America’s Forgotten Literature
In 2003, the Heritage Language Project at Centenary College of Louisiana began publishing two new imprints, Les Éditions Tintamarre and Les Cahiers du Tintamarre, to help scholars rediscover America’s lost literature – literature written in languages other than English. To date, the project has focused on works by nineteenth-century Louisiana French Creoles, many of whom were considered major authors in their day but have since been almost completely forgotten.
Among the works that have been republished are Les Cenelles (The Mayhaw Berries), a volume of elegiac poetry by seventeen free black Louisiana poets. Even more melancholy is Les Éphémères by Alexandre Latil (1816-51). Born in New Orleans to a wealthy family, Latil contracted leprosy as a teenager and was moved to a leper colony on Bayou St. John, where he sought refuge and relief in poetry.
Centenary College has also published works that reflect Louisiana’s little-known German heritage. The most provocative is Die Geheimnisse von New-Orleans (The Secrets of New Orleans), by the immigrant Ludwig von Reizenstein. A Gothic fantasy set amidst the racial tension and decadence of antebellum New Orleans, its “plot imagines the coming of a bloody, retributive justice at the hands of Hiram the Freemason—a nightmarish, 200-year-old, proto-Nietzschean superman—for the sin of slavery. Heralded by the birth of a black messiah, the son of a mulatto prostitute and a decadent German aristocrat, this coming revolution is depicted in frankly apocalyptic terms.” The novel also contains “the first profound and sensitive depiction of lesbian love in American literature.”
Alfred Mercier (1816-1894)
LLMVC F369 .F74 1904a
Alfred Mercier, L’Habitation Saint-Ybars, ou maîtres et esclaves en Louisiane. New Orleans: Imprimerie Franco Américaine, 1881.
PQ3939 .M5 H3 1881
Born in Louisiana, Alfred Mercier was sent to Paris at a young age for his education. After a brief return to Louisiana and a visit to Boston to learn English, Mercier left in 1842 for a grand tour of Europe. His five-month stay provided him with inspiration for a novel he would publish in 1873, Le Fou de Palerme (The Fool of Palermo). During the 1848 Revolution in France he contributed articles to Louisiana newspapers about the events leading to the crowning of Napoleon III. At 33, he began medical studies in Paris then moved back to New Orleans where he established himself as a doctor. During the Civil War, he returned to Paris and played a part in efforts to convince France to support the Confederacy.
Mercier devoted himself to the preservation of French in Louisiana. In an article entitled “Progrès de la langue Française” (“Progress of the French Language”), he expressed his fears about the future extinction of Francophone New Orleans, lamenting that the language of the French Creoles “will have vanished, just as wine poured into a running river loses its flavor and color.”
After publishing La Fille du Prêtre (The Priest’s Daughter) in 1877, a novel that tackled the issue of ecclesiastic celibacy, Mercier was accused of being a freethinker and was ostracized by New Orleans’s literary community. In 1881, he published L’Habitation Saint-Ybars, ou maîtres et esclaves en Louisiane (The Saint-Ybars Plantation, or Masters and Slaves in Louisiana). Reviews of this “récit social” (social narrative) praised Mercier’s liberal-mindedness and the boldness that drove him to compose much of the novel’s dialogue in Louisiana dialect. The work was popular enough to be republished in newspapers, such as the Pointe a la Hache Lower Coast Gazette, an English-language paper which serialized the story, in the original French, in 1913.
Adrien Rouquette (1813-1887)
LLMVC PQ3939 .R6 E53
Adrien Rouquette, La Nouvelle Atala. New Orleans: Propagateur Catholique, 1879.
LLLMVC Rare PQ3939 .R6 A65
Adrien Rouquette grew up on the outskirts of New Orleans near the Native American settlements along Bayou Saint John. He developed a fascination with his Choctaw neighbors and learned their language. Later in life he found in these early experiences a source of poetic inspiration.
After being educated in Kentucky and New Jersey and then traveling in Europe, Rouquette returned to Louisiana in 1833 and settled on Bayou Lacombe in St. Tammany Parish near another Indian settlement. The following years were divided between Louisiana and France, and many of Rouquette’s poems bear the mark of his time in Paris. In 1841, he published an important collection of poems, Les Savanes. His admiration for contemporary French poetry, and especially for Chateaubriand, is evident. Much later in his life, writing under the pseudonym Chahta-Ima (Choctaw for “one of us”), Rouquette would publish a short novel entitled La Nouvelle Atala, ou fille de l’esprit (The New Atala, or Daughter of the Spirit), a direct response to Chateaubriand’s Atala.
