More than 150 years since its publication, George Washington Cable’s Old Creole Days remains an essential New Orleans read.
- by John S. Sledge
He was a dapper little man fond of crisp white shirts, cuff links, frock coats and canes. Whenever time allowed, he loved to wander the city’s oldest byways and absorb the rich medley of sights, smells, and sounds. He was a native New Orleanian but of German Protestant extraction rather than French Catholic. Thus he was both an insider and an outsider, blessed with just the right pedigree to study the ancient city with discerning senses.
What he encountered on his riverside ramblings, besides the paintless, cracked architectural gems of former days, was a fading remnant of his city’s original Creole culture. But rather than decry the urban decay or disapprove of the residents’ racial complexity, he embraced it all. George Washington Cable was the first writer to love the French Quarter with his whole heart.
Cable was born in 1844 on Annunciation Square to wealthy Yankee parents. His father was a native Pennsylvanian who worked as a wholesale merchant, and his mother was from Indiana. Unfortunately, the elder Cable died in 1859, and tender George had to go to work at the customs house. During the Civil War, he joined the Confederate cavalry, was wounded, and came to question the South’s defense of slavery.
After his return home he suffered a severe bout with malaria and while bedridden, took to writing. By 1870 he was well enough to marry and land a job at the Times-Picayune, where he authored a regular column titled “Drop Shot.” The column featured quaint characters, intriguing stories, and distinctive, highly localized accents. Readers loved it.
Cable’s big opportunity came in 1873 when he crossed paths with a Scribner’s Monthly journalist named Edward King. Then as now, literary breaks depended on access, and King had it. The two men hit it off, and Cable shared a few of his columns. King liked them and sent them to his editors. They liked them, too, and in short order Cable was penning pieces for the magazine. Within a few years he had published seven there, and in 1879 Scribner’s collected these, along with one other from Appleton’s Journal, and published Old Creole Days.
Cable’s genius was to take the reader in hand, make him an intimate, and guide him into little-known places to reveal an exotic world. The lead story, “Madame Delphine,” demonstrates the technique nicely. “A few steps from the St. Charles Hotel, in New Orleans, brings you to and across Canal Street,” he wrote.
From there the American bustle dwindles and the reader wanders the Rue Royale, where he finds himself “in a region of architectural decrepitude, where an ancient and foreign-seeming domestic life, in second stories, overhangs the ruins of a former commercial prosperity, and upon everything has settled down a long Sabbath of decay.”
Traffic is light; shop windows gather cobwebs and dust. “Yet beauty lingers here,” Cable averred, and he proved it by detailing cast iron balconies, half-concealed courtyards with brick pavers, lush vegetation, and glimpses of interiors “of lace and brocade upholstery, silver and bronze, and much similar rich antiquity.”
In the story “Sieur George,” Cable places the reader in front of the LeMonnier House at 640 Royal Street, which looked “like a faded fop who pretends to be looking for employment.” And in “Jean-ah Poquelin” he describes an ill-maintained plantation house off Tchoupitoulas Road, backgrounded at sunset by a “long, lurid pencil-stroke along a sky of slate.”
Cable peopled these settings with Louisiana Creoles. But what exactly, his national audience wanted to know, was a Creole? Contemporary historian Shane K. Bernard points out that "the word means different things to different people and more than one ethnic group arguably has claim to it."
Cable gave his own bare-bones definition in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. Simply put, he explained, a Creole was a person born in the West Indies, Louisiana, or the Floridas to European parents of Latin extraction. There was, of course, much more to the picture than that, as Cable showed in his book. In Cable's day, many white aristocrats in the city identified with the term. There were many Creoles of color, too, and they gave the city its distinctive character.
Cable’s characters were the inhabitants of the early 19th century’s Gulf margins – Santo Domingan refugees, veterans of the Battle of New Orleans, semi-reformed pirates, and declining grande dames, within whom French, Spanish, African, and Indian blood coursed in varying proportions. Typical was Col. De Charleu, owner of Belles Demoiselles Plantation.
“He had gambled in Royal Street,” Cable wrote, “drunk hard in Orleans Street, run his adversary through in the dueling-ground at Slaughter-house Point, and danced and quarreled at the St. Phillpe Street theatre quadroon balls.”
Besides all of that he had an elderly part-Choctaw cousin called De Carlos who lived on his place. As inconvenient as that might have been for a man like the colonel, Cable declared that the true Creole would not “go back on the ties of blood, no matter what sort of knots those ties may be.” Examining those knots was Cable’s stock in trade.
New Orleans was, of course, famous for its “quadroon balls,” where wealthy, often married whites like De Charleu chose mixed-race concubines and set them up in style. Guests were titillated, but the consequences for the women of color were troubling.
In “Madame Delphine,” for example, Cable sketched the agonies that a mixed-race mother faced when her daughter wanted to marry a white man, something the law forbade. When a priest tells her that they made the law to keep the races separate she erupts.
“Separate! No-o-o! But they do want to keep us despised! … But, very well! from which race do they want to keep my daughter separate? She is seven parts white! The law did not stop her from being that; and now, when she wants to be a white man’s good and honest wife, shall that law stop her? Oh, no!”
But the only way her daughter can be happy is for Madame Delphine to lie and say that she is adopted, breaking both their hearts.
Not surprisingly, the city’s oldest families resented Cable’s excavation of these themes. During the late nineteenth century, Black ancestry was no longer lightly regarded, and draconian American policies made it a significant disadvantage. The local French-language newspaper lambasted the book, and Louisiana historian Grace King denounced it as an affront to Old South values.
But the national press was overwhelmingly positive. The Boston Courier lauded Cable’s prose, and the Atlantic Monthly praised its “ardor,” “grace,” and “touch of fire.” Mark Twain dubbed Cable “the South’s finest literary genius.”
Modern readers will find Old Creole Days to be generally charming, if confusing in places. Cable wrote in a Victorian romantic style, and the dialect is tedious. Nonetheless, his emphasis on place and character mark him as the South’s first and most influential local colorist. Furthermore, his candid portrayal of a racially-braided society was remarkable for its time and, more than Cable’s warm affection for cobblestones and patois, makes Old Creole Days worth reading today.
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John S. Sledge is senior architectural historian with the Mobile Historic Development Commission and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He is the author of seven books, including “Southern Bound: A Gulf Coast Journalist on Books, Writers, and Literary Journeys of the Heart,” “The Mobile River,” and “The Gulf of Mexico: A Maritime History,” all from the University of South Carolina press. He and his editor wife, Lynn, live in Fairhope, Ala.
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