Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A 1795 Journey up the Teche: Fact, Fiction, or Literary Hoax?

In 1889 famed Louisiana author George Washington Cable published his book Strange True Stories of Louisiana.

Among its pages Cable included two letters, translated from their original French, which documented a 1795 journey by boat from New Orleans to St. Martinville, Louisiana, via the Mississippi River, Bayou Plaquemine, the Atchafalaya swamp, and Bayou Teche.

Title page from Cable's book.

As I read the two letters, however, I grew increasingly suspicious about their authenticity. I suspected that they were fakes — that is, that they were works of fiction probably written by Cable himself.

The letters bothered me as a historian.  I wanted to use them as primary-source material, but I could not so long as I suspected their authenticity.

Cable professed his own suspicions about the letters. In particular, he noted the presence of anachronisms (objects out of place in time). Yet he explained them away like so:

Whoever made this copy [of the original letters] it remains still so simple and compact that he or she cannot be charged with many embellishments. And yet it is easy to believe that some one, with that looseness of family tradition and largeness of ancestral pride so common among the Creoles, in half-knowledge and half-ignorance should have ventured aside for an instant to attribute in pure parenthesis to an ancestral de La Houssaye the premature honor of a San Domingan war; or, incited by some tradition of the old Minister's intimate friendship with Madelaine's family, should have imputed a gracious attention to the wrong Count de Maurepas, or to the wrong count altogether. . . . I find no other theory tenable. To reject the whole matter as a forgery flies into the face of more incontestable facts than the anachronisms do.
So Cable himself acknowledged the anachronisms, but dismissed them as minor, innocent embellishments by a later copyist.

George Washington Cable.

I believe there may be other anachronisms — that is, ones unidentified by Cable — which I will discuss some other time.  (See addendum below.)

Besides these anachronisms, I suspected the letters' authenticity because of their romantic literary style, so typical of nineteenth-century literature. And the letters included dialogue rendered in a literary format, such as found in novels or short stories. Take, for example, this passage from the letters:

While Suzanne admired herself in the mirror I took her place. My headdress differed from hers in the ends of my feathers being blue, and in the rose being white, surrounded by pale blue violets and a few silver leaves. And now a temptation came to all of us. Alix spoke first:

"Now put on your ball-dresses and I will send for our friends. What do you think?"

"Oh, that would be charming!" cried Suzanne. "Let us hurry!" And while we dressed, Pat, always prowling about the cottage, was sent to the flatboat to get his parents and the Carlos, and to M. Gerbeau's to ask my father and M. and Mme. Gerbeau to come at once to the cottage. . . . No, I cannot tell the cries of joy that greeted us. The children did not know us, and Maggie had to tell Pat over and over that these were Miss Souzie and Miss Francise. My father's eyes filled with tears as he thanked Alix for her goodness and generosity to us.

Alas! the happiest days, like the saddest, have an end. On the morrow the people in the flatboat came to say good-bye. Mario cried like a child. Celeste carried Alix's hands to her lips and said in the midst of her tears:

"O Madame! I had got so used to you — I hoped never to leave you."
This flowery sentimentalism struck me as hardly the sort of thing one would find in a letter written on the south Louisiana frontier.

An illustration of one of the letters, from Cable's book.

In addition, my suspicion stemmed from Cable's own elaborate efforts, both in his introduction and footnotes, to convince readers that the documents in question were authentic. Why would he assume, I wondered, that readers would not believe him?  Indeed, as purely historical documents the letters, although possibly useful to my own research, are hardly remarkable. They aren't the Dead Sea Scrolls, after all, or some newly discovered medieval translation of an otherwise lost Greek manuscript — they are merely an account of a journey from New Orleans to St. Martinville, of which many (albeit not from so early a time) were published in mid- to late 19th century newspapers and magazines. So it seems to me a case of Cable "protesting too much."

A typical page from Cable's book,
showing a passage from the old letters.

Finally, the very source of the letters heightened my suspicion. Cable eventually identified this source, noting in his book:

The manuscript seemed genuine. Maybe the name De Morainville is not, but was a convenient fiction of Alix herself, well understood as such by Francoise and Suzanne. Everything points that way, as was suggested at once by Madame Sidonie de La Houssaye — There! I have let slip the name of my Creole friend, and can only pray her to forgive me! [My italics.]
Cable further explained how de La Houssaye came into possession of the letters:

So a correspondence sprang up with a gentle and refined old Creole lady [de La Houssaye] with whom I later had the honor to become acquainted and now count among my esteemed friends — grand-daughter of the grandmother who, after innumerable recountings by word of mouth to mother, sisters, brothers, friends, husband, children, and children's children through twenty-seven years of advancing life, sat down at last and wrote the oft-told tale for her little grand-children, one of whom, inheriting her literary instinct and herself become an aged grandmother, discovers the manuscript among some old family papers and recognizes its value.

Another illustration of the letters, from Cable's book.

