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The City I Knew
A small memoir.


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EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the September 26, 2005, issue of National Review.

“One of these days,” my father used to tell me, “a hurricane is gonna come right up the Mississippi and hit New Orleans, and that’s gonna be all she wrote, cap.” There’s not a soul alive who was raised, as I was, in south Louisiana who hasn’t heard some version of that apocalyptic legend growing up. Now that it has finally happened, I know I can’t be the only one taking the news as prophecy fulfilled–not the prophecy of scientists (though it is), but the prophecy of old men who know in their bones that we can’t get away with it forever.

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”It,” of course, doesn’t need explaining to New Orleanians, or to anyone who ever tasted the Crescent City’s sweetness, or succumbed to her considerable and not entirely respectable charms. As Michael Ledeen has written on National Review Online, New Orleans, like Venice, is a city built, literally and figuratively, on a constant awareness of death, and a resulting commitment to living defiantly well in the face of it. It is America’s most Catholic city, as well as its most pagan–and certainly its least American.

For better or worse, New Orleans has always been a sign of contradiction to the sober, sensible American way of life. Ask my disapproving father. I come from St. Francisville, a Protestant town on the Mississippi River north of Baton Rouge, the seat of rural West Feliciana Parish, which figures prominently in Walker Percy’s fiction. Daddy’s prophecy about New Orleans was widely shared in the region, but I always had the feeling that he wouldn’t have thought the city’s destruction entirely undeserved. Not, I hasten to say, that he or anybody else would have wished for what has come to pass; rather, New Orleans was viewed–one winces to use the past tense, but there it is–by many rural Louisianians as many Americans look on New York City: as a corrupt and corrupting metropolis, an arrogant, violent, and high-living city that incubated maleficence.

My father once saw an innocent spectator at a Mardi Gras parade have his back slashed from shoulder to hip with a razor blade in what he took to be a gang initiation. “You get your throat cut in New Orleans,” he told me. Country people thought the farther away New Orleans was, the better. To keep New Orleans at bay was to be safer, somehow, from the world . . .

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