The Sunday New York Times Book Review marked the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's flooding of New Orleans with several reviews of disaster-related books, as well as features by noted authors Walter Issacson and Walter Mosley.
The two Walters represented two different sides of New Orleans culture. Mosley, the black writer best known for his Easy Rawlins detective series, cites the mass migration of blacks from Louisiana to Northern and Western cities and how they clung to their food, music and religion as means of surviving their new environments. Issacson, the head of the Aspen Insitute and now returned to New Orleans as head of the city's tricentennial celebration, avoids the city's past in giving an anodyne vision of the city's future.
Mosley focuses on the black culture transplanted from Louisiana to post World War II Los Angeles, where his Louisiana-born detective Rawlins builds his career as a private eye. At the end of the essay, Mosley in a visit to New Orleans reconnects with his Louisiana roots and how the city's creative but poverty stricken black culture contributed to his work.
That black culture, with French, Haitian and other influences, made multiple cultural contributions, especially with music and cuisine. Its literary influence is less noted, and Mosley deserves praise for doing so. Yet Mosley ignores the devastating effects of New Orleans' horrible poverty and crime, and the racial intolerance in other parts of Louisiana that led to the mass migration. His valid insights succumb to recycled cliches.
Issacson, a New Orleans native, writes about the Catholic novelist Walker Percy, an exemplar of a white, literary New Orleans culture often overshadowed by the black culture that shaped the old blues and slave rhythms into jazz. While sharing Creole influences, that uptown white culture held economic and political supremacy, upholding a rigid segregated system while exhibiting more racial tolerance than other parts of the South. The sophisticated white literary culture nurtured the young Faulkner and produced Percy, the best-known Louisiana writer outside of 19th century feminist pioneer Kate Chopin. But while Percy's "The Moviegoer" examined the late 20th century crisis faced by New Orleans' old white power structure, he himself was a transplant from a separate, but related, segment of white culture that ruled the Mississippi Delta.
While Percy's first novel "The Moviegoer" holds a place among late 20th century classics, and his "The Last Gentleman" and "Love in the Ruins" are major accomplishments, his later books were increasingly weakened by social moralizing.
In discussing Percy's famed philosophical statement expressed "The Moviegoer" and "The Last Gentleman" that people often feel better in disasters like hurricanes, Isaacson succumbs to a short-sighted, Chamber of Commerce view of New Orleans and its recovery from the disaster.
Percy's philosophy holds true when the impending disaster is relatively mild - Issacson cites a "Moviegoer" scene in which narrator Binx Bolling and his girlfriend experience joy in helping a diner owner replace a window shattered by a storm. But a person trapped on a rooftop in flood-ravaged New Orleans likely didn't feel too much happiness. Terror is more like it.
Issacson evokes a vision of New Orleans joining together after the storm in a spirit of cooperation and unity. While such community feeling definitely was exhibited, Isaacson ignores horrible examples of racial division and political corruption and the widespread depression and despair shared by whites and blacks.
Elsewhere in the Book Review, Nathaniel Rich, son of former Times columnist Frank Rich, reviews a book by former Times reporter Gary Rivlin that takes a more cold-eyed view, uncovering the racial tensions and political and corruption and incompetence that marred the recovery. Issacson ignores the city's continued problems in his fatuous vision of economic and social vitality.
Mosley and Issacson both recycle cliches about New Orleans and its culture. New Orleans' art and music developed because the city once had a real manufacturing and trade economy, not the unsustainable one based on tourism. The city's future depends on its again building an economy of well-paying middle class jobs. Issacson sees a new influx of the young "creative class" as the progenitors of a vital economy, while others see them as threatening the black culture that Mosley celebrates.
History shows that New Orleans' future will be more complex and tragic than Issacson and Mosley envision. As Rich, himself a transplant to New Orleans, notes, the city's survival is hardly certain. Perhaps one day New Orleans will again discover the social cohesion, artistic creativity and economic power that once made it great.