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The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleansby Lawrence N. Powell
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America's most beguiling metropolis started out as a snake-infested, hurricane-battered swamp. Through intense imperial rivalries and ambitious settlers who risked their lives to succeed in colonial America, the site became a crossroads for the Atlantic world. Powell gives us the full sweep of the city's history from its founding through statehood.
The Washington Post
Should stand for years as the definitive history of New Orleans's first century...Powell's account of New Orleans's racial history is extensive; he is especially good on the subject of the black militias that formed during the Spanish rule and helped strengthen the city's community of free blacks.
The ebb and flow of cultures, and the way they melded and reshaped New Orleans in its first century, is the subject of Lawrence N. Powell's masterful history...It's an account of how an improbable city came to be and then survived through its own determination and the flexible social and political structures of its first inhabitants...In his telling, Powell deftly manages to bring historic personages to life with a few well-chosen words...Like the city itself, [the book] is a successful hybrid, filled with well-rendered writing that doesn't preen.
A dazzler...This is a hellaciously good book about the founding and first few centuries of New Orleans that is so well-crafted that it reads like a fictional thriller. The rich history of the city and its swampy environs offers Powell an eclectic cast and a kaleidoscopic series of events to chronicle, and he takes full advantage. Here's a chance to learn critical American history and be brilliantly entertained at the same time...This book is a treasure, and essential reading for anyone who wants to know the why and how of New Orleans history.
A superb book by one of America's foremost living historians.
[The Accidental City] is one of the finest regional American histories I have encountered in a long time, a delight to anyone with even the faintest curiosity about how our nation became itself...[A] marvelous book.
Charles C. Mann
[Powell's] book addresses the reasons New Orleans has survived and thrived, against impossible odds, and what makes this "accidental" city so fascinating and precious...Powell's brilliant study meticulously traces the story of the city's founding in a swamp and its first century of growth into an extraordinary hybrid Indian-European-Caribbean-African-American place...The narrative traces the early French settlers' conflicts and relationships with Indians, slaves and free people of color around the settlement and its architectural designs, through the short but significant period of Spanish rule, and finally to the famous Louisiana Purchase and American political, though never social and cultural, domination. It documents with compelling detail and anecdote the disputes and compromises involved in the settlement's design and post-conflagration rebuilt versions, and illuminates the complex history of the city's smuggling, tripartite racial order, slave and free population and African-American "cultural creation," metissage (race mixing), marronnage (fugitive slaves), Creolization and hybrid religions (notably Catholicism and voodoo)...This will become the definitive study of New Orleans' early history. When, I ask impatiently, can we read Powell on the next two centuries of this "accidental" city's life?
Powell has composed a comprehensive early history of the Crescent City in The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans. Beginning with La Salle, Bienville and Iberville's early forays on the wild Mississippi Riverthe "Impossible River," as Powell christens his first chapterhe leads us through over a century of rambunctious colonialism, delving into trade disputes, shifting economies and race relations, all the way through the growing pains of the Louisiana Territory.
Most visitors to New Orleans know it is a magical city. But "accidental"? A strange word, but appropriate, according to this fascinating account of the origin and history of what the author describes as "America's only original contribution to world culture."...The heart of this story lies in the rich chapters devoted to the African-Americans who came as slaves. Many of them attained their freedom because they held the city together through their strength and ingenuity. From the three-tiered culture that developedwhite planters, free blacks and slavesgrew the cuisine and music that make New Orleans the queen of the delta.
Written as a historical text in narrative form, Powell manages to unpack several different American and American-related histories into one, which is the great success of the book. He writes this history of New Orleans in the only way one can: carefully. Powell doesn't stick to one narrative because the history of New Orleans is an ever-changing confluence of events, people, and cultures that lacks the same kind of linear story of other cities...Weaving together events that range from international politics to the socio-cultural development of poor American families, Powell's comprehensive glimpse of the past is particularly important today.
[The Accidental City] provided for me the back story to anything I've ever wondered about in our enigmatic city...[The book displays] Powell's copious research, his penetrating insights, his wry humor and poetic turns of phrase.
Powell advances sympathetic understanding of what very well may be the U.S.'s most curious city. He traces the dynamics of politics and business that ultimately located a city in virtually uninhabitable swampland. The lively narrative continues from the French through the Spanish colonial periods, concluding with Louisiana statehood in 1812, all the while revealing the disparate forces that bound the city together just as they threatened to tear it apart. Consistent with the author's established interests, race and race relations remain central to this interpretation. Readers may not agree with all aspects of Powell's argument, but they are certain to find this an intriguing read that answers scores of questions about a complex city.
S. C. Hyde
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Read an Excerpt
Chapter 11: The American Gateway
For a city that was never supposed to exist—at least not on the sodden ridge where Bienville’s inveigling succeeded in planting it—New Orleans by the end of the eighteenth century had developed an almost talismanic power to sway empires, call forth new economies, and stir up intrigue. Much of its influence was due to land-hungry Anglo-Americans who had been pouring into the eastern half of its drainage basin since the outbreak of the American Revolution. They weren’t the trappers of yore carrying pelts to market by flattening them inside their canoes. For the most part, they were farmers and husbandmen, together with assorted merchants and town builders, and what they had to sell was bulky. Until canals and the east-west railway trunk lines pierced the Appalachian mountain chain, these late arrivals relied on flatboats and keelboats, and, after 1812, on steamboats, to float their harvests to market. The Mississippi was their economic lifeline. “It is the Hudson, the Delaware, the Potomac, and all the navigable rivers of the Atlantic States formed into one stream,” declared James Madison during his tenure as Thomas Jefferson’s secretary of state.1 Madison was only half right: equally important was New Orleans, which the rising American West regarded just as highly as the river. Enjoying unfettered navigation rights on that stream meant nothing without a port of deposit close to the mouth, where commodities such as grain and pork could be warehoused until oceangoing vessels carried the bounty to eastern or overseas markets. Through an accident of history, New Orleans had become that place, a strategic strait suddenly poised to command the commerce of a fabulously fruitful continent. The city’s magical charm affected empires young and old. The most venerable, Spain, was the first to be thrown off stride by the demographic pressure building in New Orleans’s Anglo-American hinterland. But not far behind was the newest empire, the fledgling United States, which President Thomas Jefferson, in the immediate afterglow of the Louisiana Purchase, was pleased to call “a great republican empire.” Neither government quite knew how to manage the population explosion in the Mississippi Valley following the American Revolution. Spain had reason to second-guess its intervention in the America Revolution against the British redcoats. The policy was supposed to be a low-risk strategy for pushing England off the Mississippi, a cheap way for Spain to rid itself of an ancient nemesis. But Madrid had merely exchanged one nemesis for a newer one, and a veritable Frankenstein’s monster at that. For all the danger England posed to the commercial integrity of the Spanish Empire, the British lion had kept its paws on colonial subjects milling impatiently behind the Appalachians. When the imperial grip was relaxed, throngs of American settlers burst through that mountain barrier, driven forward by “an intense materialism shot through with mystic exaltation,” to quote Arthur P. Whitaker. The new American government was too weak to hold them back. And state governments in the east that claimed those lands were too starved for cash to forgo the revenue from land sales.
The biggest losers were the Indian nations and villages in the pays d’en haut, the Great Lakes region of the French backcountry, plus the Mississippi Valley as a whole. The alliance system of gift exchange, intermarriage, and puffing on stem-feathered calumets, with its cycle of sudden warfare and rapid-response diplomacy, had given way to the assertion of one-sided power. The French never possessed the numbers to impose their will, and the English often declined to do so. But the American settlers who flooded into the region proved less interested in coexistence than in domination. They shoved aside the Indians, rein-vented them as the other, and forced those embattled people to live with the consequence of that definition.
What People are Saying About This
Nick Spitzer, producer of public radio's American Routes
Ira Berlin, author of Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves
John M. Barry, author of Rising Tide and Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul
Tom Piazza, author of Why New Orleans Matters and City of Refuge
Joseph J. Ellis, author of American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson
Meet the Author
Lawrence N. Powell, former holder of the James H. Clark Endowed Chair in American Civilization, is Professor Emeritus of History at Tulane University.
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