Academic journal article MELUS

New South Narratives of Freedom: Rereading George Washington Cable's "`Tite Poulette" and Madame Delphine

Academic journal article MELUS

New South Narratives of Freedom: Rereading George Washington Cable's "`Tite Poulette" and Madame Delphine

Article excerpt

Although George Washington Cable is now widely known as a perceptive writer on transracial subjects, it was not until his third short story, "`Tite Poulette" (1874), that Cable introduced black-white racial issues in his published fiction. Indeed, a number of central concerns which Cable developed in writings throughout his career, including social construction of racial categories, possibilities of changing "natural" feelings about racial difference, interrelated race and gender issues, as well as legal ramifications of interracial relationships, are compellingly presented in this first of Cable's published fictions of"race." With "`Tite Poulette," too, Cable for the first time introduces engaging, if still largely stereotyped, women characters, as well as a more developed and integrated central male figure, the young Dutch immigrant Kristian Koppig, one of a series of portrayals of an "alternate" masculinity, a white Southern masculinity vulnerable to change, that reflects a key interest of Cable throughout his writing life.

In "`Tite Poulette" and in his related narrative of Madame Delphine (1881) (1) Cable explores possibilities for change in the South of his own young manhood, a volatile Period after emancipation and before segregation was sanctioned by the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court ruling of 1896. In that window of time when it seemed to many that the future was open, Cable wrote against any idea of looking back to an idealized, monolithically-conceived past of white male supremacy as a basis for constructing a New South. With a conception of fiction as parable and believing that progress in the South required change of individual Southern men and Southern women, Cable modeled with individual characters possibilities of transformation of familiar Southern values and cultural practices regarding men's and women's roles, race, and, especially in Madame Delphine, religion.

I

As in many of his early short stories, at the opening of "`Tite Poulette," the time plane of Cable's third person narration is set near the time of the story's composition, New Orleans in the early 1870s, toward the end of Reconstruction. Interweaving recollections of the old New Orleans of the time of Kristian Koppig with "touristic" impressions of the Vieux Carre of his own postbellum era, the narrator suggests an interpenetrating past and present in which the past continues to impinge on and shape contemporary time. In a pivotal phrase toward the end of the opening "frame" narrative, Cable's narrator introduces the story of Kristian and `Tite Poulette with a mellow, "once upon a time" intonation: "In the good old times of duels, and bagatelle-clubs, and theatre-balls, and Cayetano's circus" (214). The bland, ingenuous tone here teases the reader with a hint of a picturesque New Orleans of honor and grace. Such a conventional, sanitized vision of an idyllic prewar Louisiana was promulgated in Cable's day by the prominent white Creole writer and spokesman Charles Gayarre and others and served to buttress white supremacist ideology in the postbellum era. (See Tregle 169-70, 173-74, 178-83 and Tunnel 1-7.) Central to the mythic, ideal Southern vision were white men who would physically fight for honor and white women of grace and virtue, virtue respected and actively protected by men of honor. (See Wyatt-Brown 34-55; 227.)

Early on we learn that "white" is socially, not just physically, determined, and that for white-appearing 'Tite Poulette and her mother, Madame John, not being "real white" (221) is the most important thing to know about the two central women characters. In an indirect fashion, easy to miss on first reading, Cable's narrator suggests how Madame John's socially imposed race and gender status as "quadroon lad[y]" (217) is fundamental to her identity in her immediate Vieux Carre Creole community as well as her possibilities in life: "[W]ho was this Madame John? …

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