Susan Larson : Founding support for the reading life comes from Octavia Books. Additional support comes from the Heloise Foundation and the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. The state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Hello and welcome to The Reading Life, your weekly look at the Louisiana literary scene. I'm Susan Larson. This week I'll be talking with Clint Bruce.
His new book is Afro Creole Poetry in French from Louisiana's Radical Civil War-Era Newspapers.
Susan Larson : It's a great pleasure to welcome Clint Bruce to The Reading Life. He is an assistant professor at the University of Saint Anne in Nova Scotia, where his research focuses on the Acadian Diaspora and transnational Acadia, Francophone identities in Louisiana and the Francophone Atlantic world. He has spent the last ten years working on the book we're talking about today, Afro Creole Poetry in French from Louisiana's radical Civil War era newspapers.
It's a Herculean effort that resulted in a beautiful book published by the Historic New Orleans Collection. CLINT BRUCE, welcome to The Reading Life.
Clint Bruce : Thank you for having me.
Susan Larson : So first, tell us how you came to be interested in these 79 poems, why they speak to you as both a scholar and a reader.
Clint Bruce : So this will take us back to tender years of adolescence. Believe it or not, when I was coming up in in Shreveport, Louisiana, where I'm from, and I was learning French and discovering not only the cultures of France and Canada, but also our French speaking cultures of Louisiana. And as I entered college at Centenary College of Louisiana, I was exposed to the literature that came out of Louisiana's French speaking cultures largely in the 19th century, but also in more recent times, thanks to a wonderful professor there, Dana Kress, who has accompanied me through this project even.
And I first became aware of writings by people of color in New Orleans at that time at age 18, 19, 20. We were involved in projects republishing some of those works, putting them online so that people could access them and use them, but not much at translating them. So that's sort of part of it. So what's behind that sort of a sense of wonder that people in Louisiana in the 19th century were writing in French?
What I thought was a foreign language and that not only were they writing, but they were writing well, and they were writing about issues of identity, race and injustice. They were actually still with us when I was growing up as a kid in Shreveport in the eighties and nineties. And, that, you know, we continue to encounter today. That was pretty eye opening pretty early on.
So there's some starting points.
Susan Larson : So set the stage for us. We know these are radical newspapers published during the Civil War era for a very specific audience with a definite agenda. But, you know, I just love the idea of poetry in the newspaper. I mean, every Sunday when I open The New York Times Magazine, I go directly to poem. And it's just it's so thrilling to me to see a poem in the newspaper.
But in back then, it wasn't a big deal.
Clint Bruce : Newspapers published poetry all the time. I remember seeing more recently, too, the instructions for letters to the editor and contemporary newspapers, where they were specifically say, Please don't send us poems. But back in the day, that was that was pretty common. So these two newspapers are the union L'Union that started out only in French and the New Orleans Tribune.
La Tribune de la Nouvelle Orléans, L'Union was founded in 1862. It folded a couple of years later and the Tribune was founded almost immediately afterwards. And yes, as you mentioned, they were created for a very specific reason, and that was to advance the rights of black people in New Orleans and Louisiana and much more broadly in the United States.
That really became that these two New Orleans papers spoke to much larger issues. They were founded by very educated, very brilliant and very community-minded people of color. And they eventually developed a multiracial staff. And they were read by folks in Washington, by folks in Europe, by folks in New York, all over the country in the 1860s.
Susan Larson : They were fragile things. You know, most of them were just one sheet, both sides. Right.
Clint Bruce : So the papers went through several phases. A lot of the issues I consulted were sort of two large sheets folded in half. So yes, it would be one sheet of paper. And looking down at it, you could flip it over and you either have the English side or the French side of the Tribune we'll take a year of 1866.
That's sort of what it looked like. So if you were an English reader, you could say, Wait a second, this is the French side. I'm going to flip this over and you'd get the editorial and you get the ads and you get the news from the from the war or later on from current events, world events. If you were a French speaker in New Orleans going into one of the French bookshops, of which there were several at the time, well, you would just pick up that French side and off you'd go.
Susan Larson : So talk about the story of finding the lost issues. Henri Schindler wrote this most wonderful line says New Orleans is not kind to paper and velvets and paper has a struggle surviving here. So talk about that.
Clint Bruce : The lost issues that you're referring to, followed a terrible incident in Reconstruction-era New Orleans, which was the Mechanics Institute massacre of July 30th, 1866. It's got a little attention in the past couple of years through some commemorative efforts in media, including through a series on WWNO, Tripod. So what happens at that time was that a constitutional convention was reconvened to grant voting rights to black men in that fell afoul of city authorities and many citizens in the white community in the dominant white community who did not want to see that happen and who wanted to maintain basically the place that they had before the Civil War.
