Parades, bars, bantering locals and a life of scholarship shaped telling history
For Edward Gibbon, “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” crystallized famously, on an October day in 1764, as he “sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing Vespers in the temple of Jupiter.” In August 2005, historian Lawrence N. Powell had a similar moment.
“The inspiration for writing a New Orleans book came to me while standing in a bar at a Holiday Inn in Little Rock, Ark., viewing a satellite shot of Tad Gormley Stadium brimming like a bath tub,” Powell said.
Be glad that Professor Powell was paying attention.
After half-a-decade of research and writing, the Tulane University scholar is riding a wave of national acclaim for “The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans.” Powell’s sweeping account, published by Harvard University Press, traces the Crescent City’s rise from swampy colonial backwater to American bastion during the War of 1812. And the book is just as good at sketching the birth of the city’s unique Creole culture, a quality that gives a potentially dusty subject the immediacy of today’s local news.
The Washington Post called Powell’s book “the definitive history of New Orleans’s first century, the period that he regards as central to the city’s formation and its character.” The Dallas Morning News found his scholarly volume “so well-crafted that it reads like a fictional thriller ... a chance to learn critical American history and be brilliantly entertained at the same time.” The Wall Street Journal also praised Powell’s skills as a narrator, noting that he “deftly manages to bring historic personages to life with a few well-chosen words.”
Powell, 69, had been contemplating such a project for decades, but Hurricane Katrina stoked his fires. Like a lot of New Orleanians, the Tulane prof was angry about the levee breaks and flooding that devastated his town. He also was troubled by the loose talk from pundits and politicians who wondered about the wisdom of rebuilding a city that sits below sea level. “I needed to answer the question that was thrown in our faces so often after Katrina: Why were we so stupid to build a city here?”
Powell wasn’t sure of the answer — and that was a huge attraction for a scholar who follows his curiosity, even when it takes him outside his academic speciality.
“If I had a union card, it would say ‘Southern history, Civil War,’ but I like wandering off the reservation. If you always stick with familiar subjects, you forget to take chances. And you also miss the excitement that comes with putting yourself through a crash, graduate-school education in something new.”
It’s not the first such excursion for the Yale-trained historian. When David Duke ran for Louisiana governor in 1991, Powell opposed his candidacy and in 2000 produced a book that grew from that experience: “Troubled Memory: Anne Levy, the Holocaust, and David Duke’s Louisiana.” To write it, he set aside a long-planned history of Reconstruction.
Powell also ventured out of his field when he led the Tulane/Xavier National Center for the Urban Community from 2000 to 2005. Among other activities, the center offered welfare-to-work programs and substance abuse counseling.
“New Orleans has a way of throwing experiences at a writer. It’s one of the advantages of living here, although you have to put up with a lot of potholes,” Powell said. “The city seeped into my nervous system at parades and at bars, while bantering with people in the checkout line at Dorignac’s, and also from 35 years of reading The Times-Picayune. That’s why I wasn’t surprised to learn that New Orleanians began throwing society balls a few years after pulling the place from the mud. I couldn’t have written this history without the experience of living here.”
A big part of that experience was Katrina and its aftermath.
“Katrina certainly shaped my views of early New Orleans,” Powell said. “At first I wondered if the city would survive. One of my working titles described it as an ‘American Pompeii.’ But I also got a much better sense of the city’s resilience. I saw it come back as I wrote the book, and that process reminded me that disaster has always been a flex point in the history of the city and its people: hurricanes, fires, epidemics and economic upheavals. New Orleanians have always been a gritty bunch.”
Powell’s book is full of schemers, eccentrics, pirates, patriots and runaway slaves who remade themselves in this swampy colonial outpost. Thanks to Powell’s skills as a writer, they make a colorful gallery. But those displaced Europeans and Africans also make a good match for Powell in more personal ways.
“I’m an Army brat. I lived in occupied Japan. I lived in Germany for five years. I changed schools every year. Though I can’t compare my experience with that of someone ripped from his homeland and transported to a swamp, I guess my childhood travels gave me an existential appreciation for their lives. I’m sympathetic to the psychological shape-shifting it took to survive in early New Orleans,” he said.
For all that, “The Accidental City” doesn’t romanticize the colonial era. In Powell’s account, smuggling was the city’s economic lifeline. This was a place where laws and royal proclamations were treated with winks, where bribes and nepotism and special favors were commonplace.
Powell describes all this without wagging a finger.
“I’ve been in New Orleans so long that none of this was a shock to me. I didn’t have to get on my high horse about it. I could tell the story without becoming a scold,” he said.
Powell is especially compelling on the subject of slavery. In colonial New Orleans, slaves were bought and sold — sometimes by black masters — and also allowed to wander the backswamp, mix in taverns, master skilled crafts, purchase their own freedom and receive the sacrament of Baptism. Together with a growing class of free people of color, slaves gradually put their distinctive stamp on a town that often resembled an African trading post.
“Without Africans, early New Orleans would not have survived,” Powell said. “And New Orleans gave them more cultural and economic autonomy than was found elsewhere in America — enough so that they were able to create an alternative, Afro-European civilization at the bottom end of the Mississippi. That’s part of the reason why America would not be the same without New Orleans.”
Powell’s book synthesizes the research of generations of scholars and credits them in 40 pages of notes.
“Other writers have mined this material, almost exhaustively. Because of them, I didn’t have to spend years in the archives handling individual documents. They gave me the specifics I needed,” Powell said. “If I’m original, it’s in the way I pull everything together, and tell the story of individual people — not types or groups or classes — as they make their own history.”
Crafting such narratives has not been a priority for Powell’s peers in the academic world.
“Historians have become very professionalized,” he said. “A lot of research is driven by careerist needs, not the need to bring readers along. We’re ceding our territory to journalists who know how to write coherent narratives. I want to take some territory back with this book. I want to tell stories.”
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