William Faulkner said that if the life of a writer was walking around New Orleans with fellow writer Sherwood Anderson, talking to people and drinking, then being a writer was the thing to be. Faulkner wrote about the city often during the year he lived in the French Quarter, and he's one of many authors, visitors and natives who found a muse in the Crescent City. That interest in the city is the centerpiece of N.O. Lit: 200 Years of New Orleans Literature, a new anthology of plays, poems, fiction and essays compiled by writer and Dillard University professor Nancy Dixon.
In the 560-page tome, Dixon includes canonized favorites such as Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner and Walt Whitman, as well as less often anthologized voices. The book begins with The Festival of the Young Corn, or The Heroism of Poucha-Houmma, a tragic play by Paul Louis LeBlanc De Villeneufve written in 1809, and is bookended by Tom Dent's one-act play Ritual Murder.
Though there's plenty of literature in 200 years to fill four or five more books, Dixon curated this one with an eye on interconnectedness, relating texts and linking past and present. LeBlanc's play about a young Choctaw brave who gets drunk and kills a friend from a neighboring tribe comes more than a century before Dent's play, which tells the story of a young black man who's killed by a friend after a night at a bar. But they're unified by a common theme of violence in the city.
Dixon believes those works should be required reading for all New Orleanians. Whether it's a gun or a knife, "It's violence, period," she says. "I think this literature can open up a dialogue about things as important as that."
New Orleans and its culture have been set apart since immigrants such as the Islenos arrived in 1778, Dixon says. New Orleanians need to understand the influences that came before and shaped the city, she adds.
"We see all those [street] names all over the city, and a lot of people don't know what they mean," Dixon says. "Through [these] works, you get a better understanding of the climate of this city. And the political corruption and the alcoholism and the crime; all the bad things too. We have a tendency to romanticize these things, and so do the newcomers."
She wants to expose people to the literary mine that is New Orleans, and expose them to writers beyond what she calls a "Top 40" list that includes Truman Capote, Faulkner and Williams. It's disconcerting to Dixon that many people don't realize the first African-American anthology was published in New Orleans. The poets of Les Cenelles (The Mayhaws) organized the first collection of poetry by African-Americans in 1845 under the leadership of Armand Lanusse, a free man of color.
Dixon has taught New Orleans literature for 15 years and relied on a lengthy book list and the Internet to compile her curriculum.
"One of the impetuses for writing this book was that it doesn't exist," she says. "I've never had a text, and it was just so frustrating ... [W]hen I went on my road to discovery, I was finding all of these things I didn't know existed. That's when it really started getting interesting — and getting really hard."
N.O. Lit's table of contents may read like a reference book, but stories like Lyle Saxon's The Centaur Plays Croquet, in which a married woman falls in love with a half-horse-half-human, are as pleasurable as they are informative. Kate Chopin's The Storm is a sensual story of waiting for a quintessential New Orleans storm to pass — a perfect reminder of why New Orleanians choose to live in south Louisiana despite annual threats from tempests in the Gulf.
The book offers views of crucial moments in the city's history from a variety of angles. Fatima Shaik writes about the civil rights movement in New Orleans from the perspective of a young black woman. "We never get that perspective on civil rights in New Orleans," Dixon says. "We get the Ruby Bridges, we get the A.P. Tureaud and the lunch counter. But we don't get just the young girls who were having to struggle with the question, 'Where do I go to high school?'"
The collection supplies context to the woes of past and present, from violence to a vanishing coastline, and it also celebrates New Orleans. In her introduction, Dixon writes that Williams and A Streetcar Named Desire forever linked New Orleans and the theme of desire.
"From Les Cenelles on, we all know that this is a really sensual city, and even a sexual city," she says, "We are not uptight about that stuff as a city, and that shows up in the literature."
Dixon also avoided some of the overburdened local subjects taken up by many writers. She didn't choose works that ramble about the wonders of gumbo.
"I was talking to a friend the other day who thanked me for not having too many stories about Mardi Gras," she says, with a laugh. "Not everyone is in a second line."