And so basically there was an open assault. Upwards of 50 people died almost depending on sort of how you count. Certainly between 40 and 50. The writers, the journalists from the Tribune were there and they were very involved in getting out the side of the victims. All of the other newspapers in New Orleans were very much on arrayed against them.
And for a number of years, it was presumed that the issues that were published in the following days had been lost. And they're not lost. They're sitting in an archive in Massachusetts. I explain it in the book. There are several, several of them, and I'm working on an article that'll go in-depth into their contents. But what's really interesting is and really kind of bizarre is that this the in this archive, which is located in Worcester, Massachusetts, the American Antiquarian Society, these issues are in a collection by a gentleman who found them, but also wrote in a book at the same time.
He was a big collector of New Orleans newspapers and publications. He said that they'd probably been destroyed, so I don't know if he found them a little after he published his book. It's very strange, actually. I'm still kind of working through why he claims in one publication they don't exist and they're actually sitting in a folder. Did he not want people to see them?
But he wanted to keep them for, you know, for preservation sake? I don't know. I'm actually still working through that. But long story short, it's a play by play in the days after this horrible massacre of what the the progressive community was thinking. Reports from the hospitals of how victims were doing and some serious condemnation of what had occurred in very no nonsense, no holds barred terms.
And later on, this incident gets commemorated in several poems that are in the book, Afro Creole Poetry in French.
Susan Larson : If you're just joining us, I'm talking with Clint Bruce. His new book is Afro Creole Poetry in French from Louisiana's Radical Civil War era newspapers. We'll be right back. And now these poets were very much community activists, and poetry was part of a rich, full life for most of them. And some of that shows in the thematic organization of the book.
It shows how wide ranging their concerns were. And in terms of the subjects they chose for their poems and reading their biographies, it seems like any one of them would deserve a biography on his own, or at least a novel. I mean.
Clint Bruce : You're very correct, Susan. All of these writers were fascinating as individuals, and a couple of them have received biographical treatment. A couple of years ago, Melissa Daggett published a wonderful biography of Henry Louis Ray, who wrote contributed several points to the newspapers that are in this volume. He was heavily involved in the religious movement known as spiritualism, and that's the angle that she focuses on.
The most prolific writer in this collection was a gentleman named Adolph Duhart, or Du-hart. He penned 36, 37, not quite half of the 79 poems in the book. And he sort of exemplifies that well-rounded quality that you just pointed out. He worked as a brick mason, as a young man. He had family ties to Haiti.
His both of his parents were from the Caribbean and came to New Orleans as part of that wave of refugees from Saint-Domingue. As I mentioned, he worked as a as a brick mason, which is a traditional craft profession in the Creole community. And then he became an educator at a very well-known school for children of color. And that's where he carried out most of his career.
He was also an actor. He wrote a couple of very interesting short stories. One of them is actually quite long more of a novella in the in the newspapers. And later on, he was a printer. And throughout all of this, he was involved in the politics of reconstruction. And he's one case of several. I believe three of the poets were actually elected to the state legislature.
Others were involved in various committees around issues of immigration. All of these folks were heavily involved in the politics of the day, but they were involved in the arts scene. They were involved in belevolent societies and fraternal organizations. And so they were not making their living through poetry. But the poetry spoke to some of their deepest concerns that they'd been expressed for an audience, which we have with us today.
Susan Larson : And one of them was this cigar maker. And I always imagine those cigar factories, you know, where they hire readers to come and speak to the cigar makers while they're rolling cigars. It's you know, I can see the boss going, read this poem. I mean.
Clint Bruce : And it could have happened knowing this community. Very literate, very appreciative of the arts. Philanthropic. It wouldn't surprise me at all.
Susan Larson : But I have to ask, so where are the women in this group?
Clint Bruce : This is perhaps one of the few disappointments of this project, is that there are not, to my knowledge, any women writers in the collection that were published in French, in the newspapers. If you look on the English side for another book project there are a few women who are writing in English who are not necessarily from the Creole community, but would have known people in the Creole community.
However, women are, of course, very present in the poems themselves. They are present as subjects. They're being spoken about and spoken to. A number of poems are dedicated to prominent women, including educators and activists in New Orleans at that time. And so the gender dynamics here are really interesting. There is a conservative vision that comes out. So you have these political radicals who are a bit more traditional in some ways, even for their time.
You know, in the north, when you think about, for example, the alliance between Susan B. Anthony and and Frederick Douglass. Abolitionism and women's rights kind of went hand in hand. And that wasn't so much the case in New Orleans and other parts of the South. So that being said, I do believe somewhere I've said this elsewhere and I'll probably say it in other places.
