There is a house
Down in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun.
It's been the ruin
Of many a poor boy
And me, oh Lordy, I was one.
-- Traditional folk song
The sense of loss that wrenches us as we watch New Orleans coming apart isn't just a function of TV images. Nor is it just the memory of a Sugar Bowl football game or the beignets at the Cafe Du Monde or the spring break we spent on Bourbon Street. It's because, more than any city in America, New Orleans is an address in our literary and cultural soul.
Anne Rice's vampires Lestat and Louis live there, of course, as do the neurotic inhabitants of Ellen Gilchrist's "In the Land of Dreamy Dreams" and Ignatius Reilly, the comically eructive Lucky Dog vendor who narrates John Kennedy Toole's "A Confederacy of Dunces."
Walker Percy's Moviegoer Binx Bolling takes the bus to his neighborhood cinema in Gentilly, and if at least one character in every Tennessee Williams play or short story isn't from New Orleans, they all sound like they know some nice young man who moved there to sell antiques.
Yet these contemporary Orleanians of fiction, vivid creations though they are, owe no small part of their resonance in our imagination to the cultural richness of the city where they live -- a place we feel somehow that we already know.
Most American cities are constantly morphing into something else -- into some new urban organism unrelated to its cultural past. The New York of Bret Easton Ellis or Tom Wolfe, for example, has nothing to do with the New York of Edith Wharton or Henry James. The 20th-century Boston of detective writer Robert B. Parker draws nothing from the 19th-century Boston of William Dean Howells.
New Orleans, however, has been so inescapably steeped in its steamy climate and Gothic past that almost any story set there comes freighted with overtones of mildewed elegance, sultry languor and haunted mystery. The city has functioned in American stories much as Paris has for the British -- as a bewitching behavioral sink of extravagant appetite and excess, where sins are hidden and secrets are kept and a dubious past acquired. It was that way 100 years ago and it remains that way today.
When we first acquired New Orleans two centuries ago, of course, most of those stories were oral. New Orleans was the Yahoo Valhalla for unwashed woodsmen floating down the Mississippi on flatboats loaded with tobacco, grain and fur pelts from the nation's western frontier. They would sell the cargo and drink, gamble and brawl away the proceeds, then walk home bearing tales of velvet-walled cathouses, perfumed French whores and fancy restaurants where they drank wine instead of whiskey, put spice in their food and ate snails.
New Orleans was not then and never has been like anyplace else in America. It was a separate place, with different rules and a polyglot cultural brew of European airs, Haitian superstition, Catholic fatalism and raw human greed. Lace-cuffed Creole dandies fought duels beneath the misty oaks in Chalmette and chose quadroon mistresses at elegant balls. Only half the massive black population were enslaved -- the rest were les gens de couleur -- "free people of color," often rich and educated, many of whom owned slaves themselves. Fortunes in sugar and cotton changed owners over poker hands and roulette wheels. Cuban schooners vied with Missouri paddle-wheelers at the docks, and the tide of humanity that ebbed and flowed through New Orleans streets astonished visitors.
When architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe arrived in New Orleans in 1819 he found "a more . . . various gabble of tongues . . . than was ever heard at Babel" and a society of such astonishing diversity as to be "wholly new even to one who has traveled much in Europe and America."
What writer could resist such fabulous material? From Walt Whitman and Mark Twain to William Faulkner and Truman Capote, from Kate Chopin to Zora Neale Hurston, they have all plumbed its literary depths.
Johns Hopkins University Professor S. Frederick Starr argues convincingly in his 2001 book, "Inventing New Orleans," that writer Lafcadio Hearn effectively created the New Orleans of literature in the 1880s. Hearn, a Greek-Irish immigrant with a gift for evocative language and a taste for the macabre, found in the Crescent City and its history more than enough creepy fascination for his romantic pen during the decade he lived there writing newspaper sketches and short stories. But hundreds of later novelists from George Washington Cable to Edna Ferber and Francis Parkinson Keyes followed his lead, etching ever further into our minds the New Orleans of riverboat gamblers and dissolute planters' sons, of wily blacks and headstrong beauties, of cheroot-smoking cotton brokers and beaver-hatted toffs and predatory villains and calculating madams with hearts of gold.
So entrenched is the unique exoticism of New Orleans that it serves as a kind of shorthand even in books that have nothing to do with the city. For example, in how many western novels has the dance-hall girl whom the cowboy loves come out West from New Orleans? We know immediately what that means: She was seduced or "got in trouble" in that riverside Babylon and has come west to "make a new start." It's probably not going to work out, but it might. Sometimes she has earned her travel money on her back before she left and can't bring herself to tell her starry-eyed cowpoke. Sometimes she lifted some gambler's gold. . . . Sometimes her seducer turns up out West, knows her secret and tries to blackmail her into resuming her former life.
There are dozens of variations on the theme, but in every one New Orleans is a virtual character in the cast. Many contemporary novels take a similar tack. In James Lee Burke's Louisiana crime novels, Cajun detective Dave Robichaux used to work for the New Orleans police department, but the corruption of the city drove him back west to his bayou roots in New Iberia. Burke writes with traditional evocation of the city's river mists and food and cemeteries, but in Robichaux's world, the mustachioed villains of 19th-century New Orleans have metamorphosed into Mafia gunmen.
In her 1990s mystery "New Orleans Mourning," author Julie Smith introduces us to Skip Langdon, an intriguing New Orleans policewoman whose uptown family gives us a rare literary passport into the Crescent City's Byzantine social politics of Mardi Gras organizations and debutante balls as well as of crime and bloodshed. But like Burke, she draws, too, on the deeper New Orleans vein of history and mystery mined by Lafcadio Hearn.
Such writers as Robert Tallant and Lyle Saxon have bypassed fiction at times to document directly the myths and legends of the Crescent City. One of the best collections is "Gumbo Ya-Ya" in which Tallant and Saxon teamed with Edward Dreyer in a project for the federal Works Progress Administration in the 1940s.
But the truly fascinating thing about New Orleans literature is the degree to which novelists continue their love affair with the city's historic and legendary past. Arguably the best recent New Orleans novel is a little-noticed first novel called "Yellow Jack" penned with astonishing and disturbing power by a University of Florida professor named Josh Russell and published in 1999.
"Yellow Jack" is the story of Claude Marchand, a young French daguerreotypist who comes to New Orleans in 1838 to bring portrait photography to the New World. He soon realizes his real fortune lies in making funeral portraits -- pictures of dead yellow-fever victims in their coffins as remembrances for their loved ones. The more such portraits he makes, the more tortured he becomes, partially because of his passion for his octoroon mistress and partly because the absinthe he drinks and the mercury fumes from the daguerreotype developing process are eating away his brain.
Which brings up the final point: How did Edgar Allan Poe escape writing about New Orleans?