Louisiana Sojourns

Review by Willard Manus

Folklorist Frank de Caro knew nothing of Lousiana when he accepted a teaching job down there, but he soon began to develop an interest in how the state "presented itself to outsiders, and how it was presented by those outsiders who dropped by." Eventually he began to gather "some of the work of those who had come to Louisiana and recorded their adventures and impressions." In 1998 he published the results in LOUISIANA SOJOURNS--TRAVELERS TALES AND LITERARY JOURNEYS and now the book has been reissued in a new, updated edition by LSU Press.

The 581-page book is packed from cover to cover with sketches and essays by such famous authors as Mark Twain, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Theodore Roosevelt, A.J. Liebling, Zora Neale Hurston and Walker Percy, among others. Just about every aspect of the state comes in for discussion--the Mississippi River and its sidewheelers, plantation life, the formation of New Orleans, Mardis Gras, the bayous, Cajun culture and food, slavery, prostitution and gambling, politics, voodoo, etc.

While most of the contributors show an understanding of, and sympathy for, Louisiana's rich, mixed-race, multi-cultural life, de Caro has not been afraid to include some vicious racists, such as the architect Benjamin Larobe, who visited New Orleans in 1819 and was taken to Congo Square, where the local slaves gathered on Sunday to talk freedom and play the dynamic new music that eventually evolved into jazz and blues.

"I have never seen anything more brutally savage," Latrobe commented, "and at the same time dull and stupid than this whole exhibition."

Fortunately most of the other white writers in this anthology have more insightful and sympathetic things to say about life in Louisiana; their work combined with the one essay by an African-American (Hurston, on voodoism) help make LOUISIANA SOJOURNS a book worth having and savoring.