The October 2016 Gulf South Speech as Written

Frank W. Summers III B.A., M.A.

 

Emerging Views: The Reemergence of American Identity in Postwar Acadiana and the SONJ Documentary Projects

 

In the twenty minutes I have allotted to me I wish to cover six essential points; these listed points make up the entire argument of this paper.

  1. The Cajuns were, as the Acadian people, a preexisting people with a history in Louisiana before the Louisiana Purchase. They also had a relationship with New England which predates the founding of the Republic of the United States of America.  Their greatest injury was largely planned in New England and their greatest poetic portrayal was written there after the founding of our republic.
  2. Through the American Revolution, the Louisiana Purchase, the War of 1812 and a variety of events related to the Civil War they acquired a strong identity as Americans in the 1840s and on into the 1860s. This is the period of emergence of American identity among the Acadian people as they were also becoming the Cajun people in some ways and remaining the Acadian people in other ways. The specific Louisiana term was part of their Americanization process.
    3.They lost that identity almost entirely except in public, legal and formal ways by 1875. This happened through  through a variety of significant causes to a significant degree.  This is what I call a process of alienation.
    4.The World War Two period helped them to recover their American identity.
    5. The SONJ projects capture that reemerging identity and demonstrate the leadership of Oil in forming a new American identity in which they will participate.
    6.Louisiana Story and the SONJ projects brought Americans together in that new identity. This is an identity that was in particular flux during the postwar period.

 

This list of points  just given is chronological. It is not the order in which I discuss them from now on. Starting with the third point — that there is in Cajun history a period of alienation. Reemergence comes out of alienation and a quick survey is essential. When studying the restoration of  a particular identity in the Second World War we are discussing arriving at what had been achieved only after  the French and Indian Wars before the USA, the American Revolution and the War of 1812 with the USA. This complex American journey defined a specific Cajun identity within the American Identity and alongside the American identity in their own minds as Cajuns. The Acadians were going to become and did become in the period from 1875 to 1940 alienated from an identity evident from the 1840s to 1860s when Louisiana had a Cajun governor and other dignitaries.  A Cajun led the  Louisiana Secession Committee before the Civil War. Longfellow and Andrew Jackson had in very different ways had incorporated their story into the fabric of the American story and made in them a sense of union incarnate. Those themes of unionism and secessionism are both real facts which seem contradictory. The contradictions had their effects and in the late 1850s they fought bloody battles among themselves to determine the kind of American vision they would support. In that period they had a fully developed American identity. America was different in ways that mattered to Cajuns — first Louisiana Constitution was written in French and English and in the 1840s there were laws passed assuring public schools with English Only, French Only and bilingual education would exist. But in the defeat of the South in the Civil War and the death in battle of Acadian General Alexander Mouton leading the decisive charge in the last  major Confederate Victory the old Acadian- American synthesis had stumbled not to rise again. Later the spiral of doom continued and  the prohibition of French in schools in the 1920s, even the publication of Parkman’s History of France and England in North America were, taken together very alienating factors for the Acadians . The term American came to identify people who were not Acadian or Cajun within the Cajun community. However today Cajuns generally feel American.

 

Try to recall  all six of those points first mentioned. The paper has a reach from at least 1604 to the 1990s but it also has a focus even more narrow than the 1943 to 1953 period that defines the SONJ Documentaries. Despite the huge battles and losses of life yet to come in the war, the  start of a postwar  vision of America may well have begun in 1943.   People began to imagine a world after the war and people like Roy Stryker and the executives at Standard Oil began to act on that imagined future.   In this paper I really focus on the last three points of my list. They can be summarized as: Fourth, In World War Two Cajuns recovered American identity, fifth S tandard Oil of New Jersey showed oil industry leading in a new American identity  including various communities and sixth, Louisiana Story and the Stryker photographers like Webb and Eagle all helped form new  American identity in postwar Acadiana.

Final introductory remark: the film Louisiana Story in Abbeville is the heart of this paper and the rest of the projects are related to that.

