May 17, 2014

Cable, Old Creole Days, heart of New Orleans

Jadis, Hammock and Fan, and Spanish Moss were among the titles suggested but, ultimately, George Washington Cable and his publisher Scribner's Sons chose to title the book Under the Cypress Orange. Then, likely at the last moment, it was renamed Old Creole Days when it was published on May 17, 1879. The book had been some seven years in the making in that it compiled stories he had published in Scribner's Monthly beginning in 1873.

The book proved successful, particularly in the author's native state of Louisiana and he was soon hailed as one of the most important writers in the region. This was in no small part due to Cable himself, who promoted the book personally. A review in the New Orleans Times noted, "The writings of Mr. Cable may be ranked with those of any American prose writer, not excepting those of Nathaniel Hawthorne, which they in many respects resemble, and in some respects excel." Unsurprisingly, local reviewers were particularly impressed with Cable's use of local vernacular and dialect among the Creoles (much like the work of Kate Chopin).

Indeed, the setting and people of New Orleans are an important element of the book. The opening story in the first edition,* "'Sieur George," begins "in the heart of New Orleans." As Cable often does, he also spends the first few paragraphs describing the architecture of the building where the story takes place: a majestic but decaying structure, with pride amid decay not unlike the Creole culture itself. The landlord, the elderly and mixed race man named Kookoo (who "smokes cascarilla, wears velveteen, and is as punctual as an executioner") becomes obsessed with a certain tenant, who arrived with only a single trunk. He intended to live there only 50 days, but stayed for 50 years.

As the story progresses, we learn more about George, an outsider who apparently made his money gambling, though an air of mystery surrounds him. His real name, for example, is unknown, but people take to calling him "Monsieur George" (unsure if it is a first or last name), which is eventually shortened. The crux of the story is really if a white American can cope with having a role in the unique Creole culture of New Orleans. Without revealing the plot, it might be best to summarize that George fails.

*When the book was reissued four years later, Cable inserted a new work, a novella titled "Madame Delphine" as the first story; "'Sieur George" was also moved closer to the end of the book.

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