The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans by Lawrence N. Powell. Harvard University Press, 2012. Paper, ISBN: 9780674059870. $29.95.
In The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans, Lawrence Powell describes the history of New Orleans, from the personal ambition and political intrigue that led to the founding of the French trading center near the Caribbean Sea in the swampy scrap of land between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River up until the War of 1812. Improvising New Orleans is both a cultural and a political history of the city, but Powell retains as a theme the importance of geography in the development of the city’s landscape, as problems of climate greatly impeded early settlement. The first few chapters seem semi-biographical, as Powell credits the early population growth and French acceptance of New Orleans as its trading center almost entirely to the ambition of one man, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville.
Bienville’s ability to realize his designs for the city of New Orleans derive from his own capabilities as an explorer, his facility in negotiating with the local Indian tribes, the aimless colonial policy of a French government that focused its attention on more profitable colonies elsewhere. His zealous and sometimes extralegal efforts to establish New Orleans as the primary city of French Louisiana bore fruit; the French crown accepted the location as a fait accompli after Bienville made it the population center of the colony, funneling people in from Mobile, Pensacola, and other towns in the area with promises of lands and slaves. Had Bienville not built the population without royal approval, Natchez or a location on Bayou Manchac most likely would have been chosen, as they would not have required the constant war with the environment that the denizens of New Orleans had to fight.
Because of the insalubrious climate and the lack of economic prospects (Louisiana grew only indigo and an inferior grade of tobacco) New Orleans struggled to maintain its population, so once the French crown acknowledged New Orleans as its trade center, they populated it largely with forçats, criminals and prostitutes that had been forcibly expelled from France (69). The importation of slaves from Africa also helped to build the city, in both population and infrastructure, as Africans helped build the levies and drainage canals of the city as well as pioneering a rice economy (73-74). With the massive importation of slaves that brought important skills, many white craftsmen fled the city along with the indentured servants and forçats that escaped as soon as their contracts or sentences or expired, leaving Louisiana with a black majority (77). A later creation of a black militia, freed from bondage in order to fight wars with Indians, would lead to New Orleans’ famous caste of gens de couleur libre (free people of color), aided and abetted by the Spanish government’s relaxed manumission laws in the years of colonial rule by Spain (87-88, 282). This class system served as a unique example of race relations in North America and was vastly important to the culture and development of New Orleans, but Powell may have overstated its importance on a global level when he claims that the races and ethnicities that made up the population “were forced to crowd together on slopes of the natural levee and somehow learn to improvise a coexistence whose legacy may be America’s only original contribution to world culture” (163).
Though many Americans undoubtedly would object to the notion that no one outside of New Orleans made any original contributions to world culture (whatever that may mean), Powell is not wrong in emphasizing how unusual the culture of the city was. The Ursuline Sisters, a Catholic order, complicated gender relations by helping to educate women until their literacy rate exceeded that of men in the 1760s (163). White men often neglected to practice their Catholicism, and local blacks filled their pews until New Orleans’s Catholicism was largely black and female (267). Catholicism further merged with African culture in the creation of New Orleans voudou, further complicating issues of race and religion (265).
Powell concludes his narrative with the years between the Louisiana Purchase and the War of 1812, as the New Orleans elite had to learn to adjust to the rule of a new nation that often rejected their influence and did not understand the nuances of the city’s culture. His chosen stopping point in the history of New Orleans is one of adjustment; in the years following the War of 1812, New Orleans became consolidated into the antebellum South, though still retaining much of the whimsy and cultural abnormalities that made it unique.
Powell’s biggest flaw is his penchant for overstatement and exaggeration. Furthermore, his theme and title revolve around the idea that New Orleans was improvised rather than planned, and “solutions to foreseeable problems usually surfaced as afterthoughts” (49-50). He builds an impressive case for this, but fails to distinguish it from any other developing city. However, he does give an impressive narrative of the first two hundred years of the city’s history, explaining the most important events and filling in the gaps between, all the while addressing a complicated political and social system. Though for the most part Powell writes with an easy style that captures the reader’s interest, his attempts to engage the audience at times confuse his narrative, especially during the occasional unexpected divergences from chronological order, which complicate an already complex story. Inane metaphors and colloquialisms would distract the reader less if they appeared with less frequency. Within the first five pages, Powell not only refers to New Orleans as “the drain plug in an immense bathtub” but also compares the Mississippi River to “a garden hose that had been turned on high and dropped accidentally on the lawn” (3, 5). Despite these problems, The Accidental City is a compelling narrative that explains the background of one of America’s most unusual cities.
Madeleine Pierron Patrick University of Georgia
Madeleine earned her BA at UNC Chapel Hill and is currently a graduate student at the University of Georgia studying disease, stigma, and quarantine. She is currently writing her MA thesis on patient-activism in the national leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana.