The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square
By Ned Sublette
Lawrence Hill Books 2008/2009
Reviewed by Randall Radic
The World That Made New Orleans is a masterpiece of a book. Ned Sublette wrote it. From the press release that the publisher sent along with the book, the following facts are ascribed to Ned: he is the author of a previous book called Cuba and Its Music, the co-founder of a record label called Qbadisc, he co-produced a public radio program called Afropop Worldwide, and he is a singer/songwriter.
In other words, Ned is very, very talented. Intrigued, the reviewer watched and listened to one of Ned’s music-videos on YouTube. Ned was performing ‘Ghostriders in the Sky.’ His voice was passionate as well as vivid.
What the press release fails to disclose is the elegance of Ned’s book, which is a sugary confection akin to pink cotton-candy, light and sweet, yet carrying remarkable charm and urgency. The book is about the origin of the city of New Orleans and its delightful quirks. In telling the story, Ned uses figures of speech to go beyond science, history and poetry to indicate the deepest reality of the city. The technical term for what Ned does is called “metaphorical ontology,” which in simpler terms is “the WOW factor” that most historians strive for but miss.
For example, for a brief period Louisiana was a French penal colony. Condemned prisoners were branded on the shoulder with a fleur-de-lis. This brand meant the wearer was sentenced for life. And get this: the fleur-de-lis still appears on the New Orleans flag, which means it is either a co-incidence of great singularity or a wonderful example of respectful humor.
Another knockout example the book relates is the origin of the city’s name. New Orleans was named for Philippe II, Duc d’Orleans, who for a while held the lofty title of Regent of France. Philippe II was a gourmand, and an amateur composer who liked to party “like a Rock-star.” So it should come as no surprise that he enjoyed spirited beverages and the company of pretty women. Ned quotes Francine du Plessix Gray, who wrote of Philippe II saying, “The Regency was the most dissolute period in French history and might well vie with the late Roman Empire as the most debauched era of Western civilization.”
The World That Made New Orleans is full of such juicy stories. The kind of thing where the reader goes “Wow!
Ned begins each chapter with an appropriate epigram. Together, these epigrams form a series of architectural fore-thoughts, which tell a distinct story about New Orleans and its world. For example, in chapter 11, which is called The Eighteenth-Century Tango and relates the story of gumbo, Ned cleanses the reader’s palate with this epigram:
“but if he eats flour and okra he’s a true Congo” – Jesus Alfonso (of Los Munequitos de Mantanzas)
The chapter goes on to explain the ins-and-outs of gumbo, where it came from, how it’s made, so forth and so on. It’s a pleasant chapter to loiter in.
In fact, the whole book encourages loitering. Why? Because of the little touches, the little asides, which, for reasons mysterious and inscrutable, enhance the elegant pattern of the story. In other words, Ned does not submit to the dreary treadmill of ‘writing history’ – that conspiracy of dullness. Instead – thank God! – Ned allows his words to move to the emotion of the story’s music. Or do the words generate the shape of the music?
It doesn’t really matter, does it? All that matters is this: Ned Sublette has taken a wide range of events, which are only roughly amenable to classification, put them in hat, waved his magic wand, and pulled out a magical story about a marvelous city.
Don’t make the mistake of putting this book on any ‘to-be-read list.’ Instead, buy it and read it right now.