Rouquette served as a priest at New Orleans’s St. Louis Cathedral and briefly as editor of the newspaper Le Propagateur Catholique. In 1860, he published L’Antoniade, a volume of poetry which shows his deep attachment to Louisiana. He spent the last 29 years of his life as a missionary with his Choctaw friends on Bayou Lacombe.
Rouquette’s papers are held in the LSU Libraries’ Special Collections.
Léona Queyrouze (1861-1938)
Léona Queyrouze Barel Papers, Mss. 1204, 1222, 1278, 1314, 1323, 1335
Manuscript of poem “Vision.”
Léona Queyrouze Barel Papers, Mss. 1204, 1222, 1278, 1314, 1323, 1335
The salons that Léona Queyrouze’s parents held at their home in New Orleans attracted many of the brightest minds of the Creole intellectual world. Joining in the adult conversation, the precocious child earned the nickname “little Madame de Staël.” At fifteen, she was sent to France to improve her language skills. On her return to Louisiana, she was befriended by the writer Lafcadio Hearn, one of the giants of New Orleans’s literary scene about whom she later wrote a volume of reminiscences. Hearn encouraged her to write, and she soon published poems in the newspaper L’Abeille under a male pen-name, Constant Beauvais, a tribute to her grandfather Armand Beauvais, a Louisiana governor and state senator.
In 1880, the nineteen-year-old Queyrouze published an “Étude sur Racine” (“Study on Racine”) in Les Comptes-Rendus de l’Athénée Louisianais, the publication of an organization founded to perpetuate and encourage the use of French in Louisiana. Four years later, she tested the bounds of contemporary propriety by giving a lecture on the subject of “Indulgence,” thought to be the first public speech given by a young Creole woman in Louisiana. Word of her literary abilities and bold personality reached as far as France, where the president of the Academy of Sciences and Letters in Bordeaux praised her talent. An admirer of Émile Zola, Queyrouze wrote a letter to her idol and boldly included one of her poems. Zola took the time to send her a few lines in response.
Sadly, Queyrouze abandoned her literary activities at the age of 41, when she married. Her papers are now held in the LSU Libraries’ Special Collections.
Sidonie de la Houssaye (1820-1894)
Available in the LOUISiana Digital Library
Sidonie de la Houssaye Collection, Mss. 105
Manuscript sources of George Washington Cable’s Strange True Stories of Louisiana. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1889.
LLMVC PS1244 .S8 1889
Sidonie de la Houssaye was born Hélène Perret and raised on Bellevue Plantation near Franklin, Louisiana. She was primarily self-educated with only a few months of formal schooling at a nearby convent. At fourteen, she married Pelletier de la Houssaye and eventually became the mother of fourteen children, of whom only three survived. After her husband died in 1863, Sidonie earned money for her struggling family by teaching and working as postmistress of Franklin.
Her daughter Lilia died in 1875, leaving Sidonie to care for Lilia’s eight children. It was during this period that she began to publish short stories and novelettes in newspapers. Her works are set primarily in St. Mary and St. Martin Parishes and are about plantation life, manners of the Creoles, and their attitudes toward Acadians and Americans. The stories are of interest for their rendition of Louisiana French dialects. The plots are simple, designed to appeal to plantation women and convent-educated girls.
De la Houssaye also wrote morality tales for her eight grandchildren. Much of the material came from the diary of her own grandmother, which she discovered in her attic. She sold at least three of the stories that the diary inspired to the popular author and New Orleans native George Washington Cable for his book Strange True Stories of Louisiana (1889). A photograph of the diary appears in the introduction to his work.
In 1878, de la Houssaye began writing Les Quarteronnes de la Nouvelle-Orléans (The Quadroons of New Orleans). Originally published in serial form in the newspaper Le Méschacébé and then in book form in 1894, each story has as a title the name of one of the legendarily beautiful Creole women of mixed blood in New Orleans. The stories’ subject matter was so controversial that the author signed them with a nom de plume, Louise Raymond. Her other published works include three novels, Pouponne et Balthazaar, Charles et Ella, and Amis et Fortune, described in its modern reprint edition as “a comical parody of the romances of the period in which women eternally depend upon men for their validation.”
In 1890, L’Athénée Louisianais, an organization founded to preserve the French language in Louisiana, awarded de la Houssaye a gold medal of honor. Her papers are now held by the LSU Libraries’ Special Collections, and many of her unpublished works are available in the Louisiana Digital Library.