 

Louisiana Story is a film by Robert Flaherty which was commissioned by Standard Oil of New Jersey in conjunction with an enormous photographic project overseen by Roy Stryker. Both Stryker and Flaherty had established fame in the documentary work of the New Deal. Flaherty was in addition considered to be the Father of Documentary Film — with a body of work going back to the era of silent film. There were two articles on the front page of the local paper –the Abbeville Meridional in that issue which was devoted in significant part to the movie premiere in the issue appearing the day before the actual Abbeville premiere day which was. Sunday, February 20, 1949.

Showing In The South A GEM! Abbeville has been chosen as the “Premiere City for this great film, LOUISIANA STORY, because it was filmed here and stars Vermilion Parish people. It’s- film is the everyday story your friends and your relatives.

 

Merely to attempt to discuss the reemergence of American identity begs the question of what identities were prevalent.  Some of these questions are perhaps raised in one of the last articles that the Meridional featured on the Louisiana Story.  What follows is a review of the Flaherty film, the author of this piece is a journalist whose life showed a deep attachment to the Louisiana rural community journalism ethos.

LOUISIANA STORY—A REVIEW Premiere Film Uses New Technique To Tell Story Of State Marshes

By Gene Yoes, Jr.

“Louisiana Story”, the great documentary film about the marshes ‘ of Louisiana and of Vermilion parish has come and gone. Behind it, it leaves some who did not appreciate the picture But the vast majority of those who saw the stirring film acclaim it as magnificent “Louisiana Story” is the recital of ‘ the life of an Acadian fur trapper’s  son—told through the all-seeing eyes of a camera It is a true to life story, a story that is happening every day in the marshes at our back door It shows the fur trapper’s son, played by young Boudreaux, as a child of nature almost untouched by the synthetic mechanized world we live in….

 

It is true that the people of the Northern part of the United States may believe that all of Louisiana is a swamp. “Louisiana Story” will not change their opinion—no amount of films or stories can change them. But, after seeing this film, we are sure that the occupant of a penthouse on the richest ground in New York would gladly exchange his property for the property of John La-tour or any property in the marshes of Louisiana that are capable of spouting black, liquid gold. Robert Flaherty’s product was not an ordinary film—it was not’ made with the flourish that is typical of Hollywood films. For its locale, the producer picked the area around Bayou Petite Anse in Vermilion parish. For its star, Flaherty picked native Acadians—Lionel LeBlanc of Abbeville, Joseph Carl Boudreaux of Little Pecan Island.

 

The cost of the film was less than one-fourth that of a Hollywood production—but the film has been acclaimed as great by the New York Times, New York Post, New York Mirror, Harper’s Magazine, the Brooklyn Eagle, the New York Herald-Tribune, Life and Star. And the comments of many of those who saw the film here—Miss Evelyn Parkinson Keyes, (noted author), W. B. Cotten, Jr., (Baton Rouge), F. A. Godchaux, Sr., Mr. and Mrs. W. B. MacMillan, Mr. and Mrs. Matt Vernon (Daily Iberian), President and Mrs. Joel Fletcher of Southwestem Louisiana Institute, and many others echoed those reviews.

 

Gene Yoes Jr.,  a man less Cajun than I am, but my predecessor in writing for our town’s local newspaper was writing not as an academic but attempting the sorts of analysis and evaluation which I hope that we all attempt. Yoes and others try to defend the region’s American identity and also celebrate what they see of  it in the documentaries. Identity here is also clearly tied to the South as such.  That same sense of connection between Acadian and Southern identity is evident in the enormous buggy parade which marked the premiere as a local ethnic demonstration. The buggies were filmed by an associate of Lionel Leblanc and the Meridional covered the parade extensively.  When the buggy film was exhibited at Lionel Leblanc’s house. Mrs. Gene Yoe’s, wife of the reviewer above was an honored guest.

 

Dudley Leblanc  who is not listed in the review was covered in the Meridional a vast number of times. Yoes and his family also had deeply established ties to the Cajuns Leblanc led. The Acadian Museum in Erath Louisiana has just  done an exhibit on Leblanc’s life and work which involved business success, vast charitable activity, French language radio shows, holding  political office and family. Dudley Leblanc was also a writer concerned with my first point here — he authored two books about who the Louisiana Acadians as a pre-existing people and he led the people they were during his lifetime for a  long time as President of the Association of Louisiana Acadians.

