Monday, July 9, 2012

Notes on Two Nineteenth-Century Engravings of South Louisiana Scenes

An acquaintance of mine, former Avery Island salt miner and sometimes sculptor Lonny Badeaux, recently showed me a photograph of one of his marble sculptures: a young woman washing laundry on her knees, with the annotation in Greek "Déjà Vu" (or so Lonny told me — I can't read Greek).

Badeaux's sculpture.
(Photo by Lonny Badeaux)


Lonny also showed me the inspiration for this work.  As it turned out, I knew it well: An 1866 A. R. Waud engraving from Harper's Weekly showing Acadian (Cajun) women washing their laundry in Bayou Lafourche.


The inspiration for Badeaux's work,
from an 1866 Harper's engraving.

I knew the image because I'd first seen it many years earlier as an illustration in Carl A. Brasseaux's excellent book, Acadian to Cajun: Transformation of a People, 1803-1877.  


The entire 1866 Harper's engraving, titled
"Washing-Day among the Acadians on the Bayou Lafourche, Louisiana." 


In that book Brasseaux wrote of the engraving in question:

Waud included with his short article [about the Acadians] a woodcut showing two Acadian washerwomen, their legs exposed to mid-thigh, a clear message of cultural and moral depravity to Victorian America.  The image also featured prominently a woman smoking a corncob pipe and an idle (and thus manifestly lazy) man holding a small net used for recreational fishing, watching the women work nearby.

Brasseaux refers to the washerwomen engraving as Waud's "most notorious Louisiana illustration," adding that Waud "was perhaps most responsible for creating the negative national stereotype of the Cajuns, because of his dark sketches which emphasized his personal revulsion for the region's strange landscape and its even more exotic inhabitants."  Furthermore, Brasseaux called Waud's accompanying article for Harper's "perhaps the most notorious" of negative Acadian stereotypes created by Northern journalists in the post-Civil War period.  Here is an excerpt of that 1866 article:

These primitive people are the descendants of Canadian French settlers in Louisiana; and by dint of intermarriage they have succeeded in getting pretty well down in the social scale.
Without energy, education, or ambition, they are good representatives of the white trash, behind the age in every thing. The majority of all the white inhabitants of these parishes are tolerably ignorant, but these are grossly so — so little are they thought of — that the niggers, when they want to express contempt for one of their own race, call him an Acadian nigger. . . . 
To live without effort is their apparent aim in life, and they are satisfied with very little, and are, as a class, quite poor.  Their language is a mixture of French and English, quite puzzling to the uninitiated. . . . 
With a little mixture of fresh blood and some learning they might become much improved, and have higher aims than the possession of land enough to grow their corn and a sufficiency of "goujon" [gudgeon, a type of freshwater fish]. . . .

Cover of Brasseaux's Acadian to Cajun.
Note that Waud's engraving serves as the book's cover art.


Waud himself noted of his engraving: 

Washing day is a sketch from life.  These simple folks have no acquaintance apparently with the wash-board, nor do they employ their knuckles.  Placing their clothes upon a plank, either on the edge of a pool or the bayou, they draw their scanty drapery about them with the most reckless disregard to the exposure consequent, and squatting, or kneeling, beat them with a wooden bat.  The approach of a stranger does not disconcert them much, if at all.

Badeaux knew of Waud's negative view of the Cajuns, having photocopied the author's vituperative article along with the engraving.  Himself a Cajun, Badeaux nonetheless chose to use Waud's engraving as a model for his work of art.  The finished sculpture now sits in  Badeaux's yard in New Iberia; but with his permission I might try to find another home for it, so that the public can enjoy his modern interpretation of Waud's condemnatory original.

This reminds me of another nineteenth-century engraving, namely, of two women standing in the doorway of a St. Martinville hotel.  



"Doorway of St. Martinville Hotel,"
1887 Harper's engraving.


This image illustrates an 1887 article, also in Harper's, by author Charles Dudley Warner, whose depiction of Cajuns was a bit more complimentary than Waud's.  Which is to say that when Warner's article denigrates Cajuns, it is not Warner himself who does so, but a local interviewee:

My driver was an ex-Confederate soldier, whose tramp with a musket through Virginia had not greatly enlightened him as to what it was all about.  As to the Acadians, however, he had a decided opinion, and it was a poor one.  They are no good.  “You ask them a question, and they shrug their shoulders like a tarrapin — don’t know no more’n a dead alligator; only language they ever have is ‘no’ and ‘what?’”

What I find intriguing about this 1887 engraving is that it shows a doorway that still exists; indeed, it is still a hotel doorway.  It is the front door the Old Castillo Hotel, now known as La Place d'Evangeline, located  in St. Martinville on the east bank of Bayou Teche next to the Evangeline Oak.  (I have never stayed there, but the late Colonel Wallace J. Moulis, St. Martinville native, World War II veteran, and career military man formerly assigned to NATO, once treated me to an excellent dish of crawfish bisque in the hotel's dining room.)


