Academic journal article Journal of Research in Gender Studies

Feminine Cities: New Orleans in the Work of John Gregory Brown

Academic journal article Journal of Research in Gender Studies

Feminine Cities: New Orleans in the Work of John Gregory Brown

Article excerpt


New Orleans has always been an intriguing case for scholars interested in the relationship between literature and geographical place; its vibrant mixture of cultures, its linguistic pluralism, and the various idiosyncratic laws (both written and unwritten) that shaped its history and tradition have earned the city a unique reputation among other U.S. locations. Suzanne W. Jones (2013), for instance, has argued that New Orleans represents the most "foreign" city of the United States: "From its origins," she says, "New Orleans has been both praised and denigrated, but almost always, it's been thought of as America's 'exotic other'." Along the same lines, Helen Taylor (2004) has argued that "it's a different language down there" (321) and Barbara Eckstein (2006) has examined the "abundant and persistent claims for the city's exceptionalism" (2).

If we add the gender parameter to the debate concerning this exceptionalism, the picture gets even more complicated, in the sense that New Orleans is often perceived as a "feminine" city. Attempting to give an integrated definition of femininity may fall beyond the scope of this essay, yet it is worth noting that most of the arguments exploring the city's feminine side inevitably associate femininity with sexuality: Andrei Codrescu (2006), for instance, identifies femininity with the city's "unfeigned pleasure in Eros" (225-226), while Lakeesha Harris and Geryll Robinson (2015) see "the divine feminine energy" of New Orleans as a manifestation of its healing power. Many other similar examples can be mentioned here, as New Orleans's cultural background - with its African slaves, the institution of plaçage, the "infamous Storyville area of prostitution and jazz" and the French connection have contributed significantly to the city's "longstanding reputation as a place of sexual license and laissez-faire," a place of "feminine frivolity and pleasure-loving naughtiness" (Taylor, 2004: 321). So how does Brown's New Orleans conform to - or deviate from - this pervasive image of femininity? Can it be said that his overall handling of place in literature enriches both current gender theorization and contemporary Southern writing? The following pages will try to provide an answer.

Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery

Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery (1994) is not only the first novel that established the author's interest in the notion of place, but also the novel that earned Brown enthusiastic accolades for its original narrative voices - a young, white woman (Catherine), her 12-year old stepdaughter (Meredith), and an old, African-American man (Murphy).1 Indeed, people who have some experience of fiction writing will know that creating a successful narrator whose gender or race is different from your own represents a significant accomplishment. Brown's two female narrators, in particular, both manage to convince the reader of their authenticity (they sound female without resorting to overused clichés and stereotypes), and simultaneously invite crucial questions about how their own experience of femininity relates to their daily life in a city traditionally perceived as "feminine." To the extent that femininity is commonly associated with nurturing and healing, or with stability, rather than movement, it would be interesting to examine whether Brown's depiction of New Orleans reflects or contests tradition, or whether he adopts a "middle ground" that goes beyond earlier writing.

Perhaps the most memorable description of the city is given by Catherine, who believes that New Orleans is "the greatest of all possible adventures" (69);2 her move from North Carolina to the celebrated city of Louisiana represents "not only a different world to see," but also "a different way of seeing it" (72). In the words of Barbara Ladd (2002), New Orleans symbolizes "something phantasmagoric..., a locus of desire," and perhaps a dream, rather than a reality (56). But why does New Orleans seem to Catherine "like the best city in the whole world" (72), and what does she find there? …

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