It is important to note, however, that Sidonie de La Houssaye was herself a writer, composing short stories and novellas in Louisiana French. Among her published works are Contes d'une grand-mère louisianaise (Stories of a Louisiana Grandmother) Pouponne et Balthazar (Pouponne and Balthazar), and Les Quarteronnes de La Nouvelle Orléans (The Quadroons of New Orleans).

Significantly, de La Houssaye often made use in her works of the "found manuscript" literary device.  As de La Houssaye scholar Robin White of Nicholls State University informed me by e-mail, "SdLH makes things up . . . that's what she does . . . her special line is, 'I found these old papers in a trunk.'"

Sidonie de La Houssaye (digitally enhanced).

Moreover, de La Houssaye, born and reared in south Louisiana, possessed both the French literary skills and local historical knowledge required to create the letters — which in fact mention de La Houssaye's ancestors, as well as other "real-life" persons, in addition to those who seem to be imaginary.

All of the above, however, proves nothing.  It's mere circumstantial evidence.

Recently, however, I learned that Louisiana State University had digitized de La Houssaye's papers and made them available online. Thinking some of the documents might pertain to the letters, or even be the letters themselves, I examined the collection over the Internet. While the collection did not contain the letters — nor did the Cable collection at Tulane, incidentally — it did possess an unpublished manuscript by de La Houssaye titled "Georges Gérard," which in some respects bears a resemblance to the "old letters" in Cable's Strange True Stories of Louisiana. Like the letters, this unpublished novella concerns a voyage by boat from New Orleans to St. Martinville. Likewise, it features a character named "Captain Patterson," just as do the letters. 

Again, this proves nothing, but further examination of "Georges Gérard" may yield additional clues that could determine the authenticity of the letters.

Importantly, however, if de La Houssaye did write the letters that appear in Cable's book, I think crucial questions would be "Did Cable know she wrote them?  And if he did not, would this constitute a literary hoax (albeit a harmless one) on de La Houssaye's part?"

I share the above as a work-in-progress, since this is after all a blog and not a peer-review academic journal or university press. As such, I reserve the right to recant my assertions! I plan to include additional findings here as I become aware of them.

An addendum concerning anachronisms:  One anachronism I have identified in the letters is a reference to the voyagers stopping at the bayou-side home of prominent real-life planter Agricole Fuslier.  Choosing for unknown reasons to paraphrase that passage of the letter, Cable notes, "The travelers found, of course, a charmante cordialite at the home of M. Agricole Fuselier. . . ."

This event presumably occurred somewhere just up the bayou from the future site of Franklin, Louisiana, for the letters' author had just mentioned the boat reaching a point "about two miles from where Franklin was to be."  This would be geographically accurate, for although Agricole Fuselier's home stands today along the Teche near Jeanerette, prior to around 1960 it stood farther down the Teche near Baldwin, not too far from Franklin.

However, it should be remembered that the letters claim to document events that took place in 1795 — but Agricole Fuselier did not build his home on the Teche until 1816.

Agricole Fuselier's house as it appears today, near Jeanerette, La.
(Photo by the author, 2011)

As historian Glenn R. Conrad noted, "A few months after his marriage, Agricole acquired . . . his first piece of property, a farm facing Bayou Tortue and backing on Bayou Cypress . . . [located] between St. Martinville and Broussard. . . . It was here, on the fertile lands of St. Martin Parish that Agricole and his wife established their first home. . . ."

This home stood a few miles southeast of the Lafayette Regional Airport, and thus nowhere near the site along the Teche mentioned in the letters.

Professor Conrad adds, "Fuselier [later] decided to move his family from Bayou Tortue to St. Mary Parish [i.e, to the site on Bayou Teche].  That move took place sometime in the sixteen-month period between August 1815 and January 1817.  It is fair to say, then, that Fuselier's new home . . . was constructed during 1816." [My italics.]

In other words, Agricole owned no land and had no house on Bayou Teche in 1795, and indeed would not until 1815 or afterwards, at least twenty years later.  Thus the author of the letters would not have been able to experience "a charmante cordialite at the home of M. Agricole Fuselier" as she went up the Teche near the future site of Franklin.

[Source: Glenn R. Conrad, "A Lady Called Alice," Attakapas Gazette XIII (Fall 1978): pp. 125-28.]

Addendum of 20 November 2018

In his 1966 dissertation at Louisiana State University, Joseph John Perret wrote of this alleged account of eighteenth-century travel on the Teche, "Errors . . . are numerous. Anachronisms abound and verisimilitude is almost totally absent from the descriptions. . . . Her [de La Houssaye's] use, or rather abuse, of history definitely disqualifies her as a serious commentator on the history or moeurs of a period." Source: Joseph John Perret, "A Critical Study of the Life and Writings of Sidonie De La Houssaye with Special Emphasis on the Unpublished Works," LSU Historical Dissertations and Theses (#1164), 1966, pp. 106, 109,  digitalcommons.lsu.edu, accessed 20 November 2018.