New Orleans and Carnival

Yesterday was Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Woolson never visited New Orleans, which is a shame. She wrote such amazing stories about post-Reconstruction Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. I would love to see what her keen, sympathetic eye would have seen in 1870s New Orleans. She noted many times how foreign Florida, in particular, seemed. How foreign would New Orleans have been!

Woolson spent the first forty years of her life yearning to travel to Europe and delighted in every remnant of America’s colonial past she encountered, especially in Spanish St. Augustine, FL, and British Charleston, SC. In New Orleans she would have been able to use the French she had learned at finishing school in New York, and she would have discovered a perplexing world of complicated race and gender relations, legacies of the city’s French and Spanish colonial pasts. Oh the stories she would have told!

Woolson was regarded as the South’s first post-war chronicler. (Many of these stories were collected in Rodman the Keeper.) She had given the voiceless region a voice, Henry James wrote. New Orleans would soon find its voice with George Washington Cable and later Grace King. Cable was driven out of town for telling the city’s secrets. Woolson may not have fared much better. But she was widely recognized for the sympathy with which she portrayed the vanquished South. She probably would have done a better job than Cable in walking that fine line between observer and participant.

The New Orleans Daily Picayune published very positive appraisals of her work, headlining a profile of her in 1887 with the label “The Foremost Female Southern Sketch Writer.” Another column likened the characters in her novel Jupiter Lights (1889) to real people who the author knew from his/her own neighborhood. But one writer for the paper was clearly not a fan, accusing Woolson of “poaching on our preserves” and lacking first-hand knowledge of the South (which she did have, having spent 6 years traveling from Florida to Virginia).

Carnival in Rome
Carnival in Rome: An oil painting from 1839 by Aleksandr-Petrovic Mjasoedo of Roman celebrations. (From history.org)

Although Woolson never knew New Orleans, she was no stranger to Carnival, which she witnessed in Rome and the Italian countryside, where the locals masked, paraded, and danced the Tarantella. She remained an observer of these foreign customs, never participating herself, as far as we know. It is intriguing to imagine Constance donning a mask and letting herself go, but I don’t think it would have happened. Being a protestant from Cleveland, Ohio, she couldn’t help viewing such customs and excesses as somewhat unseemly. But her deep love of beauty and the passionate nature hidden inside the prim exterior must have looked on with wonder and delight.

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