Academic journal article Romance Notes

Therese Bentzon's American "Other" in New Orleans: Constructing Frenchness and Femininity in Louisiana at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Academic journal article Romance Notes

Therese Bentzon's American "Other" in New Orleans: Constructing Frenchness and Femininity in Louisiana at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Article excerpt

THERESE Bentzon's Notes de voyages: les Americaines chez elles is the culmination of her 1893 voyage to the United States, a trip that was to last two years and take her to parts of the continent as varied as Chicago, New Orleans, Boston, Quebec, and New York. Originally published in serial form in the Revue des deux mondes, this travelogue, as the title indicates, explicitly evokes a gendered perspective. In her voyage, Bentzon not only spent a great deal of time touring schools and universities, but also observing women's daily lives, coming to the conclusion that on the whole, American young women enjoyed much greater freedoms than their French counterparts. In an 1894 interview with the New York Times, Bentzon explained why she felt it was important to transmit a greater knowledge of American culture to France, stating that "the young girl in France shall be transformed by the influence of the American young girl" ("Impressions of Th. Bentzon" 21). Indeed, one over-arching concern that runs through Bentzon's literary output her novels, translations, travel-writing, and literary criticism--is her ongoing interest in expanding women's professional and educational capacities in France, in this instance via her experiences with North American literature and culture. Within this vast tour of American cultural and educational institutions, Bentzon reserves a privileged place for Francophone America, New Orleans and Quebec. It is in her travels in New Orleans that Bentzon finds a hope for women's education that is absent in her tours of other American cities. She notes that New Orleans "a produit des femmes remarquables intellectuellement, des ecrivains, des artistes" (Notes de Voyage 397). While she does admit that in comparison to women's education in the Northeast, education in New Orleans lags behind, this is not necessarily, in her opinion, a detriment; from her perspective the cultural specificities that create a different intellectual atmosphere in New Orleans are also what connect it more closely to France and therefore create the opportunity for change.

Th. Bentzon was the pseudonym of Therese Blanc, nee Therese de Solms, who was born in 1840 and died in 1907. Through her stepfather she was introduced to George Sand and under her sponsorship began writing for the Revue des Deux Mondes in 1872 (Stanton 598). In addition to her travel writing, she mainly wrote book reviews, critical pieces, and translations, particularly of English and American works by such authors as Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Bret Harte, to give only a few examples among many. Aside from her work as a translator, though, her largest written output was writing about her experiences traveling in North America. And, more specifically, large portions of her writings about North America focus solely on French-speaking spaces, not only New Orleans, but also Quebec, and she saw in these regions an even greater interest in women's opportunities than in the other, Anglophone areas of North America she toured, for within them she perceived of the capacity to construct an identity both French and other, and thus both familiar and foreign to her readers. In Notes de voyages: les Americaines chez elles, Bentzon examines women's roles in New Orleans through the double lens of French and American identities, creating the opportunity for French women to look to their Francophone counterparts in order to gain personal, professional, and educational advances. Bentzon certainly makes it a point to note the continuing influence of French language and culture on New Orleans, but she does not stop there. Instead, she posits that New Orleans, with its convergence of French and Anglo-American culture, can in the future have just as great an influence as France had on it in the past. Furthermore, because Bentzon sees women as the primary force behind the maintenance of a New World Francophone identity, she endows the women of New Orleans, and by extension the domestic and educational realms that they inhabit, with a cultural power that exceeds that of their male counterparts. …

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