The same doorway as it looks today,
125 years after it appeared in a Harper's engraving.
(Photo by the author, June 2012)

As Warner wrote in his Harper's article, titled "The Acadian Land":

I went to breakfast at a French inn, kept by Madame Castillo, a large red-brick house on the banks of the Teche, where the live-oaks cast shadows upon the silvery stream.  It had, of course, a double gallery.  Below, the waiting-room, dining-room, and general assembly-room were paved with brick, and instead of a door, Turkey-red curtains hung in the entrance, and blowing aside, hospitality invited the stranger within.  The breakfast was neatly served, the house was scrupulously clean, and the guest felt the influence of that personal hospitality which is always so pleasing.  Madame offered me a seat in her pew in church, and meantime a chair on the upper gallery, which opened from large square sleeping chambers.  In that fresh morning I thought I never had seen a more sweet and peaceful place than this gallery.  Close to it grew graceful China-trees in full blossom and odor; up and down the Teche were charming views under the oaks; only the roofs of the town could be seen amid the foliage of China-trees; and there was an atmosphere of repose in all the scene.  It was Easter morning.  I felt that I should like to linger there a week in absolute forgetfulness of the world. . . .

Old Castillo Hotel, now known as
La Place d'Evangeline,
St. Martinville, La.
(Photo by the author, June 2012)

Sources:

Carl A. Brasseaux, Acadian to Cajun: Transformation of a People, 1803-1877 (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992).

Charles Dudley Warner, "The Acadian Land," Harper's New Monthly Magazine LXXIV (February 87), p. 345.

A.R.W. [A. R. Waud], "Acadians of Louisiana," Harper's Weekly X (20 October 1866), p. 657.


Sunday, July 1, 2012

Finding History Right around the Corner: Heroism on the Cajun Home Front

The following serves as a good example of how history can be found right around the corner, literally, if you look for it.

In my book The Cajuns: Americanization of a People I wrote:

As occurred elsewhere in the nation [during World War II], wartime anxiety sometimes escalated into wartime hysteria.  When a highly contagious disease wiped out hundreds of muskrats in the coastal marshlands and spread to nineteen south Louisianians, killing eight, rumor circulated that the outbreak had been caused by Japanese germ warfare.  Fearing widespread panic, the federal government moved in, quarantined all possible disease carriers, and asked the media to refrain from reporting the incident.  The disease was eventually identified as psittacosis, or "parrot fever," a viral infection transmitted by birds (p. 13).

As it turns out, a residence only a block from my house served as a quarantine house for some of those who contracted the disease.  As the Baton Rouge Sunday Advocate reported eighteen years later in 1961:

On March 3 [1943] the focus of the epidemic shifted from Ville Platte and Rayne to New Iberia.  Miss Antoinette Bourgeois, one of the nurses from New Iberia who had volunteered to help at Rayne, felt a pain at the base of her neck.  Miss Antoinette Bonin, also a nurse who had helped, felt the same pain plus a headache.  They were returned to New Iberia and placed in quarantine in a duplex at 142 Pollard Avenue.  Dr. Edwin L. Landry attended them and five women volunteers entered the house to care for them, knowing that their chances of ever leaving alive were about fifty-fifty.

142 Pollard Avenue, New Iberia, Louisiana,
as it looks today (July 2012).
(Photo by the author)

The article continued:

The volunteers were Miss Cecile Bourgeois, a sister of Miss Antoinette Bourgeois, two sisters of Miss Bonin, Miss Helen Hobart and Miss Remas Gerhart.  The physicians and Miss Katherine Avery, Iberia Parish Public Health nurse, entered the house frequently, always taking elaborate, almost ritualistic precautions.  The townspeople, however, were deathly afraid of the disease.  Some crossed to the opposite side of the street before passing the house.  When groceries were delivered they were left on the sidewalk.  Dr. Landry and Miss Avery were shunned.

The disease, however, was a potent one, taking the lives of both nurses Bourgeois and Bonin in March 1943.


Katherine Avery, one of the five nurses who entered
the quarantine house on Pollard Avenue.
(Source: Avery Island, Inc., Archives)

"Back in the house on Pollard Avenue," recorded the Sunday Advocate , "the five women were hopefully waiting out their 21 days quarantine after the deaths of the two nurses."  However, one of the five, Gerhart, contracted the disease.  "But the people of the community then decided that they had assumed more than their fair share of the risk and an old plantation home six miles outside town was obtained.  Three of the women were put in quarantine out there. . . . The [two remaining] women on Pollard Avenue waited out their 21 days and the quarantine was broken."  (Gerhart survived after "repeated transfusions from recovered patients" under the supervision of Dr. Landry.)


Old street identifications in the pavement,
New Iberia, Louisiana (July 2012).
(Photo by the author)

Much of this story transpired, commented the New Iberia Daily Iberian in response to the Advocate article, in "a house that still stands on Pollard Avenue" — as it stands today on that quiet suburban street . . . a quaint reminder of wartime heroism on the Cajun home front.


Nurse and patient Remas Gerhart, seated,
with additional nurse volunteers;
photo taken at 142 Pollard Avenue.
(Note house with tell-tale eaves in background.)
(Source: Sunday Advocate; original source unknown)

Sources: James H. Hughes, Jr., "Strange Malady Spread Terror through the Marshlands," (Baton Rouge) Sunday Advocate, 1 October 1961, p. 1-E; Jim Levy, "Talk of the Teche [column]," [(New Iberia) Daily Iberian], ca. 1 October 1961, n.p.