All on a Mardi Gras Day: Episodes in the History of New Orleans Carnival

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Overview

With this colorful study, Reid Mitchell takes us to Mardi Gras—to a yearly ritual that sweeps the richly multicultural city of New Orleans into a frenzy of parades, pageantry, dance, drunkenness, music, sexual display, and social and political bombast. In All on a Mardi Gras Day Mitchell tells us some of the most intriguing stories of Carnival since 1804. Woven into his narrative are observations of the meaning and messages of Mardi Gras—themes of unity, exclusion, and elitism course through these tales as they do through the Crescent City.

Moving through the decades, Mitchell describes the city's diverse cultures coming together to compete in Carnival performances. We observe powerful social clubs, or krewes, designing their elaborate parade displays and extravagant parties; Creoles and Americans in conflict over whose dances belong in the ballroom; enslaved Africans and African Americans preserving a sense of their heritage in processions and dances; white supremacists battling Reconstruction; working-class blacks creating the flamboyant Krewe of Zulu; the birth and reign of jazz; the gay community holding lavish balls; and of course tourists purchasing an authentic experience according to the dictates of our commercial culture. Interracial friction, nativism, Jim Crow separatism, the hippie movement—Mitchell illuminates the expression of these and other American themes in events ranging from the 1901 formation of the anti-prohibitionist Carrie Nation Club to the controversial 1991 ordinance desegregating Carnival parade krewes.

Through the conflicts, Mitchell asserts, "I see in Mardi Gras much what I hear in a really good jazz band: a model for the just society, the joyous community, the heavenly city...A model for community where individual expression is the basis for social harmony and where continuity is the basis for creativity." All on a Mardi Gras Day journeys into a world where hope persists for a rare balance between diversity and unity.

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Editorial Reviews

American Historical Review
Tracing over 150 years of Mardi Gras celebrations, Reid Mitchell illuminates successive attempts to redefine the city and the urban public in New Orleans...This book is fun to read, and Mitchell makes superb use of written sources to bring his episodes alive for the reader.
Library Journal
Mitchell's Mardi Gras observations are indeed "episodic," to the degree that broader claims he may intend to make about carnival-concerning racial stereotyping, the ritualization of violence, and the mixing up of sexual identities-become diluted. But this native is certainly thoroughgoing. Mitchell examines the major parading "krewes" in detail. He traces the evolution of carnival from a strictly Creole cultural phenomenon at the time of the Louisiana Purchase to its acceptance and cooptation by a new Anglo elite to its status today as a megadollar tourist attraction. The most interesting chapter is on the role of the black organization, Zulu, in highlighting tensions not only between black and white New Orleanians but between the Civil Rights generation and an older one of less educated "maskers." Though generally not as interesting as Carol Flake's meditations in New Orleans: Behind the Masks of America's Most Exotic City (LJ 4/15/94), this is recommended for academic folklore and urban anthropology collections.-Scott H. Silverman, Bryn Mawr Coll. Lib., Pa.
American Historical Review
Tracing over 150 years of Mardi Gras celebrations, Reid Mitchell illuminates successive attempts to redefine the city and the urban public in New Orleans...Mitchell has given us an intriguing social history of the city, imaginatively using newspaper accounts and memoirs to uncover who was mixing with whom and when...This book is fun to read, and Mitchell makes superb use of written sources to bring his episodes alive for the reader
American Studies in Europe
In this fascinating and perceptive study of the rituals and meanings of New Orleans' most famous 'civic ritual'--Mardi Gras--Reid Mitchell stresses the themes of continuity and change which have reflected consensus and conflict within the Crescent City's polyglot community from the 1850s to the present...This is social history at its best...engaging, innovative and instructive.

— John White

Choice
A blending of history, sociology, anthropology, folklore, and personal opinion, this work gives a fresh interpretation to many traditions of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Familiar with the holiday since his childhood in the Crescent City, Mitchell offers some new explanations of the motivations behind white upper-class carnival balls and parades, and of the cultural roots of the black contribution to Mardi Gras...The book is well illustrated and complemented with a brief bibliographical essay and footnotes.

— J. Jackson

Cultural Dynamics
A study of 200 years of carnival history in one particular locality, such as Mitchell's, is an opportunity for close inspection of the dialectics between carnival and context, as well as an exploration of more general significances of carnival which can be apprehended only over the longue duree…Of particular interest are the descriptions of developments and transformations which were introduced into the Mardi Gras celebrations during the post-Civil War period-an era of emancipation, confederate defeat, political empowerment of blacks, and economic distress…The last chapters of the book deal with more recent shifts in the carnival celebrations and significances, especially as shaped through ongoing transformations in the status of women and blacks. A long-time arena for a display of male dominance and men's appropriation of women's youth and sexuality, the New Orleans carnival came to provide, in the 1920s, a stage for women's independent sexuality, and an opportunity to [parody] a man's world…Mitchell's book is rich in details and insights. It creates both an intimate acquaintance with New Orleans, as well as a sense of the intricacies of economic and political processes, and the complexities of their symbolic articulation…The book is thus (happily) played by its subject matter. Rather than just a book about carnival, the author also creates a carnival specimen. However, this blurring of genres, this "live performance" of the text, turns the book into a convincing and artistic demonstration of that which is left unexplained.

— Yoram S. Carmeli

Journal of American History
All on a Mardi Gras Day is a fine piece of scholarship, and Mitchell makes a compelling argument that the history of New Orleans can be tellingly glimpsed through a study of its celebrated holiday.

— Fredrick Barton

New Brunswick Reader (Canada)
[This book] gives an authentic feel for the incredibly complex social structure of a city where change, both for good and for ill, comes slowly and seldom for its own sake. This isn't a book about touristy New Orleans; it's one about how the balls and parades held on the last day before Lend reveal different cultures jostling for a place in the sun.
— Douglas Featherling
New Orleans Times-Picayune
Mitchell's writing is direct and accessible. He is not a Carnival romantic, but his passion for his subject is clear. As he acknowledges in his introduction, 'much of the history that follows is painful. There has been a lot of thoughtless celebration written down and called New Orleans history, and it has done nobody any good.'
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674016224
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/1995
  • Pages: 264
  • Product dimensions: 6.44 (w) x 9.62 (h) x 0.93 (d)

Meet the Author

Reid Mitchell is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

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