I do believe that somewhere in an attic or in a notebook or in a corner of a box of archives, there is a treasure trove of women's writings out there that sort of go along with this general movement and I hope someone finds it. And in the meantime, you know, we do have, you know, quite a body of poetry that came out of this community.
And it gives us a window into the gender dynamics. And hopefully that'll be completed someday.
Susan Larson : So what was your most exciting discovery as you were working on this book over these ten years? When did you sit back and go, Oh, this is all mine? What was that moment?
Clint Bruce : There were actually several of those moments, and I will be very honest, there were a number of times since the point when I began really working on this project under my editor, Margit Longbrake, with the Historic New Orleans Collection. There were a number of times where I really wanted this book to come out. And later on, I was very thankful that more time had elapsed because I found I found the more things, including in the in the last year.
So one of the discoveries was simply a text. There is another archive in the north, also in Massachusetts, that has a run of these newspapers of the New Orleans Tribune from 1868 that are not in the archived microfilm copies that you find in most libraries. And only a few researchers have consulted them. And among those researchers, even fewer and I may be the only one really looked at the French issues.
The Boston Atheneum is the name of this archive, and they are strict, strict, strict, strict, strict. I mean, it's it's like Homeland Security times ten. So I spent one day there standing up for about 8 hours poring over these papers, finding as much as I can from these several hundred issues of the a few hundred issues from from 1868.
And I discovered a poem that touched me to the depths of my soul. And it is by du Hearts or du Harts, in the hours following the sudden and unexpected death of a very important member of the Creole community, Elmond Laneuse, who had added a collection of poems in the 1840s and who was a beloved figure. And its title is simply Exclamation mark.
And it's a long homage to him. And you can feel the pain. You can truly feel. It's your morning with him. And I read it standing up. I'd been standing on my feet for about 6 hours and thought, Wow, I'm there with him mourning this man that I don't know. But I've certainly read about a lot and whose writings I've read.
So I would, you know, as people explore this book, you know, a book with 80 poems in it, with all kinds of introductory and presentational materials, it's not necessarily a book that you'll read from cover to cover. You know, you pick through it, you find, oh, here's, here's a poem that looks interesting. Here's a topic I want to know more about.
That's certainly one I would point readers to.
Susan Larson : Welcome back. I'm talking with Clinton, Bruce. His new book is Afro Creole Poetry and French from Louisiana's radical Civil War era newspapers. Well, you've arranged these poems by subject poetry as prophecy the war and reconstruction, liberty, racial equality and fraternity, the world of ideas and matters of the heart. So there's really something for everyone. For me, it was easiest to look at them section by section.
Clint Bruce : I'm glad to hear that because that was a challenge. So these are all 79 poems that were published sporadically over a seven year period. Basically. And the thing that I was the issue that I was confronted with was the fact that they were not written as a book. They weren't really put together. No one was was thinking ahead of time, how are we going to collect these?
Because there are a pretty heavy number, almost 30 love or sentimental poems. I didn't just want to present them in chronological order because the punchy, political, radical poetry sort of got lost in there. Now the love, poetry and sentimental poetry is very important, and some of them are quite good as well. But most readers are going to be drawn in because of the topical political aspects.
So I want I wanted to frontload depth and really put that out there with those headings that you mentioned. And I believe that, you know, I'd like to think that if the writers could come back, they would they would say, good job. One, I want to, you know, do the research and present some of them in another way.
A couple of them have been included in previous works. And in 2001, I should mention that almost 20 years ago there was a French-language collection by a researcher named James Cowan that presented a large number of these, and they were presented in chronological order, and that's a book that I became aware of early on. It's no longer available, which is one reason why we wanted to include the French, along with my English translations. It's out of print and quite expensive.
I really wanted to give the biggest punch possible and to to draw people in. And so I'm glad, you know, I'm glad to get that feedback. I think there are other ways that it could have been done, but hopefully others will have the experience that you have.
Susan Larson : And you also discovered a literary hoax.
Clint Bruce : This was a last minute discovery.
Susan Larson : So it was wise to wait.
Clint Bruce : I mean, there were there was absolutely. Absolutely. I was thankful many times after that that it took ten years. In 19th century New Orleans, one of the best known actors, singers and composers was a man of color named Victor Eugene McCarthy. Anyone who is an aficionado or connoisseur of New Orleans history will know that name because it is a very prestigious and well known family in local history with some very important and very colorful and very disturbing characters in some cases.
But not not McCarthy. He had published several poems under either the initial A or the pen name Anthony, which was the name of his character in a play by Alexandre Dumas. One of these poems had been there. A couple of them had been lost. I did manage to locate it in some of these lost troves. And thanks to a really wonderful article by a young historian named Bill Horn, I was tipped off to the fact that the poems that he was passing off under his pen name weren't actually written by him.
