Monday, September 1, 2008

Shannon Lee Dawdy's "Building the Devil’s Empire"

Shannon Lee Dawdy is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago.

She applied “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Building the Devil's Empire: French Colonial New Orleans, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book happens to fall on the opening page of Chapter Three, entitled “A Backwater Entrepôt.” Like the other chapters, I begin with an opening vignette of a real-life New Orleans character, an innkeeper and smuggler’s wife named Elizabeth Real Marin. I begin with a quote from her last will and testament:

“Today twenty-seventh of April one thousand seven hundred sixty nine, three o-clock in the afternoon . . . being entered into the hall of the said House in which we have found the said Lady Widow Marin, seated between the two courtyard doors in the coolness, who seemed to us to be ill in body because of her great age, but sound in spirit, memory and understanding.....”

From this exergue, I go on to develop a quick sketch of her life:

Thus begins the last will and testament of Madame Elizabeth Real Pascal Marin, whose life spans the experience of surviving and then thriving in French colonial New Orleans. Both documentary evidence and artifacts excavated from her courtyard in the French Quarter suggest that Madame Real’s fortunes rose with those of the colony. During the charter period of John Law’s Company of the Indies in the early 1720s, Elizabeth arrived in the stumptown that was New Orleans. She was then a teenager, from the Oleron district of Charente-Inférieur in the Bordeaux region. Though her exact arrival is uncertain, it is likely that she immigrated as an indentured servant transported to work for one of the concessions. From these humble beginnings, Madame Real transformed herself into a respectable colonial matron through two marriages and fifty years as a successful businesswoman.

The widow Marin’s life parallels the story I tell in this chapter about the speculative economy of early New Orleans and how over time it emerged as a major smuggling port. On this front, as on many others I outline in the book, the city succeeded, but never exactly according to the plan of European powers.

Page 99 reveals the effort to integrate archival, archaeological, and literary sources to produce as vivid a portrait of the town as I can. This page also reveals the narrative strategy I chose to reflect my philosophical approach to history. I believe history can often be most accurately depicted as a “picaresque” rather than a romance or a tragedy. That is, a combination of grand plans, follies, shenanigans, and unexpected triumphs involving a diverse and contentious cast of characters.

Probably no one expected this illiterate French maid from the countryside to become the friend and confident of some of the most powerful men in the colony, and owner of a large house with a lush courtyard and interiors decorated with gilt mirrors. And probably no one expected New Orleans to thrive after it was abandoned by the French state in 1731. One lesson for the post-Katrina future is that no one should doubt the city’s ability to reinvent itself in surprising ways.
Read more about Building the Devil’s Empire at the University of Chicago Press website.

Learn more about Shannon Lee Dawdy's teaching and research at her faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue