New Orleans, with Scarf
The real truth is one thing, and the literary truth is another; and there is nothing more difficult than to want both truths to coincide.
Mario Vargas Llosa
Previously in this space I wrote about carrying preconceived notions to a place youve never been, traveling to a city that youve never seen but that exists already in your imagination. Of course, in the twenty-first century, a traveler can and should read widely and deeply about any given place, but about some places certain kinds of reading are more possible than other kinds. One can find all sorts of guide books, news articles, and U.S. government documents about, say, Ghana, but how much modern literature? About London the city I described when I discussed traveling with preconceived, literary notions its not hard for a reader to find vast amounts of literature, much of it good, all of it the raw material for building up a city of the imagination.
But what about other cities, cities that did not serve as the center of a governing empire during a time when the novel was just beginning to come into its own as an art form? A few months ago, I traveled for the first time to New Orleans. Not the most minor city in the world, but certainly not one that leaps to mind when you think great literature about great cities especially not if you grew up in a place like New England, as I did, which not only has the disadvantages of being parochial and thinking its superior to the rest of the country, but which also happened to produce some of the best English-language literature known to the world (ahem). What are the chances that a girl from small-town Massachusetts is going to stumble across Nelson Algren or John Kennedy Toole or Shirley Ann Grau when her teachers are busy feeding her propaganda about the good relations between the pilgrims and Indians or about giant white whales off the coast of New Bedford?
Slim. And though opportunities for broadening my reading horizons presented themselves to me later in life, after Id spent time living below the Mason-Dixon Line and in other countries, I still never really got around to picking up any books about New Orleans (somehow, although I love the gothic and the fantastic and even, at times, the phantasmagoric, I missed out on Ann Rice. Too busy reading about witches in Salem, no doubt). All of this is to say that, when I went to the Crescent City recently, I went with very few images of it already in mind.
Well, it opened the eyes of this small-town New England girl, Ill tell you that much. I stayed right on Bourbon Street, the main drag in the French Quarter, a neighborhood that used to be the center of Bohemia in New Orleans and that once possibly rivaled the East Village and Haight-Ashbury for being the most Bohemian area in all of America. Now, sadly, its become something more like what those other neighborhoods are becoming: home to a part-hipster, part-yuppie culture premised more on consumerism than on creativity. Nevertheless, even if the nature of an anything-goes approach to life has mutated, anything does still go on Bourbon Street, where the doors to the bars are open twenty-four hours a day, and each doorway leads to a bar; where Playboy spreads are turned into giant, backlit window displays; where the signs that line the street read Live Girls!, World Famous Sex Acts Men and Women, and Nude Men! Triple XXX!!! I happened to be there during Carnival, the eight-or-so-week period between January 6 and Mardi Gras (and, yes, its officially spelled with a capital "C"). Purple, green, and silver garlands bedecked all the doorways, balconies, and banisters, and strings of Mardi Gras beads criss-crossed the line of vision in every direction. Drunken men (all of whom, in memory, had James Dean-style flops of dirty-blond hair slanting across their foreheads, were wearing business suits with loosened ties, and had tan-lines on their ring fingers revealing missing wedding bands) leered at me in the streets; drunken women also leered, one of them approaching me to ask, in a thick, slurred Southern accent and with complete earnestness, as she was clearly honestly puzzled Maam? Why are you wearing a scarf in New Orleans? (Well, it was January, and it was just a thin scarf, more for decoration than anything else. But she had a point for most of the other women on Bourbon Street, cleavage seemed to be the preferred mode of neckline decoration.)
Dont get me wrong, I loved it. And debauchery wasnt the only thing to be found in New Orleans. History is everywhere there, visible and palpable. The French and Spanish influences from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries linger: You can see them in the little houses narrow, two or three stories tall, peach and yellow, turquoise and white, with full-length shutters on all the doors and windows, and lush, potted ferns draped over lacy, iron balconies. Jackson Square, the small park at the heart of the French Quarter and one of the most peaceful, symmetrical, beautiful public spaces I have ever seen, boasts an equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson with the following inscription on the plinth: The Union Shall and Must Be Preserved. A shocking sentiment for a Yankee to stumble across in the South, but it was inscribed under the auspices of the commander of the occupying forces during the Civil War.
New Orleans, occupied city, Bohemian city, city of sin. And I havent even begun to describe the famous above-ground graveyards (by law, no bodies can be interred underground in New Orleans because the city is below sea-level); the Mississippi River; the gumbo and okra and beignets and coffee; the free ferry ride across the river, from the French Quarter to a poor, run-down, rough-and-tumble neighborhood called Algiers, which, for all of its similarity to the French Quarter, might as well be as far away from it as the real Algiers is; the music everywhere theres music, a lone saxophonist or trumpeter on seemingly every corner; a jazz trio on the east side of Jackson Square; and to the north a chorus, a whole damn chorus, lined up in two lines, with all eyes on the conductor standing in front, a whole chorus just singing away.
With all of these images and impressions, I left New Orleans. Thats when I decided it was time for me to do some reading, and I discovered that its different when you do the reading afterward. When I went to London, I had a city in my head, one that had been built up by the words of Dickens and Woolf and countless other writers. I went to London and I compared, replacing imagination with memory. This time it happened the other way around. I read Faulkners New Orleans Sketches, a book that compiles the weekly newspaper articles and occasional magazine pieces Faulkner wrote when he spent six months living in New Orleans after quitting work as a postal employee in Mississippi. I read Tennessee Williamss A Streetcar Named Desire (thinking about how brilliant it is for a city to name one of its streets Desire, and to put a streetcar on that street how brilliant and how generous to the writer! The play would not have been what it was, if it would have existed at all, had not the city offered such a gift). I read a collection of short stories about the French Quarter. And there are more books on my list that I havent gotten to yet: Robert Penn Warrens All the Kings Men, Kate Chopins The Awakening, Walker Percys The Moviegoer, Francis Parkinson Keyess Dinner at Antoines.
Seeing the place first and reading about it later had a strange effect. The city that has built up in my head is based on a foundation as sturdy as the one Andrew Jacksons statue stands on, what Mario Vargas Llosa calls the real truth or real reality. When Faulkner describes running into a decrepit, old cobbler on Decatur Street, I see the street as it exists in what I remember to be real life. When Blanche DuBois speaks her first lines in Williamss play They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at Elysian Fields! I have personal experience to call upon in order to understand the distance between Cemeteries and Elysian Fields, and those place names, so lyrical, so unavoidably eerie and symbolic: they mean something to me on a more prosaic level; I know exactly where they are and what they look like. The city therefore becomes more complicated than it was when I experienced it, more complicated than it could be if I had only read about it.
Approaching literature in this way makes you aware of how ephemeral your real experiences are. What youre reading is perhaps less about imagination and more about memory, and something in you wants the description to match perfectly the remembered experience. You might begin to wish that you were back there, for example, standing just outside Jackson Square again really standing there sipping chicory-flavored coffee in the sun, tapping your foot in time to a cello or sax or drum, knowing without consciously thinking it that theres nowhere else youd rather be than in that place at that moment.