Rag Time: Decadent Textiles in the Louisiana Gothic of the Fin de Siècle
Lafcadio Hearn’s fascination with the ‘dead bride’ of the American South, beginning upon his arrival in Louisiana in 1877, was predicated upon a notion of Louisiana as a locus of cultural and literary production that had been among the richest in America for decades. If we continue Hearn’s metaphor of the dead bride, her wedding gown is undoubtedly a rich one, embroidered and bedight with baroque finery. By the time of Hearn’s arrival in the late 1870s, Louisiana was adorned with numerous literary journals and a wealth of works written in multiple languages. As Catherine Savage Brosman suggests:
Thus, crisscrossed for three centuries by competing ethnic, civic, and cultural lines of force, and unique, as the only former French colony in what is now the United States, Louisiana gave rise, unsurprisingly, to a unique cultural patrimony, or what has been termed the state’s ‘perverse complexity’.[i]
Although the invocation of perversity brings with it a host of complex associations, one that has been underexplored, both in American literature and in literature of the South more specifically, is that of decadence. In Fears and Fascinations (2005), Thomas F. Haddox makes a case for viewing works in the tradition of the Southern Gothic, and their antecedent works, through the lens of decadence – far from being a uniquely European phenomenon, he suggests, decadence is to be found in the American South, in ‘the spectacle of a South haunted by defeat, by the ghosts of racial atrocities, and by a fantasy of past cultural glory […]. If failure is indeed beautiful to a decadent, then the ruined, faux-aristocratic South becomes a splendid backdrop’.[ii] Rather than seeing Louisiana literature as a regional curiosity, I propose we cease to enshroud ourselves in a parochial view of what constitutes major and minor literatures.
[i] Catherine Savage Brosman, Louisiana Creole Literature: A Historical Study (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2013), p. 12.
[ii] Thomas F. Haddox, Fears and Fascinations: Representing Catholicism in the American South (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005), p. 86.