Lawrence N. Powell, who holds the James H. Clark Endowed Chair in American Civilization, has taught history at Tulane University since 1978. From 2000 to 2005 he was the Director of the Tulane/Xavier National Center for the Urban Community. Today he directs the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South at Tulane. His most recent book is The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans (Harvard, 2012). Other publications include Troubled Memory: Anne Levy, the Holocaust, and David Duke’s Louisiana (UNC, 2000), New Masters: Northern Planters During the Civil War and Reconstruction (Yale, 1980; Fordham, 1999), and George Washington Cable’s New Orleans (LSU Press, 2008). He has also edited several volumes, and contributed introductions to the others. A former Guggenheim Fellow, in 2008 he was elected as a Fellow in the Society of American Historians in recognition of literary distinction in the writing of history.
About the Book
This is the story of a city that shouldn’t exist. In the seventeenth century, what is now America’s most beguiling metropolis was nothing more than a swamp: prone to flooding, infested with snakes, battered by hurricanes. But through the intense imperial rivalries of Spain, France, and England, and the ambitious, entrepreneurial merchants and settlers from four continents who risked their lives to succeed in colonial America, this unpromising site became a crossroads for the whole Atlantic world. Lawrence N. Powell, a decades-long resident and observer of NewOrleans, gives us the full sweep of the city’s history from its founding through Louisiana statehood in 1812. We see the Crescent City evolve from a French village, to an African market town, to a Spanish fortress, and finally to an Anglo-American center of trade and commerce. We hear and feel the mix of peoples, religions, and languages from four continents that make the place electric—and always on the verge of unraveling. The Accidental City is the story of land-jobbing schemes, stock market crashes,and nonstop squabbles over status, power, and position, with enough
rogues, smugglers, and self-fashioners to fill a picaresque novel. Powell’s tale underscores the fluidity and contingency of the past, revealing a place where people made their own history. This is a city, and a history,
marked by challenges and perpetual shifts in shape and direction, like the sinuous river on which it is perched.
The author knows well the geographical and geopolitical history of the city where he teaches, and the complexity of this story would daunt a faint-hearted historian—which Powell manifestly is not. He dives confidently into the murky bayou of the region’s story, and what a tangled tale he emerges to tell… Powell is brilliant at elucidating the city’s intricate racial politics.
This rich story of the emergence of the Crescent City from its unlikely floodplain site is the best history of early New Orleans ever written… In Katrina’s aftermath and the shock of nature’s claims on our lives, this timely work brings out the complexities of New Orleans’s history as well as the rich tapestry of its gritty people… This is a splendid telling presented in a clear, robust voice.
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
A masterful unfolding of the story of the most complicated and unusual city in the United States. This will become the definitive book on the early history of not only New Orleans but much of the Gulf Coast.”—John M. Barry, author of Rising Tide and Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul
The Accidental City is an extraordinary book—hands down, the best account of the first two centuries of the history of New Orleans.
—Ira Berlin, author of Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves
There are bigger cities than New Orleans, more beautiful cities than New Orleans, and more important cities than New Orleans but there is no city more interesting than New Orleans. This is a fascinating book about a fascinating city.
An epic account of how America’s most exotic city crept and clawed its way into existence. Powell evokes the swamps, sweat, misery, grandeur, and colorful and seedy characters that came together to create a place that Thomas Jefferson could never comprehend.
—Joseph J. Ellis, author of American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson
The Accidental City is a tour de force—engagingly written, broad in scope, precise in detail, and completely worthy of its fascinating, complex, soulful subject.
—Tom Piazza, author of Why New Orleans Matters and City of Refuge
Powell’s fluid, pungent narrative and comprehensive interpretive reach argue powerfully for New Orleans’ enduring cultural significance in America and globally.
—Nick Spitzer, producer of public radio’s American Routes.