A jungle of anxious desires : representing New Orleans, 1880–2005
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New Orleans has been the subject of a narrative of exoticization throughout much of its history as an American space. The dominant trend in representation casts this city as a lush site of strangeness, intercultural confusion, enchantment, and, occasionally, an alternatively transformative or annihilative freedom. My project travels across genres and critical frameworks to explore the history and development of the narrative of New Orleans’ exoticism in literary and public discourse. The narrative’s evocative rhetoric, including the frequent appearance of the term “jungle,” and its emphasis on both charm and degeneracy encode larger doubts over the ability of the city to fit national ideals. These codes draw on a negative racial imaginary and manifest as sentiments of anxiety and desire over the crossing of nationally normative racial and sexual boundaries. Although the generative position of the narrative has gone largely unrecognized, it surfaces in multiple contexts and in concert with larger discursive trends, such as 19th century interests in racially exclusive American nationalism and 20th century fears of a racialized, sexualized other. This project pays particular attention to the articulations of the narrative in George Washington Cable’s novel The Grandissimes and in the New Orleans-based works of Tennessee Williams. It also explores challenges to the narrative offered by contemporary poets Brenda Marie Osbey and Joy Harjo. Additionally, it investigates the recycling of the narrative in contemporary political discourse.