Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

After the Civil War, local colorists across the country sought to preserve the landscape and habits of their section before progress erased their memory. Joel Chandler Harris, for example, recorded his “Uncle Remus” stories because he feared that black folklore would soon disappear. What Harris sought to do for black folklore, Cable did for French New Orleans. His goal was to preserve a sense of jadis, the world as it was in an earlier time. He paints a small, intimate city limited to “the few streets named for the Bourbon princes.” Beyond are the marshes navigated by canoes paddled by slaves owned by French-speaking aristocrats.

Cable evokes a sense of nostalgia for this vanished era. However, he looks at it realistically, recording it with the accuracy of a social scientist. When the Boston Literary World objected to Cable’s use of dialect in “Jean-ah Poquelin” as unrealistic, Cable replied that he heard that patois every day. He notes the Creoles’ clothes, mannerisms, customs (including the charivari), and landscape with careful detail. The conflict between Creole and American is also precisely rendered, as Cable shows the innovations so hateful to the older inhabitants: “trial by jury, American dances, anti-smuggling laws, . . . the printing of the Governor’s proclamation in English.”

Living in a period of rapid social and economic changes brought about by the Civil War, Cable looks back to an earlier yet similar time shortly after the Louisiana Purchase turned New Orleans from a French colony into an American outpost. “Jean-ah Poquelin” stands like a wrought-iron gate that grants one admission from the busy street into a quiet courtyard of the past.