To listen to Sharon Litwin’s interview with Lawrence Powell on WWNO radio, click here.
Lawrence Powell, the 69-year-old director of Tulane University’s New Orleans Center for the Gulf South, still remembers growing up as an Army brat, moving from strange city to strange city most of his young life. Maybe that’s one reason he has come to treasure the stability of living in one place for any length of time.
On the other hand, it could just be that the one place – New Orleans – is difficult to replicate and, thus, hard to leave. It is, as most of us say when asked to describe it, “different.” As an historian living in this “different” place, Powell was affronted by the post-Katrina idea, floated by some across the country, that New Orleans should simply be closed down. And it was that same kind of talk that gave him the extra push needed to finish a project he had started well before the hurricane, a project trying to answer the question: Why, in fact, are we here?
The why, along with the who and the what, are all discussed in The Accidental City, his latest book, one that has garnered huge accolades around the country. Called “a dazzler” by the Dallas Morning News and praised as a “definitive history” by the Washington Post and by the Wall Street Journal, among other media, for its ability to bring history “to life,” The Accidental City is the story of the first century of this unusual city, concluding at the Battle of New Orleans in 1812. From pirates to Puritans, society to slavery, The Accidental City provides an easy-to-read, informative guide to the earliest history of this very special place.
In many ways, it is indeed written like a story. Some chapters describing historical activities and a variety of exotic characters won’t surprise New Orleanians. Rather, they will probably bring to mind the similar actions of somewhat more contemporary scoundrels as reflected in more recent news reports. Things haven’t changed that much on the purely social front, either. Certainly contemporary
New Orleans ladies no longer bring their ball gowns to church in order to change immediately after Mass to go to their first ball of the day. Still, we’re one of America’s few cities – if not the only one — where partying gals still wear ball gowns aplenty, albeit hardly ever on Sundays.
Sharon Litwin is president of NolaVie.