Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Spectacular Wickedness: Sex, Race, and Memory in Storyville, New Orleans

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Spectacular Wickedness: Sex, Race, and Memory in Storyville, New Orleans

Article excerpt

Spectacular Wickedness: Sex, Race, and Memory in Storyville, New Orleans. By Emily Epstein Landau. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013. Pp. [xviii], 310. $39.95, ISBN 978-0-8071-5014-6.)

Spectacular Wickedness: Sex, Race, and Memory in Storyville, New Orleans is not another book about how New Orleans's infamous vice district came to be or what it meant to work there; rather, it is a cultural history of the district, its mythologies, and its reputation. Despite being the most notorious red-light district in the country, Storyville, in existence from 1898 to 1917, embodied key trends regarding race relations, commercialism, expanding public space, class tensions, and shifting definitions of masculinity.

Emily Epstein Landau introduces the world of segregated prostitution and vice in tum-of-the-twentieth-century New Orleans through the recollections of the musicians who worked in Storyville. Landau then steps back into the history of the city, its reputation for vice, and its long-standing tradition of choosing economic growth over moral purity. The creation of Storyville, she argues, "amplified" rather than produced "[t]he city's reputation for decadence and moral deterioration" (pp. 44, 43).

Storyville repackaged and capitalized on the city's racialized past. Landau focuses on the codification of racial boundaries around identities of blackness and whiteness in the late nineteenth century, the same moment that Storyville's reputation came to rest on the octoroon (light-skinned, racially mixed) prostitute. In a substantial analysis of the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, Landau argues that Storyville ultimately bolstered racial distinctions drawn by Plessy and Jim Crow segregation more broadly. While Storyville's octoroons bodily demonstrated the racial mixing of the past, their African blood made them black enough to shore up white male privilege when white men could buy sex from them. Landau concludes, "Storyville's marketing of miscegenation transgressed the social and cultural norms of a nascent Jim Crow order; but by advertising the miscegenation taboo and offering its transgressions exclusively to white men, Storyville also served white supremacy" (p. 201).

The demise of Storyville came from a set of cultural shifts by the late 1910s that brought a new set of meanings to the district's famous octoroons. …

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