 

If in the world Dudley Leblanc was born into the Cajuns used the term Americain to mean outsider and in his battle for regulation of the rice milling industry said “my people are gravely oppressed” many times.  There is not any written record of a meeting between  Robert Flaherty and Dudley Leblanc but people have told me of seeing them  conversing together briefly during the filming of the movie. I do not have time here to show all the reasons I think he made possible the transformation from the “The Christmas Tree” to Louisiana Story but one tidbit here is that he wrote  True Story of the Acadians which features the word Story in its title along with the documentary film which I am discussing. True Story  appeared in two versions before the SONJ projects began.   This book and the later Acadian Miracle were recently released again in conjunction with a Leblanc exhibit at the  Acadian Museum in Vermilion Parish. During the exhibit preparation the museum received the diary of  Corinne Broussard Murphy whose brother was the Louisiana State Senator Sam Broussard who would go on to being a major participant in the founding of an organization known as CODOFIL or the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana. He was also the featured central figure in the Pat Mire film Mon Cher Camarade.  Broussard along with the still living Robert Leblanc of Abbeville were among the Cajuns who by character and dialect played a unique role in the intelligence operations of the United States military in France during the Second World War. These are also men who partly defined the time in which the Documentarians came to Acadiana. Corinne Broussard’s diary of her time in pilgrimage as an Evangeline Girl with Dudley Leblanc in 1930 on the pilgrimage of return to old Acadie or Nova Scotia is a testament to Acadian Identity activism.  I have focussed on the 1943-1953  period when Leblanc was in Patent medicine mostly, is because in those ten years Standard Oil of New Jersey documentarians under Stryker and Flaherty went to work in Acadiana. The oil industry had helped to win the war, they also helped to remake the country that followed it. Standard, Humble and others stepped in to fulfill some of the promise of the Second World War for America. It has not  been easy to show the goals of Standard and Humble Oil. In an interview  given by the widowed  Frances Flaherty to Robert Gardner at Harvard’s Peabody Museum in 1960, discussing her husband Robert Flaherty, who died in 1951.She reads from an illuminating  letter sent by Standard Oil of New Jersey to Robert Flaherty. In part:

“A classic—a permanent artistic record of the contributions in which the oil industry had made to civilization. A film that would present the story of oil with dignity, the epic sweep it deserved, and assure the story of a lasting place on the highest plane in the literature of the screen. The film would also be such an absorbing human story that it would stand on its own feet as an entertainment anywhere. Because of its entertainment value it would be distributed theatrically, through the regular motion picture houses, both in America and abroad.”

Standard Oil did not demand a film about Cajuns, but that is what they got. Louisiana Story differs from Flaherty’s first film Nanook of the North which creatively documented the hunting life of an Eskimo family.  The principal character was in fact named Nanook, the places filmed were actually his hunting grounds and the family was actually his family.  Louisiana Story was not a Southern Nanook of the North. But it was a film where real Cajun clothes-makers, pirogue wrights, trappers and animal wranglers among others were employed as were a real Cajun cast.  Lionel Leblanc was not Latour but he knew the farms and the marshes well.

 

Louisiana Story uses a relatively small  Cajun cast and a few Standard Oil and Humble Oil people directed by Standard Oil of New Jersey but these Cajun people were in fact part of a meaningful ethnic community in which the Oil industry was playing a transformative role. So if there was a new American identity and a new Acadiana connection to it — what were the key aspects of that new postwar reality?