Now, Bill's article has to do with a lawsuit that Macarty took against the Opera House in New Orleans in 1869 after they expelled him because he was a man of color. That's really what this article focuses on. He sued the Opera House for discrimination at that time, which was utterly illegal under the Constitution and in his article he mentions that one of the poems that has a sort of political character to it largely resembled an earlier French poem.
And I started scratching my head, I'd already translated these poems, and I started scratching my head and thought, Well, what does that mean? And I started poking around in Google Books and a couple of databases in libraries in France. They realized that he had re copied five poems from French authors published a couple of decades earlier, given most of them new titles, some of them titles really related to Reconstruction politics, and passed it off as a hoax.
And it's not because he couldn't write poetry. And I actually think that other people in his literary world were sort of in on it. And I decided to include it because it really brings something to the conversation, including poets who respond to these recopied French poets. It's kind of complex to to sort of summarize, but it was really important to show that they were actually part of the conversation.
And he wasn't doing it because he was sort of cheating like a student might on an assignment. It really was a hoax.
Susan Larson : Somebody else would read his poem and say, Okay, I'll answer that poem.
Clint Bruce : I mean, it actually happens. Yeah. Only one of the most beautiful poems in this entire collection was a response to one of these I'll say plagiarized poems. And I thought, Wow, if he hadn't recopied these, we wouldn't have this original poem, which is a masterpiece in its own right.
Susan Larson : So one poem that seemed appropriate to talk about is Ignorance, which was by Henry Louis Ray, which we know, of course, so much about. So talk a little bit about that poem.
Clint Bruce : Yes. Would you like me to read any of it? Sure. Ignorance is the first poem published in the union. It was published on the day that the paper first appeared. It bears the influence of Henry Ray's spiritualism by referring to a Swedish theologian Swedenborg, whose name will come up and other great figures in history who were prophets who were shunned in their own time.
But more immediately, it really speaks to and we can sort of all identify with this the problem that is pointed to in the title, the ignorance that reigns and is preventing progress from happening. So I will read the poem in its entirety in my translation. It is the bane of humanity. It is the gnawing worm that feeds that which when all times impedes and seeks to muzzle liberty.
Galileo stood accused because its laws were applied as a science. Still refused in utter nonsense. Deified. It was by decree of ignorance that Jesus, our Divine Witness, received a wrongful sentence for wanting human progress. That Joan of Arc, Socrates and other apostles of Truth, Swedenborg, Columbus, were either mocked or put to death. Yes, in political affairs and religious and social domains, as well as in artistic matters.
Unchallenged ignorance reigns. 'Tis the hand that snuffs out science, the cause of each and every loss. The true hell of human existence. The sole Satan in the cosmos. But judgment will come clear and loud from this enlightened age of ours. For reason, rising, free and proud increasingly extends its powers. Its solemn courts will soon release the terms of truth, decree, freedom, universal peace, happiness and harmony.
What matters it that canons roar, that all around an open tomb yawns, for 'tis the end of one bad world as another, much more beautiful dawns.
Susan Larson : Well, I will thank you for this beautiful book from which I learned so much. We've been talking with Clint Bruce, whose gorgeous new book is Afro Creole Poetry in French from Louisiana's Radical Civil War-Era Newspapers. Clint, thank you so much.
Clint Bruce : Thank you for this opportunity.
Susan Larson : Here's what's on tap in the literary life this week. Coming up, there will be a socially distant book signing with Marc Morial for his book, The Gumbo Coalition ten Leadership Lessons That Help You Inspire, Unite and Achieve. Friday, December 18th, from 1:30 to 3:30 at Blue Cypress Books. Lucky Bean, Poetry and Press in collaboration with NOLA, DNA is publishing its first ever Mardi Gras scene.
They're accepting Mardi Gras poem submissions now to be considered, send your poem in a Word or Google document to . And check out the Web site, LuckyBeanPoetry.com. Make sure to include your contact info. Submissions considered until December 25th. And congratulations to Andy Horowitz, who's Katrina: A History 1915 to 2015 was named Humanities Book of the Year at the recent 2021 Humanities Awards by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.
Horowitz, an environmental historian who holds the Paul and Deborah Gibbons professorship at Tulane University, traces events leading up to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath over the course of a century. And don't forget to join us next weekend when we celebrate ten years of The Reading Life. Support for The Reading Life comes from Octavia Books, the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities and the Ellis Foundation.
The theme song for The Reading Life is by Matt Peron and Sunflower City. The Reading Life is produced by George Ingmeyer and is a production of WWNO. You can listen to us anytime or subscribe to our podcast at WWNO.org. And you can email us at .