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 n*****s, when they want to express contempt for one of their own race, call him an Acadian n*****. . . . 
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)


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.

No comments:

Post a Comment