Wars after World War II  might not have done the trick of restoring American identity. Abbeville’s native son  Donald Frederick  died  first in strife of World War II  and had a street named after him. But Whitney Leblanc’s Korean War record was kept in obscurity for most of his life. People did not come back to Acadiana from the Korean war  with confidence to restore the place of their culture in America. The Documentarians came to South Louisiana at a very specific historic moment, the late war and not postwar period. Acadian Sam Broussard was serving in Europe in the Second World War leading specifically Cajun men as bilingual operatives and translators dealing with the French Resistance and underground or Maquis against the Nazi occupation. This service and that of other Cajuns is featured in the Pat Mire film Mon Cher Camarade. Brigadier General Robert Leblanc was then a young man working with the resistance who provided  the Allies with assistance in securing bridges, guarding prisoners and sabotaging rail transit.  Hundreds of French-speaking Cajun men from South Louisiana enlisted in the U.S. military not only did their duty as American soldiers but did many things that only they as the Cajuns they were could have done, quietly they came home determined that their uniquely Cajun contribution should matter.

 

So what kind of people filmed postwar Cajuns and why? In Filming Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana Story: The Helen Van Dongen Diary, in his essay “Discover and Disclose; Helen Van Dongen and Louisiana Story” Richard Barsam discusses Flaherty’s work in this film.

 

Flaherty’s view of the world was founded not only on a humanistic

faith in man but moreover on a romantic neglect of human evil. This tender vision embraces the human not the material continuum of this world.  Flaherty agreed with Rousseau that the most “primitive” or least advanced people are the happiest and the least corrupt and that the arts and sciences that comprise what we call civilization corrupt man’s native goodness.    

 

Lumped in with primitive peoples is Dudley Leblanc living near Flaherty, who was the second largest advertiser in the nation, perhaps that is not in the story SONJ phographers tell. The New England based documentarians and those who study them had a strong set of biases about Cajun trappers. Robert  Flaherty I think created more controversial images with less actual bias than his peers. Just like Lionel Leblanc all Flaherty’s natural actors could really speak French.  The  actor with the biggest role was J.C. Boudreaux  who really had a way with a pirogue, with animals and really hooked and pulled in an alligator when asked to do so for the film.  A glimpse into how Flaherty and his local cast interacted is available from the Meridional’s interview of Lionel Leblanc:

 

LeBlanc killed his last alligator 10 years ago. He now handles E. A. Mcllhenny’s trapping ranch • and has been doing that work for 20 years. It was through Mr. Mcllhenny that Mr. LeBlanc was discovered by the film producer. He reports that Mr. Flaherty asked the fur ranch owner where he could find a man who knew the marshes and who looked like and was a fur trapper,   . …  Mr. LeBlanc smiles as he remembers that the producer, who is about 65, wanted to make the trip {from a broken down marsh buggy} with them. With his knowledge of the danger in the swamp and the weaknesses of all man-made attempts to tame the swamps, he adds that “Mr. Flaherty might not have gotten out {of the buggy} because you have to know how to ‘walk the marshes’ “.

 

Flaherty of course was no ordinary stranger but a man who had put new lands into the world’s maps.  Yet the trapper knew the man was not ready for  his own practices in that environment within the time of preparation allowed in a shooting schedule. So, if Flaherty hired and depicted Cajuns then:  Who are the Acadians and Where Were They Coming From Before the War?

 

When considering bias it is useful to remember that in a real sense the Documentarian community was rooted in New England.  Pierre Maisonnat had been a scourge of New England shipping long ago, defending the lands most raided and the seas most trespassed by the early Yankees we remember that Pierre Maisonnat  dit Baptiste was born in Bergerac, France in 1663.  He was not the first Acadian to have strife with New England. From approximately 1604 until approximately 1640 a widely scattered population of French colonists developed in the first Acadia, which  is now known as Nova Scotia in Canada.  By about 1640, they began to build levees and to construct a hydraulic system which allowed them to manage this area which was very susceptible to floods.  

 

By the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 the 2,000 or more Acadians along the Bay of Fundee became officially British subjects.  In a plan largely conceived in New England, Acadie was destroyed less than half a century later.   By 1755, the population of Acadia was near 15,000.  The British authorities coerced as many Acadians as possible into ships and scattered 6,000 of these people among the British colonies of the New World.  Many of those scattered were refused entry into the colonies and died attempting to reach France and Santo Domingo. The Scattering covered a vast area in a complex patterns.

