The city of New Orleans has long been the inspiration for some of the world’s greatest authors, who put pen to paper gleefully from the unparalleled comforts of a metropolis that has always served as a gateway between the Old World and the New. Or so it seems. From arguably the greatest playwright who ever lived, the incomparable Tennessee Williams, to homespun novelists such as Kate Chopin and Anne Rice, New Orleans has proven to be the perfect breeding ground for drama, romance, horror, eroticism, and all things Southern. Let us explore several of Louisiana’s most renowned authors and their essential works, where some light reading can very well become an act of local pride and a highly rewarding history lesson.
Tennessee Williams—The name itself evokes images of the South, in all its romantic literary splendor. Although Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi, his name will forever be synonymous with the Crescent City—he was a longtime famous resident of New Orleans, and the city also served as the setting for his second (and most famous) play, A Streetcar Named Desire. Following the success of The Glass Menagerie, this 1947 masterpiece focuses on Blanche DuBois, a latter-day Southern belle, and her fall from the grace of Mississippi plantation life to the affronting setting of the French Quarter. A schoolteacher by trade, Blanche was sleeping with students before it became frequent headline news, and the ensuing ruin that removed her from her position becomes child’s play compared to the life she endures at the hands of her sister Stella’s crude and vindictive husband, Stanley Kowalski. While the play was immortalized in the 1951 film adaptation starring Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh, Williams’s text deserves placement alongside every copy of that film, as an example of uncensored erotic and homosexual subtext, free from the sanitizing Hollywood production code of the 1950s. Masterworks such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth, and Suddenly Last Summer would follow before Williams penned the final love letter to his muse, 1977’s autobiographical Vieux Carré.
Kate Chopin—With themes ranging from miscegenation to rampant sexual desire, the works of Kate Chopin have rightfully taken their place in recent years as revolutionary feminist literature. Born in St. Louis in 1850, Kate would relocate with her new husband to New Orleans in October 1870. Moving back to St. Louis two years after her husband’s death in 1882, Chopin would never forget the time she spent in Louisiana or the Creole and Cajun culture she was immersed in. Those years would serve as the inspiration for nearly all of her writings, beginning with the groundbreaking “Désirée’s Baby,” her first published work in 1893. The story concerns a French-Creole woman of dubious origin, who is scorned by her husband due to the quadroon-like appearance of their child. She introduced us to two passionate lovers, the sexy Calixta and her dashing beau Alcée, in “At the ‘Cadian Ball,” a rendezvous which becomes adulterous in its sequel, “The Storm,” set against the backdrop of a Louisiana hurricane. While severely under-appreciated upon release due to societal norms, her 1899 novel The Awakening has been reevaluated as a feminist literary classic, celebrating the sexual and emotional independence of a Gulf Coast woman who puts her own happiness first.
Lafcadio Hearn—This veritable man of the world was an author and established journalist who changed the landscape of New Orleans newspapers during his 10-year “tenure” in the city. His penmanship-presentation of New Orleans did much to promote the world-class mystique of the city at a national level, representing it as a disconnected slice of Europe that found itself tacked onto a country whose ways were alien by comparison. Many of Hearn’s articles were also accompanied by woodblock illustrations, some of which served as the first-ever newspaper cartoons in the city. Lafcadio Hearn’s non-fiction writings are probably best sampled in the collection Inventing New Orleans, which should be required reading for anyone who loves New Orleans. Hearn would also immortalize Louisiana’s deadly 1856 hurricane in his 1888 marriage of truth and fiction, Chita: A Memory of Last Island. It was around this time that he made his way to Japan, where he would teach and write extensively about his new country until his death in 1904. As a naturalized Japanese citizen, he changed his name to Koizumi Yakumo. He was survived by a wife and four children and was buried in Tokyo. Although this great man concluded his life completely assimilated into a culture on the other side of the world, we can’t deny the significance of New Orleans in his personal timeline or forget the sustained recognition that the city has enjoyed directly because of him.
Anne Rice—One of the Crescent City’s most famous daughters, world-renowned novelist Anne Rice has always shared a special bond with New Orleans, even during the many years she resided in California. She has certainly written a wide variety of works: iconic horror novels such as Interview with the Vampire and The Queen of the Damned, the historical Feast of All Saints, the comic book mini-series Servant of the Bones, erotic fiction written under the pseudonyms A.N. Roquelaure and Anne Rampling, and even two high-profile fictionalizations of the life of Christ. No matter what stage of her life she happened to be in, the 77-year-old author never forgot her New Orleans roots. Returning to her hometown in 1988, Rice continued to write about New Orleans vampires, witches, and ghosts and even found that formerly harsh critics were beginning to warm up to her tales of sensuous, gothic-based horror. Returning to California after her husband’s death in 2004, the agnostic Rice converted to Catholicism and wrote the critically acclaimed novels Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt and Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana. Her latest novel, Ramses the Damned: The Passion of Cleopatra, was co-written with her son Christopher and is the sequel to her 1989 novel The Mummy. And yes, she’s also written about werewolves. What better place is there for all of these creatures of the night than the supernatural mecca that is New Orleans?
Other writers with ties to the state of Louisiana to look for include Arna Bontemps. Born in 1902 in Alexandria, LA to a family of Creoles, he would become one of the most prominent writers of the Harlem Renaissance as the author of radical poetry and novels, as well as numerous children’s books, including the Newberry Award-winner Story of the Negro. Notable adult-themed works include his first novel God Sends Sunday and 1936’s Black Thunder, a gripping account of a failed slave revolt that is a must-read for anyone interested in abolitionist history.
A discussion of great local authors must undoubtedly also include Ernest J. Gaines, who has won a plethora of awards for his fiction, including the coveted National Medal of Arts. Born on a plantation to fifth-generation sharecroppers in 1933, Gaines studied in San Francisco before returning to Louisiana to take a position as “writer-in-residence” at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. His acclaimed works include The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and A Lesson Before Dying, both of which became Emmy Award-winning television films, with the latter novel being nominated for a Pulitzer.
Lastly, also worth checking out is prolific mystery writer James Lee Burke. The 82-year-old, who hails from the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast, is still going strong, and his latest book, The New Iberia Blues, was released on January 8. Two of his novels were made into films, Heaven’s Prisoners and In the Electric Mist, and all three feature his iconic Southern detective Dave Robicheaux. Highly recommended is his Pulitzer Prize-nominated The Lost Get Back Boogie from 1986, about a Korean War veteran who must adjust to life as a ranch hand after a stint at an infamous farm known as Angola.