a1 Florida Atlantic University
Thomas Ruys Smith's Southern Queen: New Orleans in the Nineteenth Century chronicles the major historical events of the Crescent City during the 1800s in a volume that offers concise information, smooth prose, and seamless storytelling.
The book is a straightforward history. Smith explains the need for it by asserting that “no other volume has attempted to give a detailed account of the social and cultural history of New Orleans across the nineteenth century as a whole” (4). While moments “from the history of nineteenth-century New Orleans might have been studied in depth … the larger framework has been lacking” (4). Smith's book presents that framework along with all the colorful characters (from the Pirates Laffite to Andrew Jackson to literary luminaries and early feminists Kate Chopin and Grace King) and all the events (from the Battle of New Orleans to Benjamin Butler's famous laws regulating female behavior during the Civil War to the failed white elephant World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition) that make nineteenth-century New Orleans so intriguing. The narrative Smith forges is impressive in its adroit collation of so many historical details and aspects, and he well shows the intricacies of their interconnections. The resulting product is highly readable and informative.
That readability and informativity are the book's great strengths. The volume is best understood as a well-written introduction to this period of New Orleans history and is most useful for readers who know either very little or nothing at all about the topic. It can be useful for students and scholars new to the field and could also appeal to readers casually interested in New Orleans. In fact, with its attractive cover and facilitative prose, it could well make a killing in New Orleans bookstores, serving both locals and tourists. For an essentially academic book, it has the potential to enjoy a wide readership, and that is no small accomplishment.
If there can be a complaint about the book, it would be that the reader who is familiar with the details of New Orleans history will not find much of anything new. Smith seeks to fill the gap he identifies “in a way that is both accessible and rigorous” (4), but that rigor extends only to a fidelity to accurate historical documentation and representation and not to a commitment to offering new material, whether in the way of insights or of historical finds. For the most part, this lack does not present a problem, given the limits Smith sets for the book, but the reader might feel a keen disappointment that Smith does not follow through on the most intriguing original point he posits (and should be commended for), which is that present-day depictions of New Orleans build on nineteenth-century representations of the city. Early on, Smith asserts that “to say that this is a book about nineteenth-century New Orleans is also to say, inevitably, that this is a book about the New Orleans of today – and of tomorrow” (1), and he teases the reader with the observation that a “significant similarity … can be drawn between New Orleans in the wake of the Civil War and New Orleans in the wake of Katrina … not since the Gilded Age has New Orleans had such a prominent place in the national consciousness” (3). The city, Smith asserts, “has a history punctuated by disaster, and, in uncanny ways, modern traumas indelibly call up ghosts of ancient catastrophes” (2). Such comments might lead the reader to expect a volume that not only presents historical detail but also offers a cogent tracing of earlier patterns of representation in depictions of present-day New Orleans, but Smith refuses to draw specific connections between the past and present of New Orleans in any systematic way. This refusal is inexplicable: evidently Smith assumes that the reader familiar with current representations of New Orleans will recognize the ways past representations reappear, but the book could have been helped with a more explicit exploration of this matter.
Taking the book on its own terms, though, it more than makes the grade as a well-written, interesting read. Perhaps someone (maybe Smith himself) can write a book that explicitly explores the debt contemporary New Orleans representation owes to the past. Meanwhile, readers should enjoy this nice rendition of a story that never disappoints.