Reflections: The Grandissimes

In the years 1803 and 1804, Louisiana confronted a crisis of identity when its western portion, including New Orleans, became part of the United States through the Louisiana Purchase. In the months and years following the purchase, the region's citizens and slaves confronted a challenge to their social arrangements, rights, beliefs and traditions. A single question was on everyone's mind: could an act of political exchange between nations change their loyalties and make them into Americans? This is the moment which George Washington Cable describes in his romantic, well-paced novel, The Grandissimes (1880).

This novel focuses on New Orleans largely through the perspective of an outsider in a place that abhors the alien. Frowenfeld, a bookish German-American, emigrates with his family to Louisiana. Almost immediately, they are all struck down by the fever, and he must make his way alone. While for most the fact that he isn't local make him a symbol of the encroaching Yankee, others recognize him as a source for insight into a social system in crisis. He becomes a kind of translator among the powerful people in each strata of the city's world. As he takes his first steps in establishing himself in this new land, he befriends the powerful Honore de Grandissime, the scion of the oldest and wealthiest local family who bears on his shoulders the responsibility for protecting and managing a hoard of stubborn but helpless relatives. For Honore and others, Frowenfeld acts as a conscience, questioning and undermining the assumption that tradition trumps morality with regards to money and racial equality. Over time, Frowenfeld's advice will lead Honore into partnership with his older quadroon half-brother, also named Honore de Grandissime. This partnership severs the younger Honore from parts of his family, and yet at the same time, it weakens the beliefs upholding the region's racialized oppression.

It may seem questionable to attribute a lightness of touch to a novel that dares to use the literary device of having two men with the same name. And yet, the fact that Cable does just this and turns it from a cheap gimmick to a simple matter of fact in his represented world speaks to what makes him an important figure in American literature: he has a literary instinct more refined than his nineteenth-century counterparts. His art touches each step of plotting and description, allowing him to describe a world riddled with moral complexities and regional oddities without privileging his message over his story. It is perhaps for this reason that although The Grandissimes gives significantly more attention to the history and experiences of plantation slaves, it is the later work of Twain that has become the classic text for analyzing the race relations in antebellum America.

1 comment:

Kevin Robert said...

Very interesting. I've always thought that in Huck Finn, Jim only comes into focus as a living, suffering, regretting, caring human being when he's a runaway slave. But he's "in motion" in so many more ways than this, so the focus is difficult to hold -- caricature of slave superstition, painted-blue "sick Arab," prisoner of Tom Sawyer's uncle (and of Tom's literary fantasy), and then, finally, hero and "free." If the novel is about "humanizing" the slave's plight, maybe it's also about the mobility and translatability of the figure of the freed slave in the post-Civil War American imagination. I will now have to read the Gs to get a different 1880s perspective on the legacy of southern slave life.