Folkways

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Froma Harrop, a liberal opinion writer, has an interesting article today in the Providence Journal. She compares New York on September 11 (she happened to be there) and New Orleans after Katrina and makes the point that the cultures of the two cities are different.

That got me thinking about the definitive work on American cultural folkways, historian David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in North America. If you haven't read it, you should: It's a great book and a delight to read. Fischer's thesis is that different parts of the American Colonies were settled by people who brought their folkways from different parts of the British Isles and that those folkways have persisted in different parts of America. New England was settled primarily by Englishmen from East Anglia, and New England folkways have been spread across the country by the New England diaspora that moved into upstate New York, across northern Ohio and southern Michigan to Chicago and Iowa, and thence to Southern California. The Delaware River Valley was settled by Englishmen from the North Midlands, and their culture was spread west to Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and St. Louis. The Chesapeake Bay colonies were settled by people from the West Country of England, aristocrats whose descendants included our Founding Fathers and Robert E. Lee and poor farmers who seem to have stepped out of the pages of Thomas Hardy. And the Appalachian chain was settled by fighting men and women from Yorkshire, the Scottish borderlands, and Northern Ireland, who brought their folkways to a wide swath of the country from Tennessee to Texas: Andrew Jackson and country music.

But Fischer also writes that these four British folkways do not cover the whole of America. One exception he notes is New York. Another I think is New Orleans. New York's culture in my view is essentially Dutch: Manhattan today resembles the 17th-century Amsterdam portrayed in Simon Schama's wonderful Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age. Schama's Amsterdam burghers work hard all day and party most of the night; their business interests spread around the world; they are vulgar, belching, and farting, but are also knowledgeable patrons of high culture; they are religiously tolerant and open to new talents: You become Old Money when you've been rich for five minutes. Tell me if that's not New York.

In addition, my colleague Kent Allen has brought to my attention the preface to John Kennedy Toole's Pulitzer Prize-winning Confederacy of Dunces:

There is a New Orleans city accent . . . associated with downtown New Orleans, particularly with the German and Irish Third Ward, that is hard to distinguish from the accent of Hoboken, Jersey City, and Astoria, Long Island, where the Al Smith inflection, extinct in Manhattan, has taken refuge. The reason, as you might expect, is that the same stocks that brought the accent to Manhattan imposed it on New Orleans.

Under Toole's preface is an excerpt from A.J. Liebling's The Earl of Louisiana:

"You're right on that. We're Mediterranean. I've never been to Greece or Italy, but I'm sure I'd be at home there as soon as I landed."
He would too, I thought. New Orleans resembles Genoa or Marseilles, or Beirut or the Egyptian Alexandria more than it does New York, although all seaports resemble one another more than they can resemble any place in the interior. Like Havana and Port-au-Prince, New Orleans is within the orbit of a Hellenistic world that never touched the North Atlantic. The Mediterranean, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico form a homogeneous, though interrupted, sea.

New Orleans's culture in my view is essentially French. For guidance, look to Honore de Balzac's Lost Illusions (or one of his many other dozens of novels). The middle section of the book is set in Paris, but the real model for New Orleans here are the opening and closing thirds of the books, set in the provincial town of Angouleme in the 1820s. Here you see the aristocrats, who take pride in their status and have little concern about the rest of the world: the same people you see in yesterday's Wall Street Journal front-page story on rich people in New Orleans, who take pride in their membership in Mardi Gras krewes, now helicoptering into and out of their dry homes uptown. You see public officials with no sense of responsibility for their duties. You see honest tradesman being swindled by sharpsters. You see poor people with little ability to take care of themselves and with no help from civic institutions. You see criminals and thugs and, just out of focus, the mobs who pillaged not so long before in the Revolution.

Too harsh a picture? Maybe so. Lots of people in New Orleans have been taking responsibility for others and have been performing acts of heroism which we haven't heard about yet and may never. People kept the hospitals operating under the most harrowing of conditions. State and local officials made mistakes, but they also did some things right. But still I think there's something to the comparison. I'm curious to know if anyone else, particularly those who know New Orleans better than I do, thinks so too. Or if others think I'm way off on the wrong track here.