at first glance. As I wandered around the large hall absorbing Central Texas culture, I noticed a much more familiar color scheme. The back wall bore no signs declaring "Gig 'era," paintings of spurred Corps of Cadets boots, or even photographs of the Texas A&M football team. Not even maroon graced the wall. Instead a mural depicting purple, green, and gold confetti, Carnival masks, a Bourbon Street sign, and the words "New Orleans" stretched across the room. I had discovered, in a most unexpected place, a little bit of home.

As a New Orleanian faced with tales of catastrophe and the question of what the new New Orleans might become, I suddenly confronted a piece of cultural flotsam carried deep into the heart of Texas not by tropical gusts or a massive storm surge but rather by the American love of the Big Easy. The contradiction was striking. College Station, Texas, was a place that reveled in political and religious conservatism. Bead-bedecked flashers and costumed drag queens were unlikely to frequent the Texas Hall of Fame or anywhere else in Aggieland, for that matter. Judging by the wails of the Hall, however, drinking, dancing, cowboy finery, and good music somehow created an atmosphere three-parts Texas, one-part New Orleans. Despite Katrina's carnage, the imagined New Orleans, a symbol of hedonistic celebration, remained high and dry.

This imagined New Orleans cherished by many Americans is integral to understanding the future of post-Katrina New Orleans. Tourism demands the satisfying of tourists' desires and expectations: buck the tourists and lose the tourists' bucks. What, therefore, is the history of the city's popular association with Mardi Gras, and in what corners of American culture have little bits of this imagined New Orleans come to life outside the city proper?

Certainly, word of a growing Carnival celebration in antebellum New Orleans spread the lore of the city as a place of revelry. The French tradition of celebrating Mardi Gras with feasts, costumes, and balls blossomed into impromptu street processions and organized parades during the antebellum period. The boom in cotton and river traffic swelled the city with people and wealth, bringing large numbers of Americans into contact with the metropolis and making New Orleans a significant cultural and economic center within the young United States. New Orleans Mardi Gras thus became big news throughout the nation. Even the Berkshire County Whig of distant Pittsfield, Massachusetts, informed readers in i846 of the "music car," "grotesque and laughter provoking figures," and "long cavalcade of horsemen" journeying in a "grand procession" through New Orleans streets on Fat Tuesday. The newspaper reported that "every where there were sounds of revelry." Stories about Carnival quickly pervaded popular culture. By the early 1880s, the national popularity of the New Orleans festivities was such that a correspondent for the Christian Union published in New York declared, "I suppose New Orleans at this season is at its best. Every Northern man has heard of its glories during the Carnival, culminating at the Mardi Gras." (1)

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Even better for New Orleans boosters, transportation companies eager for passengers and publications eager for readers increasingly glorified the annual holiday. …

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