Book Review: THE CAJUNS Essays on Their History and Culture
By C. Paige Gutierrez
Vol. 1, No. 10, 1979 pp. 24-25
Glenn K. Conrad, ed. The Cajuns: Essays on Their History and Culture. Published by the Center for Louisiana Studies University of South-western Louoisiana, Lafayette, 1978. Illustrated.
The Southern psyche has long been analyzed, romanticized, and mythologized by scholars, journalists, novelists and others who have taken up the task of explicating that most peculiar region of the United States. However, in their attempts to make sense of the area below the Mason-Dixon line, too few of these observed have seemed to notice that they have subsumed in their -generalizations a sub-region lying south of the Piney Woods, south of the South. The distinctiveness of the central Gulf Coast has often been overlooked by both the national and the Southern media, partly because of the fact that the area is, for better or worse, parceled out among several states whose boundaries extend considerably northward into “alien” territory. The analyst who concentrates on that which is encompassed by political boundaries is likely to miss the greater significance of that which is encompassed by historical /cultural boundaries.
Coastal Louisiana has not been as complacent about this situation as have been coastal Mississippi and Alabama. For over a decade southern Louisiana has been declaring its cultural uniqueness through various aspects of what is loosely called the French Renaissance Movement. Since 1968, when the Louisiana legislature gave the name “Acadiana” to twenty-two southern parishes, this movement has manifested itself through language education programs, historical preservation projects, renewal of cultural ties with Gallic countries, advertising campaigns, and a generalized renewal of interest and pride in the regional heritage. Although the French Renaissance Movement has its share of internal conflict and inconsistancies – not the least of which revolve around the self-understanding of Louisiana’s French (as well as nonFrench) heritage – the resurgence of French pride, and especially of Cajun French pride, is a start.
The media through which the new Cajun consciousness is expressed range from bumper stickers and Tshirts to record albums, plays, festivals, television shows, periodicals, and scholarly books. Of the latter,Glenn Conrad’s The Cajuns: Essays on Their History and Culture is perhaps the most ambitious. Conrad and eleven other writers, all of whom are well versed in Louisiana studies, have produced a collection of scholarly yet readable articles on a wide range of topics related to Cajun or Acadian history, language, environment, architecture, folk song, education, folklore, and politics. – Some of the essays are rather narrow in scope, such as Gabriel Debien’s account of the Acadian exiles’ stay in Santo Domingo, or Elizabeth Brandon’s analysis of the folk song “La Delaissee.” Such essays are aimed at the experienced student of Cajun history and culture and presuppose a general knowledge of the problem under study.
Other essays in the book are of interest to a more general audience. Conrad’s article, “The Acadians: Myths and Realities,” provides an historical analysis of the portrayal of the Cajun in both the scholarly and popular media. He maintains that the Cajun image has been dichotomized in terms of two extremes: Cajun life has been seen as either that of the ignorant, superstitious swamp dweller, or as that of the pristine peasant of Longfellow’s Evangeline. Neither image is accurate. The entire book, in fact, is an attempt at bringing balance to the understanding of the Cajun experience, although the reader may suspect at times that certain of the
writers have been so steeped in Evangeline that they can’t quite let go of the myth themselves.
Patricia Rickels makes one of the most useful contributions to the understanding of the modern Cajun in her essay entitled “The Folklore of Acadians.” Rickels distinguishes between the “Genteel Acadians” and the “Just Plain Coonasses.” The Genteel Acadians, or the Acadian Establishment, are the more formally educated and/or wealthier of the Cajuns. Their use of the term Acadian rather than Cajun reflects a propriety which Rickels claims is “diametrically opposed” to the philosophy of the Coonass. The term “coonass,” once used by outsiders as an ethnic slur, is now used by those Cajuns who have no qualms about their involvement in traditional activities such as beer drinking, cock-fighting, gambling, and other “earthy” pastimes. The Genteel Acadian is likely to speak a nonstandard Cajun dialect. These differences between the two groups have understandably been responsible for much of the conflict centering around the direction being taken by the French Renaissance Movement. It should be added that the Genteel Acadian and the Just Plain Coonass are, of course, ideal types best thought of as representing poles on a continuum, with most Cajuns fitting somewhere in between these Moreover, Vaughan Baker, in her essay “The Acadians in Antebellum Louisiana: A Study of Acculturation,” has traced the existence of the elite and the non-elite lifestyles in southern Louisiana through antebellum times. Although Rickels suggests that the non-elite Cajun is more likely to be a repository of folk culture, it would be unwise to conclude that either group is more or less “Cajun” than the other. Both have been on the scene for two centuries.
Also of special interest to the general reader is Mathe Allain’s “Twentieth Century Acadians.” Allain wisely begins by pointing out the dearth of research materials available on the topic and proceeds to write a perceptive, journalistic piece based largely on her own observations. Allain has an eye for the subtleties of everyday life; she notes the changes that have taken place in flower gardens over the years and the continuing small town practice of listing nicknames in the phone directories. And she is quick to recognize the influence of American popular culture on Cajun life, whether it be via the automobile or “I Love Lucy.” Such observations are rarely the hallmark of the historian or folklorist searching for signs of a “true” folk culture. However, Allain and several other essayists have notably realistic perspectives on the complexities of the relationships between folk culture, popular culture, high culture, and “fakelore” in Acadiana.
A major weakness of The Cajuns is its lack of either an introductory or concluding essay. Such an essay would serve to tie together certain themes running through the book and point out problems of definition that appear repeatedly. The question of “What is a Cajun?” might be partially answered through a synthesis of the definitions that are either implicit or explicit in each of the articles. A summarizing essay might note what may not be obvious to a non-native: the Cajuns described throughout much of the book are the Cajuns of western Acadiana. Although intra-regional variation is discussed in Malcolm Comeaux’ essay “Louisiana’s Acadians: The Environmental Impact,” it is neglected in many of the articles in The Cajuns.
Conrad’s book provides a broad coverage of subjects pertinent to Cajun studies; however, certain topics are conspicuous by their absence. For example, an analysis of the role of the Catholic Church in southern Louisiana is inexplicably missing. This omission is especially glaring in light of the fact that Catholicism provides perhaps the only factor that is a constant for almost all Cajuns, regardless of geographical subregion, economic level, or historical period. Also missing is attention to race relations in Acadiana. There were Blacks in southern Louisiana before there were Cajuns, and each group has influenced the other in varied and complex ways. The Cajuns would be further strengthened by the inclusion of an article on the oil industry and its economic, environmental, political, and social implications for southern Louisiana. Today roustabouting is as much a Cajun occupation as is crawfishing. Cajuns are proud of their worldwide reputation as the best offshore workers in the business, and Cajun communities now exist in North Sea ports of England and Scotland.
Despite these shortcomings, The Cajun is a valuable contribution to the study of Louisiana, the South, and the United States. An understanding of diverse subcultures and regional variation is a prerequisite to the understanding of the South and the nation as a whole. Regionally produced books like The Cajuns accelerate this understanding.
Paige Gutierrez, a graduate student in cultural anthropology at the University of North Carolina, is presently doing field research in Breaux Bridge. Louisiana.