 

In Acadie, Joseph Broussard “dit Beausoleil” commanded and organized a sizable resistance which, in league with some Indians and with the sympathy of all Acadians who had been able to remain on their own or other farms, maintained intermittent military pressure on the British until his surrender in 1759, after the fall of Quebec.  The British would use the claim or pretext of treaty violations at the Battle of Beausejour in which Beausoleil fought before the 1755 expulsion in justifying their expulsion of the Acadians. That first great scattering by the British forces in which so many died and so many others separated has become the central event of Cajun history and literary tradition and is  at least part of what is known as Le Grand Derangement. The period between 1754 and 1765 saw a great deal of suffering, during the 1760’s nearly 3,000 went to Santo Domingo and among them Beausoleil Broussard.  

 

In 1763, the Treaty of Paris gave possession of Louisiana to Spain.  It was into Spanish Louisiana that Beausoleil  brought the first real group of what would total approximately 4,000 Acadians into the territory once occupied by the Attakapas Indians.  Attakapas country or theTerre des Atakapas is named for an existing Aboriginal American tribe.  Joseph Broussard was not to survive his arrival in Louisiana by very long but he was the Captain of the Attakapas Station.  The. Beausoleil  secure a status as ethnic symbol by bringing the Acadian settlers from  New Orleans to the Attakapas prairie — which includes Abbeville. Men like Beausoleil’s son Amand Broussard born in the exile generation and some of his brothers and others fought in the Battle of Baton Rouge which was a brief siege and attack by the Spanish Colonial  forces and regulars against the British during the American War of Independence. West Florida which would become part of the State of Louisiana later on was  thus conquered in small part by the Acadians along with others who were in the Spanish Empire’s Louisiana. With the coming together of the Attakapas region and the West Florida region there is a foreshadowing of the polity that will one day be the State of Louisiana.   Acadian fought with Andrew Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans, while New England sought reconciliation with Britain. We have to consider the chance that the Documentarians are another yankee invasion.

Flaherty’s film shows a remote trapping family. If the oil industry could transform the region then it had to reach those remote people with some benefits. The other half of this story is that Roy Stryker’s other effort directly through  his photographers captures images which show more mainstream American life among Acadians or Cajuns. Did these two artistic productions create the kind of information that most interests a cultural historian?   I do have time to say that the SONJ projects have mattered to Cajuns and their or our culture since this period..

 

In 1991 and later as part of Abbeville’s Sesquicentennial,  there was a production of At the Picture Show on Magdalen Square — which celebrated the Louisiana Story premiere with nostalgia and other mental states.  An article in the Meridional reads:

 

Take a nostalgic trip back to Abbeville in the 1940s and come to the Abbey Players for their original musical  “ At the Picture Show on Magdalen Square” it written and directed  by F. Wade Russo, an Abbevillian now living in New York.

 

The musical producer-writer F. Wade Russo’s life demonstrates a strong American identity, deep awareness of Acadian identities in Cajun country and awareness of his own Sicilian heritage lived in the  Acadiana region as well and accepts that both are very much part of the region’s American heritage.  Nostalgic readers supported his work.

. To read these names brings back precious memories of the gala premiere of the ‘Louisiana Story* at Frank’s Theatre and the good old days. Residents and businesses are remembered in scenes throughout the production; including the late Donald Frederick who lost his life when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Abbeville paid respect to Frederick by naming a boulevard in his honor As the musical says, from the church on the square to the Audrey Hotel and the smell of the syrup mill, Abbeville is where our hearts belong.


There was a very important  evolution that occurred from the original Flaherty screenplay presented to Standard Oil and titled “The Christmas Tree” and the classic film known as Louisiana Story which I tie to  Dudley Leblanc. The evolution of those emerging views also shows the effects of Flaherty’s method especially as it involves hiring local cast and crew.  In that evolution is the greatest interest for cultural historians.

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2 responses to “The October 2016 Gulf South Speech as Written

  1. Pingback: A General Post Aware of the Election | Franksummers3ba's Blog

  2. Pingback: Shooting the Leblanc Exhibit with Dave McNamara | Franksummers3ba's Blog

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